Veet

As part of a harebrained scheme to enjoy my final ‘healthy’ weeks before the transplant plans, I opted to take my steroid dose in one go, on Monday 23 February and ending four days later. That was four whole days of a lot of dexamethasone. Something I have done many a times before, but I soon discovered that it was different from the befores. My tried and tested theory was for me to get the big crash out of the way, so I did not need to worry about the pesky little mini crashes that I have become accomstomed to since Velcade was reintroduced to my life in December, which in turn would allow me to enjoy myself. I knew it would take me down, and I had planned to just let it, and silently will it to disappear as quickly as possibly. Vite, vite. 

Despite it being a tried and tested formula, I failed to fully realise what four days of steroids would do to me after eight months of non-stop chemotherapy. The result? Persistent ugliness. And I mean ugly. I mean five days of my bed, sweating, lots of carbohydrates, bad breath and swollen glands. Last Tuesday was the sixth day, of the crash and I congratulated myself for getting dressed with my trusty Rubywoo on my lips, but I after a two hour trip to the hospital for a dose of Cilit Bang, my energy was spent and it was back to my sofa for some blanket time. We’re it not for the hospital and the fact that I did not want the cleaner to think I was a slothenly sloth, I would have happily gone for a sixth day of flat bound cosiness. 

All reason told me that the crash was going to end, but it took me down to such an extent that I could not see how it was possibly going to end. When I started to write this blog a week ago, I wrote that “with the benefit of hindsight, I probably would not have decided to take this vile poison the way I did, because the take down was beyond something I imagined and could take.”

One week later, with the benefit of hindsight, I can say that despite it not being quick, I did absolutely the right thing. I find it interesting that last week, I documented my frustration. Now, I do not recall feeling that fed up with it all. I can almost look upon it fondly, like something made to deliver self indulgent anecdotes to friends. 

Housemate, do you remember the time I did not leave the flat for four days and did nothing but lie on the sofa watching mediocre films and eating crisps? My, that was a hoot wasn’t it?”

See? It’s a story with legs.

The four days I stayed in my flat, I was somewhat impressed with myself that I managed to shower everyday. I did not get dressed in the sense that I was wearing clothes I would be happy for people to see me in public, but I did put on the trusty trousers with an elasticated waist and my, did that feel good. When I was not looking at my television or the inside of my eyelids, my view was this (well, in colour):



I can say with complete certainty that one creature appreciated my crash.

One of downsides of not having the energy to leave the house, is grooming. Or the lack there of. As a long time steroid abuser, I suffer from an unfortunate side effect in which my face becomes inexplicably prickly. Prickles that become more noticeable when applying makeup is forgone because doing so would require an hour nap afterwards. By the Sunday, my third full day in bed, the black prickles became too, too much for my slow brain to take and Housemate was selfless in his kindness. He walked for three whole minutes to Boots and came home with a packet of Veet Facial Wax Strips, which he treated me to, so I could de-fuzz my face. Do you know what that gave me beyond the obvious removal? Another anecdote.

Mamma Jones, Housemate went to Boots today so I could remove my beard.”

See? 

As for now, six days after the crash ended, I have some energy. I’ve been able to socialise and process some thoughts beyond those of self pity and thoughts of no escape. For now at least. I am well aware that my six day crash is just a precursor for what is to come. If I wanted that to go away quickly, I cannot imagine what I am going to feel like post transplants. My dispare last Tuesday scares me, because I have more than six bad days ahead of me. On the otherhand, my feelings post crash is a buoy. I mean, just think of the possible anecdotes…. And Bruce snuggles.

EJB x

A Boy’s Dog

The dog stood at the bow of the boat, his nose in the air and his ears blowing backwards in the wind as we skipped from wavelet to wavelet. The sun was bright and the day was warm and the sky was an azure blue with picture cloud cumulus floating lazily.

Most people don’t know it, but french poodles are water dogs. Somewhere along the way people started giving them embarrassing haircuts, camouflaging their innate hunting instincts and love of the water. Worse, people like my mother saddled them with names like Vicki, multiplying the curse. Vicki was actually my mother’s dog. It was she who fed him, took him to the vet, and took him to the doggy hairdresser. She kept his bed clean and his water bowl full. That did not stop me from claiming the dog as mine much of the rest of the time.

