Life lessons


Marathon bombing memorial

This morning on my way to meet friends in Harvard Square, I stopped at Copley Square to visit the Boston Marathon finish line. Yesterday was One Boston Day–the anniversary of the 2013 Marathon bombing–and on Monday, I’ll watch this year’s race here in Newton, cheering the runners before they face Heartbreak Hill. Today, I wanted to visit the two spots on Boylston Street where three people died and hundreds were injured: a chance to pay my respects at a place simultaneously festive and somber.

Four crosses

There is no permanent memorial commemorating the Marathon bombing; instead, impromptu offerings of flowers, handwritten notes, and homemade crosses mark the two spots where pressure cooker bombs turned a festive event into a scene of mayhem. If you didn’t know that lives and limbs were lost in front of Marathon Sports and the former Forum Restaurant, you’d notice nothing remarkable about these two stretches of sidewalk. But if you know the hidden history of these sites, you recognize them as invisible portals between the Here and the Hereafter: two otherwise ordinary places where souls prematurely crossed to the other side.

Remember Martin Richard

Today when I arrived on Boylston Street, a 5K race had just finished, and throngs of people were watching an awards ceremony for the winners. Boylston Street was closed to vehicular traffic, and tourists posed for pictures at the finish line: a festive scene. This is the disconnect that will forever mark the Boston Marathon finish line: a site of both triumph and tragedy, the sidewalk here holds a hidden history of heartbreak.

RIP Bowie

Starting a new semester always feels like plunging into a bottomless lake: you’re instantly subsumed into a dizzying blur of motion, and it takes a while to find your equilibrium. I sometimes wonder what it is like for folks who work a regular job where every day is pretty much like the last, without the excitement and upheaval of starting over, again, every three months or so. It there comfort in being settled into a predictable routine, or does that routine quickly become a daily slog?

Shhhhh

After several years of teaching nothing but first-year writing, this semester I’m teaching a 200-level literature class on “The American Short Story.” I taught a similar adult education class in New Hampshire years ago, but what worked with a small group of adults meeting one night a week after work doesn’t necessarily play to a brimming classroom of 18- to 20-something-year-olds. When you teach a class for the first time in a long time, it’s easy to doubt both your knowledge and abilities: is teaching a skill you always remember, like riding a bike, or can you grow so rusty, you forget how to do it over time?

Speakers

Preparation is essential to good teaching: the classes where you walk in and try to “wing it” are invariably the ones where everything goes wrong. But there is such a thing as over-preparation. When I look back on the detailed class-plans I crafted for that long-ago adult ed course, I’m amazed I ever had time to be so organized. In retrospect, I realize my typewritten plans were designed for my own more than my students’ benefit: having pages of notes as a safety net made me feel more confident even if I never actually referred to them in class.

Tongue

Looking back on that long-ago adult education class, I remember how the best sessions took on a life of their own, my students steering the discussion into corners my notes never anticipated. I suppose that’s how teaching goes on the good days: you prepare your script, then you let yourself improvise as the moment unfolds. Plunged into the dizzying blur of the present moment, you kick your legs and flail your arms, relieved to realize you never forgot how to swim.

Bunny enjoys her lap-time

Yesterday morning, we put Bunny the cat to sleep. Earlier this month, after losing an alarming amount of weight, Bunny was diagnosed with kidney failure and spent a few days in the veterinary critical care unit, where our main goal was to get her healthy enough to come home. At home, we plied Bunny with food and an abundance of petting, committed to making her final days as comfortable and love-filled as possible.

Cubby-cat

This is, we’ve learned, how old cats often die. There’s the initial diagnosis, and veterinary care can extend their life long enough you can intentionally shower then with attention, making a conscious decision to (literally) love them to death. But inevitably, the disease wins: the disease always wins. You write the final chapter of a pet’s life knowing how the story ends but nevertheless fighting for every additional page, intent on cramming as much love and mercy as possible into a too-short narrative.

