Life as Lorianne


Walking me down the aisle

This past Monday night, less than a week after my parents’ 65th anniversary, my Dad died after a long illness. The news that he had passed came as both a relief and a shock.

My Dad was a humble man. In his final months, he let us know he wanted to be cremated without fuss, funeral, or even the attention of an obituary. My Dad was a graduate of St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Columbus, Ohio, and his biggest life accomplishment was supporting a wife and four daughters on a bread-truck driver’s salary.

My Dad was raised in a large Italian-American family, and each of his siblings had at least one son who was a state champion wrestler. It was a point of ribbing among his siblings that my Dad didn’t have any sons to carry on the DiSabato family dynasty. My Dad took some solace when I was a high school junior and placed second in the state on a standardized test for high school English. At the academic awards ceremony where this fact was announced, my beaming Dad ran down the aisle of my high school auditorium to hug me. Finally, his branch of the DiSabato family had produced a (runner-up) state champ.

My Dad was not a good student: he often remarked that the only A’s he saw on his school papers were the ones in his last name. But he was abundantly proud of me, his youngest and most bookish daughter: the only one in my family to go to college. When the then-President of the University of Toledo congratulated my parents on my full-ride scholarship, my Dad (again) beamed. My Dad never met the President of the United States, but he had shaken hands with a University President, and that was almost as good.

My Dad was a man of simple tastes. He loved watching harness racing, “The Price Is Right,” and his beloved Cincinnati Reds. When I called him on his birthday several years ago, he said he couldn’t believe he’d lived to be so old. My paternal grandfather died of heart disease in his fifties, and my Dad had always assumed he would, too. The fact that my Dad survived open heart surgery; cancer of the colon, bladder, and prostate; and both diabetes and hypertension was a testament not only to the powers of modern medicine but also to my Dad’s stubborn and indomitable spirit.

My Dad’s final months were agonizing as his various medical ailments all caught up with him. When I visited this summer, my Dad was pale, emaciated, and bedridden, no longer interested in even watching TV. When I left to fly back to Boston, we both knew it was our final goodbye. For the past two months, my mother, sisters, and I fervently prayed for God to take Dad, please. When I heard on Tuesday morning that my Dad had passed, the news came as a sweet relief. Sometimes when a wrestling match is long and arduous, it is a mercy to tap out.

Too late

Last month, right after J and I put Toivo to sleep, I flew to Columbus, Ohio to visit my family, as I do every summer. This year’s visit was bittersweet, however, since my Dad is slowly dying there.

Blue and reaching

During my visit, my Dad was in the hospital, again. My Dad has battled many medical ailments over the years–I am being purposefully vague, as my family never asked to have a writer in it–and this year alone, my Dad has been rushed to the hospital a half dozen times. During this most recent hospitalization, we had no illusions: all of us (my Dad included) know there is no getting better this time. During my visit, my family and I discussed Dad’s end-of-life wishes, and he made it clear to both us and his doctors that he is ready to die.

Butterfly room

When I visited my Dad in the hospital the morning before I flew back to New England, I knew I was probably saying my final goodbyes, and as far as final visits go, mine was a good one, with nothing I wanted to say left unsaid. Since I returned from Ohio, my Dad has moved from the hospital into a nursing home for hospice care, and now we wait for his body to shut down.

Cascade

Now that I’m hundreds of miles away from my Dad, I’m finding that this waiting for him to pass is worse than actually saying goodbye to him in person. It’s not the dying that’s difficult, but the waiting to die.

While I was in Ohio, I emailed J to update him on my Dad’s prognosis. Since we had just put Toivo down, it was impossible not to compare her end-of-life, with both of us there to comfort her, with my Dad’s impending passing. I told J that if my Dad were a dog, we could choose when to say goodbye rather than waiting for nature to take its course, and J replied that when a pet is dying, you have the power to control the narrative because you are able to decide when and how the story ends.

