Let Her Eat Cake

My friend Elaine died last Tuesday. I knew it when I woke up that morning, but having it confirmed still took my breath away. The first thing I thought when I heard the news, right after “damn it to hell,” was “I need to make her a cake.” I am quite sure it is the memorial she would most have wanted from me, and it is the one I most want to give her.

Her death from cancer was no surprise. I met her through an online writing group in which many of us began blogs. Her blog was called a horse, a husband, and cancer, and in it she openly discussed her 30 year battle with cancer. More than anyone I have ever known, Elaine recognized the relationship she had with her cancer – the actual til death do us part nature of it. Before I even knew her, her doctors had deemed her cancer incurable, terminal. So no, it was not a surprise. And yet. How can she be dead?

We met through our writing. We bonded through our shared interests in horses and baking, and our dark senses of humor. We became friends through our blogs. In Ann Patchett’s Story of A Happy Marriage, a friend asks Ann of her first husband, “Does he make you a better person? … Are you smarter, kinder, more generous, more compassionate, a better writer?” And to all of these things, but especially the last one, I can say a resounding yes about Elaine.

Ours was a writing friendship, something I didn’t even knew I needed or could have. We were motivated and inspired by each other because of how much we loved each other’s writing. Each blog post, each comment, each tangential discussion was fodder for our next writing efforts. Reading each other’s work was a pleasure in itself, and it also made us both want to write more. We never tried to be editor or critic for the other; we were just enthusiastic readers and sources of more material. “Just,” I say, as if those aren’t the things we writers want most. Fairly early on Elaine said to me, “But most of all I want you to write more because the subject almost didn’t matter, I just want your words,” and that is exactly how I felt – how I feel – about her writing.

Elaine began posting a weekly blog last spring, and I was inspired to do the same when I realized how eagerly I read her words first thing every Thursday over my morning coffee. It was like getting an anticipated letter in the mail (and oh, I miss letters), ripping open the envelope and starting to read right there at the mailbox, the letter in one hand and the torn envelope in the other. When I started posting on Mondays, she read and responded to my work as avidly as I did hers. We said we had a biweekly tea date – well, tea for her on Mondays, coffee for me on Thursdays – as we sat down with a hot drink (and maybe cake) and each other’s words. When I was stuck for an idea I would sometimes think, “What do I want to tell Elaine about this week?”

We grew up in different countries, different decades, different families, different schools. Sometimes we wrote about the parts of our lives that had no intersection, and we learned things from and about each other. Sometimes we wrote about the same topics – cake, for example – cake was always central for us – and all the things that baking represents, and the people and rituals it connects us to. Birds, and how they helped us find our way to dead relatives (my sister, her mother). I often wrote about death – of family members, of beloved animals. Elaine often wrote about her cancer, her own death looming far or near on the horizon.

Of course we wrote about our horses. We each had a truth serum horse – the kind of horse that doesn’t let us get away with any of our shit, the kind of horse that requires us to be our truest, most honest, most vulnerable selves in their presence. We both had a tendency to armor up with humor and a veneer of toughness when facing fear, and those truth serum horses have no patience with that. Last summer, Elaine wrote a multi-part series about her horse, Bruce: his life prior to her, and his life with her. Part fact, part conjecture, all truth, she brought him to vivid life for her readers. Less than two months later he was dead from colic. Shocking, unexpected, heartbreaking. And yet I also see that Bruce blazed the trail for Elaine to follow not long after. Shocking, expected, heartbreaking.

In her last message to me, just a few days before she entered hospice, Elaine related her recent terrifying hospital visit in a typically dry yet hilarious way. Her last words to me were “I miss Bruce like my heart is breaking and I might never get to meet you.” My last words to her were “I miss your voice,” and I always will. Until I heard of her death I held out hope that I would get to see her in person for our long promised tea and cake visit, but I know us. Bruce was waiting, and we would both agree with a paraphrased John Muir: “The horses are calling, and I must go.”

The last thing I wrote that I know Elaine read was my Christmas Bat piece, which I wrote because it was a story she asked me for. It began, though, with my explanation that I was giving her the story because I was not able to deliver the 10 layer Russian honey cake she had also asked for. I also wrote of my sadness over the prospect of my friend’s death. Her reply to that was “I expect your friend will change her mind and decide to wait for the layer cake. I know I would. And with covid restrictions, exchange rate, costly flights etc, it might take a looooong time til you deliver the cake to her?” I wanted that time. I can’t separate how much I wanted it for her and how much I wanted it for me. I can honestly say that I would have traded ever meeting her in person for her getting as much life as she wanted. I also know I would have wanted to keep sharing that life, even if only from across the ocean.

I started this piece the day she died. I almost posted it that day, but I knew it was not finished. I revised, and rewrote, and chainsaw-edited. I almost posted it on Thursday, Elaine’s day, but I was still revising. By Friday I realized that as long as I am working on this, I have her with me in a way I won’t when I finish it. Part of me can still pretend that she will read it. The rest of me is grieving daily as I write. I need both the illusion and the grief right now.

When I make Elaine’s cake, it will most certainly be that 10 layer Russian honey cake. It is complicated, time consuming, and it will give me many hours of preparation and baking and construction to commune with her in my kitchen. I will cut it into thin slices and freeze it, to make it last for as many Thursdays as possible.

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”
E.B. White

To read Elaine’s words please go to her blog: a horse, a husband, and cancer

A Very Gorey Christmas

I’ve been trying for some time now to write the story of the Christmas Bat because a friend wants to hear it. The same friend also wants twelve layer Russian honey cake, but she lives on the other side of an ocean so I can’t make that happen right now. The main reason I’ve been unable so far to give her the story she wants is that I’m too tied up with what I want: for my friend to not have cancer, for there to be more than a tiny chance that we will ever get to meet in person, for my heart to not be so full of grief from all the other people I’ve loved who have died of cancer that I freeze just a little when I am faced with another potential death.

The accumulation of grief is a tricky thing. In between losses I feel like I’m doing ok, I’m processing the grief, I’m mourning and honoring the people. But then I’m faced with another loss, and I realize the grief that was sitting next to me is now something I’m treading water in and it’s getting harder to catch my breath, partly because instead of breathing all I want to do is scream. My accumulated griefs include friends with terrible diagnoses, and friends whose parents or siblings or spouses or children or friends have died are or are dying. They also include a lot of anger on behalf of the people I’ve loved who have died. Anger that they had to go through it – each member of my family who has died of cancer has had a different kind of cancer and they are all fucking terrible – and anger that I have lost them. I know this is a wave of feeling and even though it feels like a tidal wave it will become manageable again, but today I’m having a hard time writing about anything else.

But. If a friend asks me for a thing that is in fact the very least I can do, and it is also all I can do, then damn it, I’m going to do it.

