This is what Pascal, my older dog looked like when he came to us 10 years ago. A tiny elf-eared puppy, easily frightened — a big cat, a leaf falling, the smell of the resident possum in the back yard… Any of those could do it. So could the vacuum — even a few days ago.
Today we killed him. Yes, I know: we say ‘euthanised,’ or ‘put him down,’ or ‘put him to sleep.’ But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like we killed him. Even though he was in a lot of pain, and wasn’t himself at all. He’s had dysplasia since birth — he was supposed to be OFA certified to NOT have dysplasia, but… — and it’s just worsened. He also had epilepsy, in a couple of versions. And our previous vet told us he has the dog equivalent of autism, as well.
Through all of his trials, he was still so beautiful. So loving. And such a mess.
A couple of weeks ago, he began having seizures. Two a day, grand mal. And he probably had a stroke, as his leg began to drag, and he showed very poor coordination. We took him to the university veterinary hospital, an amazing facility, staffed w/ utter saints. Seriously — I think the requirements to work there are more stringent than canonisation… I’ve never met more people w/ overtly compassionate affects in one place. Ever.
Turns out that the resident canine neurologist (yes, there’s one on staff) diagnosed a brain tumour in addition to everything else. So now we have a dog that needs pain medication for his hips, anti-seizure meds (2), and allergy meds. And he’s still doing verrrry poorly.
Then it really fell apart: yesterday, he tried to bite me when i petted him. He tried to bite his brother twice when poor Hugo just brushed against him. And when my beloved — Pascal’s version of the Supreme Deity, if there ever was one — reached down to pet him, Pascal tried to take his hand off. So we took him off meds to see if that helped. It did not.
We sat at the vet’s for almost two hours. Pascal’s veins were so thrombosed that the techs couldn’t get an IV in him. And think about it: if he didn’t want to be petted, even, how did a needle feel?? But in an oddly reassuring way, it was an affirmation that we were making the right decision, despite our grief.
Buddhists talk about ‘letting go.’ It means to know that everything is transient: life, certainly. But also love, pain, joy, grief. Everything passes — clouds across Big Sky Mind. I know that in a year, I will still miss my sweet mess of a dog. I also know it won’t hurt the same way. As I know that death always follows life.
But our pets are part of our family. At least, in my family they are. And as the owner of a 17-year-old cat, another aging dog, and a second cat still in his prime? I want them to live forever. With health & vigour. I want no more grief. The Buddha would shake his finger, probably smile, and remind me that I am attached.
I confess to it. As I confess to wielding the power of life, then death, over a small dog. We let go — holding a small sleepy body in a tearful hug before the vet gave him a shot to the heart (he never could get the IV in). We let go, wishing him dreams of possums in the backyard, and long walks by the river, and lots of treats. We let go of his pain-filled life. But somehow, he’s still so very here, and I don’t know how to really let him go. I don’t know how to explain to his brother (at least, that’s what we called them, although they weren’t littermates) where his buddy is. I don’t know how to explain to my grandson where Pascal is, either. And I don’t know how to let go of any of this grief.
Sometimes, I am acutely aware how inadequate a Buddhist I am…
When we moved from our home in Oklahoma last month, we found several boxes tucked away under the eaves. Literally: 6 boxes of stuff. Including five cast-iron skillets, ranging from 5 inches to 10.
True confession: I adore cast-iron. I already have more cast-iron skillets (and a griddle…and a Dutch oven…) than I should admit to. Several were my legacy from my grandmother & great-aunt: what I asked for of their belongings, when Grandma was leaving her own home of decades.
Is there anything of mine you’d like, honey? she asked me. Has anyone asked for your cast-iron pans? I responded. She laughed, and said No, no one’s asked for those. I told her I didn’t want to be greedy, so if someone did, split them up. Otherwise? I wanted them ALL.
And I got them! (Aside: why DIDN’T anyone else want them??)
Then, when my beloved mother-in-law moved out of her home, following my wonderful father-in-law’s death, my sister-in-law asked if there was anything I really wanted. May I have their cast-iron pans? I asked. And I got those too!
Soooo many memories: Grandma frying chicken; Aunt Bonnie making cornbread. Mom cooking bacon, or pancakes, or potato pancakes with the leftover mashed potatoes from the holiday feasts she put together. Every time I use a pan — to scramble eggs, to cook a roast, to make cornbread — I’m visited by those happy ghosts.