I discovered that my dog was a great companion early on, and would take the dog with me on my boat excursions around Long Island Sound.  Every so often the dog would see something attractive and leap out of the boat. What was visible from his raised place in the boat would disappear as his eyes dropped to water level and he would paddle in confused circles wondering what happened to whatever it was than interested him. Then I would idle around, chasing the dog so I could pull him back in the boat -but he would avoid me, sure he could find his object of interest if he only gave it another half hour or so. The dog couldn’t swim for another half hour pretty quickly and would turn my way and paddle back to the boat with a depressed expression on his face. Then would come the struggle to get him back in the boat which would end in his shaking off the twenty gallons of water his coat would sop up. My mother wasn’t thrilled with my maritime dog trips. She paid good money to have the dog’s hair cut with chaps on his legs, puff balls on the feet and tail, a distinguished moustache and a poofy topknot. As to the puff ball on his tail, Vicki’s tail had been bobbed as a puppy for nothing more than cosmetics by the breeder. I always thought about finding the breeder and cutting something off of them for cosmetic reasons to see how they liked it. His ear hair was cut so he had frills that dangled down giving them more length. I wanted my mom to have the dog’s hair cut ‘normal,’ thinking the poofy hairstyle looked silly.

While he did look a bit dorky, especially right out of the dog parlor, Vicki wasn’t stupid. On the contrary the dog was pretty darn smart. He’d play pirates and treasure with me on the rocky coast, ducking and hiding when I would. When we would trap our imaginary quarry, I swear the dog would chuckle as I yelled “Arrrr!” and we jumped from our hiding spots, ambushing our prey.  It didn’t matter to the dog (or me) that we played pirate against pirate. Pirates were much more interesting than the frilly dressed captains of the sea who pursued them who I always saw as being French for some reason.  Maybe because the dog was French. The dog was happy to carry a sword in a scabbard and wear a hat with a feather -so long as I tied them down.  I’m not sure, but I think he liked the hat because it hid the topknot.

Today we were out on the bounding main in search of adventure. We’d been cruising for an hour and a half and were headed into Five Mile River to hit the gas pump. It was a busy day with a lot of traffic and we were in the channel. Seagulls were wheeling and calling, inspecting the comings and goings of boats in case they were making free fish available when Vicki barked once sharply and jumped headlong into the water. With so many boats and the dog’s head such a small object I freaked out immediately. I began to wave at the other boats, trying to guide them away from my dog. Some of the people on the other craft smiled widely and waved back, failing to understand I wasn’t being friendly, I was having a panic attack.

So was my dog. After a few boats barely missing running him down and their wakes giving him a snoot full of water, the dog was freaking out as well. He swam around in a tight circle and I motored over to him, hoping he would play his avoid Bob game.  He let me pull up to him but there was a 40 foot Chris Craft that was just opening up its throttles and I was directly in front of him on the wrong side of the channel. He had the right of way and he was pressing the issue. He leaned on his horn and didn’t back off on the gas. I did a cross arm wave and then tried to grab my dog. Vicki was in a panic, seeing the large boat bearing down on us and swam for his life. I turned to try to follow the dog while making an obstacle that the other boats would look out for. I would wave, steer the boat, try to reach out to grab the dog and then repeat. The Chris Craft almost nailed the back of my Boston Whaler as it passed. The pilot was shaking his fist at me when a girl on board with him pointed to the dog and the guy got the idea of what was happening.  He yanked his throttle to idle and then reversed his engines to make a quick stop. This caused two boats in trail to duck around him, one of them now bearing down on my dog.  He was in a small ski boat and saw the dog and pretty much did the same thing the Chris Craft did. He managed to stop about five feet from my dog and my boat as I made another grab for the dog. Vicki wasn’t having any of it and started paddling for all he was worth, and made his way out of the channel.

The ski boat turned parallel to me and closed in, trying to drive Vicki to my boat, but Vicki had his eye on the shoreline and was paddling his little heart out. The ski boat stood off and I stayed next to my dog until I banged a submerged rock. It wasn’t a hard knock, but I knew I had to use an oar to pole myself to the shore. I kicked into neutral so I wouldn’t shear my propeller’s drive pin and riding the waves of wakes went bump, bump. bumping to the shore. Vicki got to the water’s edge and pulled himself onto a big and flat kelp covered rock and just collapsed. He was panting so hard it scared me. I grabbed the painter, a rope used to tie off the boat, and hopped onto the rock. I knelt down and took the dog’s head into my lap and petted him and reassured the dog he was okay. The guy in the ski boat shouted out asking about the dog and I yelled back I thought he was okay. The guy hung around for a few minutes until Vicki stood up and shook, soaking me with water. He laughed and powered up and headed out to the Sound.

I pulled the boat close to the rock and hopped into it, cringing as it bounced against the stone. I called the dog and slapped my side, the signal to come. Vicki looked at me like I was out of my mind, tilting his head to the side and blinking his eyes. The dog sat there a moment and then sighed deeply and stepped over near the boat. Coaxing him, the dog wouldn’t jump into the boat though. I finally lay over the bow and grabbed the dog by the collar and yanked him so his front paws rested in the gunwale. He looked side to side, sighed again and hopped the rest of the way into the boat. I used the oar to work the boat away from the coastal rocks  and the dog and I putted over to the gas pier and fueled up.