The Christmas Bat is now on top of his 33rd Christmas tree. Last year he got a break only because we took a break from having a tree. We did not have Christmas trees in my childhood, but we had neighbors who got theirs every Christmas Eve from a cut-your-own tree farm in northern Virginia and who let us tag along for the tree selection and tree decorating. I haven’t strung cranberries and popcorn since those trees, but I still think Christmas Eve is a good time to get a tree. I am the only member of my family on this bandwagon, however, so we always get ours earlier, and this year I was the one pushing to get the tree before Thanksgiving. Rose and I have both moved off of our early Christmas tree positions – she spent several years asking me if I was sure I didn’t want to use a star or an angel as the tree topper, but this year while we decorated our tree that I brought home nearly a month before Christmas, she was the one who put the bat in his place on the top of the tree.

For many years my mother managed a museum shop. They sold the usual kinds of things you would expect in a museum gift shop – things related to current or past exhibits, like books about Maria Martinez pottery, or honey and bee pins from the Utah: The Beehive State exibit, or postcards of the paintings in the Grand Salon upstairs. But because of my mother, they also had a wonderful collection of eclectic children’s books which had no relevance to anything ever seeen or exhibited in the gallery. The King Who Rained was a favorite of mine when I was in elementary school, as was A Great Big Ugly Man Came Up and Tied His Horse to Me, but my very favorites were the Edward Gorey books.

My mother gave me Amphigorey, the first of the Gorey anthologies, when I was in middle school, and I began memorizing Gorey stories. My best friend from 7th grade and I recited them gleefully and often, and when she moved to the other side of the country we traded lines from The Gashleycrumb Tinies or The Object Lesson back and forth on the many envelopes we sent each other containing 20-page letters and cassette tapes. Not mix tapes, but just tapes of us talking in our ongoing conversation when long distance was still charged by the minute and we were too young to have jobs to pay the phone bills.

Gorey came with me to college in the form of a book of small posters of his work (also from the museum shop) which I cut out and used to paper my dorm room wall. After the dorm they followed me from one room to another for years, growing ever tattier around the edges from all the thumbtack holes.

As far as I know, the Christmas Bat is the only one of his kind. He came into being in the museum shop one Christmas season in the 80’s. In addition to all the books, my mother also stocked the shop with Gorey bean bag creatures, especially the cats in their little striped shirts, and the bats with their red eyes. She dressed one of the Gorey bats for the season in a tiny knit Christmas hat, a miniature brass horn, and a bright red tassel, and placed him by the cash register. When the season was over she gave him to me. I put him on top of my first Christmas tree and he has held that place ever since.

I know I have found a kindred soul when I find someone else who grew up on Gorey stories. The Wuggly Ump may not be a soothing bedtime story (“How uninviting are its claws! How even more so are its jaws!”) but anyone who knows it – or any other Gorey story – by heart likely has a dark sense of humor I will recognize. I have a book that my mother gave me for my 17th birthday, inscribed with a quote from Gorey’s The Doubtful Guest. She wrote “To Tessa, who came seventeen years ago and to this day has shown know intention of going away.” I still find this perfect, if maybe a little hard to explain as a birthday sentiment.

When my most favorite aunt was dying and we said our goodbyes, we first said “I love you” and the major things we wanted each other to know. She then drew a shaky breath (she was less than 24 hours from dying of lung cancer) and said “It was already Thursday,” so of course I said “but his Lordship’s artificial limb could not be found” and she said “Therefore, having directed the servants to fill the baths” and I said “He seized the tongs and set out at once for the lake, where the Throbblefoot Spectre still loitered in a distraught manner.” I kissed her, said “I love you” one more time, and we said goodbye. Quoting Edward Gorey at each other may not be how everyone says goodbye to a favorite relative, but what my aunt called “the quoting gene” runs strong in our family.

Like most of my stories, the story of the Christmas Bat is wrapped up in a lot of other stories. Some of them are funny, some of them are sad, some of them involve death, and some of them involve life and friendship. I’m breathing a little better now, but damn it, I want my life and my friends’ lives to have so much less of the sad and the death, and so much more of the funny and the life and the friendship.

Tall, Dark and Handsome

I’m sure there’s a joke to be had about how I like my male horses – tall, dark and handsome, yes, but also – gelded? troubled? – but what I do know is that the geldings I have picked as riding horses tend to have a lot in common. The three I have chosen have been bay with strong black points, similar height, and with no interest in the job they were trained to do before I met them.

Soldier was a thoroughbred trained to foxhunt. I got him as a lease-to-sell project, with the intent of training him as an event horse. As it turned out, a horse who will run and jump with a group of other horses does not necessarily have any interest in jumping when he is alone on a cross country course, and a horse who has only ever seen natural fences on the hunt course may not have any idea what to do with painted jumps in an arena. His approach to a stadium jumping course went something like this: gallop towards the first fence, screech to a halt, take off from all four feet at once, land on all four feet on the other side, bolt to the next fence and repeat. After it became clear he would never be an eventer at even the lowest level (Super Chicken, they call it locally, or Ever Green), his owner sent him back out on a foxhunt with an interested buyer who Soldier promptly dumped and nearly put in the hospital. He eventually found his way to a great home with a woman who wanted mostly to do dressage and trail ride.

Wy came along about 5 years after Soldier. His full name was Wy’East, the native name of Mount Hood, the highest peak in Oregon where his breeder was from. He had been bred and trained to be a dressage horse (his breeder had dreams of him taking her to the Olympics) but was deemed neither sound nor sane enough for that job. That put him squarely in my equine specialty of what a friend once dubbed “the lame and the insane.” His first owner was my dressage instructor at the time she had him up for sale. When I rode him for the first time in a lesson with her I wound up on the ground pretty quickly, as his riders often did. I don’t remember landing, but I do remember getting up and saying “You son of a bitch, get back here” as I went to get him from the other side of the indoor arena. His owner, used to people sitting on the ground and crying after coming off him, agreed to sell him to me on a payment plan.

I had no designs on Wy as a dressage horse, and I let him show me what he was interested in, which was mostly trail riding, though he also loved jumping tiny fences as if they were Puissance walls. With the pressure off he got a lot saner, but he didn’t get any sounder, and I still had vague ideas at that time about having a horse I could compete in some discipline. I decided that he might be happier in a home where all the person wanted to do was trail ride, so I sold him to a nice man who wanted just that.

Several years after I sold Wy, and several farms after the last one where he had lived with us, we were house hunting again, looking for a place for us and our three mares. We were thinking about a house that had the right amount of land, but the land was mostly wooded. While we investigated how much it would cost to turn woods into pasture, we looked at barns where we might keep the horses in the interim.

