Everyone Knows It’s Windy

Ahem.  Yes.  1967.  I was 13.  Remember 1967? 

It’s windy.  Today and yesterday, in NOAZ (that’s what they call Northern Arizona), upon wave of wind up to 50 miles an hour!

The sky is a perfect blue diamond.  I’m surrounded by forest, Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, some kind of Spruce.

The waves of wind from the South-Southwest pile up on that majestic escarpment, the Mogollon Rim, and spill over into the Coconino Plateau, which rides above the Rim like a giant plate rising to 8,000 feet before cracking in half to form the Grand Canyon.

And I, in my tiny RV, with my not so tiny canine pal Atina, had a choice to either go crazy in the two days (so far) of relentless waves of wind, or…or not.

At times the wind rocks the RV so hard, I think it’s going to tip over.

Atina thinks so too.  I can tell by the way she clings to me and farts.  As I write she is wrapped around my leg with her ass in my face, farting great clouds of evil fumes.  At the risk of being covered in red volcanic dust, I have had to open the window.

Every three or four minutes, another wave of wind-here it comes now-roars through the tree tops and through my window.  Atina sleeps, heaves a big sigh, farts.

I’ve been nervously checking my NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) high-definition radar app for any approaching precipitation.  This volcanic soil, when rained upon, becomes a treacherous soup of slippery mud.  If the soil becomes saturated, it can turn into quicksand.  So I watch the sky and keep track of the aviation forecasts.

I’ve always loved weather.  When I was 10 or so, a gigantic tornado passed right over our house.  We were listening to a record on the old record player.  Suddenly there was a deafening roar.  The dog dove under the couch.  The lights flickered.  The phonograph slowed eerily to a halt.  The lights went out.  The roar passed overhead…we thought it was a low flying jet, but strange… Then the lights came back on, the record player started up again, the dog came out from under the couch, and everything went back to normal.

The next morning my mother and I went to the laundromat.  It wasn’t there.  Just nothing but the concrete pad it was built on.

The mile-wide tornado sheared the city of Toledo, Ohio, off at second-story level and dumped it into Lake Erie.
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My father and I were big buddies.  We used to pack a lunch, a frying pan, a little bag of corn meal, a couple slices of bacon, and our fishing tackle, and we’d go fishing.

Dad taught me to fly fish.  I was good at catching twigs from overhanging trees.  We never caught anything, but we did forbidden things like chewing tobacco (yecch) and smoking corncob pipes (blecch). 

We did better fishing in ponds, where we caught pan fish: crappie, sunfish, bluegill–cleaned and scaled them on the spot.  Dad taught me how to make a small cooking fire, and we’d fry the bacon, roll the fish in cornmeal, and fry them in the bacon fat.  A delectable feast.  We ate them, fins, tails, and all.  Crunchy.

We went surf casting in the ocean, using long heavy rods baited with 8-10 inch long Styrofoam lures called Atoms, bristling with hooks, in hope of catching a bluefish and not getting bitten.

Once I was in a rowboat in Narragansett Bay with my friend Becky.  The bluefish were running, a huge school of them, so many that it seemed the boat was riding on top of waves of bluefish instead of waves of water.

We happened to have fishing poles, so we threw a line in, without bait, just bare hooks.  Becky hooked one immediately, and it fought so hard it took both of us to get it into the boat.

(Breaking news: Atina just puked.  She’s such a good girl, she urgently asks to go outside when she has to puke.  It was the Malinois Empty Stomach kind of puke, so I just fed her.)

We got the angry bluefish into the boat.  It thrashed and snapped, jumping around in the bottom of the dory.  Bluefish have a mouthful of deadly sharp teeth.  They can take a finger off, and bluefish bites seem to always get infected.

Becky yelled, “Hold into him, there’s a club in this boat somewhere!”

It was her father’s dory.  He was an avid fisherman, so there had to be a club in the boat, for whacking fish over the head.  That’s how you kill a fish.