Bunny

Bunny is the fifth cat we’ve lost since last March, the litany of grief counting out like rosary beads: Scooby, Louie, Snowflake, Groucho, Bunny. Grief doesn’t get any easier with repetition, but it does grow more familiar: an unwelcome but well-known guest who keeps returning. Although Scooby died suddenly, we euthanized the others after long, debilitating illnesses that afforded ample opportunity for anticipatory grieving. When you euthanize a pet after a long illness, you experience a dizzying array of contradictory emotions. On the one hand, you’re relieved your pet is no longer suffering; on the other, you’re stunned when an all-consuming struggle ends so suddenly, with no more need for the constant care and concern you’d lavished on this small, suffering creature.

Bunny basks

Ever since Bunny came home from the critical care unit, she and I had settled upon a new routine. In the middle of the night, after I’d taken Melony the beagle out and in, I’d spend a half hour sitting cross-legged on the floor with Bunny nestled in my lap. At first, the goal of these vigils was to coax Bunny into eating: before getting down to the serious business of petting, I’d plop Bunny in front of a bowl of fresh food and watch her eat. Her final few nights, however, Bunny showed no interest in food or even water, so I’d gather her into my lap and clean her mucus-clogged eyes with a paper towel soaked in warm water. With one hand, I’d pet Bunny, who always loved to be cuddled, and with the other, I’d turn the pages of Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, which seemed an appropriate choice of reading material while tending a dying animal.

One eye open

I lost a lot of sleep these past few weeks sitting up with Bunny this way; last night, with no Bunny to fret over, I crawled right back into bed after taking Melony out. But I don’t regret the hours I spent petting Bunny in my lap while I read, wept, and prayed for just a little while longer. For the past few weeks, these midnight vigils spent cross-legged in my kitchen were my spiritual practice, the time I took to contemplate face-to-face the inevitable predicaments of old age, sickness, and death.

Bunny snuggles

Bunny was 17 years old when she died, and she had been remarkably healthy during that time: as so often happens with old pets and old people alike, Bunny was healthy until she wasn’t. And until the very end, Bunny retained her essential sweetness, finding the energy to climb into my lap as soon as I’d settled on the floor, wanting nothing more than to be petted even when so many other physical discomforts threatened to overcome her.

Bunny keeps warm

During these late-night vigils, presumably influenced by Anne Lamott and her stories of spiritual seeking, I came to a heart-felt conclusion. God isn’t, I think, a bearded man on a throne but a being who sits cross-legged in the heavens, weeping and praying over the small, suffering world she holds tenderly in her lap.

Pots and pans

My Sunday nights are largely devoted to the mundane prep-work of the coming work week: in a word, housekeeping. I make sure my teaching bag contains whatever books and folders I’ll need, and I pack a week’s worth of lunches and plan a week’s worth of outfits. When I first started teaching, I underestimated the importance of mundane planning, thinking all I’d need to teach was a deep knowledge of my subject and the passion to share it. What I’ve learned more than 20 years later, however, is that a good teaching day depends on lots of little things, like having pens that work, a water bottle that’s full, and lots and lots of snacks, just in case.

Head to head

There’s a scene in the movie Stranger Than Fiction that chokes me up no matter how many times I see it. Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an IRS agent whose boring existence is turned upside down when he discovers his life is being narrated by best-selling author Karen Eiffel, played to perfection by Emma Thompson. Because Eiffel lets Crick read the manuscript of his (doomed) life, Crick knows exactly how his story ends: he’ll die on his way to work, jumping in front of a bus to save the life of a young boy.

Meshed

The scene that inevitably gets me teary eyed shows Crick enjoying his last night on earth. Instead of sharing his ominous knowledge of what will happen the next day, Crick enjoys an otherwise ordinary night eating dinner and watching TV with his girlfriend, Ana Pascal (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal). Instead of causing Pascal to worry about the inevitable, Crick quietly savors the simple pleasures he learned to appreciate only after he learned his days are numbered.