There was a good sized boarding farm close to the woodland house. We arranged to visit, and the owner – something of a cowboy in the middle of hunter/jumper, eventer, and foxhunter territory – showed us around while we told him about our mares. I was explaining about my slutty thoroughbred mare Trappe, and telling stories on her mare-in-heat behavior, when I said “Of course, that was when we still had Wy.” The cowboy said “You had a horse named Wy? We have a horse here named Wy.” I said “Is it ‘Y’ as in the letter Y, or ‘Why’ as in ‘Why Did I Buy This Horse?'” He said he didn’t know; the owner just called him Wy, or sometimes Beast. Even though Wy’s most common nickname when I had him was Wy Beast, I still didn’t make the connection. “He’s a big, bay Hanoverian gelding,” said the cowboy as he pointed behind me. This finally sunk in, and I turned around and saw my horse looking at me over the fence of his paddock. I ran over to him and he buried his big head in my chest.

Wy had come to this farm through two different owners after he got sick while with the guy I sold him to. The diagnosis by the time I saw him was possibly EPM (equine protozoal myeloencephalitis), but no one was really sure. Some kind of degenerative neurological condition, definitely. He was not rideable, and his owner was trying to decide what to do next. I wasn’t sure what to do next either. I did nothing for about two weeks, and then one Sunday I woke up and said to Rose, “I had a dream about Wy last night and he told me to come get him. I want to go back to the farm to see him.” When we got to the farm I told the cowboy about my dream, and he looked at me like I was a little nuts, which I had expected. I said “I know it sounds weird” and he interrupted me and said “No, I don’t think it’s weird at all – it’s just that his owner just had the vet out yesterday and he said there’s nothing else they can do and she was asking if I knew how to reach you to talk about having you take him back.”

Wy came home to us and the three mares he had lived with before, though at a different farm. When we first put him out in the field with them, he spent a couple of days with a look on his face like “I had the weirdest dream – but here we all are together so I guess it really was a dream.” The mares – especially the slutty thoroughbred – were thrilled to have him back. We didn’t buy the woodland house, but we did buy the house where we live now. By that time we had acquired one more filly and we also had a foal on the way. They all lived at our vet’s farm for a few months while we put in fence and a barn here, and then they came home.

Less than two months after we brought the horses home, Wy had gone downhill enough that we had to put him down. He couldn’t reliably stand up without his knees buckling, and he walked like an old drunk man. With Trappe standing close at all times and trying to prop him up, I was worried that I would come home to find them both on the ground with her squashed beneath him. Our vet, who hadn’t seen Wy since he came home to us, took one look and said “You know you don’t have a choice about this, right?” which, true or not, was what I needed to hear. We buried Wy near the barn, and everyone that drives onto our property drives by his grave. A year after we buried him, an acorn sprouted in the middle of his grave, and that oak tree is now about 30 feet tall.

Wy left a lot of legacies. One of them is one of our family mantras: “Don’t pick up the reins.” It took me until the second time I came off of him to realize how he got people off so consistently. He would wait until his rider had a good hold of the reins, and then he would duck his giant head down between his knees and pull the rider off balance, and then he’d throw in a buck with a twist and off the rider would pop. The thing was, he always had something a little off in his back and hind end, and his buck really was not that athletic. I discovered that if, when he put his head down, I let go of the reins, he could buck all he wanted and it would not unseat me. It was that rein yank that created the problem. It became something Rose and I would say any time anyone verbally tried to knock us off balance in an argument – don’t pick up the reins and you won’t find yourself getting into a fight.

Finn is a legacy of Wy’s. I’m sure it’s no coincidence how much they look alike, or that Finn was another horse that someone tried to turn in to a dressage horse when he neither understood what was being asked of him nor was he interested in it. I don’t know that I would have brought Finn home if I hadn’t known Wy, and I don’t think I would have listened to him as much as I have when he tells me what he does and does not want to do and what he can and can’t handle. I still needed some reminders, like the first time I asked Finn to trot and he said “I can’t” and I mistook that for “I need some encouragement” rather than “I really can’t do that right now.” I said “Come on, you can do it!” and then I was up in the air looking down at his back, and then I was on the ground with him looking down at me with a look that said “I told you I can’t and I really meant it.” I got up, dropped my pants to get the sand out of my underwear, pulled myself together, and got back on with a different attitude. Finn is the Truth Serum Horse in his own right, but I know how to listen to him because of Wy.

Wy’s biggest legacy for me is to pay attention and to trust my gut. I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that we went to look at one house so that we’d meet the realtor who took us to see another house that was the reason we went to look at the barn where I found the horse and was able to bring him home. Life doesn’t always run in straight lines, but I find that if I just keep moving forward – and if I don’t pick up the reins to try to control something I have no business trying to control in the first place – I end up where I need to be.

Dream On

I have a very active dream life. Some dreams I remember as if they really happened to me, and some I wake up from feeling like I lived a whole lifetime during the dream but I don’t remember any of the details. When I was too young to be worrying about such things – maybe nine or ten – I used to worry either that I would wake up and find that I was still an infant and my whole life so far had been a dream, or that I was alive only in someone else’s dream and when they woke up I would die, or disappear.

I don’t have recurring dreams, but I do dream of recurring places. There is one house that is my grandmother’s house, though it is nothing like her house or any other house I’ve been to. There’s another house that is my aunt’s, though it is also not like anywhere she lived or that I have been. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen either my grandmother or my aunt in their dream house; I just know where I am when I am there. There are several recurring farms, though those tend to be at least loosely based on farms where I worked in the past.

A few nights ago, I almost had a dream about my mother. I was driving to have dinner with her, though I did not get that far from my house before I woke up. I have friends whose mothers have died who have dreams about them with some regularity, or they have something special happen every year on their mother’s birthday. Though I am torn between thinking dreams or signs from dead loved ones are just that – something from them – or things my mind makes up to make me feel better, I am always a little envious of these friends. I think it’s possible I have had dreams that featured my mother in the past fifteen years, but I can’t say that I have had a dream that feels like any kind of message.

My first experience with death and my first experience of dreams like this involved my grandmother, my mother’s mother, who died when I was in college. Several years after her death, I dreamed that I was with my family at the beach – my parents, my sisters, and my grandmother. Everyone else was distracted but I was watching my grandmother swim. I was worried that she was getting knocked down by the waves, but she looked back at me and dove into a wave, and I saw her mermaid tail flash as she swam out to sea. My family was furious at me because I was supposed to be watching her and they all thought she drowned. I was trying to explain that she was fine, she had just turned into a mermaid, when I woke up crying.