She had to find the club, because the only other choice was to throw the fish overboard and cut the line.

But this could not be done without getting bitten, because a dory is a deep sort of boat.

No luck with the club, so we pulled one of the oars and whacked the fish to death, but then a wave came along and snatched the oar; and we were forced to paddle back to shore with one oar, which was not an easy task.

In normal conditions, if deprived of an oar, a person would jump into the sea and push or pull the boat ashore; but the sea was filled with snapping bluefish, so we managed, after a long time, to get the boat to land, more worried about what Becky’s father would say about the lost oar than anything.  Becky’s father was a kind man; he didn’t say anything.  He was a man of few words.  Not so, her mother.

One bright blue morning, Dad and I packed up our surf casting gear and headed out for Horseneck Beach to try our luck.  Somebody had told somebody else, who had told Dad that the bluefish might be running.

By the time we got to the beach, it was starting to cloud up.  Nevertheless we hauled our tackle to the shore and threw a line in.

The tide seemed to be coming in strong, although by the tide tables it should have been turning, just at the end of going out and starting to come in (“neap tide,” in fisherman’s terms).  High tide wasn’t for a good few hours yet.

But we cast our lines and tried to smoke, he his cigar and I my Balkan Sobranies, daring black cigarettes with gold leaf where the filter would have been, if there had been a filter, which there wasn’t.  By this time it was impossible to smoke, as the wind kept putting our smokes out.  So we put them away and turned our attention to trying to get our lures in the water.

But the wind, which was now howling like a banshee, kept throwing our lures back in our faces along with sheets of rain and salt spray.  We decided to pack it in and go have lunch.

We threw our fishing gear into the back of Dad’s Ford pickup and wallowed through the driving rain to a nearby fishermen’s bar that served the best conch chowder ever.

The scratchy t.v.was on.

When we came through the door, soaking wet, stamping our dripping boots on the mat, the boys at the bar said,

“What in the world have you two been doin’ out THEYAH?  In the middle of this hurricane?  You-ah lucky you didn’t get taken by a storm wave!”

Hurricane?  HURRICANE!  Nobody said anything about a hurricane.

The lights went out, and the barkeep lit kerosene lanterns.  Dad ordered us beers (yes, I was only fourteen, but the law was that a minor could drink if accompanied by a parent), and we lit fresh smokes.  The fishermen looked on approvingly.  We ordered hot conch chowder, and crumbled Common Crackers, which the barkeep scooped from a barrel, into the rich stew.

It made us forget, temporarily, that we were soaking wet.

(For you who did not grow up in New England in the ’60’s or before, Common Crackers, also known as Ship’s Biscuits, are rounds of flour, water, and baking soda, slowly baked until completely dehydrated, and dangerous to teeth unless broken up into chowder.  They keep indefinitely when stored in an airtight container, and thus were taken on long sea voyages on whaling ships.  As long as they don’t get wet they are good practically forever.)

After the wind died down some, we hydroplaned for a couple of hours till we got home.  My mother was frantic.  No cell phones in those days.  For all she knew (she wailed, through tears), we could have been taken by a storm wave.

Mom seldom approved of our adventures.  That’s one reason we seldom took her along.

The wind-waves seem to be slowing down now.  The NOAA weather discussion said it was going to, but I don’t trust it, as that’s what it said last night and today was worse than yesterday.

So I’ll keep on recollecting pleasant memories of dangerous adventures that turned out good.  Atina and I are warm and dry, and we’ve got plenty of food and water, without bluefish…although they are very tasty.

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My father, with a giant pot that he made for a demonstration at some art school or other.  Note that the pot is wearing his apron and hat.  He was 5’8″, so that gives you an idea of the size of this pot.

Below on the far left are a salt glazed porcelain teapot and vase that he made.  The rest of the pots were made by his former graduate students.  From a show in 2001 more or less.  I hope he’s playing in mud in Potter’s Heaven now…and enjoying a good conch chowdah, with a good cigar for dessert.

