Saturday, February 21, 2009

Dirty Dog Day

Those who are following my saga know that my husband Fred has Alzheimer's Disease and moved to a care home almost two weeks ago. We have no children together, just our dogs Chico and Annie, who turned one year old last Monday. It's a pretty lonely house these days.

Yesterday, it got even lonelier when Chico and Annie escaped out a gate I had left unsecure. After visiting Fred, I was just turning onto our street when my cell phone rang. My neighbor Carol wanted to tell me the dogs were out. She couldn't catch them, she said, but she left the gate open in case they wanted to go back into the yard. Uh, no.

I parked, grabbed two leashes and a pocketful of dog treats from the house and started walking and calling. My old dog always used to come home on her own, but these guys are young and crazy. They haven't had a walk in weeks. I was all dressed up from my visit to Fred, wearing new shoes and no jacket. The temperature was in the 40s. I walked and walked and walked, moving so quickly I got shin splints and barely felt it. Calling, "Chico, Annie, come, I've got cookies," I felt that the whole neighborhood could hear me, but saw no dog of mine responding. I ran into the man who walks his basset hounds every evening before dinner. He hadn't seen my dogs.
I had heard other dogs barking, but now I knew they were barking at the bassets.

The visit to Fred had been very difficult. At lunch, he had cried and said he wanted to come home. If you've ever been through this, you know how much it hurts. Now I pictured life without my dogs. I know that all those dogs on the posters are rarely found. They're usually dead or lost forever. I pictured myself sitting in that house all alone and fought to keep my composure and keep calling.

It was cold and getting dark. I walked through a construction site, muddying my new shoes, aching for a glimpse of a black or tan dog. Even if I could have just one of them back . . . I couldn't care for my husband, and now I had failed at caring for my dogs.

At the end of the road, I turned back toward home, thinking I'd put on a jacket and get in the car and drive farther into the wilderness area to the east. But as I came up the driveway, weakly calling the dogs' names, I suddenly saw a yellow dog emerge from the across-the-street neighbor's yard, soon followed by a black one. They zoomed past me to the door, tongues out, panting, filthy with mud. I grabbed them, sobbing.

What does this have to do with being childless? Nothing directly, but it's my life because I don't have any other relatives close by to help me or keep me company and because these dogs are the only things I ever have or ever will raise from infancy. I'll get back to my childless research soon, but this is the life I lead right now, sitting on the deck in the dark, hugging my dirty dogs against me as they lick my face until I get up and feed them.

Monday, February 16, 2009

One-year-olds, canine vs. human

Chico and Annie are a year old today. They're dogs. This is one case where things are definitely different between pets and children. I have a photo of my niece Susan covered in white frosting, her arms and legs chubby and tanned in her striped sunsuit. The whole family gathered at her maternal grandmother's house to celebrate the occasion. Another picture shows my brother cuddling her in his lap. You can see the resemblance, the same dark eyes and black hair, the lips so like my mother's. She's learning to walk and talk, and everyone adores her.

Folks adore my puppies, too. My church choir friends even gave me a puppy shower when I adopted them last April. But asking them to attend a birthday party would probably be pushing things, especially after all the support they have given me in other aspects of my life lately. So it's just the pups and me. I can't bake them a cake. Any gift I gave them would be shredded all over the back yard before the sun sank into the sea. All I can do is hug them and say, "Wow, you're a year old. We made it." They're housetrained, and all the odd things they have eaten and excreted have not killed them yet. They're a long way from becoming calm, mature dogs, But even when they grow up, they will never be like my niece, who is a young adult now, beautiful, smart and old enough to build a life away from her parents. Chico and Annie will be my cherished friends but never my children.

Nor are they Fred's children. My dear husband, who has Alzheimer's Disease, is living in a care home now after a series of falls that led to two days in the hospital and 14 days in a nursing home where he wasn't allowed to leave his wheelchair even though he could walk. He is in a good place now, a beautiful place in the hills above Newport where he is well cared for and loved for his sweet, easygoing nature. However, the dogs are not allowed inside, so I haven't taken them there. To be honest, he is already forgetting them. He doesn't even remember that he fell the first time trying to corral them after they escaped from the back yard. Why he fell two more times two days later, we don't know. Back spasms? A small stroke? Now he has Lucy, who roams the yard at Graceland and nuzzles against his pants and shoes when he ventures out for short walks on his unsteady legs.

Fred's son Michael has been here off and on during our transition. Everyone gets to know him quickly because he is six foot four, with a unique hairstyle, and he's usually the only person under 50 not wearing a nursing smock. Michael is good with his father, helpful and caring, thinking of just the right thing to do or say. His presence is a blessing to both of us. This crisis has brought us closer than we have ever been, with very honest talks, not so much as mother and son but as two adults hurting over someone we both love.

Everyone says you can't count on your children to help you in your old age, that that's not a good reason to have kids. True. In fact, on "family day" at Newport Rehab, I was often the only visitor. Grace, an immigrant from China who runs Graceland, shakes her head at this. "In my country, we honor our elders. I don't understand."

I don't either.

Anyway, happy birthday, Chico and Annie. Michael isn't too happy with them because they just woke him up. But when he's gone back to Portland, I'll have them to snuggle with, and that's something.

My thanks to everyone who has sent good wishes and prayers during this difficult time. Our troubles are not over, of course. Fred still has Alzheimer's, and now we're living in separate homes. I'm visiting every day and overseeing prescriptions, insurance, and countless other details, but God has taken Fred out of my hands and put him into the care of many capable hands, and that's a blessing.