Eight years ago my aunt and my father died within two weeks of each other. Eight years ago and twelve days, to be precise, for my aunt, and eight years less two days for my father. I have had one dream about my father in those eight years. He appeared at some kind of gathering or party I was attending, and he was completely silent (a good way to tell he was dead – we have that in common). He pointed at himself, and then he pointed at me, and then he pointed to a mirror. He did not say, but I clearly understood: if you want to see me, just look at yourself. I am always there. I found this both comforting and disturbing, as I have always found my similarities to him.

I have had two dreams about my aunt since she died. The first one was very soon after she died. She called me on the phone, and I started crying when I heard her voice, and she asked why I was crying. I told her it was because I was sad that she was dead, and she laughed and said “You can talk to me any time you want! Just pick up the phone.” This is partly literally true – at least I can hear her voice, because I still have a message from a few weeks before she died. I also do always feel like she is nearby, though I also miss her tremendously. In the other dream I had about her, two of her closest friends were driving an enormous SUV unlike anything either of them would actually drive, one in the driver’s seat and one riding shotgun, and my aunt was looking between them from the back seat. I exclaimed “Becca! Becca is in the back seat!” and they said “Of course she is, honey.”

I’m not surprised that my mother has been on my mind recently, in election season. It used to drive me crazy that she was the most neutral person I ever met. When I was upset about something and I wanted her to take my side, I very much did not want to hear about how the situation might look to the other person. My father used say “There are two sides to every story, and the truth is somewhere in the middle,” but he only believed this if they were two other people. If he was one of the sides, there was only one true side to the story, and it was his. Most of the time I can see that there are two sides, or rather, most of the time I don’t see in terms of sides. But when I do see sides, and when I take a side, there’s not much chance of moving me off my position, or even making me hear or see anything else.

I’ve been thinking that my mother has been on my mind because I could use her perspective, and because now is a time when I would find it really helpful to hear about the other side. But the more I write, the more I realize it’s been a really long and anxiety-ridden and exhausting year, and I just want my mom.

Signal Lights

Dia de los Muertos is not a thing I knew about until I read about it in a Barbara Kingsolver book in my 20s. Over the years, as beloved animals and people died, Rose and I began to celebrate it as our main fall holiday. I’ve never been much of a Halloween person – I think I wore my last costume when I was ten. But I like the process of connecting with the dead, and of deliberately remembering them and celebrating their lives.

When we started our Dia de los Muertos traditions, we did the candle-in-a-brown-paper-bag version of luminaria. I love the way they look, but even stabilized and weighted with sand, they are a bit of a hazard in windy weather (which we almost always have at this time of year), and they are a fiasco in the rain. A few years ago, Rose started making ceramic luminaria, and we keep adding to the collection. We have over twenty of them now, and they make a beatiful display whether we put them at individual graves, group them by species, or line them all up around the edge of the patio. We have photos of each animal and human, and we take a moment to remember something about each of them as we light their candle.

I’ve heard a lot of people this year saying that the only reason they are glad their father, mother, sister, brother is dead is that they don’t want them to see the shitshow that our goverment, society, or political process have become. I get this. For me, it’s the newspaper industry. My parents met when they were both working at the Washington Post in the 1950s, and I can’t imagine what they would have to say about so-called news stories that involve quotes taken entirely from Twitter. My father has been dead for eight years, and he still had plenty of occasion to say “This isn’t NEWS!” in response to much of what he read in the papers or saw on TV.

When I think about it, though – and I’ve been thinking about it a lot with the election coming up tomorrow – I believe they had a long view that we don’t have. My grandparents were born before World War I. Both of my parents were born and raised around the Depression. My father fought in World War II when he was a teenager. Both of my parents were journalists during the McCarthy era, and during the Cold War, and my father stayed on at the Post into the Vietnam War years. I don’t doubt that they’d see a lot of what is going on now as a shitshow, but I wonder if they might not see it as the End Times so many of us feel are looming over our heads.

In the absence of my parents, or for that matter any of my elder relatives, I have gotten a lot of my perspective in the last four years from my colleagues in different countries. I was in Nairobi during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. When we stumbled into the office that Wednesday after staying up all night watching election returns, dazed and incoherent with disbelief, our Kenyan colleagues told us to get over it (that’s a direct quote), which still seems like pretty decent advice. They reminded us that it’s not everywhere that gets to protest the results of an election, or to know that there will be another one in a set number of years. They have a sign in their lunch area that says “What you take for granted, someone else is praying for” and I try to remember that.

We’ll be lighting our luminaria again this evening, and looking through our photos, and remembering. I’ll take a little time to think about what I take for granted, and I’ll take a little time to think about what I pray for, and I’ll hope for just a little bit of perspective.

Eavesdropping

This week we moved from culling clothing to a full on cleaning and clearing assault on areas of the house where things have piled up for too many years. I’m writing now at my newly uncovered desk, having thrown the antique mostly empty tube of toothpaste in the trash, and otherwise gone through the exercise of throw away, give away, put away that goes with this kind of tidying.

One thing I have kept is every notepad or index card or paper scrap that I found that has a quote on it. Some of them are inspirational scribbles, like a quote from Anne Lamott I jotted down that says “I also know that we don’t live long. And that dancing almost always turns out to be a good idea.” She’s right, even though I sometimes forget to dance for far too long at a stretch.

Many of these quotes are from eavesdropping. I don’t exactly do it on purpose, but it’s almost impossible not to overhear people in restaurants, airports, or pretty much any other public place, and once I hear one thing that gets my attention I start to listen harder. Sometimes I write them down because I think they will fit in a story (if hypothetically I start writing fiction one day) – like the guy I overheard in an airport security line who said “The last five years of my addiction I pretty much stopped watching everything but porn. Then I got sober and got out of the habit of watching any TV.” I still don’t know if the person he was talking to was someone he knew, or if he just had different ideas than I do about getting-to-know-you conversation topics.

I have one mystery note that just says “No one ever needs a ferret” and one that says “I’m surprised your phone still works with pictures like that on it.” There’s one I do remember – I was in a parking lot at a medical center, headed in for an MRI or an x-ray or a mammogram, and I overheard a woman saying to her daughter “You listen to me, Olivia” and the little girl said “I listen to mySELF.” Never change, Olivia.

In another overheard snippet from a medical appointment, this time at the dentist, a young boy was vocalizing how we all feel about being at the dentist and his mother said through gritted teeth “Listen – when we leave here I am taking you home, you are having a cheese sandwich, and you are going to bed” as if that were some type of punishment. I wanted to poke my head in the door and ask if I could come too. Cheese sandwich and early bed sounds like a cure for most ills.

There’s one that sounds like my mother but isn’t; it was an older woman in a local cafe, saying to her companion “I don’t like sticks and twigs tea. I like black tea.” At the time – and again now – this reminded me of my mother (and I have this written down somewhere that I haven’t tidied yet) when she told me that my father wanted her to go to his herbologist for something to do with her cancer or the side effects of her cancer treatment, and she said “I’m NOT going to the parsley doctor.”

