Buster

DSC_1868-1024x683I’ve been watching Buster slowly leave me this year.

He moves gingerly these days. Our walks together are shorter and he’s more hesitant. He’s skin and bones, and his spine curves in a hump when he walks. His back legs bend at odd angles. He looks more like a scurrying armadillo than the fierce little fighter he once was, barking ferociously at any dog that crossed our path.

His kidneys are failing, so he gets up often in the night; his little bladder can’t hold much. I put him outside, and get back into bed, waiting for his bark so I can let him back in.  He usually needs a long drink of water, so I place him by his water bowl, then wait, shivering a little while he laps up an ungodly amount of water. When he’s finally finished, I scoop him up and put him back on the bed near my pillow, making sure he knows where he is, next to me.

Not that long ago, for the first time ever in the nearly the 15 years that I’ve had him, he fell off my bed in the middle of the night. I was horrified and jumped out of bed wide awake to rescue him, feeling his heart beating quickly as I held him close. He was OK, but now I block the edge with pillows, just in case.

The truth is, I never wanted to a dog.

It was my former husband who thought we should get one, for the kids. We did have two parakeets and two hamsters already, but he thought a dog was important. I was reluctant, concerned about shedding and messiness in our spic-and-span life—not to mention all the responsibility, especially the emotional kind. I’d faced a lot of losses from animals dying during my time on the farm as a kid, and I wasn’t sure, frankly, that I wanted to set myself up for another loss.

I was cautiously researching dogs when a friend from the kids’ school told us about a 10-month-old Yorkie that needed a new home.

The day we picked him up, the kids could hardly contain their excitement, especially Camille. When we walked in, Buster raced joyously across the living room to meet us, shivering with excitement. It was as if he KNEW we were his new family. A handsome guy in his warm brown-and-black coat, we loved each other immediately.

As we prepared to drive away, Camille said eagerly, from the back seat, “Mom, now that we have nine animals in our house, including us … can we get one more, so we have an even 10?” We weren’t even out of the driveway yet.

What I didn’t know then was just how important this dog would be to me. How he would heal me. Comfort me. Strengthen me. Connect me.

On the days my husband took the kids to school in the morning, the loneliness could be crushing. Buster solved that problem for me. I could always pick him up for a cuddle, then head out for our first walk of the day.

But it wasn’t just the loneliness that changed. My emotional and even physical health changed, one walk at a time.

Working from home, I had a tendency to stay stuck to my computer, getting more detached from my body and inside my head, with all the resulting ill-health. But Buster insisted on those walks, and gradually, I began to need them as much as he did.

We usually walked three times a day. As we walked, I gradually became more aware of the larger world around me—the tall mature pines in our golf community, the swoop of cedar waxwings in the sky come spring, the mix of palmetto, beautyberry, and Cherokee bean flowers in the wild patches between the houses. I began to talk with my neighbors, who in turn stopped and asked me about the dog. I began to feel more connected.

And later, because I could walk, I started to run, going one light pole at a time until the fat started to melt off and my heart strengthened.

I needed that heart strength later, in more ways than one.  When our family went through our own divorce, Buster walked for miles with me around our gated community while I talked on the phone, out of earshot of the kids doing homework at night.  Buster literally walked me back from heartbreak. I grew stronger, and he put on more miles.

The ever-observant Camille came home from college one day, eyed Buster and said, “He’s getting old.”  “No, he’s not!” I said. My capacity for denial is great.

But one day, trying to jump up into the reading chair where he usually snuggles with me, he missed. His back legs, having walked so many hundreds of miles with me, were weaker,  and his muscles failed him. He fell back to the ground. I started watching him just in case he needed assistance, and more and more often, have to pick him up and place him in my chair, or on the couch, or on the bed.

Our walks are shorter now. The pace is slow. The dog that used to outrace me on a bike now moves at a very deliberate pace, sniffing everything, pausing at the corner and refusing to budge if he senses I’m going too far. His little legs are still strong and his will is unbending! He still barks ferociously at any other dogs walking by, but only if he can see them, which is not very often.