So imagine my delight when my beloved hand-carried five HEAVY cast-iron skillets from Oklahoma to Virginia! The catch? They were a MESS. Sticky with gross old seasoning, rusty in spots, scaling on the bottom from decades of baked-on food & grease. YUK! I washed them well, scrubbing as best I could with steel wool. Then dried them on the stove top, as I was taught, and oiled them so they wouldn’t rust any more. At this point my elder son ran off with one, leaving me four.
Enter the Internet. There are a zillion websites discussing the reclamation of cast-iron. The one I ended up using also has a link to seasoning the newly bare cast-iron skillet, following cleaning.
My beloved covered the skillets with heavy-duty Easy Off, as directed. Then stuck them in a black garbage bag overnight. Then scrubbed them HARD. It took another round of Easy Off (that should give you an idea how yukky the skillets were!) to lay bare the lead-grey metal.
We followed the rest of the directions (a vinegar soak for rust, rinse, wash, dry, and a LOT of flax oil), and I put them in the oven to season. Took them out, put on another coat of oil, and back in the oven to polymerise. They are GORGEOUS!!!
Now, you have to be wondering (if not before): what in the name of Julia Child does this have to do with Buddhism??
Everything. But mostly? Love, that’s what. And not giving up on things. And reclaiming what might otherwise be thrown out. And working to make something useful again. And honouring family history. Cooking for people you love with love.
I’m so serious: go rescue a cast-iron pan. See if it doesn’t make you feel incredibly virtuous. Reconnect you with cultures from around the globe, and throughout history. Really — it’s as Buddhist as everyday life gets. Honest.
I never take friendship for granted. As a child, a teen, and then an adult, I moved too often to keep most friends I made along the way. There is one man from my senior year I still correspond with, via FB. I’m sure he has no idea how dear he is to me, not only for this important singularity, but also because for some unknown reason he values my friendship, too.
Over the years, I have lost far more friends than I have kept, most from the attrition of too many moves and too little time together. My oldest dear friend and I have worked hard to maintain the precious friendship that blossomed unexpectedly as we worked together years ago: over the more than 10 years we’ve lived across the country from each other, we’ve scheduled visits, telephone calls, FaceBook messages & Google Hangouts. Sent cards & presents. Tried hard to safeguard the fragile cup that holds this infinitely precious elixir.
That’s what it is, friendship. A kind of magic draught that confers an inner sense of worth & comfort. Even if it sneaks up on you sometimes, blindsides you with how much you didn’t realise you needed it right that minute. In, for instance, a made-with-love&care box of biscotti, colouring book postcards carefully tucked in. Just because she can, a newer friend says in a short note (no effusiveness for this girl!).
Perhaps because I don’t take my friends for granted, I’m always surprised I have any! Please rest assured: I’m not playing the poor pitiful me card. I just know that I prose on far too much about esoteric subjects ~ tea, for instance. Who other than my younger son really wants to discuss the difference between a jasmine tea made with black tea leaves and a jasmine made with a far gentler combo of green & white teas? Who wants to hear me wax rhapsodic about an obscure poet, or try to process my dog’s brain tumour? Who cares that my grandson told me his newest great thing?
My friends. The infinitely treasured men and women who have managed to wriggle past my fairly strong external personality — the voice that can part a sea of supermarket shoppers, the highly opinionated newshound, the besotted grandmother, the horrible punster. To whatever it is they see beneath that fairly thick veneer.
There’s the man I met in a book club he started at my former employer’s: he let me in to his deep grief when his beloved partner died. The dear girlfriend I mentioned earlier, who solaced me during a very bad patch of life, but can also make me laugh until I snort tea through my nose. The woman I met in a writing workshop, the friend of another dear friend, who became my own friend, making me laugh when I needed to, bringing me homemade comfort treats because she could. The man who worked with me, who shared his dreams of home & happiness with me. The younger girlfriend who doesn’t take a busy ‘no’ for an answer, and cajoled me into tea at her house, with her adorable 2-year-old.
And of course there are my sisters. But somehow, you expect your sisters to love you. At least in my family we do, a family of 3 generations of sister/friends.