I have an index card with something my father once told me about his friend Mary. She was an older friend from his office, and after she retired he used to pick her up on weekends and take her out driving – something he also did with us as kids that we all couldn’t wait to stop doing, but I trust he and Mary enjoyed their rides. Once when my parents and Rose and I were headed home from dinner, my father missed seeing a car coming when he turned out of the mall parking lot. As we all braced for the impact that somehow the other driver avoided, my mother yelled “Jesus, John!” A few minutes later when I asked him to slow down (in the dark on the curvy road that I knew well but he did not), he had had enough of driving criticism and said “Mary drives with me for hours every Saturday and SHE never complains about my driving” and my mother replied “Mary is old and ready for death!” None of that is written down (well, I guess it is now), but what I do have on a card is what my father said to me about Mary’s childhood: “She lived with an older aunt who was bludgeoned to death – BEFORE it was fashionable.”

It’s the things like Mary’s older aunt and the parsley doctor that make me miss my parents the most. Things that no one else will every say quite they way they would. I used to keep letters and cards, and at some point I got rid of most of them – one of the few clearing out decisions I sometimes regret. I did find two cards yesterday, one from my mother which includes a Garrison Keillor limerick that goes:

There was a young teacher named Deedee
Who went home and said to her sweetie
I’m worn out and wobbly,
So pour me a chablis
And don’t be emotionally needy.

The other card is from both my parents for a birthday I had sometime in the middle of my 30s – there’s no date, and it’s a lovely print of multicolored painted horses and a full moon, which I would have loved in a period from roughly birth to the present, so no clues there. My father’s birthday note, one of the few he wrote himself instead of just writing “Daddy” at the end of my mother’s message, says “Happy Birthday, Tessa. But then I think of you every day, so it’s Happy Birthday every day.” My mother’s note says “Tessa – asset backwards, forwards, and every other whichway, too.”

In one of my more insufferable childhood moods, when I first learned both what an asset was and that my name spelled backwards was an actual word, I believe I used to use it as a shield against sisterly teasing – something along the lines of “our parents think I’m an asset and that’s why they chose my name.” (“so there” is understood) Of course this was probably around the same time my sisters were doing a crossword puzzle and looking for a three-letter word for “self esteem,” which when your big sister says alound sounds like “self a-steam” to a young child. My suggestion was “hot,” and today I understand why they laughed so hard.

All I really planned to do was clear out my desk. It took longer than I thought, partly because there was even more stuff than I realized piled up here, but partly because I had to stop and read all the notes. I ended up with a lot more company than I expected, and now I’m surrounded by my parents, my sisters, Olivia, and the ferret people. Maybe I’ll go make a cup of sticks and twigs tea, and sit with them all for a bit.

It’s Not the Fall

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When I was nineteen I broke my left foot. A few days after I got the cast on I went out to dinner with my parents and my sister Rachel. We pulled up in front of the restaurant, where my father’s uncanny parking karma once again provided him with a parking space directly in front of our destination, no mean feat in Washington DC.

There was a small section of sidewalk in between our car and the restaurant’s outside tables, all of which were filled. I was in the front seat because of my cast, and as I turned to lever myself out of my seat, one hand on each side of the door frame, my sister shut the back door. On my fingers. Through gritted teeth I said politely, “Rachel, open the door” and she said “Why?” “My HAND is in the DOOR. Rachel, OPEN the door.”

Rachel, my mother and my father all grabbed for the door handle. The door, naturally, was locked. Rachel reached past me to tug on the lock. My father said, “It’s not closed all the way. We need to close it the rest of the way in order to unlock it.” Rachel, my mother and I all said “NO!” Both Rachel and my father were trying to pull the lock up, my father inside the car and Rachel reaching in through the open front door. As far as I could tell through the swimming pinpoints of light in my vision, they were primarily getting in each other’s way.

My mother was outside the car saying “Oh my god! Oh my god!” and I remained in the front seat, cast on the sidewalk, hand in the door, alternately saying “Rachel, open the door” and “Mother, shut UP.” The diners were clearly thinking that they had no idea that the outside tables of Chez Gaulois came with entertainment, when my father thought to press the central unlock button.

The lock popped up, Rachel opened the door, my mother stopped saying “Oh my god,” and I completed my delayed exit from the car. Rachel handed me my crutches and we filed into the restaurant and to our table. I put the fingers of my right hand into my glass of ice water. Rachel said “I kept waiting for the sexy Nissan computer voice to say “Your hand is in the door. Please remove your hand from the door,” and we all laughed.

For years my mother and I would tell this story as an archetypal event in our family: a few moments of high drama difficult to differentiate from slapstick comedy, ending quickly with no lasting bad effects for anyone. Bad things that happened just weren’t that bad, and they were usually funny, at least in retrospect.

When my mother told me she had breast cancer two days before she went into the hospital for a mastectomy, it seemed like the beginning of one of those family stories. She had known for a while but she did not want to worry me. She told me that she had not told my sister Rachel, who was living in England. She did not mention whether or not she told my oldest sister Darcy, who lived nearby.

I called Rachel and she caught the first flight home, which caused my mother to be furious at me. My family is filled with unspoken rules about who can tell what to whom. In many cases people simply forget to share information, but we all assume that there was a reason so we continue to not talk about it once we find out from some other source. I knew perfectly well that when my mother told me she had not told Rachel, that was her way of telling me not to tell her either, but I chose to ignore this.

When I arrived at the hospital after the surgery, my mother would hardly speak to me. My father was already there with Rachel. My father, worried about my mother but not wanting to admit it, put his energy into treating Rachel as if she was visiting royalty that had never been to Washington before, apparently forgetting the first eighteen years of her life. The three of us stood at the foot of my mother’s bed bickering while she rolled her eyes at us.

By the end of the week we all retreated to our corners of England, Maryland and DC with relief. My mother was in the hospital for four days. She had three subsequent chemotherapy treatments, from which she did not get sick nor did she lose her hair, and then she was fine for years. In general, it seemed to be more fodder for the Pagones family way of having a crisis.

Seven years later when I called my mother to tell her that my chimney had been struck by lightening and chunks of it had fallen through my sunroom roof, my mother told me that “the cancer is back.” I questioned her as much as I could before she made some excuse to get off the phone. She did give me permission to speak to her doctor who told me that my mother’s breast cancer had metastasized to her lymph nodes and to bone, in addition to the breast tissue itself. It began to dawn on me that this was not going to be funny even in retrospect.