Goldfish

I have never (yet) lost a parent, but I’ve lost many dogs and cats over the years, and in every case, my grief has been mixed with relief. When you decide to euthanize a pet, you know you are choosing the most merciful option. You might wish for more time, but your gut knows that more time is not the same as good time. When you euthanize a pet, you are relieved to be done with the futile fight to keep a creature alive who is ready to be Gone. After every pet’s death, I have wanted to embrace the vet who administered the fateful injection. After suffering in the limbo of anticipatory grief, it is a relief to begin the honest work of actually grieving.

Blue and branching

If human euthanasia were legal, my family and I could have arranged a storybook passing while I was in Ohio, with all of us gathered at my Dad’s bedside during his final moments. Instead, I am 700 miles away, waiting for a phone call saying my Dad is gone. It’s not the way I’d want to go; it’s not the way I’d want anyone to go. I have chosen time and again to be present when one of our pets is put to sleep because I don’t think any creature should have to die alone…and this is a courtesy I can’t extend to my own father. My father’s impending death is a narrative I am powerless to control.

Today’s photos come from the Franklin Park Conservatory, where my sisters and I went walking one day while I was in Columbus.

Bug

Now that summer is here, Toivo and I have a new routine. After I’ve finished my morning chores, we take a short walk, then we sit on the patio while I read and write my daily journal pages. We started this ritual earlier in the summer, when Toivo couldn’t walk fast or far. J suggested that being outside surrounded by new sounds and smells would be good for Toivo’s spirits while she recovers, and he was right.

Dragonfly and day lily

We call these days when Toivo and I sit on the patio our “beach days.” I pack a bag with a book and notebook for me and water and snacks for us both, and we sit in the shade until the day gets hot. We sit outside for the sensory stimulation a summer day brings: Toivo hearkens to every smell, and I follow every flash of motion. We both are all ears, but we are attuned to different things. My ears perk to the smallest bird sound, like the chirp of a house sparrow in the neighbor’s hedge, while Toivo sits alert and expectant, waiting for the smallest sound from any of our neighbors’ dogs.

All eyes

At first, Toivo was restless and whiny on beach days, tangling her lead while pacing the patio, unsure why we were sitting outside doing nothing rather than walking. But now, she’s come to see our time outside as another everyday routine, my accustomed spot at our patio table no different from my place at my indoor desk. In summer, the size of our house expands, the yard and patio being an extra room without walls whose roof is the summer sky. If it weren’t for the dog, I’d forget to venture out, having grown too accustomed to long winter hours at my desk, still tethered long after my lead has rotted away.

Bleeding hearts

This past weekend, after finally getting a diagnosis and treatment plan for the mobility issues Toivo has had since March, I drove to western Massachusetts to visit A (not her real initial). It was a welcome break from my usual routine, and a chance to debrief after a particularly stressful semester.

Raindropped

A and I spent the weekend taking scenic drives, looking at art, and staying up late drinking wine, playing dominoes, and having the kind of conversations that happen best in person, not via text or email. On Sunday, A and I drove to North Adams, where we went to Mass MoCA, took a labyrinth walk, then visited Rabbi Rachel for yet more wine and conversation.

This past semester was particularly stressful in part because I had to keep my head down during most of it: as I scrambled to keep my plates spinning, I didn’t have much time to write, visit friends, go to the Zen Center, or engage in other acts of Mental Health Maintenance. Visiting A for the weekend and Rabbi Rachel for the afternoon was wonderfully restorative: like returning to sing a favorite song exactly where you’d left off.

Beginning and end

The past month or so has been crazy. Days after we put Bobbi to sleep, J left for a two-week business trip, leaving me to tend the house and pets during the busiest time of the semester…and while J was gone, Toivo spent an unplanned week at the Angell Animal Medical Center being treated for a massive abscess in one of her hind legs. Toivo’s been home for a week, J’s been home a little more than that, and today I submitted the first of two batches of final grades: not yet the end of my semester, but another step closer.