He’s been such a comfort to me these past two years as I’ve transitioned to being an empty-nester. The alone-ness can cause my heart to ache just as it did when the kids were little.  I can fight it off with Buster as we sit in my writing chair together, walk the new neighborhood together, and sleep together, his soft body curled up next to me, asking absolutely nothing from me but love.

My Dad thinks I’m a little crazy. He suggests I get a boyfriend instead.  I tell him they’re a lot more trouble than dogs! The kids think I over-indulge him, and maybe I do. I took him with me to NYC at Christmas, not willing to leave him alone for too long. I bought a sling and carried him everywhere as my dad and I toured the city. I slept on the basement floor of my sister’s house so I could more easily put him outside in the frozen dead of night, his little feet making tiny prints in the white snow.  Finally, I bought tiny dog diapers so I could avoid tiny accidents—even if it affronted his dignity.

I really don’t mind the extra effort. It’s a very, very small price to pay for many years of devotion, of love, of increased health and happiness.  How could I know that a dog that I had rescued would somehow rescue me?

I know I will have to say goodbye to him soon. The kids will be heartbroken, and so will I.  In the meantime, I will try to enjoy these last days, being grateful for a love that outlasted my husband’s, and for a husband’s wisdom that outlasted his love.

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Country Morning

IMG_7781Hamden, NY. Upstate.

Honestly, I was scared when I got here last night.  So dark! A porcupine greeted us as we arrived, trundling along, his plump body and prickly quills undulating as he walked. He glanced back at us, and I quickly shut the car door in case it threw its quills at us.  Everyone else jumped out.

I lingered in the car, dreading the cold and the dark and the hectic shuffle of bags and belongings being transferred from trunk to porch and to farmhouse. Steeling myself, we got out, Buster in his sheepskin coat and me in my purple one. We headed toward the house, looking out for the porcupine and feeling safer now with the house lights on.

Julian reported that the porcupine was slowly climbing the tree in the front yard.  I wanted to see but was too scared by the all-consuming blackness to do more than take a quick glance. No sign of her.

I headed inside where I was pleasantly surprised to find it warm and cozy; the furnace had apparently been on for a couple hours. Jon and Dad began working on the fire in the wood-burning stove in the living room while Liz and I began unpacking the Thanksgiving leftovers.

I gave Julian a $20 bill to keep taking Buster out so he wouldn’t tinkle on the floor out of nervousness. “I’m scared of the dark,” I whispered, confessing my weakness. He accepted that without comment, just glad for the cash as any 17-year-old would be.

With Julian in bed before I was, I forced myself go outside one more time with Buster, turning on all three front door lights. I stood on the porch while he stretched out the leash down the front steps to the frosty grass below. I could see the stars through the trees and wished the lights were off so I could see better, curiosity fanning my courage.

Darkness stayed very close throughout the night as Buster and I camped out on the couch, close to the warm fire and its faint glow. Neither of us moved much, though I had to unzip the sleeping bag a couple times as hot flashes caused sweat to pool on my chest.

I waited until morning light had crept in enough to see the furniture outlines before slipping on Dad’s coat and stuffing my hands deep in the pockets. Not too cold outside, and I felt alive. Dark branches contrasted against light blue sky with streaks of pink and orange. I took photos while Buster meandered about, and we both kept an eye out for the porcupine. I half hoped, half dreaded to see her, but she was gone.

The chickadees across the road began their morning scold and I looked around at the many tree shapes emerging against the lightening sky. The grass felt crunchy under my feet, the frost stiffening their spines against my foot steps, the sound like breaking glass.

No one was stirring inside the house yet. I added a log to the stove and opened the vent; flames snapped and crackled as I settled onto the couch again with a cup of coffee and my journal. Fortified by the country morning, I felt brave again, knowing the darkness is really only in my mind, and that fire, and a blank page, can banish it.

