Nature & animals


Lyman Conservatory

Both today and yesterday have been unseasonably warm: well above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, which is all but unheard of in Massachusetts in January. Yesterday I met Leslee and A (not her real initial) at the Smith College botanic garden in Northampton for a belated holiday celebration, and it was warm enough I could sit comfortably on a bench outside the Lyman Plant House before the two of them arrived.

Inside Lyman Conservatory

It was strange–unsettling–to go inside the plant house on a mild day: usually, the whole point of going to a greenhouse in winter is to experience a moment of tropical weather as a respite from the cold outside. These days, however, the world itself is a hothouse: Australia is burning, Indonesia is flooding, and everywhere denial and indifference rage rampant.

Lyman Conservatory

When the world is on fire, you save what you can, starting with your sanity. Every year, Leslee, A, and I meet for conversation and cocktails at, after, or around Christmas, New Year’s, or my birthday: a chance to catch up, exchange gifts, and feed our psychic fires.

Inside Lyman Conservatory

On yesterday’s drive to Northampton, I listened to Paula Cole’s This Fire, a CD that invariably takes me back to the rage and restlessness I felt in the 1990s, when I felt trapped in my first marriage:

Where do I put this fire
This bright red feeling
This tiger lily down my mouth
It wants to grow to twenty feet tall.

These days, I feel rage and restlessness for different, more global reasons. Right now the earth herself is raging through an unsettled spell. At the inaugural Women’s March several years ago, I overheard one woman compare global warming to the Earth experiencing hot flashes, and a half-dozen women of post- and perimenopausal age perked and turned at the comment: you talkin’ to me?

Inside Lyman Conservatory

When the world is on fire, you save what you can. Spending time with friends is one thing that soothes my spirit; spending time with plants is another. Those of us of post- and perimenopausal age have weathered our share of literal and figurative fires, and our hard-fought wisdom is tempered by flame.

Lyman Conservatory

As Leslee, A, and I looked at a chart of the various evolutionary epochs up to the present day, Leslee mentioned Rebecca Solnit’s “Letter to a Young Climate Activist on the First Day of the New Decade,” an essay that describes hope and rage as complementary sides of the same coin:

We need to love the earth as it is now and to see how worthy it is, now, of our greatest efforts. To look for that beauty and to treasure it is perhaps a crucial part of the work we have to do. This is what reminds us that the world is still full of things we love and want to protect and the effort is worth it. Galicia, the fury you feel is the hard outer shell of love: if you’re angry it’s because something you love is threatened and you want to defend it.

Inside Lyman Conservatory

Rebecca Solnit is a woman of a certain age; not accidentally, the various activist groups I’ve joined since the 2016 election largely consist of middle-aged, post- and perimenopausal women who like me are mad as hell at the state of the world these days. Where do we put this fire, this bright red feeling? We pour it back into our friendships, our passions, and our determination, again and again without fail.

Roxy wants a cookie

In late July, a week or so after Toivo died, J and I adopted a white pitbull named Roxy. (My friends, family, and social media followers have seen plenty of pictures of Roxy, but this is the first time I’ve mentioned her on-blog.)

Roxy's bedroom eyes. #SNELovesPets

If I had my way, I’d spend months, years, or more mourning a pet, but J belongs to the “move on quickly” school of pet bereavement, and I’m coming to see the wisdom of his approach. When you lose a pet, you have a dog-shaped hole in your heart, and although you won’t ever find another dog to perfectly fill that void, you can distract yourself by finding another creature in need of a home.

Roxy nests on laundry day. #SNELovesPets

The goal isn’t to replace the dog you lost: that can’t be done. The goal instead is to drive out the Phantom Dog–the almost hallucinatory sense that the Dog That’s Gone is still there–that arises when you’ve lost a pet. For the first week or so after Toivo died, I habitually looked for her on the bed every time I walked into the bedroom, even though I knew she wasn’t there. When making the bed in the morning, I habitually put Toivo’s chew-bone in the center of the bedspread even though she wasn’t there to chew it, and at night I automatically latched the door to her crate even though there was no one inside.

One of the first things I did after Toivo died was to gather and put away the omnipresent reminders of her presence. I put away the pet steps she used to climb into bed when her hind legs weren’t working, the cone she wore during and after her hospitalization, and the long lead I used when we sat outside on the patio or porch. But I purposefully didn’t dispose of Toivo’s biscuits, treats, or rolls of poop bags, knowing I’d need those things again, eventually. Keeping the accoutrements of daily dog-care close at hand was a way of keeping my heart-door open to whatever dog might choose to wander in, and that’s how Roxy arrived.

