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.

Reading companion

Today Toivo is having an ouchy day. There probably is a more clinical term for days when Toivo is slow and stiff-moving–often, these are the days after we’ve taken a longer-than-usual walk, so perhaps I should call them recovery days–but the word I hear in my head is “ouchy.” There are days when Toivo is chipper and energetic and fairly mobile–popping up and eager to walk–and then there are ouchy days.

Toivo on the underwater treadmill

One of the benefits of the month-long physical rehabilitation package we signed up for is a weekly appointment with a vet who knows far more about the rehab process than we do. Today Toivo and I will meet with Dr. P, and I’ll pepper her with questions. I’ll ask about pain management: should we be giving Toivo pain meds regularly, only when she’s ouchy, or not at all? How much exercise is too much: am I overdoing it by trying to take daily walks? And should we be giving Toivio supplements for the achiness she seems to feel in her other joints, not just the injured leg we’re rehabbing?

Lots of questions arise on ouchy days, and plenty of doubts. Am I doing enough to encourage Toivo’s recovery: should I be doing her passive range of motion exercises more often or differently, or should I be supplementing, medicating, and/or meditating more, more often, or more diligently? Or, on the flipside, am I doing too much, moving and massaging Toivo’s leg when she should be resting it, or walking her too much, too fast, or too far? Would Toivo be better off, in other words, if I just left her alone to sleep and heal and be as active or inactive as she wants without all this fussing?

Toivo relaxes before rehab

All of these questions, of course, are different permutations of a central set of coupled questions: am I to blame, and is there something (anything!) I can control? Nobody wants to be the one to blame, but everyone wants to feel they can control their own and their loved ones’ wellbeing. If Dr. P. were to tell me that standing on my head and singing the Alphabet Song backwards would help Toivo recover more quickly, I’d drop right then to the floor and start singing, regardless of how silly it might seem. Ever since Toivo first started having mobility issues in March, I’ve been struggling with an unspoken existential question: if I somehow do things differently, can I unlock a magical formula where she will get instantly and entirely better and, better yet, live forever?

Before Toivo's physical rehab appointment

This, after all, is what I want for Toivo, myself, and all my loves: for us all to be forever young, forever able-bodied, and forever happy. And this, I know, is a guarantee I can never deliver, no matter how many rehab session I schedule. This stark realization–the undeniable fact that we are mortal souls in fragile bodies–is more painful than any physical injury: an ouchy no known opioid can cure.

As I write this, Toivo nestles her head on my lapdesk. On ouchy days in particular, I quit my desk and work as much as possible on the bed where Toivo is resting, encouraging her to snuggle up against me. Throughout the rehab appointments, the painfully slow walks, and all the enthusiastic exhortations to “Use your leg,” I cling desperately to the belief–the hope–that love, companionship, and lots of petting can work miracles–or at least provide some comfort in the meantime.

Lap dog

I submitted the last of my Spring semester grades on Monday, and I’ve spent most of my time since then doting on the dog. On Tuesday, Toivo had her stitches removed from the surgery she had earlier this month to drain a massive abscess in one of her hind legs, and tomorrow we have a physical therapy appointment to figure out how to encourage her to use her injured leg again.

Toivo in the sun

I’ve never been to a doggy rehab appointment before, so today I filled out the necessary paperwork, read the rehab center’s frequently asked questions, and started doing some passive range of motion exercises I found on YouTube. When Toivo first came home from her hospitalization, I was afraid to touch her leg, not wanting to disturb any of her stitches, but at Tuesday’s appointment, our vet said her incisions are fully healed, so massage and manual manipulation of the leg would be okay.

Toivo with her new harness

The entire process of Toivo’s injury, treatment, and recovery has been a learning experience. J and I have nursed other dogs back to health after surgery, but Toivo is the first pet we’ve had who was hospitalized for a full week. Whereas our other dogs spontaneously started using their injured legs after surgery, it’s been a full three weeks since Toivo put weight on her leg: one week in the hospital, and now two weeks recovering at home. It’s not surprising that her muscles have atrophied during that time, so now we have to build those muscles back up.

Toivo!

When we first got Toivo, I bought a pair of grooming gloves I use to brush her fur, a process J immediately dubbed “mama-ssage.” Today, I brushed Toivo in advance of tomorrow’s rehab appointment, and as I massaged, flexed, and extended her injured leg, I hoped the power of TLC and some “mama-medicine” will move Toivo further down the road to recovery.

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.

Bobbi lounges

This morning we put Bobbi the cat to sleep. For the past four years, we’d successfully managed her diabetes, but recently she had inexplicably lost weight, and after two stays in the critical care unit for hypoglycemia, pancreatitis, and liver lipidosis, this morning Bobbi was unable to walk, stand, or control her bodily functions: a sure sign her fight was done.

Bobbi is home

When you have euthanized as many pets as J and I have, there is nothing surprising about the process itself. There’s the same quiet drive to Angell, the sad transaction as you pay for the procedure, and the solemn walk to a euphemistically named meditation room, where you can cry and say goodbye in private.