Here.
In the country garden.

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Dr. Amenta, The Family Doctor

22894523_1337213129741227_2031388151702215172_nHe was a pathologist by training but a family doctor by practice—at least with us, the Wolfe Family. In that case, he was our trusted advisor, the one we went to first with all our questions, concerns, and mysteries.

Dr. Amenta the male, my father called him.
Joe, my mother said, simply.
She, who trusted no one, trusted him, and we followed suit.

When I developed a mysterious rash on the soft, white underside of my arms, I took this mystery to him. Other doctors had looked at the cracked bleeding fingers, the vivid red bumps, the spreading despair, with no good answers. Dr. Amenta calmly assessed the situation, as always, holding my arms outstretched to him, gently tuning them to and fro. Then, in his calm, easy, explaining voice, he proclaimed a bit of hydrocortisone cream would fix it, and promised to get some from work for me.

How did he do that?

The solution came in a white, screw top plastic jar with white cream inside, and I smoothed it on immediately, relieved at once. And though it couldn’t wipe away the nervous energy and anxious thoughts mixed with farm dirt and family pain, the clean white mixture soothed my child’s soul and stopped the pain.

We spent each weekend at the Amentas after Mom and Dad were divorced, their kitchen providing a safe harbor, a happy landing place for three girls and a single father.  We came bearing gifts: Corned beef from Iz Cohen’s (1/4 pound, thinly sliced, well-trimmed), and bagels from Bageland on Murray Avenue. We gathered with Dr. Amenta the male and Dr. Amenta the female and their three kids: Nina, Tom, and Davi. The older two were not around a lot but Davi, who was my age, was still at home. We ate lunch at the kitchen table under the Italian poster they brought home after their year in Italy on his sabbatical. Dr. Amenta the female would occasionally read it to us in Italian, her voice and fist raised, her wide smile, white teeth, and red lipstick drawing us in. She was the heartbeat of every lunch hour.

But Dr. Amenta the male held forth in his way, quieter, but still laughing, teasing, calling me Little Aunt Edith. He sometimes listened to me practice the piano on the baby grand in the music room, sitting next to me on the bench. “I don’t see what he thinks is so great,” Davi mumbled to me later. I didn’t either, but I felt complimented.

When Ruth Anne started throwing up violently as we left the Squirrel Hill Library one weekend, we took our concerns to him; he was just a few blocks away. He listened carefully, calm as always, then diagnosed it: “Appendicitis. Get her to the emergency room, right away.”

The surgery was done before Mom even knew about it. Dad called her from the hospital. She was upset we had not called sooner, but the family doctor, Dr. Amenta, had been Dad’s first thought.

When Mom was diagnosed with cancer later, she called Dr. Amenta the male to explain this disease to her. He spoke in terms she could understand and she believed: She, who trusted no one, trusted him.

When she died, he sent us a note. It was a plain white card, addressed to “The Luminiello Girls,” closing a chapter in our lives with sincere words of comfort and mutual loss that only a doctor who was also an intimate friend could provide.

Then it was Dad who got sick. Again, the phone rang; it was Dr. Amenta, calling to check on him sooner after we got to the hospital. He asked about the symptoms, then explained patiently in words we could understand, reassuring us:

Yes, it’s excruciating pain.
Yes, it takes time for the pancreas to repair.
Yes, he’s in good hands and they are doing what they need to do.

We were in the very hospital system that Dr. Amenta once worked in, in the research labs. This was his territory, and he was confident in their services. We, who trusted no one just then, trusted him.

The last time I saw him he came to visit Dad in the rehabilitation facility, with Gisela, his second wife.  We’d been talking to him over the past two weeks, and Dad was out of danger now, but we still had questions: How long? What next? He gently answered: Awhile. Wait. It will get better.