Finding himself none the worse for wear, the dog retook his position in the bows, his front feet on the plank seat, his nose in the air and his ears flapping behind him in the breeze.

The sadness of so many losses

I began writing this a couple of months ago but didn’t finish the draft I’d started. Today though I’ve been reminded again of the sadness of loss; it comes and goes with a regular dull rhythm.

On this Spring Equinox, a time of equal day night, a time of equal life and death, it seems apt to complete and publish this post to acknowledge again this aspect of living with myeloma… living with dying, living with old and new friends, in particular, who may and do die. This is the ever-present counter to the busy life I and others actively pursue.

There’s a couple I see regularly in clinic. He had a transplant and has been dealing with skin GvHD for some months. He is very quiet, reserved. She is his wife and usually the one who chats with me. Every time I saw them, his face was a vivid shade of red and his skin looked very uncomfortable, but otherwise he seemed okay if a bit despondent.

A few weeks ago I saw the wife in the office of the ever-supportive Transplant Co-ordinator, Lynne. When I saw her in there alone, I was already concerned. I asked how her husband was and she said he was in the Critical Care Unit, what used to be called Intensive Care. She looked pale, limp and anxious. I didn’t have any words but reached out to touch her shoulder.

I haven’t seen them since, so when I saw Lynne today, I asked her about him. She drew me into an empty room and said it wasn’t good news. I asked if he had died and she nodded. Both of them, the husband and wife could only be in their early-to-mid-40’s. Another reminder of the fragility of the community I now belong to.

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Garden 16.06.09 071My beautiful, slightly feral cat, Willow, who lived with me for over thirteen years, began to have more frequent visits to the vet than I had clinic appointments. As frequently happens in older cats, her kidneys were deteriorating and she had high blood pressure.

IMG_1209

We tried for some weeks to manage her ailments with pills and special diet food, but gradually she was eating less and less, losing weight, sleeping more and more and she started getting quite wobbly when she walked. Trying to give her pills was stressful for her and me. So I had to make the decision to put her to sleep. As you can imagine, it’s not an easy decision. I didn’t want to wait until she was really obviously in pain or dying.

IMG_2266Even now, I think perhaps I left it a bit late for the most compassionate time, but she died peacefully, with the vet coming to my home and Willow curled on my lap (which she never did in living) as she drifted off and became limp. Amazingly, she did just look like she was asleep.

My friend and I both cried. Later we buried her in the lawn of my garden. Placed in the curled up, looking-like-she-was-just-sleeping position and gently covering her with soft warm earth, like a blanket.

I planted crocus, miniature iris and miniature narcissi bulbs above her in the grass, some of which have begun to crop up in the last few weeks. That feels good.

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SanderIn October, I heard that a Dutch man, Sander, whose blog (written in English) I followed and who also had an allogeneic stem cell transplant, died. I never met him and we didn’t have much interaction, but nonetheless, I felt a connection, maybe because he was Dutch. He was about ten years older than me, with a love of music and travel, a wife and two grown sons. I had the feeling we would get on if we were to meet.

There have been other myeloma buddies who have died… Dai, a Welsh man in his late 50’s, who moved to Nottingham from Wales for better treatment of myeloma. We met online via the Myeloma UK Discussion Forum and then in person at a Myeloma UK Patient and Family InfoDay in 2011. He died in November 2013.

And Sean, who although he lived in Chester, had his major treatment in Liverpool, so I felt a connection. Although like with Sander, we never actually met, I followed his blog and he followed mine. He had a stem cell transplant from his brother and a further Donor Lymphocyte Infusion [DLI]. He died in May 2012 aged 46.

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Annie with hose June 2005A few weeks later, not long before the Winter festivities, I bumped into a friend of a friend, Ali in a local supermarket. In the course of conversation, she said how sad it was about our mutual friend, Annie. I felt the hairs go up on my neck. Just the way she said it, I kind of already knew before asking what she meant. She was astonished that I didn’t know, that none of our mutual contacts had informed me. I was too.

Annie, who was a similar age to me and the last time I’d seen her had been in average health, had been admitted to hospital in the summer, with a stomach complaint. While there, they had investigated a persistent cough she’d had for months. She was diagnosed with lung cancer and died within three weeks. Ali was visibly upset telling me. They’d been close friends. I was shocked and sad.

I met Annie and Ali together when I took a group of school leavers on the Nottingham Narrowboat Project about 12 years ago. Annie worked for the project and Ali was working with her as crew. I was so inspired by the experience that I volunteered on the project as a Skipper’s Mate, then later trained to be a Skipper. I have worked on a number of trips with Annie, as well as other Skippers. I only stopped volunteering when I became ill. I’ve seen Annie a few times since, as she lived on a boat not too far from me, so I would sometimes pop in for a chat if I was walking or cycling along the canal.