Both Djaro and Roxy prefer my side of the bed. 🤔

Now that Roxy has lived with us for a few months, it’s abundantly clear she isn’t Toivo. Physically, Roxy looks nothing like Toivo: when it comes to appearances, a white pitbull is almost the exact opposite of a black Belgian Maliniois. Whereas Toivo was slim and sleek, Roxy is solid and muscular: a sturdy girl. Toivo spun like a top when she got excited, and Roxy bounces straight in the air. Toivo liked to sprawl when she slept, and Roxy likes to curl into what J and I call a pitball.

Roxy says she'll miss me terribly while I'm on campus teaching today, but I'm not so sure. 😊

Roxy now sleeps in the crate that used to be Toivo’s, but whereas Toivo loved to sleep atop a thick, fleecy bed we bought to fit her crate, Roxy will destroy anything with stuffing. Given Roxy’s predilection for hiding under blankets, we’ve learned to line her crate with two repurposed bedspreads: one for her to sleep on, and one for her to burrow beneath.

We still sometimes (often) call Roxy “Toivo” by mistake, but she doesn’t seem to mind. Although Roxy never met Toivo, Roxy wouldn’t be with us now if Toivo hadn’t been with us then. In this way, the two of them will always be linked, like sisters from another mother.

Hillary above radiator

Because she is queen, Hillary has claimed the warmest spot in the house for herself. And on a cold and blustery day like today, with temperatures that feel more like January than mid-November, I can’t say I blame her.

Reflected

Several weeks ago, on my way home from a medical appointment in Chestnut Hill, I stopped at Hammond Pond to snap a few pictures of the mute swans there. Hammond Pond sits directly behind a busy shopping complex and directly abuts a parking lot. The mute swans don’t seem to care, however. They just mind their own business, paddling and dabbling in the calm water while busy humans like me zip and hurry past.

Immature Cooper's hawk

On Friday afternoon while I was out running my usual weekly errands, I saw an immature Cooper’s hawk perched on the lattice outside Eastern Bank on Commonwealth Avenue. I was at the gas station next door, so I got out of my car, took several pictures, walked over to the bank and took several more, then returned to my car to pump gas before driving away.

Immature Cooper's hawk

During the five minutes or so I was walking around a bank obviously taking pictures, not only did nobody ask what I was doing, nobody even acknowledged my presence. I had, in other words, reached peak invisibility as a Middle-Aged White Woman. Had I been a black- or brown-skinned man taking pictures outside a bank on a Friday night, how long would it have taken for someone to report my suspicious behavior?

Immature Cooper's hawk

I remember taking pictures once on a side street near MIT’s nuclear engineering labs. The buildings look unremarkable from the outside but presumably contain sensitive research inside. I was crouched on the sidewalk photographing an interestingly-angled shadow when a campus security vehicle pulled up and an officer gruffly asked through a lowered window what exactly I was doing.

Filler 'er up

I straightened up and offered some feeble explanation about noticing an interesting shadow on the sidewalk, but it was immediately clear it didn’t matter what I said. The officer simply chuckled and good-naturedly told me to Carry On, his entire demeanor changing the moment he saw I was the most (presumably) harmless of creatures, a Middle-Aged White Woman.

Peekaboo

I know the suspicion that awaits black- and brown-skinned folks who commit the crime of birding while black. Cameras and binoculars are tools of surveillance: threatening in the “wrong” hands, but innocuous if those hands are older and whiter. In broad daylight on a Friday afternoon in suburban Boston, a sharp-clawed killer was perched in plain sight, but nobody noticed him or the presumably harmless individual who both spied and shot him. “If you see something, say something” is the motto of the age of homeland insecurity, but what happens when your preconceived notions knit a veil of blindness right over your eyes?

Toivo waiting

On Friday night, we put Toivo to sleep. After months of mobility issues and inexplicable infections, her final decline was swift and sure. Early Friday morning, Toivo was panting heavily in her kennel, so J took her outside, and she became uncharacteristically aggressive. By the time we arrived at the Angell Animal Medical Center, Toivo was listless, unable to walk, and had to be rolled into the critical care unit on a stretcher.

Bedroom eyes

While at Angell, Toivo did not improve. Instead, the ER vet said Toivo’s neurological responses were “inappropriate” and indicative of meningitis, encephalitis, or a brain tumor. By evening, it was clear Toivo’s condition was dire. When we arrived for one last visit before putting her down, Toivo was awake but unresponsive, staring with glassy eyes and not reacting when the vet moved a hand quickly toward her face.

