The people of Massachusetts will always remember

Thursday mornings are hectic, as I cross off a laundry-list of chores before heading to Framingham State to teach an 8:30 am class. This morning as I neared Natick on my way to campus, I saw a flag at half-mast and the date dawned. Today, thirteen years ago. The tears came as unbidden and right as rain: tears for the grief, confusion, and fear everyone felt that crisp and beautiful autumn day thirteen years ago, and tears for all the lives that have been lost since then. How many flags at half-mast have flown these past thirteen years?

Dearly departed

The spring we put Reggie to sleep, I acquired the habit of weeping during my long drives to and from Keene: 90 uninterrupted minutes each way during which I had nothing to do but steer the car and marshal my own thoughts. My car provided a cocoon of privacy; nobody needed to see or know why I had tears streaming down my face, whether for a person or a pet or for the whole sad and suffering world.

Flowers

This morning I once again wept in my car: not for any individual person, but for the whole suffering world. I didn’t personally know anyone who was killed on September 11, but that day was a collective wound. Watching the news, hearing the stories, and seeing the flyers posted with pictures of the missing: these were enough to unite us in a shared upwelling of sympathy. When innocent lives are lost, you realize how tenuous and random your own survival is. The people who died on 9/11 and the people who have died in subsequent military operations could easily have been you, me, or any of our loved ones. How can any of us feel safe in a world where some of us are targeted?

Wreathed

Thirteen years is a lifetime, long enough for a child to ripen into puberty. Now that the first generation of post-9/11 children is entering young adulthood, what has happened to our grief and remembrance? They say that time heals all wounds, but memory (as Salvador Dali suggested) is persistent. Thirteen years was a lifetime ago–I was an entirely different person then, leading a life that now seems alien and unknowable. But the simple sight of a flag at half-mast is all it takes to melt the intervening years, the passage of time revealed as illusion. Grief knows no timetable, and sorrow has no season.

One wilted rose

We live in an amnesiac culture that ignores the past while chasing the future. In the pursuit of positivity, we are denied the chance to grieve, instead being told to “get over it.” September 11 is one of the few days a year when we are allowed to drop the pretense of optimism and cheer in order to be somber and still. I wish it were more acceptable to grieve whenever the occasion calls for it. To be awake these days is to have one’s heart broken on a daily basis. Planes fall out of the sky, black boys are shot in the street, and journalists are slaughtered overseas. How can we get over the grief of 9/11 when that day was merely the first in a thirteen-year-long litany of loss? At every turn, there is suffering, death, and mayhem; humanity, it turns out, is infinitely inventive when it comes to hurting one another. But with each instance of hurting also comes an instantaneous outpouring of help.

Memorial

September 11, 2001 was an impossibly beautiful fall day here in New England, an irony that has always struck me as cruel. But perhaps this juxtaposition of tragedy and beauty is merely reflective of the world we live in. In the face of heartbreak, there are hands to help. In the aftermath of suffering comes the strength and resilience to carry on.

I’ve previously blogged these photos of the Garden of Remembrance in Boston’s Public Garden, which I’d shot in May, 2011. In the years since then, this stone memorial is already starting to wear away.

Pussy willow flowers

Earlier today, I took a lunchtime walk at Edgell Grove Cemetery in Framingham. I technically didn’t have time to go walking between my classes at Framingham State, as it’s the time of the semester when my paper-piles loom. But if there’s any lesson I took from yesterday’s Boston Marathon bombing, it’s that life is short, so you have to walk while the walking is good.

Poison ivy on tree trunk

There’s something oddly comforting about taking a lunch hour walk at a woodsy cemetery, especially when you’ve been watching too much news coverage and have a heavy heart. When you walk at a cemetery, you’re alone with your thoughts, moving at the speed of your own footsteps, with nothing to do, really, other than gaze at the tombstones of strangers. Photography is prohibited a Edgell Grove, so I kept my camera in my purse. Freed from the desire to visually document my visit, all I was left with was the silence of my own solitary company.

Yesterday was Patriots’ Day, so the veterans’ graves at Edgell Grove were decorated with flags: so many flags. On one hillside, nearly every headstone bore a flag, as if the families in that quiet corner had promised to dedicate at least one child to military service, as Catholic families used to vow to dedicate one child to the church.

Protruding

Although many of the stones at Edgell Grove Cemetery are old and worn, their flags commemorating wars I’ve only read about in history books, there were two more recent graves that caught my eye, both marking the graves of people who died young. The first was a stone with a photo inset that showed a cherubic toddler smiling for his portrait: the grave of a two-year-old. The second was a flag-decorated stone in the shape of two hands holding a heart: the grave of a 22-year-old Marine.