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May 17.10.09And finally, or probably not… my beloved border collie, May, with whom I lived with my previous partner, Jane. May was found as a stray and handed over to the dog warden with no background history. Jane and I were looking for a dog. We found May at a kennels with just seven days for her owners to come forward or be put to sleep. They didn’t, but thankfully we did.

Despite her fears which led her to occasionally snap or jump up at people, she was a most adoring, sensitive, loyal beast. If she was here with me this evening, she’d have been cuddling up to me, sensing my sadness and attempting to comfort me. What a love!

When Jane and I separated, she lived with Jane and visited me every other weekend, until a point when it just wasn’t working well in the summer of 2010. That was around the time I was frequently visiting my mum in Liverpool because she was recovering from a difficult operation. I was also feeling the fatigue effects of being anaemic from having myeloma, without knowing that I was ill. I wasn’t diagnosed for another six months. We agreed that May would live with Jane, which was sad but also a relief.

More recently, I’d spent time with Jane and May, going for walks together from time to time, so I saw her gradually becoming more and more lame, more and more deaf, but then in the last few months of last year, she began to experience dementia. Poor Jane ended up sleeping downstairs with her, as May would wake up in the night confused and stressed and would bark for no obvious reason.

As this carried on for several weeks, Jane was worn out and it was affecting her health and poor May was not going to improve, despite the vet trying various medication, including valium. There was no joy left in her, in fact she wasn’t entirely ‘there’. To just be sedated to continue living… for what? It was a difficult decision. These decisions always are with a beloved pet.

May liked cream

May liked cream

Jane and I talked it through and made the decision to put May to sleep on a Friday, rather than waiting all weekend. I went over and Jane’s parents were also there. It was a sad gathering, but we were all able to cuddle and stroke her. Whether she was aware of it, who knows? The vets came and gave the injection. Like with Willow, it was very gentle and while it was sad, it was also a relief to let her go, to be at peace.

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Amidst all this, I and my fellow incurable cancer buddies continue living in the face of death. And while I find it hard to hear this from someone who is currently in decent health, who is most likely to live into old age, I am allowed to say this… We are all living in the face of death.

With that thought, here’s a link to an exhibition by photographer, Rankin that was on last year at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery, Alive: In the Face of Death, challenging the taboo around talking about dying. I wish I’d seen the exhibition.

sandra-by-rankinOne of the people he photographed, Sandra said this: “Having cancer has made me more aware of how we are here for a very short time and how we should aim to live in the moment. When the time comes, I will embrace death and accept it with grace.” I hope I may too.

Tonight I am also remembering the lovely Libyan woman I met in clinic and whom I still think about, my friend Abir, who also spent her final days in the Critical Care Unit. Sadly I don’t have a photo of her, but I can see her face clearly in my mind.

If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is…

– sung by Peggy Lee (written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller)

dancing catdancing catdancing catdancing catdancing cat

That Doggy in the Window

“How come that one is off by itself?” I asked the handler. We were standing amidst the cages of the Vancouver dog pound where I would occasionally go to look at the dogs. I’ve always liked dogs and promised myself that I’d get one someday. Today wasn’t the day though, the adoption fee was fifteen bucks and in 1974 that was a lot of money for an unemployed car mechanic.

“He’s a runt. So the mother won’t show him any favoritism and the other puppies will push him away. He’s so skinny because he isn’t getting any milk.”

“So, you’re feeding him, right? I mean, you have someone here who takes care of little guys like that who’re rejected by their mothers and the other puppies?”

“No, I’m afraid not. It’s the way of things. We can’t really afford to intervene and so we have to let nature take its course. The puppy only has a small chance of survival anyway. I know it sounds heartless, but we just can’t take the time and expense when it’s such a risk that he may not survive anyway.” I looked at the little thing, horrified. It was a cute little puppy. He was all black save for a white diamond under his throat. He looked kind of like a bear cub. The handler told me he was a Doberman-Shepherd mix and full grown he’d probably only stand as tall as a Jack Russel Terrier.

A bell rang in another room and the handler went off to greet some new potential customers, leaving me outside the pen looking at the puppy. He was just so cute. I looked carefully in all directions, and not seeing anyone I opened the cage door and stepped inside. The litter of puppies, jammed up against the mother all started making noises, disturbed by my entry. The runt just looked at me with sad eyes. I was wearing a ski jacket, it being March and still chilly, and I was getting around on my Kawasaki 250 street and trail bike. I scooped up the puppy and stuffed him into an inside pocket of the ski jacket and stepped quickly back out of the cage. Now, normally I’m a pretty honest guy. Sure, I broke the speed limits while driving and a few other scofflaw kind of stuff, but I was pretty straight. But I couldn’t abide that this little dog was going to be left to starve and die.