Hairpin turns

This past month or so has felt like a marathon with an ever-shifting finish line. Weeks ago while J was out of town, one of our neighbors invited me to an Easter gathering at her house, and I begged out, choosing to focus on my chores and paper piles instead. I finished those chores and those papers, but others appeared in their place: this is, after all, the nature of both housework and paper-grading. Every time I see our neighbor, she asks whether I’m done grading, and every time, I say the same thing: not yet, not yet. It’s not that I’m not making progress; it’s that there always is more.

For good or ill, this is what it’s like to teach college composition at multiple institutions: as soon as you finish reading one batch of papers, there’s another coming in. I’ve come to see my workload as being like the tide: first one wave, then the next, then the next.

Turns

Today when I submitted final grades for my classes at Babson College, I took a minute to breathe a sigh of relief…and then I wrote an updated to-do list with the final papers and projects my Framingham State students are submitting today and Thursday. My final Framingham State grades are due next Monday, and that is when I can gratefully collapse into an exhausted heap of relief. Until then, I keep my head down and count every item crossed off my list as another step closer to done.

I took these photos of the memorial labyrinth at Boston College weeks ago, after J had left for his business trip and before Toivo’s unplanned stint at Angell. It was a pretty day when I felt like I had my life and to-do list under control, and then things took a proverbial turn.

Rainy Foosball table

One sad side-effect of living an academic life is this: the two times of year when I want to be outside the most, I am burdened with obligations that keep me at my desk. Fall semester gets busy right as the leaves are changing and the air turns brisk, and Spring semester heats up right as the days lengthen and the weather turns mild.

Rainy Foosball players

The past few weeks have been a blur of vet visits and other obligations. Toivo continues to have mobility issues; after several weeks of rest and anti-inflammatory medication, she still has creaky hips that interfere with walking and standing, so we’re going back to the vet this week after initial x-rays were inconclusive.

And after gradually losing weight for the past month or so, Bobbi the cat had a hypoglycemic episode several weeks ago that resulted in two separate days-long stints in the veterinary ER. We brought Bobbi home (again) on Friday night with a bag of medications and special food that J purees then administers through an esophagostomy tube: a crash course on how to keep a diabetic cat alive even when she refuses to eat.

Now that it’s (sometimes) warm enough for sandals and shorts, all I want to do is be outside, walking. But Toivo’s creaky hips have shortened our daily dog-walks to several slow strolls to the end of the driveway and back, and my grading piles and pet chores don’t leave me time to go much farther on my own. As the saying goes, when it rains, it pours.

Witch hazel

Today has been a day of small victories. The sun was out for most of the day, so the snow piles are slowly shrinking. I heard a Carolina wren singing in the morning, saw the red-bellied woodpecker in his accustomed spot on a dead snag down the street, and photographed the witch hazel that’s been blooming for weeks in a neighbor’s yard.

Listing snowman.

This afternoon I spent too much time unpacking boxes and putting things away–this is the week when our monthly bulk orders of pet food, cleaning supplies, and other household necessities arrive–but I got the trash and recycling out to the curb for tomorrow’s collection, I’ve prepared my classes for tomorrow, and the pets are fed and the refrigerator is stocked. I graded fewer papers than I’d hoped today, but I made some progress with my paper-piles, and that itself is progress.

Is that a nest hole you're excavating, Mr. Woodpecker?

In March, teaching becomes a game of Drop the Ball: you’ve long given up your naive hopes of juggling everything, so you constantly assess which obligations can drop without shattering and which might actually bounce. This morning while walking the dog, I slipped and fell on an icy sidewalk mere yards from where I’d slipped and fell on hard-packed snow a few weeks ago. My ego was injured both times, but today I didn’t bruise: success!

Headless snowman

In March, you downgrade your definition of bliss: instead of holding out hopes for heaven, you content yourself with those scattered, spare moments when simply strolling down a clean, sunny sidewalk with solid footing and dry feet passes as perfection. I’m slowly reading a book by Anne Lamott called Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, which I’d gleaned from our neighborhood Little Free Library. I read a chapter here and there when I have time, which means the book mostly sits on my desk, waiting. Some days simply getting to the end of the day with one’s hair still rooted in place feels like a minor miracle.

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