Happy Birthday, Dad

You would have been 91 years old today.

As it turned out, you left last year, three weeks short of your ninetieth birthday.  You couldn’t hang around for the chocolate cake; you had places to go.  You stuck it out as long as you could.  But anyone with a brain in their head could see that you were finished.

You were my hero.  I adored you, and I still adore you, and I always will adore you.  My tiny house on wheels is adorned with photos of you and your art.  It’s a rolling monument; you have no other, since you chose to be incinerated rather than buried…I always thought you’d make an ash of yourself….

I chuckle when I think of the horrible puns you managed to dig up on every possible occasion.  You and I would roar with laughter while Mom twisted up her face in disgust.  I wanted to punch her, but you either ignored her or said, “Aw, come on, don’t be such a fuddy-duddy.”

The week before you died, you complained of boredom, so I brought a book of short stories that I had given you many years ago.  I began to read my favorite, then realized with horror that it was a very black story about death!

I said, “Uh, Dad, do you mind some black humor?”

Through blue lips you croaked, “The blacker the better!”  And we had our last good chuckle.

You never laid a hand on me in anger, except for the one time you gave me a real over-the-knee spanking, at my mother’s insistence, for the crime of running away from her (again).  But your anger was not at me, but at her, and after the deed was done, you left me crying on my bed and closed the door.  I heard you tell her to do her own dirty-work.  Then my door opened and you came in to make sure I was all right.  You never touched me again, except for your bear-hugs and rides on your shoulders.  I loved it when we came to a doorway and you would shout “Low bridge!” so that I would know to fold myself around your bald head, and you would crouch down so I wouldn’t get bashed.

Your body betrayed you, but you squeezed the last drop of your strength to make your beautiful art.  It was only when your mind finally failed that you made your last body of beautiful work, walked out your studio door, and never returned.

You mourned your work, as I mourn mine.  Our conversations about that laid to rest your bitterness about my leaving practice, and my bitterness that you thought it was out of laziness rather than disability.  Once you had tasted the bile of being unable to do the work you loved, you apologized to me, and the sweetness of that apology erased my pain, although I grieved the fact that you had to live my experience in order to learn it.

After I left home, and my mother disowned me, you would sneak and visit me, wherever I happened to be, on pretense of work.  We reveled in our stolen fruit. 

Once when you came to dinner, I slipped on the kitchen floor and spilled the whole pot of home-made spaghetti sauce, full of sausages and mushrooms and wine, which you must have known had cost me a month’s worth of wages to buy.  You made your “tsk” sound and grabbed pot and spoon, and scraped that sauce right off my kitchen floor.

“You mean we’re going to eat that?”

“Damn right,” you grinned.  And we sure did, and chalked up another of our secret treasures.

And that time in Chicago, when you had dropped a machine on your hand and crushed it, and had it in a cast; and I had had a soccer injury, and was on crutches; and Chicago had had one of her epic snowstorms–we tottered around town, holding each other up, a couple of cripples, hilarious at every near-miss slip.

Oh, you taught me how to scare minnows from under their rocks and catch them in my hands, how to tuck a frying pan and some bacon and cornmeal in my creel in case one of us actually hooked a fish, and how to make a smokeless fire on which to cook it, if it came to that.

You taught me to chew tobacco (yuck), how to smoke a pipe of tobacco (blech), and how to get roaring drunk and laugh and talk philosophy till the wee hours (yum).

I could go on and on writing about the gifts you gave me, and someday I just might.  However, since I know you want me to save some for later, I’ll just sneak these in:

Honesty, integrity, genuineness, ingenuity, and never, ever to do anything just to “go with the crowd.”

And to live and love fiercely.

Your loving daughter,

Laura

PS I miss you

Yom Kippur

As the sun sets today, Jewish people all over the world will don their robes of pure white.  Even now they make their way to the Mikveh, the solemn bath of Living Waters that purify body and soul, in preparation for the Day of Awe, where we stand fasting before the King of Heaven and Earth to confess our sins and beg for forgiveness.  On this day our sins are forgiven, we are released from all vows, the slate is wiped clean for another year.