Looking innocent as I could (I did everything except whistle), I made my way up front and headed for the door. As I was reaching for the knob, the handler, standing behind the front counter called out to me. “Hold up there, Bud.” he said. Oh man. “You want to step over here a minute please?” I tried to decide whether to go over there or bolt out the door. I sighed, decision made, and walked over to face him across the counter. “You forgot some stuff.” he said.

“Uh, I what?”

He set a box with a few cans of Enfamil milk replacement, a small sack of puppy chow, and a certificate for free shots and neutering on the counter. “You’ll need this.” he said. “Take good care of him now.” He smiled widely at me. I grabbed my booty and made for the door as fast as my shaking, embarrassed legs would take me.

I named him Papoon and I fed him with an eyedropper religiously. The dog grew up to be slightly larger than a Jack Russel and became my best friend. I glued some carpet to the gas tank of my motorcycle and the dog would happily ride with me, his legs dangling on each side of the bike, his muzzle often resting on the gauges (blocking the speedometer). His ears, which I refused to have clipped would flap backwards in the wind. I got a lot of smiles and waves as I rode around Portland and Vancouver, and even managed to get a date or two because of the dog. But his greatest value was as a friend. When I came home from work there was always the dog to greet me, happy to see me and would wag his tail so hard his butt would swoop back and forth with it. His expressive face carried a wide smile. I spent hours talking to the dog, and I knew he listened. He might not have understood every word, but he got the gist of things just fine. He celebrated with me, commiserated with me and we spent hours in companionable silence, his chin often resting on my leg.

My friends knew not to invite me unless my dog was welcome too, and he always was. Everyone thought the world of the dog. He knew how to open doors, but more surprisingly, would close them after himself. He never quite figured out dead bolts, but I have to think that given enough time he would have eventually. When he died on Christmas Eve in 1980 my heart broke and it took a long time for me to break the habits of looking for him when I came home, or placing a hand on his back as I leaned a motorcycle into a turn. It took two years for me to stop bringing doggy bags home for him when I went out for a meal somewhere, it had become automatic. I still felt the sharp pang of loss when I would toss the bag into the trash.

Dogs are amazing creatures. My wife thinks cats are, and so our home is beset with feline shedders who occasionally justify themselves to me by doing something cute or laying next to me purring like an Evinrude outboard motor. But there is no pet so loyal, so willing and so dedicated as a dog. I continually thrust and parry ideas of getting a dog, but practicality intervenes and prevents me from taking a trip to the shelters to see if I can find a furry little buddy. My age, my illness aside, I would get one in a flash.

They’re man’s best friend.

 

 

Point of nature

The sun splattered the ground as though dumped from a bucket. My dog was laughing and running in chase of some imagined prey. A warm day, I was wearing a tee shirt and cut off jeans, my usual uniform of the summer. We were making our way to the top of a bluff, overlooking Long Island Sound just below Stamford, Connecticut. I had put my skiff into a small cove and decided to hike up to where the view was to eat my lunch. It was packed in a lunchbox that said CIRCUS on it in bright pink, with cartoon animals festooned all around it. Inside was a cream cheese and green olive sandwich that I had found in the fridge, a pickel and a few Oreo cookies. The thermos held some lemonade. 

At the edge of the bluff I found a large flat rock that screamed ‘I am a table’ at me and set up my little feast. The dog came whizzing by, slowing to look at me for any notification that I might be sharing my repast. Seeing none, he ran across the wide and rock strewn meadow. I took to watching a lobster boat making its way along its lines. Even atop the bluff I could hear the sounds of the boat clearly. I couldn’t make out detail so I didn’t know if they were on the lobster or drifting through a day of empty pots and stolen bait. A jellow jacket had taken notice of the lemonade sitting in the cup that was also the thermos lid. It stood on the lip and waggled its butt, jazzed at discovering the otherlode of sugar.  I fanned him away and took a sip of the lemonade.  I set the cup down and took another bite of sandwich and the yellow jacket buzzed at my face, showing me his displeasure at having his moment of excellence destroyed by a dismissive wave. “Relax.” I told it. “There’ll be plenty for you. Just take turns.”

Apparently the yellow jacket didn’t agree because it flew at my face and promptly stung me on the cheek. I slapped it, ending the life of the yellow jacket and pumping a little more of its venom into my cheek. My dog, hearing me shriek in pain, came running over, concern in his brown eyes. He licked my face as if to say he had no idea the problem, but he was there for me. I gave him a quarter of the sandwich and he inhaled it whole, then running off again. A second later the dog yelped and seemed to cringe as his head swivelled back and forth trying to see his back. I realized that there was something in the air around him and then realized it was more of the yellow jackets. I jumped up and called the dog, scrambling up my lunchbox and thermos. Both of us ran down the switchback walk that led down to the cove and my Boston Whaler. 