Over the next two years my mother’s symptoms continued to increase along with the frequency and strength of her chemo and radiation treatments. She developed neuropathy in both feet and legs, making it difficult for her two walk. She got a walker – a sturdy teal tripod one with white wall tires – and dubbed it The Batmobile (“because I’m an old bat”). She developed a new method of doing laundry that involved putting the dirty laundry in a bag, throwing it down each flight of stairs (three in total), following it by scooting down the steps on her rear, and then making my father carry the clean laundry back upstairs.

She wound up back in the hospital briefly after she fell and couldn’t get back up her own, and my father with his own tricky knees wasn’t all that much help. When she got home I asked if they had thought of moving somewhere with fewer steps. My mother thought for a moment and then said “Perhaps the terrorists will get us first.”

After another fall, my mother is in the hospital again, for the last time. I walk into the hospital lobby past the gift shop, remembering the first time I visited her here, before that first mastectomy, and stopped to buy her the least tacky stuffed cat I could find in the shop. It was a light grey tabby with green eyes, with a lavender ribbon sewn to its neck and tied in a bow. There are no animals without accessories sold in this hospital, but at least this one was not wearing clothes. This time I walk straight to the elevator and ride up to the fifth floor.

“What the hell?” is the first thing I say, as I see her right arm on top of the covers, not just bruised but fully black and blue from wrist to elbow.

“Oh!” my mother says, with a half-laugh. “I got up to use the pot last night,” as she gestures to the toilet chair between her bed and the wall, “and I fell.”

“Did you land on your arm? Is it broken?”

“No, but it took two nurses and a strapping young man to pull me out and get me back into the bed.”

I don’t know whether to begin by hunting down the nurses and the strapping young man and beating them with a stick or by calling all of my mother’s various doctors until someone tells me the exact scientific reason why she has bruised like that and so quickly, so I sit down in the chair at the foot of her bed and look at her.

After a moment I move to the foot of her bed, picking her feet up and placing them in my lap as I sit down. Her feet have been tingling for over a year now and I hold them in my hands, thinking of a book I read years ago in which a southern grandmother rubbed an old woman’s sore back and then rubbed her hands on the wooden bed post, saying that the wood was from nature and could absorb the pain. I look around the hospital room but everything is made of metal or plastic.

“How is the tingling?”

“The knees are bad,” my mother replies.

This is new. I slide my hands up her calves to her knees, the way I would keep my hands steadily on a horse’s leg so as not to startle it. Her skin feels dry but soft, and fragile, like moth wings. There are no muscles under this skin. The wonder isn’t that she fell, but that she got up at all.

Year of the Rat

Pig and Maya

This photo of my first dog and my now sole cat turned up in my facebook memories today. I brought the kitten home from the lab on my last day at work there nine years ago, driving away with the two lives I could save. When I first brought Pigwidgeon home, I put her in a crate in the hay stall in the barn, partly because she had been found in a hay barn and I thought it might feel familiar, and partly to buy myself a little time to break Rose into the idea that I had brought home yet another kitten. Maya disappeared that afternoon and did not come back no matter how much I called her. When I finally tracked her down, she was in the barn lying next to the kitten’s crate, claiming her new charge.

I’ve been thinking all day about animal acquisitions – the various dogs, cats, horses, and rodents that I have had over the years, and how they came into my life. My clearest memory of a pet introduction from my childhood is the rats. In 1972, the Chinese Year of the Rat, some friends of my parents came for dinner one night bearing two young rats for us to keep as pets. In my memory, the wife waited till after dinner and then pulled the rats – surprise! – out of her purse. Of course we had no cage, so that night we put them in a doll house from which they promptly escaped, but were retrieved before they went far. My oldest sister Darcy named them Cindy and Jennifer.

As Cindy and Jennifer grew up, Jennifer developed what we feared was a tumor. My mother called a friend who was a doctor (in retrospect I realize he was a PhD, not an MD, but he did work at the NIH) to ask his advice, and he suggested some brandy on a sugar cube. It didn’t do much to cure the tumor, but after Cindy gave birth to her first litter of babies it dawned on all of us that it was less tumor and more testes that Jennifer had developed. Jennifer remained Jennifer throughout her long life.

Darcy carefully chronicled the Ratti family generations in her perfect script in the back of a book called The Five Little Peppers, much the way I gather some families keep their own lineage in the family bible. According to The Five Little Peppers, Cindy’s formal name was Sindin. The first litter included Brown Sugar and Milky Way Bar. As time went on and rats added up, we had Lemonsadio, and Stale Bread Pudding, and Demitri Capeltiodis. There were rats named Linda and Richard Richard, so named for some married neighbors because when Linda got exasperated with Richard (which was often), she would say “Richard, Richard.”

The Five Little Peppers does not contain the detailed begats, though I’m sure Darcy would have remembered exactly which rat was the mother of which others (the fathers were a less certain thing). Darcy remembered the order and names of the 13 children in our mother’s mother’s family. She could identify who was who in every photo in every photo album, and what relation they were to us. She could recite family stories from our great-grandparents’ generation as if she had been there. She remembered every birthday.

Eight years ago my aunt and my father died within two weeks of each other, seven years after my mother’s death and nearly thirty years after my uncle’s death. I had a conversation with one of my cousins then about how odd it was to suddenly be the oldest generation in our family. At the time it did not occur to me that we would do anything but keep growing older as the older generation. But then last year, Darcy died.

I still have The Five Little Peppers, and when I think about the the Ratti names, I think about Darcy’s particular brand of creativity. She was the inventor of many of our childhood games. There was a game called Ghosties that my cousins and I can’t remember except that it involved being outside in the evening in our pajamas, and something to do with the streetlamp in front of our house. There was a game I remember nothing at all about but it was called Fall in the Toilet Orphanage and possibly that’s all I need to know. There was a game called Grand Championship that must have taken all day. First, the three of us sisters gathered all of our dolls and stuffed animals at the top of the stairs. Then, one by one, we slid them down the banister to the first floor. Anyone who fell off part way down had to come back up until they could make it all the way down on the banister. Since not all the dolls and animals were a convenient size or shape for banister-sliding, this part alone took quite a while. Once all the dolls and animals were gathered in three piles in the living room, two sisters would take one doll or animal each, stand at opposite ends of the living room, and simultaneously toss the dolls or animals to the opposite sister. They would do this back and forth until one of the dolls or animals fell, and that doll or animal would be out of the game. The third sister would come in with a doll or animal and play against the doll or animal who won the previous round. This would go on until there was only one doll or animal who had not been dropped, and that would be the Grand Champion. Not the sister, mind you, but the doll or animal.