We wear white, because we are buried in white robes.  In fact, the men wear a kittle, a lightweight embroidered garment, in which they are married, and in which they will be buried.

We fast, and we wear white, because on this day we are like the Angels, who neither eat nor drink.  We wear our burial garments because on this day we are judged, as we will be on our deathbeds.

We fast for 26 hours, both from food and from water.  It’s a hard fast, especially in the Land of Israel where the air is hot and dry.  To add to this hardship, we stand for much of the day-long service.  Some people take on a personal service to stand during the entire service.

It is a day of examining the heart, a day of much weeping, a day of release from the burden of sin.

This Yom Kippur marks the first anniversary of Dad’s departure from this world.  His death.

I don’t know where Dad went when he died.  He didn’t know where he was going.  All he knew was that he was on his way out, and he was terrified.

He was sure he was going to be punished.  For what, he didn’t say.  He couldn’t say.  All he could do was shudder.  He was that terrified.

I have some ideas.

I know that he felt overwhelming guilt for things he had done in the war.  World War II.  He was sure he would have to pay for those things, one way or another, and the not-knowing gave rise to all kinds of imaginings.  He was a man who lived by imagination, by visions, by images, in the shadow-world.  It was the magic of his art, and the plague that visited his dreams.

I knew he would choose this day.  It was the deepest, darkest, most awe filled day.

Why not?  Dad never brooked folly.  If he was to die, it would be on the heaviest day of our year.

As evening approached, he gripped my hand for hours.  My hand screamed with arthritic pain, mine and his.

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Darkness fell.  His lips were dry and cracked.  I took some of the Hospice lemon flavored gel out of the cooler and brought the spoon to his lips.

He clamped his mouth shut, with the slightest shake of his head, “no.”

“Your food is spiritual now,” I suggested, knowing that this, his last Yom Kippur, would be his first and last fast.

He nodded.  It was nearly the last movement of the symphony that was his life.

He slipped into a peaceful dream, and I lay down on the vacant bed in the room reserved for dying people.

I must have drifted off, for near midnight an agonized cry jerked me awake.  I rushed to his side.  His face was twisted, his body arched.  I wanted to throw myself upon him, but I knew there was no way to save him from his pain, so I sent him wordless messages…I’m here….I’m with you…I won’t leave you…

Then I knew.  One more thing….

“Dad, it’s Yom Kippur.  Your sins are white as snow.  You are forgiven.  You can go.”

His breathing changed from the near-death Cheyne-Stokes pattern: a period of no breathing followed by several deep breaths, to the imminent-death pattern of rapid air-hunger breathing.  I called the Hospice nurse.  She gave morphine.  I called my mother, and in my doctor calm voice asked her if she wanted to be there.  At first she said no, then thought better of it and said yes.

Soon after she arrived, Dad had grabbed my hand again and I stood there, watching him struggle with the Angel of Death.  At last he knit his brow, and with a determined effort, made the leap.

Oh, how many times have I seen that look, when steeling himself for some odious task!  Dispatching a dying animal, gripping his usual weapon, the shovel…

And now, gripping his own soul, as he let go and tumbled out of his body, into….what?

His grip on my hand disappeared.  I looked at his hand, so tight just a moment ago, now flaccid and white.  His fingers, now blue sausages.

“Lower the bed.  All the way to the floor.”  The Hospice nurse and my mother obeyed.  I got my Siddur, the Hebrew prayer book, while I cried out,

“Shemah, YIsrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad…” 

Hear, O Israel, Adonai is Our God, Adonai is One….

Kaddish….

Yitgadal ve’yitkadash Sh’mei Rabbah…

May The Great Name be glorified and sanctified…

As the Deathbed Prayers stretched on, and my mother’s weeping grew louder, the Hospice nurse grew impatient and she called the mortician, who arrived with his impatient gurney.