I don’t understand a world where young children and twenty-somethings are taken before their time, and I don’t understand a world where cruel-hearted people detonate pressure-cookers filled with ball bearings. But I understand the quiet calm that comes when you commemorate the dead who went before you, whether those dearly departed were your loved ones or the loved ones of strangers. I don’t understand the ways of sometimes cold, cruel world, but I understand the feel of the bare earth underfoot on a mild spring day, and I hope that a quiet walk in a sunny cemetery counts as a kind of commemoration, each footstep a word of unspoken prayer.

Arch - April 8 / Day 98

One year ago today, we put Reggie to sleep. I’ve been anticipating this one-year anniversary, wondering whether it would feel like a momentous occasion or just another day, and now that the day is here, it somehow feels a bit like both. In many ways, it feels like an entire lifetime ago—far more than one year—since I spent so much time carrying a thin, increasingly decrepit old dog up and down the stairs, helping him get settled comfortably when he wanted to lie down, helping him turn over when he grew stiff or sore, helping him to his feet when he wanted to eat or drink, and plying him with treats and tasty bits at all times, trying to coax nourishment into a creature who was gradually fading away to fur and bone.

Under the bridge

The first few months of last year, my entire life revolved around Reggie and the routine rituals of his care: the feeding and cleaning and medicating and relieving. On days when I taught in Keene, J was in charge of Reggie-care, and the first thing I’d do when I got home was climb the stairs to the second floor to check on Reggie: was he resting comfortably or restless? Long gone were the days when Reggie would meet me at the door of my apartment in Keene when I came home from teaching, his entire body wagging with gladness to see me. In his final months, Reggie could no longer stand up on his own, much less jump and prance around. In his final months, Reggie couldn’t even wag his tail, that once-emphatic exclamation-point having grown limp and lifeless from a debilitating combination of spinal arthritis and degenerative myelopathy. Given how much emotion a dog expresses through his tail, this particular indignity of Reggie’s old age seemed particularly cruel.

(New) stairs to Echo Bridge

One of my most vivid memories of Reggie’s final months was an otherwise unremarkable morning when I’d gotten him comfortably settled after our morning walk. I was stroking his fur, rubbing his belly, and feeding him bits from my breakfast granola—our usual morning ritual—when suddenly Reggie rested his head in my lap and wagged his tail, thumping it firmly on the floor as he had when he was younger. Both arthritis and degenerative myelopathy are incremental in their onset: you don’t notice gradual impairments until your pet can no longer do things he always used to do. At that moment when Reggie thumped his tail, I burst into tears, realizing how long it had been since he’d been able to do something so simple. When your pet can no longer energetically express his gratitude, you focus on more subtle cues: a kind of quiet communion. When Reggie’s body permitted him to wag his tail on that otherwise unremarkable morning, I accepted it as a kind of gentle reassurance: inside, he was the same dog with the same gentle spirit, and it was only his body that was faltering.

Echo Bridge

The biggest shock of putting an elderly dog to sleep isn’t the simple reality of his absence, as you can (and do) brace yourself for that. The biggest shock of putting an elderly dog to sleep is the massive gap that’s left in your schedule, your life no longer centered on the mundane, almost liturgical routine of caretaking. In retrospect, it’s been helpful to have other pets to tend: had Reggie been our only pet, J and I wouldn’t have known what to do with ourselves in the immediate aftermath of his passing, when we suddenly didn’t have an old dog to tend to constantly. These days, the energy we’d devoted to Reggie’s care is divided among our other pets, with our twelve-year-old yellow Lab, MAD, showing the first signs of arthritis, too. As the Buddha knew, old age, sickness, and death are an endless cycle: the wheel of life and death never stops turning. One year after Reggie died, we’re re-using with MAD the oral syringes we’d used to give Reggie his arthritis medication: same malady, same medication, different dog and dosage. For now, MAD can still wag his tail, jump to his feet, and otherwise prance around, but his days jumping on beds and racing up the stairs are over: different dog, similar story. As J remarked when the movie “Marley and Me” premiered: “I don’t need to see that movie, because I know how it ends.”

Today’s photos come from Hemlock Gorge, which I’d first explored in 2008, when Reggie was showing the first signs of old age.

Resting

One morning last month while I was standing at the kitchen sink doing dishes, I saw a female ruby-throated hummingbird hovering around our backyard bird-feeder, confused, wondering why a red feeder should hold birdseed rather than sugar water. Hummingbirds are lightning-fast and iridescent, so it always feels like an unexpected gift to see one: a sudden spark of motion and color that zips into view, pauses, then darts away, an elusive apparition that already seems like a memory even before it’s gone.