At 86, Dr. Amenta was more fragile now: a meaty man but a damaged heart and a bout with prostate cancer that weakened him, making it difficult for him to walk, to stand. He used a walker, but when I greeted heard Gisela just outside Dad’s rehab door, I saw him throw back his shoulders, push the walker away, and practically march into the room. He wanted to be a picture of health so encourage Dad, who sat in an easy chair, covered in blankets and in pain, but glad to see him.

Dad, who trusted no one in that moment, trusted him.

The last time Dr. Amenta and I spoke on the phone, I was standing on Dad’s deck, watching the green leaves of deep summer moving around me. We’d planned to visit him and Gisela later in the day for dinner. But he was calling to say he didn’t think he could do it. By then his prostate cancer had returned, and he was much weaker, spending most of his time in bed. I was aware of time slowing down for a moment, feeling the phone in my hand, hearing his voice explaining calmly, as always, the right thing to do. I accepted his answer.

Me, who trusted no one, trusted him.

“You should call him in the mornings,” Davi said a few weeks later.  “He’s pretty alert then.” She’d just been by for a visit to Pittsburgh all the way from Wisconsin. I put that on my list but when I did call, perhaps a week or two later, I spoke to Gisela instead. He could not come to the phone. “You know how it is,” she said.

I was shocked when he died the next day.

He, the trusted one, trusted himself with his own final answers, and so must we.

Thank you, Dr. Amenta, for your good care all these years. I know I am not the only one who is grateful for it.

Here.
In the grief garden.

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Surprise: Rose-Breasted Grosbeak

IMG_6335What a joy it is for me to see a new bird at the feeder!

Yesterday morning, a male grosbeak appeared on my feeders. Despite it’s muted fall colors, the triangle of red breast is unmistakable. The eyebrow streak is prominent, the black and white spotted wings definitive.

Apparently grosbeaks migrate through my part of Florida in September and October, usually as solitary birds. I got a photo to reassure myself: I know what this is.

What else will surprise me today?

I finally talked to my son yesterday. I was frustrated I had not been able to reach him for several days. I complained; he grew angry and resistant. This is an old pattern for us, often because I insist on my way. Sometimes I’m right, but often I need to take more gentle approach. That works better with him.

To be honest, it’s been challenging to raise a son as a single mother. Growing up in a household of girls myself, I’ve felt disadvantaged at times. I find I either hold him far too close or let him drift out too far. Thankfully, I’ve had help from many different wise advisors along the way.

This time, when I insisted he set a time for him to call me back, his voice rose in anger in frustration.  “You can call me, you know!” “I have called you, “ I retorted, “hundreds of times since last week!” On that note, he hung up on me.

Wait! This was not the loving, kind, caring, compassionate, understanding, nurturing phone call I’d planned! My resolve must be stronger than my anger to communicate effectively with him.

Sigh.

So, what I supposed to learn from this? What is the message of this migratory visit from the rose-breasted grosbeak? Do I know what this is?

I’ll look it up, but I’m guessing it’s something like, Life is unpredictable. Keep watching, and take advantage of connection opportunities when you can. They will be there.

That reassures me slightly, if not entirely.