So here’s to friends, who don’t just tolerate our idiosyncracies, but celebrate them! Who talk too loud with us, bake for us, share their kids with us, show us their cat & dog pics, recommend books, send us music… In other words? Here’s to the friends who share their lives with us. I don’t deserve mine, but I’m profoundly grateful they don’t seem to know that.
What’s it like being old? I asked my grandma this loaded question when she was 80, plus or minus :).
I don’t feel old, she answered thoughtfully. And then I look in the mirror, and I think: who’s that old lady? I don’t FEEL old, she repeated. On the inside, I’m still a young woman. And then I realise: I’m 80…
How, I wondered then, could she not feel as old as she was? As she looked? As her birdbone body indicated? But these days it makes a lot more sense. 😏 Inside, I don’t feel age. On a link a friend sent me recently, a woman was laughing at aging, explaining dryly that you don’t get to practice being old. While there are, as she noted wryly, ‘warning signs,’ it ‘kind of creeps up on you.’
Yup. It shore do. It seems to be creeping from my toes (broken, arthritic darlings) to my head (greying and often shaking in frustration at the indignities of this death watch called aging)…
When my old ladies, as I call them still — my great-aunts, my grandmothers — would tell stories of being young, I would sit as still as possible. Sometimes, if I didn’t move and didn’t make a peep, they would forget I was there and just be sisters together. Aunt Ina would bemoan her miserable marriage, and Grandma would talk about how Grandpa fooled around w/ ‘a wall-eyed hussy.’
I went to the café where they were having breakfast, she remembered. I stood by their booth and I was going to stab the hussy with a fork. I had it in my hand. But the sheriff came, she went on, and took her by the arm, assuring young Emmie that ‘the hussy’ wasn’t worth it.
And once again, my imagination would fail me. I just couldn’t see, in the blue-haired grandmother rocking in her velour recliner, the passionately angry woman my tiny grandmother was once. I had no concept of the lives these once-young, now elderly women had lived — before me, before my childhood. To me, they were (as we are now for the children in our lives) bulwarks of safety, of stability. In my itinerant childhood, they were rare constants: always there, providing home, place, roots.
But I can see that my own nieces, my sons, the ‘youngers’ in my life — as my grandmother would call us — have no idea of who their own elders (me, my 3 sisters, their uncles and grandparents and older family) were at 16, at 20, even at 30. Should I tell them about gambling in Monaco? Reminisce about dancing crazily at Embassy parties? Regale them with stories of our misspent youths, our tragedies and triumphs? Do those stories have anything to do w/ them? Any more than the story of my grandfather’s infidelity does w/ me? How much of history belongs to the young?
When my other grandmother, on her deathbed, confessed that she wished she had followed her sister to California, and hadn’t succumbed to the pressures of her parents, her pastor, to marry my widowed grandfather (who came complete with toddler son and pre-school daughter in tow), I sat stunned.
How could this elderly, dying woman bemoan her life? Rich in family, as stable as the rock foundation of her tiny northside house, what other dreams might she have cherished? How could she tell me, a young woman weighing her own possible marriage, that her husband was a failure as a provider? That my own father was like his? My father who supported us just fine, thank you — even in style, at points in my childhood. And why was that important, anyway?
She was the postmaster (postmistress?) of her small town post office. Took up china painting in her 70s, and swept every award in every category at the State Fair. On the board of club after club: I remember going w/ her to a meeting of the Ateloka Club, held at a tea room restaurant in the old money area of our town. There were 15+ women, each dressed like Grandmother, in lavender and silver and the shadowy neutrals of Victorian widowhood. I remember nothing of the meeting except my Aunt Alene reading the minutes. Only my mental snapshot of a table of blue-haired old ladies around a U-shaped group of tables remains.
But when I look at pictures of the young Elsie, she was beautiful. Perhaps it wasn’t the fashion, her tall dark beauty. But w/ her masses of brunette hair braided around that finely chiseled face, she was beautiful. Who of us could see that in the marcelled silver curls framing her stern Grandmother face? Who could imagine passion igniting for this pillar of temperance and propriety?