Ruddy duck

It still seems strange to watch our backyard bird-bath and feeder while doing the morning dishes rather than spending that time watching for Reggie. It’s been over five months since Reggie died, and my morning ritual of watching Reggie in our backyard dog-pen while I did dishes before our morning walk—my glances to make sure he wasn’t pacing and whining at the gate, or to check that he hadn’t fallen into a tangled heap somewhere, unable to get up—was such a staple of Reggie’s last year, it seems strange to no longer do it.

Resting buffalo

I think of Reggie most often in the mornings when I do dishes, as there are many reminders of him then: not just the dog-pen in easy sight from the kitchen window, but also the digital photo frames that show a random history of J’s and my life together, including many photos of Reggie in various stages of his prime, middle age, and decline: images appearing occasionally and at random, as if reminding me of experiences I can never forget.

Colobus monkey

There are also all the memories I have of standing at the sink in Reggie’s final months and weeping as I watched for him—mornings when I knew his end was near and that someday I’d look back on those hours as precious, simply because back then, Reggie was alive. “Anticipatory grief” is the official term for this process of beginning to grieve before you’ve actually lost something, as if grief were a task you could get a head start on: a full, heaping serving you could eat bite by bite, over time, rather than swallowing in one choking gulp. Regardless of when you start grieving, whether your experience of loss is gradual and anticipated or sudden and surprising, you can’t digest it beforehand: when the actual moment of “goodbye” arrives, there’s little your anticipation can do to prepare you for what is to come.

Red wolves

These predictably bittersweet morning moments at the kitchen sink aren’t the only ones when I remember Reggie, however, as his memory comes to me, unbidden, at random, unforeseen times. Sometimes it’s the sight of a dog who looks a bit like Reggie—one of the dogs who barks behind a chain link fence beside my parents’ house in Columbus, Ohio, for instance, or a Reggie-colored dog walking with its owner on a wooded path. In each case, there is something about This Dog that reminds me of That One, and the spark of recognition is undeniable, my heart hearkening with a start: “Oh!” It’s often a recognition only I see: the other dog doesn’t really look like Reggie, but an awareness of resemblance appears because such a large part of my heart still looks for Reggie, expecting him naturally to be in any of the places where I am.

Walking moose

A month or so ago, for example, a friend and I walked around the lake at Wellesley College on a beautiful Sunday afternoon when countless families and dog-walkers were enjoying the sunshine, including one woman who sat reading in a beach chair beside an elderly keeshond who reminded me so much of Reggie, I could barely speak. This dog was sprawled comfortably on the grass while the woman read, resting and showing no desire to go wading into a lake where every other passing dog had hurled himself with great, splashing enthusiasm. This dog was midsized, gray, and irrepressibly fluffy, lolling with such an expression of quiet happiness, you’d think there was no greater joy in the world than simply lying in the grass next to a lake on a sunny, late-summer Sunday afternoon.

Swan

As the woman packed her things to leave, the dog still lay there quietly, happily indifferent, refusing to heed her calls to come, get up, and follow, ultimately tugging back on the leash when the woman tugged to stir him. It was exactly something Reggie would have done—a mischievous stripe of stubbornness tempered by the mellowness of age. There was no anger or aggression between the woman and dog, just a quiet refusal on the dog’s part, as he refused to be tamed even in old age. When the dog eventually stood up, his motions were slow and obviously achy, a second stab of recognition. Creaky and arthritic, the fluffy gray dog got up and slowly hobbled away, shadowing the woman’s steps in a manner that was so eerily reminiscent of Reggie’s arthritic gait, it might as well have been him, reincarnate.

Mottled

“Enjoy him while you have him,” I wanted to shout, but I didn’t because the woman didn’t need my exhortations: she already knew. I could tell this in the way she’d knelt to the ground to kiss the dog on his snout, ruffling his furry mane, before urging him to his feet. This too was something I did, something that owners of old dogs do universally, the world over, I think. It’s a universal language that needs no translation.

Social grooming

You’ve surely seen the famous photo that made the rounds this summer of a man with a ponytail wading up to his neck in Lake Superior, his elderly shepherd mix floating beside him, the dog’s face resting with a blissful expression on the man’s chest. That dog, too, reminded me of Reggie in terms of his size and general shape; the blissful expression is one I recognized, as one of an old, arthritic dog finding a moment of peace.