Here.
In the single mother garden.

~~~~~~

From: Animal Speak:  The Spiritual, Magical Powers of Animal Creatures Great and Small 

  • “This beautiful little bird can teach us much about proper family relationships. It can help us in healing family hugs and restoring family love.”
  • “It will help you in seeing family patterns that you have brought over into your present life, along with your present family members.”
  • “The grosbeak awakens a new pride and nobleness in the family process.”
  • “The grosbeak has on its chest a rose-colored triangle that looks like a bleeding heart.  This totem can help teach us to heal all of the old wounds and hurts of family origin.”
  • “The grosbeak helps us to see our family relationships as a true melody, each note separate but part of the larger whole.”

Reflection:
Wow.  I’m astounded that’s the symbolism of the grosbeak! A clear indication from the Universe that the time is now to begin the work of healing old family wounds, whatever they may be.

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Even Now, I Long for the Adventure

misty-shot-yorkshire-dales-settle

“Even now, I hear one and I long to leave/without a suitcase or a plan; I want to step/onto the platform and reach for/the porter’s hand and buy a ticket/to some other life” —Faith Shearin, “The Sound of a Train”

I had such a precious time that summer in England, walking in the moors, being by myself with the sheep and the rabbits and my journal.

I wasn’t lonely. I wasn’t even cold, though it was rainy and damp in mid-July. I had to make a fire each morning in the wood stove of the English cottage where I was staying. The glowing hearth made it a little harder for me to leave, but even then, the wildness called to me—the adventure, the romance of walking somewhere unknown, discovering giant landscapes, pockets of flowers, massive rocks on a cliff.

I stood on some of those rocks the first day and heard the lonely call of the Lapwing, my only companion it seemed: pee-wit, pee-wit, pee-wit.

I was alone but not lonely. Well, sometimes I was, maybe a little. I could always talk to strangers in the pub over dinner—like the father and son who were hiking together across the top of England. Even now, I long to step back into that landscape, that time, that conversation, again.

We were in “the highest pub in England,” where I’d driven on a lark late in the day, my tiny car hugging the ground as it climbed higher and higher into the top of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. After a delightful conversation and a half-pint with my fish-and-chips dinner, it was time to head home. I had a long drive ahead of me. At 9:30 at night, it was still light outside but the darkness was coming.

I set the GPS and followed it, noticing it was taking me back a slightly different way, but I trusted it—even though another voice in my head said, Are you sure?

The scenery around me became more and more desolate—barren, rocky fields, high cliffs, no signs of life. I came to the bottom of a hill and stopped the car, stunned. A rushing torrent of water was flowing over the road in front of me, fast and fierce. How would I get through it? (It never occurred to me to turn back and go another way.)

I looked around in the darkness and found a rock at least six inches high. I threw it into the middle of the stream, to see how deep it was. The water swallowed the stone completely. I got back in the car, and, gritting my teeth, drove straight through.

Even now, I long to be on the lonely road and feel the exhilaration of getting to the other side.

—from a fast write on July 14, 2017, with the women at the Community Transition Center, on the theme of “poetry of place.”

Reflection: I enjoy using the exact same materials for those on the “inside” (incarcerated women) and those on the “outside.” I absolutely change nothing. They totally get it. The format for the circles allows each to experience the poetry and the prompts in whatever way works for them. It’s accessible but also deep. I listen to their stories, and they listen to mine. And we never know what’s going to happen on the other side!

photo credit: Independent Cottages, UK

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Longing For Landscapes

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North Dome on the left and Half Dome on the right, with the Merced River dividing the two: Walking in the Yosemite Valley this summer.

“To experience a place, I need to walk in it as often as I can. Abenaki native poet Joseph Bruchac says, ‘We need to walk to know sacred places, those around us and those within. We need to walk to remember the songs.’”
—Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge

Inspired by my recent trip to Yosemite, I decided to ask the incarcerated women I write with on Fridays to explore their own inner and outer landscapes; to share the special places they’ve been, to reveal their own travel dreams and experiences.

We began, as always, with a poem; this day it was The Sound of a Train:

“Even now, I hear one and I long to leave/without a suitcase or a plan; I want to step/onto the platform and reach for/the porter’s hand and buy a ticket/to some other life…”
—Faith Sharon