Toivo guards the yard

Before she died, Toivo struggled to raise her head as I got settled on the mat beside her, as I had so many times during her week-long hospitalization in April. I’d like to think that in some corner of her brain, Toivo could still recognize the familiar touch of my hand on her head, my scent, and my voice telling her she was a good girl and everything would be okay.

Djaro and Toivo

We had Toivo for a shockingly short period of time–roughly a year and a half–but she had become deeply embedded in our lives, and closely bonded with me in particular. When we first brought her home in February, 2018, she acclimated almost immediately, as if she’d been born and raised with us rather than arriving as an adult dog. From day one, Toivo loved playing with our other dog, Djaro, leading me to suggest the best way to tire a Belgian Malinois is to bring home a second one.

Crazy legs

Initially, I hadn’t wanted a second Malinois. The breed is energetic and intense, and whereas J prefers tough and intelligent dogs–so-called “mean breeds”–I’ve always preferred floofy doofuses. What sold me on Toivo was her spunk. Too small to be a protection dog, Toivo was also too much of a goofball. Whereas the word that best describes Djaro is “intense,” the word that best described Toivo was “happy.” When her whole body wasn’t arthritic and painful, Toivo was a joyful, hyper little dog: a dynamo in a seal-slick coat who spun like a top when excited.

Toivo with toy

Although we’d chosen Toivo to be my walking buddy, what cemented our bond wasn’t the walks we took when she was able-bodied as much as the four months she was a Medical Mystery. Toivo was a fearlessly hardy dog for the first year we had her, eager to walk in any weather, but this past March, she was suddenly creaky and reluctant to move. It was as if she had gone overnight from being a dog of four to a dog of fourteen.

Toivo on the underwater treadmill

After many diagnostic deadends and weeks of physical rehab, we finally learned that Toivo had immune mediated polyarthritis (IMPA), a disorder that caused her immune system to attack her joints. When we started her on steroids and an immunosuppressant, she responded almost immediately. Within days she went from being hunched over and limping to being her old self: active, energetic, and hyperalert, like a lion caged in a dog’s body.

One word we kept hearing throughout Toivo’s veterinary odyssey was “idiopathic,” which refers to a condition with no clear cause. We never learned why Toivo developed a huge abscess on her left hind leg in April, why she developed laryngeal paralysis after her release from the hospital, or why her face swelled up for no apparent reason in May. On Saturday morning, after we’d already put Toivo down Friday night, we learned a chest X-ray had shown three masses in her lungs: the closest we came to a smoking gun. If Toivo had a brain tumor that metastasized to her lungs, no amount of physical rehab or immunosuppressants could have saved her.

Toivo with cavaletti

But even a smoking gun can’t answer the question of why. Why did fate or chance choose this one dog–my dog–to struggle with so many medical challenges? Why did fate or chance choose to cripple then kill her so young? I’ll admit to feeling as much anger as grief these past few months. J and I would have done anything to keep Toivo safe and healthy, so why are there abusive and neglectful people whose dogs are still alive while my dog was taken in her prime?

Toivo stares

There are no answers to these questions; ultimately, mortality itself is idiopathic. If you allow yourself to love a dog, you know how the story will end: they will die first, unless you do. Looking through the photos and videos we took while Toivo was with us, I feel cheated to have lost her so soon, but even luckier to have had her at all. Even the longest-lived dog leaves too soon. I don’t know why we continue to open ourselves to the heartbreak of loving creatures who are destined to die, other than we have no other choice.

Yellow taxi birdhouse

Today something remarkable happened on Toivo’s morning dog-walk: my mind wandered. We’re still limited to short and slow walks in deference to Toivo’s injured leg, so by “walk” I mean a leisurely stroll past two neighboring houses, where the mouth of a woodsy trail gives Toivo a place to pee and poop on pine needles before turning around and walking back home. It’s the shortest outing you can take while still using the word “walk.”

Columbine

This morning after we’d walked two doors down to the mouth of the woodsy trail, as Toivo was nosing and sniffing through the drizzle-dampened undergrowth, my mind wandered. After months of spending every minute of every walk fretting over Toivio’s feet–is she putting weight on her injured leg, is she limping, is she panting or showing other signs of discomfort or distress?–I let my thoughts fall away while listening to the umbrella-patter of raindrops sifted through leaves. For the first time in months, my dog-walking consciousness was as free and unfettered as an unleashed hound wandering wherever she pleased.

Abundance

This is how Toivo and I used to walk, before her impairment. Toivo would sniff and wander on her end of the leash, and I would dally and daydream on mine. This is how Toivo and I used to walk before early March, when she first showed signs of lameness: back when we blithely took for granted the luxury of an able body.

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