“The mortician is waiting,” announced the nurse, just as I finished the Deathbed Prayers and was beginning to wash the body that used to belong to my dad.

I should have said FUCK OFF, this is my dad’s body, this is our religious tradition, this is Yom Kippur!

But I didn’t.

I watched them load him up, like a piece of meat.  They were casually chatting.  His dead face hung out; I pulled the sheet up to cover it.  My mother screamed.

His precious blue arm, the one that used to give me jovial hugs, had got caught between the gurney and the strap that held him on.  I pointed this out to the mortician and he fixed it, visibly irked.  My mother had declined a casket, since Dad was to be cremated.  Why waste money on a casket, only to burn it up?  No money in this deal for the mortician.

Now we have finished the twelve months of saying Kaddish, to help his soul make the journey into the Next World.  I am pretty sure I don’t believe in any Next World, but since I won’t know until I make that final leap, I leave the subject open.

Yitgadal ve’yitkadash Shmei Rabbah.

Amen.

There’s something I need to tell you.

I’ve been procrastinating, but I must gather courage and do it.

I haven’t wanted to blog about it because it makes me feel defeated, bad, and like a lousy person. I am afraid that my readers will hate me.

I thought about making up some kind of fairytale story to cover it up, and I almost got to believing it myself. I have a lot of grief about it, and I have a lot of grief about a lot of other things, and there’s only so much grief a person can have before you start wanting to make some things disappear from the grief radar.

But it’s no good. I have to face the fact: Noga is dead.

She died just before Memorial Day.

She didn’t get sick, or get run over by a car.

I had her euthanized, and here is why:

I adopted Noga at age 8 months. She was the “ugly duckling” from a show litter, and had been cast aside and ignored, kept crated most of the time. She was not potty trained or socialized at all. She was a happy little girl, but also had a deep anger and resentment toward anything she didn’t like, and she expressed it in a particularly unpleasant way.

If, for instance, I left her in the car on a perfectly cool day in order to run into the grocery or the drug store, when I came back there would be a pile of poop and a puddle of pee on my seat.

I thought this was fear, so even though I gave her a stern lecture about it, I forgave it and went about desensitizing her by going places in the car that ended up in walks in the park, or other pleasant things. Little did I know that I was conditioning her to expect something special for her every time we got in the car!

Eventually she got so that she didn’t make a bathroom out of my car every time I left her, but as soon as I got back to the car I had to kiss and cuddle her and make a big deal of how good she was, which I was happy to do, but if for some reason I was in a hurry and had to make it a quick one, she would sulk in the back seat and ignore me for the rest of the day.

I posted about this on the Lhasa Apso group board, and the answer I got from one of the world-class show breeders was:

“Apsos are a self-serving lot.”

I nodded, shrugged, and went on.

Over five years she became my little buddy, and accompanied me through my dad’s dying, and during his last weeks she was the only one who could make him laugh. When he died, I had to physically remove her from his body. When she loved, she loved fiercely, and that was the root of the problem.

The tears are pouring down my face now, and it’s hard to type.

As most of you know, after my father’s death I bought a small RV, just a conversion van, really, and Noga and I hit the road.

She didn’t like it. She really, really didn’t like it.

Before The Road, when we were living in my father’s studio, she had me all to herself. In fact, she was my only diversion from the constant blackness of my father’s terminal illness and my mother’s terminal abuse of my poor helpless Dad, which I was powerless to stop because not one single person in Adult Services would believe that my “angel” mother, who was a Geriatric Social Worker and had actually trained most of them, could be capable of such a thing, and they all knew about my mental illness, so poor Dad suffered until he went into the nursing home and was finally protected.

And Noga came everywhere with me, and was a big hit with everyone in the nursing home. She especially loved the people with Alzheimer’s, and became the unofficial Therapy Dog of the dementia unit.

But on the other hand, she bit people.

