What’s Left

Pippin and Zoe, December 2014

Pippin and Zoe, December 2014

Death has a color, and for now it’s a washed-out gray blue – in fact, it’s exactly the color of the sky is as I write this, the 5:30 sky of a hot east coast almost-summer evening where it seems to be clear but if you look close, the blue’s shaded with a wispy, uneven layer of cloud. God, I hate this heat – the air’s thick with it, I’m sticky with it. I feel dirty in summer, my skin like flypaper that all things unseen cling to. I can’t get clean – whatever’s washed off in the shower is waiting for me when I get out. I don’t like summer, where I can taste the smell of rot and moving is slow and heavy. I feel fat in summer, feel like every fold of skin is filled with sweat, feel the food sit undigested in my belly, like it’s too hot to make its way elsewhere.

And the bugs – the huge mosquito in my hallway, the dining needle by the front door, the spider winding its web down from the ceiling, the creepy-crawlers crawling around as I sit on my front step trying to write this. It’s up to me not to let what I have no control over not bother me, but I’m not doing a very good job of it.

Maybe death took on this fading color because Pippin is fading and I have to decide whether to speed the process. When to speed the process.

I took what’s left of Pippin to the vet for his yearly checkup and shots. He can’t see or hear. He has chronic ear infections which makes him rub his head on the rug. Neither antibiotics nor the constant cleaning of his ears help. He’s on three medications for a collapsed trachea. He paces, he whimpers. My vet said it’s anxiety because he can’t see or hear. It’s like living in a tunnel. She prescribed anti-anxiety medicine and decided with all the meds he’s taking she didn’t want to vaccinate. He’s gained two pounds in three months – water weight from all the water he drinks? Enlarged heart? We can’t tell without further testing and he is not up to it. But his main problem is that his vision and hearing are gone – and there isn’t anything going fix it.

Go home, my vet said. Talk to Natalie. Write down everything that makes Pippin Pippin, see what’s left.

That’s the thing. He used to always have to lead when we walked. Now he won’t walk on leash because he doesn’t know where he is. He used to play with Zoe. He used to take a toy in his mouth and not let anyone take it away. He used to play tug of war. He used to like the dog park. He used to go up and down the stairs. He used to not bump into things. He used to not poop in the house. He used to wag his tail.

He used to greet us when we came home. Now he doesn’t even know we’re there. And when we go near to pet him – he jumps from fright. He doesn’t know what’s coming at him.

He becomes disoriented. I’ll bring him outside to pee, carry him down the stairs and to the lawn, where he’ll lie on the grass when I put him down. I try to stand him up and he sits. I’ll push him a little to get him walking, he’ll hunch down and refuse, sit right back down.

What an awe-ful decision to make. To be in charge of a death. I think of going to the vet and exaggerating his symptoms, so she’ll be the one who says it should be done. Am I then to live with that? If I think it’s time for him to die, then I have to take responsibility and decide. And I will hold him during the process; I will feel the life leave his body and that seems terrible and frightening.

It’s not uncommon to wish death for someone already sick and dying. It seems a relief for all concerned. Pippin is hard to take care of – thank God Natalie is taking care of him right along with me. So I think to myself, “Well, do I want his end so I’ll no longer be inconvenienced? But that wish is only part of the story. It’s tangled up with love for him and wondering how to prepare for what death takes and what death leaves.

And there is the voice in my head that Philip is asking me not to listen to. That voice focuses on one aspect of this and says I’m selfish and uncaring to even think of euthanasia. That I’m too lazy to care for him. My love for him, the fear I have of actually doing this – that’s lost in the stern, arms-crossed, head-shaking voice in my head that finds the worst and twists it into all that matters. It’s subtle, insidious and constant. I don’t notice it most times – it’s just the way I think. But when Philip says, “Let me be the voice in your head,” this is what he means. Why turn this into all-I-care-about-is-myself? Feeling that I want this over with is part of my humanity. As is the way I love him and the way I dread what I have to do. I mean, what would Philip say? Love him, care for him best as you can, look at what’s left and understand that the time has come.