When I think about Darcy I will always think about ballet. She was a dancer from at least the time I was born. I don’t even know how old she was when she started putting on annual performances of The Nutcracker in our basement – certainly no older than 11 or 12. Darcy choreographed, directed, cast, made costumes and sets for, and of course starred in, these productions. She was Dr. Drosselmeyer, the Nutcracker, and the Mouse King, which created interesting staging for the big sword fight when only one of them could be on stage at a time, but she made it work. She was always in one or more of the dances in the second act. There was one boy in the neighborhood who she was able to persuade to participate for a couple of years, and he played Fritz in the first act. There were always two Claras – Clara in the first act, and Clara in the second act. I still think of them as two distinct characters. Clara in the first act had a dancing role, and got to wear the pink party dress. This role rotated between my sister Rachel and her friends. In the early ballets I got stuck with Clara in the second act, in which I had to wear a nightgown and sit in a chair and watch the other dancers. Later I got to be a Candy Cane, which is still my favorite music and dance in every version of the ballet I have seen, but I never was Clara in the first act. Somewhere, however, there is a photo of me taken from behind, as I looked into a mirror to adjust my extremely home made aluminum foil crown. I am roughly 4 in this photo. You can see my face in the mirror and the look of delight on my face (I’m a princess! I’m wearing a beautiful crown!) tells all you need to know about the magic Darcy managed to create.

Some days I want to think about the complexities of relationships and families and memories, but today I just want a little magic.

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Some Pig

Piglet Nursing

Twelve years ago I decided it was time to go back to school and finish the college degree I had not gotten nearly twenty years before that. During my first time at college I completed three and a half years of what would have been at least a six year program due to my inability to decide on a major. I started out as an animal science major. I had always assumed I would become a vet, probably a zoo vet. I was not daunted by the courses required for pre-vet studies; I was simply distracted by the multitude of options.

By midway through my first year I had decided to switch to political science. When I signed up for classes the fall of my sophomore year, I declared myself a Russian major. This may or may not have had anything to do with the fact that a) I missed all the deadlines and had to go to in-person registration where only the dregs of classes are left, and b) the only food to eat in the house for breakfast was the remains of a pan of brownies I had made the night before. Yes, those kind of brownies.

I had a brief flirtation with environmental science. I would have switched to microbiology if the school had had such a major at the time. I eventually settled on a double major in biology and philosophy. On second thought, maybe it’s not so surprising I did not stick around to get a degree.

Fast forward eighteen years and I was back to thinking vet school was a good idea. I enrolled once again, though at a different school, as an animal science major, this time surrounded by kids who were the same age as my youngest child. My classes were a blend of animal science classes like livestock management, pre-vet classes like physiology, classes I had to take again because the science had changed in twenty years like biology 101, classes I had managed to avoid the first time like organic chemistry, and classes I had to take for distribution requirements like history. For my first three semesters I would despondently review my class choices, this time without benefit of pot brownies, wondering how when I was so sure I wanted to be back in school and studying animal science there were so many classes I had to take that I didn’t want to take.

There were several different concentrations within the animal science major, not just pre-vet, and when I looked at them more closely I realized that the more general animal management track was full of classes that actually interested me. Around the same time I heard about a coveted internship at a large animal research lab that seemed like a good way to get some experience in a field I might be able to work in after graduation. The prospect of a starter job – and starter salary – when I was in my forties and had a mortgage, kids in college, and all the other financial ballast that accumulates when you no longer have a starter life was not something I could see a way to make work financially. Lab science tends to pay better than most animal sciences, even at the lowest level. My lab science professor, who was also the veterinarian for the school’s labs, was very up front about saying that it pays more because it’s hard and no one who gets into animal science because they love animals really wants to do it. What she meant by this wouldn’t become obvious to me until later.

At the time, I got no response from the lab to my inquiries about their internship. My classmates had the same issue, and we heard rumors that they were no longer taking students from our program. My first opportunity to apply my learning hands-on was a stint at the state fair birthing center, which was run by my livestock management professor who was and is one of my favorite people. The birthing center houses cows, pigs, and chicken eggs, and over the eleven days of the fair gives fair goers an opportunity to witness the births of calves, piglets, and chicks, and also an opportunity to pat the chicks and piglets. Swine flu outbreaks at state fairs have since ruled out piglet patting, but for the two seasons I was there we spent our days taking turns narrating the births, and holding piglets and chicks for people to pat and ask questions.

I don’t think I had ever met a pig in person before the fair, and I was hooked from the first day. We had some particularly special sows that year. The state fair pigs come from 4H projects. These kids love their pigs, but they are ruthlessly practical. All of them raise their animals for meat. They cuddle them and love them and care for them, and then they send them to market. One of them kept the meat from his favorite pig every year, and sold the others. Another kept some sausage from each of her pigs, labeled with their names, so she could do a taste comparison.

I can take or leave cows, and I can mostly leave chickens, but pigs got under my skin immediately and permanently. Even when I got attacked by Pigzilla the first year – I was checking her for milk to see when she might give birth, and she woke up from her nap by leaping onto her feet and charging me with mouth open, roaring. I have zero vertical leap but I jumped the five foot fence around her pen in one bound, landing on a group of surprised onlookers. 4H sows (Pigzilla aside) are by and large sweet and used to being handled. Piglets are adorable, but they are much easier to manage – and much less likely to permanently damage your hearing – if you can hold them while they are sleeping. My fellow birthing center workers would sometimes ask me if I could lull a piglet to sleep so they could hold one that wasn’t wiggling and shrieking. They called me the pig whisperer.

Some time after my first time at the fair the research lab of the coveted internship was hiring a lab tech, and a classmate who had graduated before me and who had, unbeknownst to me, started working there, reached out to let me know. The opportunity to work with pigs (and goats and sheep) all day AND make money doing it? A no brainer for me. Turns out I should have used a brain or two to think that through a little more.

By my second day in the lab, I knew I had made a bad choice. I was in the necropsy room – basically a closet with a concrete floor with a drain in it – using a kitchen knife – and not a very sharp one, at that – to cut the hind legs off of the thirty-odd goats that had reached the end of their study that day. There are plenty of euphemisms about death in the world – pass away, cross over, euthanize, put down, just to name a few. Lab science adds a whole new level: end of study, harvest, collection. When we lab techs were talking to the scientists, we used their terms, but when we talked among ourselves we were more direct. “End of study” days we called “death days.” As we were finishing up lunch, one of us would say “Ok, time to go kill those sheep.” My third day there, I worked with a pig for the first time. About ten seconds after it was dead I was up to my elbows in its chest cavity, while one of the more experienced techs talked me through how to remove its heart and lungs by feel.

The lab had a mixed bag of studies, almost all surgical. Some were what are called “acute” procedures, meaning the animal is dead by the time the surgery is over. Some were long term, so the animals had weeks or months after their surgery before harvest day arrived. As techs, in addition to assisting with surgeries, we fed the animals and cleaned their stalls. We prepped them for surgery, we monitored them after surgery, we administered their pain meds. And then we killed them.