Once all of these — my great-aunts, my grandmothers, and now my mother’s sisters — were as disbelieving as I was that old age would catch them, grinding them fine in its ratcheted teeth. Like the tray of old snapshots on my bookcase, or the box beneath my study chair, there were pictures for each of them. Some of these even remain. In the picture of them reclining together on the grass, my great-aunt Bonnie and Grandma are young girls. Bonnie’s shadowed eyes hint at the minx she was — well into her 80s. And Grandma’s straight brows suggest, even that early, just how stubborn she could be. Stubborn enough to leave two husbands — one a drunk, the other an abuser — and make a life for herself and her four daughters. Independent enough to move into a house w/ the two younger girls, and figure out how to support them all, With only an 8th grade education, by the way. She became a cleaning lady, playing to her slightly OCD strengths.
To see the women they would become in these two girls, think of the pictures of them etched into my heart and brain, as I do: the two women I loved like my own mother, who made me cornbread and creamed turnips and rhubarb cobbler and corn w/ milk and bacon. Who taught me how to do laundry and how to plant a garden and how to value the different birds on the feeder outside the screened porch. Who slipped me money out of their own meagre bounty, when I walked the three blocks from my college adulthood back into my childhood. Who ran a red flag up the clothesline to let me know I had a phone call — a red flag I could see from my phone-less efficiency apartment around the corner. Old photos of them are like messages in bottles, from a past so dimly distant I still have a hard time fathoming it…
There are pictures of me as a girl, and when I look at them, I wonder: what do they tell about who I am becoming? My sister had old family photos copied for Christmas one year. She made each of us an album, with a picture on the album cover that she said was true to how she saw us. In mine, I’m sitting in a batik bikini in the tide on the island of Phuket, where we summered. I am the slender, rail-thin boyish girl I was until I had my two sons. Hair wet, looking up at my mother, probably, behind the capturing camera. And I can see none of who I am today.
But someday, perhaps one of my two great-nieces will look at it and wonder who I was, what I dreamed, what I wanted out of life. She may trace the unmarked face of that girl who looks fearlessly into the camera, and try to find in it the great-aunt she knows. Should I leave her a message in a bottle…?
One of my sisters left her long-time FB account at least a month, maybe longer. She’s been on FB for years. A 2nd has muted several ‘friends’ & even family (as have I). While a third is cast-iron, and seems able to keep her sanity. Me? I recently unfriended — then refriended — my cousin. And yes: it was political: I unfriended him after he insulted one of my friends one too many times, ‘citing’ spurious ‘evidence’ from sources like Agent Orange (my current fave name for our ersatz president), Breitbart, and the worst of the alt-right idiots. Please note: my friend wasn’t blameless, but she didn’t start the ruckus. She simply took it to the next level.
And I can’t handle it.
It didn’t make me feel good to unfriend him; he’s family. But it did make me less angry than when he was constantly popping up in my feed saying crap that’s flat (verifiably) untrue.
Still, I felt like I’d failed as a Buddhist. I know we’re supposed to ‘listen’ to each other. But what if what someone is spouting is pure poison? Do I have to listen to Agent Orange (my beloved’s name for president #45) spew vitriol about the Women’s March I was so proud to walk in, with my niece & grand-niece? Do I have to accept it? What about his clueless ‘tariff’ on Mexican imports?? Or the Republican Congressman who said folks could pay for the prohibitively expensive Repub alternative to Affordable Care if they just didn’t buy iPhones?? I don’t have a simple Buddhist answer for this one…
I wish I had a nearby Buddhist teacher. The pagans & Wiccans have a word for me: solitary practitioner. I read Buddhist books, websites. Talk about Buddhism to anyone who will listen (some would probably rather not!). And bumble along, trying to live by this truth, and that precept. Mostly I couple tonglen with a sincere effort to be kind & practice compassion. It’s probably not enough, but it’s what I’m able to do at this point. And breathe, of course…
If someone reading this has useful insights, I’d love to hear them. Because I can’t believe it’s okay to ‘accept’ the hate masquerading these days as ‘give him a chance.’ I will NEVER give hate, intolerance, and evil pretending it’s ‘for our own good’ a chance. I don’t think THAT is good Buddhism, either. If you espouse hate, you don’t get my cooperation. Period. If racism is your way to ‘unite’ people — against someone different from you — I will call you on it. The very Buddhism that counsels me to be compassionate also grounds my social justice work.
I did, however, refriend my cousin. After all, he’s family. Besides — I’m off FB for Lent. I can deal with it in April, right? In the meantime, I’m serious: how are you dealing with these virulently polarised times? Any tips?