Lounging kangaroo

When I first read about the man and his 18-year-old, arthritic dog, it brought grief over Reggie’s passing back as if no time had passed at all. Grief is a fruit that remains perpetually fresh, preserved in some hidden cellar of the soul. Seeing the photo, I wept as if Reggie had died only yesterday—wept because I remember how desperately I looked for ways to make him comfortable in his final months, and wept because I recognized that expression of trusting comfort that marked those elusive moments when I had succeeded. That blissful look, I think, is what Reggie had on his face when he died with his head in my lap, at peace at last: a look I would have done anything in my power to elicit.

Walking

There is another form of recognition that is even stranger—even more tenuous, and even more powerful—than these encounters with dogs who remind me of Reggie. For at random, unpredictable times, I’ll see things that are entirely unlike Reggie that nevertheless remind me of him—a bright eyed, inquisitive toddler exploring the world just beyond his mother’s reach, or an elderly man doddering on slow, achy legs down a grocery store aisle, or a friend’s hushed story of how his mother died while he sat watch over her, alone. These people are not like Reggie—it’s silly and even obscene to compare them—but there is this same sudden spark of recognition: “Oh, yes. This life too is precious, beloved, and destined to pass.”

Black swan

These lives, too, are like sudden hummingbirds which zoom into the receptive spaces of our soul, brightening everything with the quickening glint of their unanticipated coming, pausing, then flitting away: beautiful, enlivening, and ultimately ephemeral.

Click here for more photos from the Columbus Zoo, from last month’s trip to visit family in Ohio. Enjoy!

Layered

It’s been just over a week since we put Reggie to sleep, and I’ve noticed that the tears now come unbidden and unexpectedly, inevitably when I least expect them.

Mysterious

I can do the dishes most mornings now without looking out on the dog pen and weeping, after having spent so many mornings checking for Reggie outside before our morning walks, wondering over the previous night’s dishes how long we’d make it at his slow, unsteady pace before turning back for home. I can, most mornings, do yoga in Reggie’s favorite resting spot–a sun-soaked segment of hardwood floor that still feels like it’s “his”–without tears streaming down my face like the first few mornings. And I can meditate now in the spot where Reggie’s food and water bowls used to be–a spot that feels empty and open now, somehow perfect for meditation–without tears, just gratitude for another sunny morning with open windows and birdsong, and the memory of the countless times I’d meditated in my apartment in Keene with Reggie lying a few feet away, waiting for me to be done with sitting so we could get down to the business of walking.

Shady

The times I might expect to weep for Reggie, in other words, aren’t necessarily when the tears come. When I get home from campus on Tuesday and Thursday nights, for instance, I now know not to look for Reggie lying in the bedroom as I ascend the stairs to the second floor: I know to brace myself for his empty spot. But it’s those random moments when I’m not expecting to be broadsided by grief that catch me unprotected, like this morning when I was folding laundry and casually caught a reflected glimpse in the mirror of the Empty Spot where Reggie used to lie, or those moments in the middle of the night when I get up, half asleep, to go to the bathroom, taking care not to step on a dog who is no longer there.

Reflective

This morning I found myself suddenly weeping over a passage in Diane Ackerman’s A Slender Thread, which I’m still reading (slowly) after having first mentioned it here last December. Ackerman describes a visit to Walt Whitman’s birthplace in Long Island, which leads her to recount the familiar story of how Whitman volunteered as a nurse during the Civil War, providing companionship and comfort to injured and dying soldiers. It was Ackerman’s description of Whitman embracing one soldier while telling him that death is nothing to fear that drove me to tears, the image of one soul helping another go gentle into that good night ringing too close to home. How great a gift it is to provide companionship to the dying, and how great a mystery is dying itself?

Still the King

I’ve learned–I’m learning–to be gentle with myself during this tender and tenuous time, recognizing that just as Reggie’s final days were precious because I made a conscious effort to be mindful of every moment, so too do these days of grief deserve their own attention. I’m learning not to fight anything: not the tears, not the memories, not the moments of sadness, relief, or gratitude. Whatever arises, I try not to fight it; I try not to judge it; I try just to watch it, open-eyed and attentive. I tell myself not to miss even a moment of this experience, because this too has worth and value: an emotional legacy that cannot and should not be denied.

I’m learning to be gentle with myself…and having learned to be a little gentle, I continually learn how to be even more gentle, letting go, gradually, of how I think grief should be or how it ought to progress. If you cast aside even the notion of “process,” all you’re left with is this present moment, this present emotion, this present teardrop, none of which has an exact comparable, ever.