Monitoring any animal in post op is intense. Pigs in particular take a long time to come out of anesthesia, and sometimes we would sit with them for hours, checking their vital signs every ten minutes. Literally sit with them, in their pens, often with some portion of the pig in our laps. The first two pigs from one study I was assigned to were in so much pain following jaw surgery that they wouldn’t eat. The only thing I could tempt them with was the syrup from a case of fruit cups long past their expiration date that we found sitting on a shelf in among the gauze and bandages. After the first day they would also eat the fruit, but only if I fed it to them by hand. I was eventually able to wean them on to eating soaked feed topped with fruit cup, and then just the soaked feed. Six months later they had grown from roughly 75 pounds at the time of surgery to 300 pounds. We were in surgery with another pig from the same study when the scientist stopped by to talk to the surgeon about how best to see what they needed to see at end of study. They had done earlier CT scans to look at the results of the surgery in the pigs’ jaws but by now the pigs were too big to fit in the scanner. I forget if it was the surgeon or the scientist who came up with the solution to cut the pigs’ heads off and just take the heads for scanning.

The most surprising part of this story is that I stayed there for a year. It took me that long to realize that I had gotten so far away from who I am that I was about to lose myself entirely. I was so focused on trying to do it well, on what I could learn, on the possible opportunities it could lead to. I was buried under the weight of my own expectations about what it meant to change careers, fear of explaining to anyone else why I spent all this time and money going back to school only to not be able to hack it in my new field, and a lifelong belief that I needed to just suck it up and tough it out, whatever the obstacle. I’d like to be able to sum up the whole experience with a tidy life lesson, but life lessons for me are rarely tidy. Sometimes I have to make massive mistakes, mistakes so big they can be seen from space, for me to get a message that I need to get. Maybe the fact that the pigs are on my mind today means there’s another message I need. Or maybe it just means I’ve finally forgiven myself enough to write about it.

Heart Piglets

Ashes

Rays of Cody

I picked up Cody’s ashes from the vet’s office last week. They came in a carved wood box, almost a puzzle box – the bottom slides out to open it, and the top and sides are solid. I won’t tell you how long it took me to figure that out. Inside the box is a blue velvet bag, and inside that are the ashes.

We now have two of these boxes. We have five horses and six cats buried here, but when Maya, our first German Shepherd, died it was in the middle of a very cold winter and the ground was too frozen to dig a hole for her. Six years later we still haven’t buried or scattered her ashes. She’s been hanging out in the house with us, sometimes in the room with the other dogs, and currently in the sunroom near where I write and where we have a nice view of the reservoir.

With a precedent of one cremated dog, and with me unable to face digging a hole to bury Cody in (or more to the point, unable to face putting Cody in a hole), we had him cremated also. He is in the kitchen area, right next to where he lived the last few weeks of his life. The room we have always called the random room became both Cody’s special den and the hospice ward. He had two dog beds there, and in March we added a memory foam mattress topper to cover the rug, and a plaid quilt to cover the mattress topper. Depending on his state of health and the state of his intestines, we added a layer of waterproof pads between the quilt and the mattress topper, but when he was feeling better he tended to dig them up.

Maya was our first dog, and we had her for about two and a half years before we got Cody to keep her company. They were friends in their way, though not a way that involved snuggling or overt closeness. Cody, only a year and a half when he came to us, taught Maya to play, though she tended to do so with a look on her face that said “Is this fun? It feels like it might be fighting. How do I tell?” Her favorite game was to wait till I threw Cody’s tennis ball (his nickname back then was Fetches Twice As Fast) and then she would get into the path of the speeding cattle dog and try to clothesline him. Her second favorite was to stay out where I threw his ball and grab it first, and then destroy it.

Now that Cody and Maya are together again, we will probably bury their ashes together, most likely alongside a tree or two we will plant in the dog yard. It wouldn’t hurt the younger three dogs to keep absorbing lessons from the original duo.

In contrast to the carved boxes that the dog ashes came back in, my parents’ ashes came in brown plastic boxes. There was probably an upgrade available for human ashes that I don’t remember. My father made that choice for my mother. My oldest sister and I made the choice for my father, but all I remember after viewing his body in the funeral home is fighting off giggles as we listened to the funeral director solemnly tell us that after the cremation “your loved one will be returned,” which seemed like a feat beyond what I would expect of a crematorium.

When my father gave me my mother’s ashes, he had augmented her brown plastic box with a blue and white checked Bath & Body Works bag. When I first brought her ashes home, the bag and box sat in the garage for several weeks until Rose said she couldn’t stand to see my mother’s ashes sitting out there like trash. I moved them to a bag I gave my mother that she never got to use – a black cotton backpack embroidered with brightly colored elephants – and placed it next to my desk for several months.

I was uneasy with my mother’s ashes in the house, and when we eventually scattered them in several different places I was squeamish when handling them, though I am not by nature a squeamish person. I don’t feel the same about Cody’s ashes. I sometimes want to run my hands through them, or smell them. I kissed his forehead good night almost every night for fourteen years and I miss him in a very tactile way.

When my grandmother died, she was cremated and we buried her ashes – presumably in an urn, though I don’t think I saw it – alongside her husband in a cemetery. It all happened at what I consider normal funeral speed. She died, and within a few days we all flew into town, had a graveside service, and a burial. “Normal” is the term I use for “rules everyone except my family seems to know,” though over the years I have realized that anyone who thinks they know the rules has what Anne Lamott calls tiny control issues.

For my parents we tried to guess what they would have liked, which is partly how my mother’s ashes wound up in so many places: under a tree we planted for her at our house in Maryland, in the ocean at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, in her sister’s garden in Virginia, and in Squam Lake, in New Hampshire. Eventually my father remembered that she had once said she’d like her ashes to go in Rock Creek Park, but by then they were all in other places she had loved, so in the end it was my father’s ashes that went into Rock Creek.

My aunt is the only person I knew who gave explicit directions about what to do with her ashes. She also gave explicit directions about what music to play at her memorial service, how to disperse her belongings, and was generally the only person I know who completely acknowledged and talked about the fact that she was dying.

Cody gave me no instructions. In life, he believed that as long as there were treats, the thing mattered, and if there no treats, it did not. When I think about scattering or burying his ashes, I can get caught up in human details – the proper ceremony, the meaningful music, the perfect words, the right tree to plant. Maybe a better way is the dog way. If Cody were here, and found something interesting on the ground, I know what he would do. If you see me out in the dog yard, scattering ashes and rolling around in them, you’ll know why. And of course, I’ll make sure there will be treats.

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