As we ran, I felt more stings, and they simply spurred me faster. At the water’s edge, the dog just kept going and blasted into the water like a cannon shot. I could see a fog of angry yellow jackets swirling above him. Another two stings and I realized that I had my own cloud of angry insects and threw myself over the stern, over the motor and into the water. The cool water felt good on the six or so stings I took. The dog was paddling about, just his node and eyes above the surface of the water. It appeared that he’d already lost the angry flying mob. I treaded water and saw that I still had a number of admirers and I could feel a couple as they banged into my head as if butting me. I sagged beneath the surface and swam under water for about 20 feet before coming back up. When I looked, I saw that the bees were gone.

The dog and I made shore and then climbed into the boat. As I started the motor I gave the dig the rest of the sandwich and I flused the thermos in the sea water. I’m nt sure if the food was the attractor of the yellow jackets, but I wasn’t taking any chances. My right eye was swollen and it pushed the eye closed a little, but all and all I was okay. The dog had a few bumps on his snout and showed some tenderness on his shoulder, but he looked like he fared okay.

It’s kind of funny the way that nature can give you such a perfect moment, and simultaneously snatch it away with the other hand. 

A Character: Aunt Millie

No one meets my aunt Minnie without hearing about her poodle. His name was Prince and he fell out of the window of her apartment in New York city. The apartment was on the 43rd floor and the impact broke all four of the dogs legs and popped his left eye out. They put his eye back in, and it may have worked, but it was always aimed kind of funny after the incident. Minnie says there was no reason for this to happen, and it especially couldn’t be the pinwheel she had in the window, spun by the breeze through the open window. We all believe we know what happened to Prince, but no one talks about it in front of Minnie, ostensibly to keep her from chasing windmills. But Minnie will, before ten minutes goes by, ask you if you heard what happened to her Prince, who she carries around in an over arm bag. His head pokes out the top and his legs out of four leg holes. Prince could still walk, although it was a stiff legged gait. He died a few years later of old age. Millie followed him a year after that.

I was thinking about my aunt Millie because I was thinking about mohair sweaters. Okay, I was looking through my sweaters and seeing them reminded me of sweaters I’ve hand, and one sweater, a mohair, in particular. I was a preciously cute little seven year old when my aunt Minnie gave me a mohair sweater for Christmas. My mother always saw to it that we kids sent thank you cards for the gifts we received and so I wrote a bread and butter note to aunt Millie that said I didn’t know what a mo was, but it had soft hair. My way of saying I liked the sweater. The card was duplicated and sent to all family members so they could see how cute (and stupid) I was. There was no way to relive that emotional catastrophe without thinking of Millie, and so, of course, I thought about Prince, the dog looked both ways even when it wasn’t crossing a street.

Millie lived in Austin, Texas. I only met her four times in life, she being off the beaten track from the rest of the family. Everyone else was east coast, from Washington, DC and south to Alabama. But Millie was all Texas and she was proudly so. The family dearly loved her, every time I heard someone talking about her they were saying how sweet she was. She always remembered me at Christmas and birthdays, sending me some clothing item and a five dollar bill tucked under like clockwork. I remember how horriied I was when, for my sixteenth birthday she sent me a card saying that she knew I was grown up and would be embarrassed by her gifts for kids. On Christmas she sent me a $20 bill next, quite a sum at the time. Then no more gifts came from Millie, no more stories about her Prince. She passed away, reportedly in her sleep. She was 68 when she died.

But Millie sticks in my head, and I can’t think about a Christmas in my youth without thinking about Millie. Even when absent, she had a presence. It also never failed that someone would point out her absence, propose a toast to her, and then someone would tell the story of how Prince went out the window. My parents are gone now, as are others who figured largely in my younger days. So my Christmases no longer include a toast to Millie. I’m the only one who knew her.

Even though it isn’t Christmas, I thought I might introduce you to Millie, and tell you the story about her dog.

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Reflected reflections

“Harrummf.” The old man sat on the rock bench by the river, alone. He looked aged and tired. His whiskers grew out white and uneven. He’d obviously given up on shaving, instead hacking back his facial hair only occasionally and it gave him an unkempt look. His hair, perhaps three inches at the longest, looked as though it was caught by the wind and flying every which way. Except that the day was calm and still. His eye were blue, but turned rheumy, milky and dull. His clothes looked as if they were pulled from baled rags, purloined as they went to be recycled. He wore pale yellow socks over leather things on his feet. So skinny, he was a scarecrow, his broomstick limbs barely holding up his attire. Liver spotted and translucent, his pale skin looked as if it was in jeopardy of the sun, paper-like and dry he was the image of frailty and vulnerability.