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This has been hard to write. I’ve been working it for a couple weeks. How to end, I wondered? What do I say, how do I feel? Yesterday’s visit to the vet was decisive. Tomorrow, 3:00, Natalie and I will bring Pippin to be euthanized. I’m numb as I write this. Makes sense, I think. Pippin’s still here, it’s all unreal. Being no stranger to death won’t make this easy; it will make it different. And as I said to my friend Pete, I’m okay now, but when I’m not – you’ll hear about it.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Good Morning?

Ed has told me many times to go for the embarrassment. There is gold there, he says. And I am embarrassed about what I’m going to write, but I need to talk about it.

I work in a small office and all of us are around the same age. All of us have children around the same age. And for most of us, all those children are alive.

I can’t help but ache when I overhear my coworkers’ conversations about their sons. Of course I do. How grateful I am to have a daughter; I am that much less lonely. I love her deeply, and that love comforts. But one child cannot take the place of another. And when I hear talk of sons, my gut is like a magnet that pulls me in and away because I’m reminded it’s too sad of a world without Philip.

A couple weeks ago, Roger, Jack and Maggie’s son, came to work with us for a few weeks, until his summer internship started. Roger’s about 20 years old, tall and thin, just a touch of adolescence awkwardness left – a chest that still needs to fill out, calves that are thin and haven’t fully taken shape. Philip had just been past that stage, had come fully into his body. I remember his ascent into manhood, the shock of a hairy calf showing out from summer shorts that reminded me my child was no longer a child except in my heart.

I am an assistant. I do what I’m asked, and sometimes – rare times – there are personal things Jack and Maggie need done. I’ve been asked to do things for Roger. Cancel his gym reservation, try, and try, and then try again, to change his plane reservations during a time it was impossible to do so. And sometimes I have been resentful. I am doing things for this young man, this son, that I can never do for my own.

Watching Jack and Maggie tend to Roger when I can no longer do that for Philip – well, the loss of Philip’s physical presence overwhelmed in ways it hadn’t for a long time. I was reminded of the deep, deep bond that is family, the same bond that I know I still have with Philip – but to witness it in the flesh was devastating. I was back to crying in the bathroom, crying off the makeup I’d so carefully applied in the morning. It got so I had to heave myself out of bed from the psychic weight I was carrying.

And then this, because when I am in a state of loss, I know exactly how to turn the world against me:

Jack and Maggie are wealthy. They are also kind and unpretentious. But what I do in those dark and creepy places in my mind is equate all they have and all they give their children with their inherent goodness. Because I have less, I become less. That Philip died becomes a testimony to my inability to be a good mother and I feel shamed and cheapened.

Of course I know better. I’m at a point where I’ve never wanted less. I need to keep it simple. But this isn’t about mortgages and bank accounts. This is about having a dead son to whom I can give nothing. This is about me equating fiscal worth with spiritual worth which I thought I was long past, but apparently am not.

My co-worker Sandy works in the office next to mine. He’s there when I arrive, and every morning I stick my head in and say, “Good morning.” It took me a while to be able to do that – I’ve long wondered what was so good about morning when it’s the dark of night I crave. No matter. “Good morning” wasn’t about me. It was a gesture that felt good to make.

There are two desks in Sandy’s office, and Roger’s been sitting at one of them. The first few mornings I saw him there I walked past without a word. I could not speak because my stomach somehow made its way into my throat. I would’ve been ashamed except I was too busy feeling lost and invisible.

There’s not much of a happy ending here. But there was coming to reality. There was me finally able to speak to this young man, to make him into a person and not just a son. To “good morning” him every day because it felt better to do that than not. To create space to breathe where I was holding my breath. But how much grief in that space, how much sorrow.

I’m better, but still thrown. Grief’s like the ocean – the waves come in, the tide goes out. Sometimes it’s a gentle wave and I keep my sea legs, sometimes it’s tidal and knocks me out. And thank God sometimes the tide’s so far out I think I can bear this. These couple weeks were a knockout, for sure, and the psychic shift lingers. Could I have responded differently? Could I have said, oh, I am sad, I miss my son, I want him here because I need his hug and just let myself be? Where does that racket in my head come from, and how do I make it shut up?

I could start by listening to Philip, which I forget to do when I’m that low, the time when I need to listen most. “Let me be the voice in your head,” he says. Let me be the voice in your head.

© 2015 Denise Smyth