In the meditation room, you reenact the familiar ritual of getting the pet comfortably settled until the on-duty emergency vet comes in, offers her condolences, and then carries the animal off to receive an IV catheter. When today’s vet brought Bobbi back to us, she was swaddled in a blanket, only her head and the end of an IV tube visible. I held Bobbi in my lap as the medication was administered and she went from being a small, compliant bundle to Gone. With the plunge of two syringes, a beloved but suffering creature went to whatever rest awaits her.

Back at Angell

After all this time, I still don’t believe in the Rainbow Bridge or other euphemisms of immortality; to me, it is enough to be free from suffering, a slate wiped completely clean. I don’t believe in the resurrection of the body; why would Bobbi (or any of us) want to return to a vessel that was failed and failing? When Bobbi died, she still had sprouting from her neck the esophagostomy tube J had faithfully used to keep her alive over the weekend: pureed food, water, and so many medicines pumped into her four times a day. Why would any creature want to return to that?

It's exhausting to be this cute

I have no wish for a feline afterlife or for some magically mythic realm where old souls return to young bodies. What sense would there be with so many creatures congregating in confusion, the lives that were lost mingling with ones that replaced them? It is the necessary and unapologetic way of this world that life goes on. Once the arrow has been released, it never returns to its quiver.

Bobbi chills out

Whatever comfort I find in the aftermath of another pet death lies not in an imagined future but in this stone-sure truth: for a brief and precious time, Bobbi knew moments of pleasure and peace: the bliss of a head-scratch, the delights of a sunny windowsill. Forever and ever, amen, such simple pleasures will be–must be–amply and abundantly enough.

The Celtics' laziest fan

When we put Reggie the dog to sleep seven years ago last week, the window of Angell’s meditation room revealed a square of blue sky on an impossibly beautiful spring day; the next day, I remember, our backyard tulips bloomed. We haven’t had tulips in our yard for years–the neighborhood rabbits find them too tasty–but this morning, I saw a cluster of daffodils ready to bloom by our birdbath. How fitting that flowers–nature’s most ephemeral expression–are the universal language of condolence. As go these blooms, so go the rest of us, eventually.

No tail, no problem

It was an impossibly beautiful day when Reggie died, and today–Bobbi’s last day–the sun also shines. On the drive home from Angell, everything I saw seemed transfigured by the miracle of April light: so many people headed off to work, their heads cram-packed with worry as if any of this matters. Looking up at the morning light basking upon a brick facade, I had to wonder why the Universe, which is merely temporary, would waste so much precious time on useless beauty. Knowing the ultimate end of all our days, why bother?

Does my cat have a drinking problem?

Bobbi was the first pet we adopted with a known diagnosis of diabetes. Before her, Snowflake the cat had become diabetic in old age, and realizing we could care for one diabetic cat, we adopted Bobbi in June, 2015, when her medical condition made hope of a forever home seem unlikely. Snowflake was a large, lovable lug; when it was time for his insulin injections, I’d spread a towel on my lap, and he’d climb on it, luxuriating in the petting that came after the prick. But Bobbi was different. A grumpy, feisty calico, Bobbi had no tolerance for cuddling: the best approach at insulin time was to distract her with food, then grab the scruff of her neck and jab her quickly. In her younger days, Bobbi kept the veterinary staff at Angell on guard…but more recently, her temper somewhat softened and she would occasionally crawl into my lap and press her head into my hand.

Small victory

Today, as I mentioned, is an impossibly beautiful day: impossible because beauty seems unlikely in a world intent on impermanence, and impossible because beauty insists on existing alongside heartbreak. Sitting at an intersection on the drive home, I saw a tattered plastic bag snagged on a stoplight, flowing and flapping in the spring breeze. The sight seemed too profound for words: a bit of rubbish caught and temporarily transformed into something unspeakably lovely. If you live gently and kindly enough in this ephemeral world, you eventually see our brief time here as enough, our souls snagged and tattered until they eventually float away.

Marathon Monday

J and I awoke this morning to thunderstorms and pouring rain, and as I write these words, the wind is rattling our windows. But this morning when we headed out to watch the Boston Marathon at our accustomed spot on Commonwealth Avenue between miles 18 and 19, the raindrops stopped. It was largely overcast with only occasional moments of sunshine, but it was nothing like the frigid washout we’d (briefly) weathered last year.

Wheelchair runners

Although J and I couldn’t stay and spectate as long as we have in past years, we observed our annual ritual of cheering for the last of the wheelchair runners, the elite women and men, and then the start of the stream of Everyone Else.

Women's winner Worknesh Degefa of Ethiopia

When we saw her, front-runner (and eventual winner) Worknesh Degefa of Ethiopia was nearly five minutes ahead of the rest of the elite women.

Elite women runners up

When the elite men passed, eventual winner Lawrence Cherono of Kenya was in (but not leading) a tight pack of fleet-footed fellows.

Men's winner Lawrence Cherono of Kenya

Elite marathon runners move so fast, it’s easy to imagine them outrunning even raindrops.

Gone past in a flash

J and I move a lot less quickly, but we were grateful to have found a spell between storms to observe Boston’s annual ritual of spring.

Fleet of foot

Click here for my full photo-set from today’s Boston Marathon. Enjoy!

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.