The river moved slowly by where he sat, reflecting him perfectly so that one had to look hard to tell which was real and which the reflection. No matter, his entirety was merely a reflection –of what he once was, back when life was his and strength surged within him. He shifted his weight and made the noise again. Was he clearing his throat or offering a comment; it was hard to tell. A dog lay in the sun just beside him. It too had an ancient appearance, they were a matched set. One knew the dog was brown, but it too was graying. Its legs twitched, the dog caught in a dream, most likely of youthful days when it would run free with tongue flying as he pursued a quarry. There was a dimness to the dog; the way the light struck him and permeated and reflected off his hair gave him a translucence not unlike the old man’s skin.

I went about my way, the image of the old man and his dog in my mind. I inspected it by turning the image over and over in my head, wondering why the image had the power to fascinate me so. I crawled over rocks and stepped on grassy hummocks by the waters edge, occasionally noting my own reflection. But my image seemed somehow blurred and filled with kinesis, not like the crystal image of the old man. But wait. Did the dog have a reflection too? I wondered about that, thinking of it more and more until I had to go back and look. Why it was important to me I didn’t know. I just knew that I had to see. I had to look and see if the dog was as faithfully reproduced as the man was.

He was just there in front of me, some yards ahead. He hadn’t moved that I could tell. I watched him as I made my way closer and closer, finally coming to within just a few feet of him. There was his reflection in the water, as clear and sharp as I’d seen it earlier. But no, the dog was not reflected. In fact, I realized that the dog wasn’t there at all. Apparently it had trundled its self off to investigate a butterfly or follow the scent of some creature, perhaps of its own kind.

“Where did your dog go?” I asked him.

“Eh?”

“Your dog. Where is your dog?”

“Dog’s gone.”

I looked around, scanning to see where it had gotten to. “I see that.” I said.

“Eh?” he said again, looking at me.

“Your dog has gone off.”

He looked at me, irritation flirting with his features. “What about it?” he snapped.

“Well, the pair of you made a pleasant image.” I said, smiling. I wasn’t sure why I seemed to irk him, and felt badly that I might have intruded on his thoughts. The old man looked at me a moment and then shook his head.

“Dog’s gone nearly a year now. He was a good one, he was.”

“I meant the one that was here a little while ago.”

“I was just sitting here thinking about him. Missing him I guess. But it gives me pleasure to think of him. You see, he was all I had. Just me and the dog.”

“I’m sorry for your loss. ButI meant the dog that was just here. He was laying right there.” I pointed to the spot where I’d seen the dog.

“I was remembering him. We used to come here, you know. Used to come and sit here and watch the water. He would come along with. Would lay right there.” He pointed at the same spot I had. “We came here most every day it was warm enough. Pretty much every day in summer.”

“I was talking about a dog today. A dog right there by you.” I described the dog to him.

“That’s right. So you knew my dog? You’d see him when we came here, eh?”

“No. I mean today. I saw him today.” I protested.

“No, you couldn’t have seen him today, son. My dog passed a year ago. Must have been someone else’s dog you saw.”

“Could be, I guess. But he was laying right there. Right by you. You had to have seen him.”

“No. No dog today. No dog for a year.” He sounded so forlorn the way he said it. “I wish he was here. Such a good boy. He was such a good boy.”

“You didn’t see the dog that was here today?” I asked. “Sitting right there?”

“I’m old, son, but I’m not daft. My dog passed.”

“I understand. But I saw a dog laying here by you when I first passed by. The way he lay here, I thought he was with you. I must have been wrong. Anyway, he seems to have gone off now.”

The old man turned to look at me directly. “There’s been no dog here. I came here alone, I’ve been sitting alone. The dog you saw sounds like mine, but there’s been no dog here today. My dog’s gone a year now. To the very day.” He made a grunting noise and got to his feet. He stood for a moment, giving me a reproachful look, and then turned and walked away. He had the slow and painful appearing gait of the elderly. He shook his head as he moved.

I stood there and watched him go for a moment then looked back to where he’d been sitting. The grass in front of the rock was bent and pressed where his feet had rested. I looked to where the dog was and the grass stood, unaffected. There was no evidence that the animal had been there.

“Odd.” I mumbled aloud. It made me wonder if I had somehow intruded on and seen his reflections on the dog the way I’d seen his reflection in the water. A memory mirage? No, that’s just nuts. I looked at the spot where I saw the dog again, inspecting the erect blades of grass, undisturbed and stilled in the breeze-less air. “Odd.” I said again.

Fb-Button

Going Down

She was a petite woman, standing a whole five foot two inches tall and tipping the scales at a sedate 99 pounds. For her middle age, she was a looker with a cherub-like happy countenance. A fifty-something, she had a tiny pug faced dog she carried around in her purse everywhere. She cut quite an image.

