I thought maybe I should spare you an update this week, because I’m in a crappy, crappy mood (a friend asked Sunday how Mom was doing, and do you know what I said? “Oh, she’s totally dying.” The poor guy looked like I’d slapped him …
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.
We went to the memorial service for Christina yesterday. I don’t really know what to say, except…I don’t know. A friend of mine told me that her greatest fear is dying while her children are young. She said that she just can’t even let her mind go there, can’t bear to think about it. Sitting at that service yesterday? Well, the mind went there. It had to. This is a family’s reality. I can’t even.
Shawn, Christina’s husband, said that, a year ago, when Christina started radiation and had to stop nursing their son cold turkey, the 1-year-old gave up his naps. He started waking at 7:30 p.m, if I remember correctly, and doesn’t fall asleep until 9. And all I could think was, was he soaking up time with his mom? Is this how he adjusted to the difficulty in their family, even though he couldn’t understand it? Their son didn’t leave his dad’s arms the entire morning. Shawn said he’s been like that for the last couple of days. Tina died last Sunday.
You know how there are marriages in the world that seem to come so easily to the couple? Yeah, I don’t know many like that, either (har har). Most couples seem to always be stagger-stopping, at least early on, trying to find their comfort zone, working around this issue or that one, trying to appreciate the other before the inevitable pressures of life and frustrations and the downside of knowing someone too, too well get in the way of that united front everyone’s supposed to be achieving. Blame financial hardship, or different backgrounds, or the stresses of raising children or finding new jobs or taking care of ill parents, but for most of us it’s hard, hard, to be that little cohesive unit all the time, in the face of everything, despite and because of it all.
And then there was Shawn and Christina. I have no idea what their marriage was like, so I will not even wager a guess. But I looked at Shawn yesterday, and I thought about what I know–of all the time he took off from work to care for his wife, each and every doctor’s appointment and chemo and radiation treatment to which he accompanied her, most times, if I’m right, taking their son, too. I think of the co-workers who donated their leave time so he could be with her. He shaved the hair off of his head when they took hers, too. I see a man Christina raved about, worried about, loved absolutely, and I see a father who’s so obviously a rock to their son while dealing with unimaginable pain. Christina’s sister-in-law told those of us gathered yesterday that Shawn embodied his sacred vows in the way he cared for her and loved her in such a horrible test of their devotion. And I saw him sitting there, in the front corner of the pew always reserved for the closest family member, holding their son, and I just. I don’t know. I’m not going to go tell you to go hug your spouse, or look at her with new eyes, or anything like that, because, really. David and I got into a silly spat about cell phones in the car on the way home, not an hour after we’d left the luncheon, because that’s how it rolls sometimes. I’m not in any place to spread platitudes. But. Shawn goes home tonight, and wakes tomorrow, and the day after that, because he has to. He will be determined that his son know about his mom. He will want to talk about her, he will need to remember her, he will have to live without her. The mind goes there, because it has to, whether it wants to or not.
Some of you have asked me how you can help. A fund has been set up for Christina and Shawn’s son through their local credit union. If you’d like to contribute, you may send a donation in the name of Shawn Edward Heinlein, Jr. to 239 Kensington Parkway, Abingdon, MD 21009. Please send me an email at onevignette(at)gmail(dot)com if you want more specific info.
You, my dear friends who read this, are wonderful people. Most of you know that already (no? You should), but you seriously are wonderful, and if Shawn or his or Christina’s family is reading this, I hope they know how many, many people they don’t know have them in their prayers right now, have been in tears talking about them with their own families, have been going to bed at night thinking about them. It’s a lot. Christina has done by 34 what most of us wish we can accomplish in our lives: she’s led by example. And Shawn, I think you’re a part of that.