Trio

This morning I made a euthanasia appointment for Groucho the cat: tomorrow morning, J and I will hold Groucho in our lap while our vet puts him quietly to sleep. Monday’s trip to the vet didn’t reveal anything clearly treatable, and Groucho continues to lose weight at an alarming rate, his bones jutting this way and that out of his thinning fur. Like Harold Crick, J and I know how Groucho’s story ends, and we see no need to delay the inevitable.

Brunette

Tonight is Groucho’s last night on earth, and I’ll follow our usual Tuesday routine, cleaning his and Nina’s litter box and then sitting on the loveseat to give Groucho his daily petting and head-scratches. Groucho has learned to jump onto my lap after I’ve cleaned his litter box, but he won’t know why tonight I’ll be weeping. Instead, he’ll purr under my caresses as he always does, without the burden of knowing what tomorrow brings.

Groucho

Groucho the cat is dying. He was diagnosed with small cell lymphoma in July of 2013, and for more than two years he responded well to chemotherapy. (The picture above is from January, 2013, six months before his diagnosis.) Recently, though, Groucho has been losing weight for no reason, and J and I are bracing ourselves for the worst. We know from past experience with other pets how this story ends.

Groucho closeup

Last week J and I took Groucho for his usual oncology checkup, and tomorrow I’m taking him for a follow-up ultrasound and X-ray. If his cancer is no longer controlled by the chemotherapy we’ve been giving him, there are other, stronger drugs we can try…but if there is something else causing his weight loss–something that hasn’t shown up at his previous ultrasounds and checkups–there isn’t much more we can do.

I’ve written before about the lessons you learn when you live with an old dog, but I’ve never written about the experience of living with a dying pet. When you live with an animal you know is dying, you constantly monitor that animal’s behavior and demeanor in an attempt to judge their quality of life. When faced with the Big Decision of whether and when to euthanize, you have two opposing factors to consider. On the one hand, how great is the animal’s suffering; on the other, what (simple) pleasures does the pet still seem to enjoy?

Groucho in morning light

Last week, we were heartened that Groucho was still eating, still basking on a sunny windowsill, and still looking forward to his morning petting, trotting over and hopping into my lap when I sat down after cleaning his and Nina's litter box. This morning, however, Groucho was noticeably listless and indifferent, getting up and walking around when I came into the room with fresh food, but not hopping into my lap. Instead, he walked around aimlessly for a bit before settling himself to meditate on his paws, marshaling his energy for a long day of napping.

Groucho in the window

Tomorrow’s vet visit will be momentous, as J and I will learn from the ultrasound and X-ray results whether there is anything more we can do to improve the quality of Groucho’s remaining days. J and I know from past experience that there’s no sense prolonging a pet’s life if that lengthened life isn’t a comfortable, dignified one. But before you make the final decision to say goodbye, first you want to be sure you’ve explored all possible options.

This semester in review

Today I asked my first year writing students to look back on their first semester of college as a way of brainstorming their final essay. After they’d listed the new relationships they’d made, the things they’d learned, and the triumphs and challenges they’d experienced, I asked them to draw a comic strip illustrating their first semester in college.

Those comics captured the gamut of the first year college experience, with solitary stick figures arriving on campus and soon making friends. One strip captured a gradual increase in the complexity and rigor of college assignments (“No Wikipedia”), while another focused on the cycle of procrastination, with an optimistic stick figure proclaiming “Today I’m going to get a lot done,” only to be sidetracked by distractions. “Oh well,” the stick figure cheerfully proclaims before bedtime. “There’s always tomorrow.”

To show my students that you don’t have to be an artist to draw a comic, I drew my own version of the semester in review: a series of panels showing the tasks I juggle on a typical day, with never enough time for grading papers. “Oh well,” I proclaim every night before bedtime. “There’s always tomorrow.”

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