She had checked into a hotel with a no dog policy but had smuggled her pooch in easily. This was nothing new, she was used to taking the dog places that dogs weren’t allowed and the dog was adept at being inconspicuous. At one time I asked her why she took her dog literally everywhere and she replied that she liked the dog, and pointed out that she’d never had any problems with pick pockets. She and the dog spent an uneventful afternoon in the hotel room, watching the in-room television and munching on snacks of sandwiches, cheese puffs, and chocolate cup cakes, all washed down with root beer. She was well sated and, because the dog always ate what she ate, he was too. So well in fact, that the dog trotted to the door and scratched on it, the universal dog sign for “I need to go out.” At least, dog sign for housebroken dogs.

Wooly Parasites

There are 400 breeds of dogs making up 400 million of the species on the planet. Wolves cannot make a similar claim, most likely because they tend to eat us when dogs, for the most part, don’t. This was announced on a PBS program abot the emergence and genetics of dogs. It was actually quite a program and it held my attention to a greater degree than much of what passes the window of my television every day.

Up a Tree

Fifteen thousand years ago, a wolf decided it was easier to live hanging out with humans. The wolf was descended by more different types of the species than any other on earth. One of those was many same but different canines made his way into my life. Dogs are wonderful creatures, with nothing else like them anywhere. Without the dog we would be far retarded in our physical and technological achievements because of their use and contribution. Dogs warn, guide, protect, find, and guard for us, performing a wealth of services no other species –or machine, can.

I had occasion to wonder about the various genes he carried, because of his amazing intelligence and unflagging spirit. The dog was up for just about anything; he rode on my motorcycle with me, in planes –even during aerobatics, in boats, cars, trucks, go karts and Lord only knows what other vehicles. Oh, yeah. I took him hang gliding. There was no question that the dog trusted me, and the same was true of me for him. The dog was family, and he deserved and got my respect and love.

So when he would do stupid things like climbing trees I would worry for him. On a few occasions I came to find my dog at the top of a tree, barking and whining pitifully. He and a neighborhood cat had some kind of contest going, and the dog was forever chasing the cat. But there were times when the dog had the cat flat cornered, he would let it escape, because it wasn’t a hint to hurt the cat, it was sport. But the cat, at least so far as the chase was concerned, was wily in its own right. It learned that it could not escape the dog by climbing a tree. The dog would climb right up after it. But the cat learned that it could lead him up the tree, and then scamper down and the dog would be left holding the bag, unable to get himself down. The dog could climb up, but never quite got the knack for going down. So he would sit in the tree and wail until I would hear him.

Then it was up to the fire department to get him down. The first time I called the fire department and told them my dog was stuck in a tree, the answering fireman thought I was joking and wasn’t amused. When I convinced him I was serious, he and his fellow firefighters made one of the three times I needed them to help my dog. They showed up with a bucket truck and made short work of the rescue. The dog knew the drill, and from the first time, as soon as the bucket neared him, he jumped from the tree into it. He would then ride calmly down and allowed himself to be picked up and deposited on the ground. He would then do his happy dog dance, wagging so hard he did a kind of rumba with his rear end, and his front paws were like they bounced on a trampoline, him yipping a happy noise all the while.

There were bad times, and the dog would sit with me and commiserate. I would talk to the dog and tell him things I’d never speak to another person and he would listen intently, occasionally tilting his head in that doggy questioning way. I learned to trust his instincts about people, because over time I learned that the people he growled at were people who should be growled at. And my dog was discerning.  He wasn’t a bull in a china shop, a bundle of uncontrolled enthusiasm. He picked his moves as he picked those he liked, so very carefully. When a new friend of mine went to my home to fetch a tool we needed while working on a car, my dog allowed him to come in, but then refused to allow him to leave. No matter which exit my friend chose, he would start towards it and the dog would trot over and stand in front of it. Any try to move past him would merit first a growl, then barred teeth, and then a nip. I’m sure if my friend pushed it, he would have gotten to the point of biting. The dog did allow my friend to use the telephone to call over to where I was and ask me to come rescue him from the dog. Like I said, he was very measured in what he did.

For the most part, where I was the dog would go. But he had a life of his own as well, and it never ceased to surprise me when I would find some of what he’d been up to. One day he came home dragging a drawer. The pull type drawer from a dresser or desk. The next day I was passing by a garage sale and noticed a matching piece of furniture, missing a drawer I found familiar. I returned the drawer to its owner, explaining that I didn’t know why the dog had taken it. The following day, there were two drawers on the ground next to my door. I took them back and their owner suggested I simply buy the piece from him. I told him that if I realy wanted it, my dog would get it for me. Then too, the dog never brought any more drawers.

I had the dog for 13 years, and when he died on a Christmas Eve, my heart broke. He’d been much like a close brother, that was always there and always had my back. He was a confidant, a friend, and a protector. He was no purebred, in fact, he was a runt and likely would have died had I not picked him up and brought him home with me. He was there to greet me when I’d been out, or he was with me as I went. He was truly a perfection of evolution, started so many, many years ago in East Asia.