On Easter Sunday we marked the ninth anniversary of my dad’s death (pancreatic cancer doesn’t spare the loving). We joined the family for Easter mass, as always, and we had Easter dinner, as always. The day was filled with its own dramas, its own troubles big …
David and I were talking about Luca, our 14-year-old husky, this morning. Luca’s age has finally caught up with our pup. The dog that used to make us laugh as he galloped around my parents’ huge yard now has legs that give out underneath him. His coat used to be a gorgeous gray-and-white that would make people stop in the street to comment, but now is faded to brown in spots, and is matted and falling out. He still follows the kids around as they play, corralling them, barking furiously if one of them steps out of (his) line–the fierce protector and playmate, always, always watching over us. We’re afraid it’s almost time. This week, I’m not doing so well with that.
It’s been seven years since Dad died. Seven years ago this week, we were holding vigil at the hospital, with David running back home a few times a day to let Luca out while the rest of us–Mom, my brother, two-month-old Saoirse and I–huddled in the waiting room, or gathered around Dad’s ICU bed, or listened to the nurses tell us again and again, “it’s time,” only to have our hearts seize up, waiting, and discover it wasn’t quite time yet. Seven years, and the children are finally starting to understand enough to talk about their grandad, have conversations, ask questions. I look at my kids–look at our family–and often think about my own dad, the child put into foster care, the kid that never got adopted out of the system. I see my children, with their warm home and organic applesauce and My Little Pony stuffed animals, and want them to know their roots. When the girls want to talk about smoking–it’s a hot topic these days–I talk about how easy it is to become addicted, how my dad finally quit when the doctor told him he had to quit, because once you start, it’s so hard to stop, and it’s really, really important that someone in your life tells you it’s not a good idea to start in the first place. When they ask why I stopped eating meat for a couple of decades, I tell them it’s because Granddad grew up working on the farms of his foster “families,” and I heard some stories that really made me want to stick to plants. When I draw pictures for Saoirse’s lunchbox, make pancakes with cherries in them, turn on a nature program about animals on the TV for them, it’s because Dad used to do it. When I dream about places I’d like to take the kids, I remember the wonder of hearing about the travels Dad had after he signed up with the Air Force. As kids Paul and I didn’t know the background behind those stories: we just heard about motorcycling through a desert, ordering sushi from a laminated picture card in a Japanese town, jumping from a high tower in the middle of the ocean. It sounded so wild. I didn’t know the loneliness behind those adventures. Not at first.
Here’s the thing about my dad: so much of his past was rooted in hurt. How I wish I was more careful of that when I interacted with him, but in the moment, you’re too busy reacting and aggravating than you are protecting that other person, as we all should, and I didn’t. I wasn’t protecting my dad’s heart, because my dad, with his need to make things just so, and his fierce rules, and his giant, impromptu bear hugs, was all about protection himself. As a teenager, I wasn’t so much of a fan of this trait. As an adult–an adult who understands the stories behind the stories she tells her children–I get it. I finally get it, Dad.
Luca was a shelter dog when we adopted him. His original name was Chaos. I’d wanted to take home a sad little red-haired mutt named Lady, but David took one look at this Chaos–he alway wanted a husky, because apparently David really likes to vacuum dog hair–and knew he was our dog. “Chaos,” who didn’t pay one bit of attention to us when they let him out of the cage to roam a little. Chaos, who trotted off along that shelter fence, strong and independent. His name was CHAOS, for Pete’s sake. Who adopts a dog named Chaos? We later figured was supposed to be a part of some breeding operation, and was given up because he wouldn’t cooperate. Chaos.
The dog that became Luca was one who wouldn’t sleep unless he was beside our bed. The one who jumped up on hind legs to give us hugs when we asked. The dog that allowed me to avoid being mugged at gunpoint one evening because he was at my heels. He, from the shady past, the one who was abandoned, is our protector yet, even in his last days. So much time has passed with him by our side.
Seven years. And so much time has passed without him.
David’s been in Dallas all week (not all week. It’s really just been four days) for business, and I’m ready for him to come home. Not so ready to give up all that square footage of sleeping space in the bed, but then he’d probably tell you that that’s really no different from when he is home, except that this time he’s not clinging to the edge of the mattress by his fingertips while I happily dream of sunshine and rainbows (Can’t help it. This momma likes to sprawl). He doesn’t do these big trips too often, which is fine by both of us, especially for him now that his company downgraded their training facilities and he no longer gets a working vacation with the ooh-la-la lobster and steak dinners of yore. He said the other night the place served fish that was so overprocessed his dinner companion thought he was eating chicken. If that’s not enough to make you turn vegetarian, folks, if just until you get that image out of your brain, well…all I can say is, don’t make fun of my textured vegetable protein when you’re gnawing away at chickenfish alá Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (the. best. movie. of all time):
The house feels so different when he’s gone. It’s a lot quieter. Dave is a tall streak of energy with a voice that carries and a laugh that bounces off the walls, and when he’s away I’m hyperaware of how most of my day is spent conversing with people who use simple sentences or grunts. By nightfall, the fact sinks in that two precious little life forces (I mean the girls, of course. You know the poor animals are now second-tier) rely on me for safety and protection, and that’s sort of terrifying. At bedtime, the dog gets shoved out the back door to do his business instead of being taken for a walk. I turn on the outside lights and peer out the windows like some crazy lady convinced the KGB is scouting her house. I curse under my breath when I clean out the litter box, because I’m so not used to disposing of cat wee (You know how pregnant ladies aren’t supposed to clean out litter boxes? I may have possibly led my husband to believe that cat poop is bad for women when they breastfeed, too…Yeah, I know).
Probably most significantly, I stomp around snuffing and snorting when, at 4:30 p.m., I realize that there’s no aluminum foil in the house and I can’t call my trusty husband to stop by the store on his way home. And because there’s no way I’m schlepping both kids back out in the car when one’s still half-asleep, the sky is pouring rain, dinner’s in the oven and I have to nurse the baby and get her diaper changed, I’ll resort to wrapping up the leftovers in some old bubble wrap and masking tape I found in the back of the junk drawer, wondering the whole while if the old me who used to be fully independent and self-sufficient would even recognize the woman now who avoids even pharmacies that don’t offer drive-through services.
I realize that if I were in the company of single mothers right now, or a military parent whose spouse has been deployed, I would cower from shame and promise up and down to get over myself already. I’ve a friend whose husband travels so much for work that she says it’s almost easier to have him gone, because when he’s home their routine gets all thrown out of whack and it’s like a visitor is trying to discipline their children. So, again, David’s only been gone for four days. He comes home tonight. But until he does, I will worry about his travels until I hear the key in the lock. Until then, I’ll have to keep reassuring Saoirse when she tells me Blanket misses Daddy. And until he’s home, I will think of how very much of my life is entwined with his, how glad I am that our girls got this guy as their father, and how very good I have it. Especially when he’s falling off the bed just so I can get some sleep.
Today was the third Thanksgiving we’ve had without my father. Pancreatic cancer took him from us about two and a half years ago, and even though we’ve celebrated–celebrated?–a significant number of holidays without him now, they each pass the same exact way. We go through …