This generated yet another poem, constructed from readback lines I gathered during our opening words:

Even Now

Even now, I long to step into big landscapes./ I long to step into a new way of life./ I long to step into the living room of my own home./ Even now, I long to step into reality, into memories; to get back what’s lost./ Even now, I long to step into this new sober life that I started to create./ I want to see my children again./ Even now. —Collective Poem, Community Transitions Center Writers, July 14, 2017

Each of the stories that followed became another collective poem I constructed from their readback lines:

Travel Longings

I traveled to North Carolina./ It was so beautiful./ It was a big change for me, but a good change./ I was not ready to come back.

I went to Baptist./I remember it like it was an hour ago./ One minute apart./ I couldn’t sit straight up. I had to get on all fours in the front seat./ He didn’t know what to do./ At 12 a.m./ Chris stayed with her the whole time./ Just because he’s gone doesn’t mean he has to be forgotten.

It was very far from my heart./ I wouldn’t deem it special just yet./ Especially to a 5-year-old, sitting with stories inside of her./ I don’t know my real name./ There’s a new life to claim./ You can change you but not your experiences./ My honesty amazes me./ I was unwanted and lived my life like that.

A penguin./ And yet it still thrives./ The penguin mates for life. / It’s love is loyal./ Love and loyalty means the most to me in this world.

A journey inside myself./ Banning away the fog./ Trees surround me./ A marble archway and a red door./ A little black kitten emerges./ She brushes my leg./ My world disappeared.

—Collective poem, CTC writers, July 14, 2017

I’ll share my own travel story in my next entry.

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Waiting for the Birds

 

 

Return from Yosemite
Journal Entry, June 9, 2017

I’m back in my writing chair, drinking my coffee and waiting for the birds. The feeders weren’t completely empty this morning, but mostly, so I added fresh suet and seed. Now, I wait.

Ah. Here they come.  First, the intrepid blue jay, with his low, insolent whistle. Then a red-bellied woodpecker. Both just stop by to say hello, but not to eat. Then, surprise—the shy brown thrasher, bird of a thousand songs, who lands on a branch with tail cocked high. I step to the window to watch him as he dives to peck at the seeds sprinkled below the feeders, among the grasses.

I watch silently at the window, and Buster, impatient with my ups and downs, hops onto the couch instead of waiting for me to sit back down on my chair.  From there he can keep an eye on me without being disturbed.

Now the jay and the house finch arrive, and their darting movements disturb the absolute stillness surrounding me inside and outside this house. It’s already deep summer here in my Riverside neighborhood, and the heat and the humidity blanket all.  Sunday morning: Not many are out and about.

Ah—my favorite, the downy woodpecker, finds the fresh suet. My wait is rewarded.

What a huge tumbleweed of experiences and images I’ve experienced over the past week!  It’s been difficult to take it all in without my early morning writing time to process it, putting space between the experiences of each day—like trying to read a page in a book without whites space between the lines and in the margins.

But here I am now, in the absolute stillness and quiet, watching the birds return, as do my thoughts, my memories, my experiences of the past week. Each thought a bird, landing silently on the branch to be observed, studied, appreciated, in the silence, as I begin to wonder what to make of it all.

Here.
In the Riverside Garden.

Reflection: It’s like my ears are still ringing from all of the ‘noise’ of this vacation. Gradually, the ringing subsides, and the experiences emerge.

Brown Thrasher (from Animal Totems: Dictionary of Birds)
When Brown Thrasher appears to you it is time to sing a joyous song of life and all of the experiences that surround you. Coincidences and synchronicities will expand your spirituality in a profound way. He teaches ways of communicating by listening and singing your own song in life along with care and tact in how you speak. He is about following your soul purpose and recognizing innate abilities. Communicating by listening and singing your song, being carefree and open with thoughts, ideas and creativity are part of Brown Thrasher’s lessons. Sensitive to surroundings, he shows how to follow through with your impressions and hunches. Brown Thrasher teaches the art of camouflage, timing, action and inaction. He demonstrates alertness, internal peace, and personal reclamation and transformation. Qualities of generosity and gentleness will bring rejuvenation and beauty to your world. Are you bringing joy and harmony to others? Is it time to lighten up? He will aid in focus and clarity to find balance. His medicine will show how to adapt with a renewed sense of joy. Brown Thrasher has a well-rounded diet; are you eating right? The time period for Brown Thrasher is about 9 days. Rapid developments await you. He will help keep you grounded so that you may sing the song in your heart.

 

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