Specifically, she bit anyone who tried to approach me, or my dad—the Hospice nurses, for instance. We thought she was being protective, and since she was only 12 pounds everyone thought it was cute. I made sure to grab her up when anyone came, and most of the time was successful. Occasionally she did get somebody, but we were in Appalachia and people there are used to dogs that bite. Dogs bite, right?

For some reason, she liked to attack children. I had a heck of a time walking her in places where children might run by, or run up and try to pet her; so I made a point of taking her places where it was only she and I. That was how she liked it. But if a child happened to come by, she would lunge at them and I had to be vigilant with the leash, to jerk her back before those sharp little teeth made contact.

Back to The Road.

At first it was OK because she got to sit next to me while I drove, and of course she was my Service Dog so we went everywhere together.

But then something terrible happened. I used my newly found mobility to go and visit dear friends whom I had not seen in many years.

Of course, Noga came too—why wouldn’t she?

But I’ve left out one piece. Rewind five years.

After I brought her home for the first time, she jumped up on my bed and peed and pooped right on it.

Of course I was horrified, especially since it was a furnished house that I was renting from one of my parents’ friends. The quilt was a fine antique. I was in a total state of panic. I assumed that the reason she had done it was simply that she was not potty trained, and disoriented to boot; so I quickly cleaned up the mess, had the quilt professionally cleaned, and put my own linens on the bed.

Then I thought, well, I’ve trained a few dogs, so what should I do? Naturally, the way we potty train puppies is with a crate. We put them in the crate, take them outside every few hours, and praise them to the skies when they do their business where we want them to. Then it’s playtime, and tired puppies go back in the crate for a nap.

But since Noga was used to using her crate for a bathroom, she obliged me by going pee in the yard, but she saved her poop for her crate.

So every day I had not only old towels to clean up and wash, but also a filthy dog.

Then I had a brainstorm: put “potty pads” in the crate and leave the door open. Sure enough, she used her crate for a bathroom. Then I moved the potty pads to a spot near the front door, and took the crate away. Yup, she continued to use the potty pads. Life was good.

Then my son came to visit. I made up his bed, he threw his duffle in the corner, and we sat up talking till late at night as usual. Of course he made much of Noga, and she adored him immediately. He is a dog magnet.

Finally we dragged ourselves off to our respective beds, but—

“Um, Mom?”

I opened my door to find him standing in the doorway of his room. On his pillow was a neat little present: A pile of dog shit. And to make it extra nice, she’d peed on his quilt, too!

I was furious. I grabbed her by the scruff and held her over what she’d done, screaming “No! No! No!” My son fled the room, convulsed with laughter. It was too bizarre.

OK, in this case, jealousy. But using excrement as a tool for expressing displeasure? No, impossible. She’s a dog, for heaven’s sake. A cat might do that, but a dog? It did not make any sense.

If I described every similar instance, every defilement of the bed of a friend who came to visit, or in whose home I was a guest, it would fill so many feet of blog space that you’d get bored and click away, if you haven’t already.

I spent $400 on a phone consultation with an animal behaviorist at University of Tennessee. She chalked it up to a behavioral issue due to a traumatic puppyhood, and gave me some suggestions that didn’t work. The only thing that did work was my undivided attention, which she got most of the time anyway because of my reclusive nature and the state of total isolation that I lived in.

I knew it wasn’t doggy IBS or anything like that, because she flew to Israel and back with me three times, 14 hours each way, sitting on my lap, and never had an accident. And of course there were the innumerable vet visits, racking up thousands on lab tests that showed nothing.

And so it was, that one morning, after I had made the drive to Rochester, NY, to visit a couple who have literally been parents to me when my mother sent me out of her life, I woke up in my van and smelled something. My covers were wet. There was a pile of shit at the foot of my bed, and my dear little dog had rolled in it.

She watched as I opened my eyes. She wagged her tail. I screamed “Nooooooo!!!!!” and she wagged it some more.

I jumped out of bed, dressed, wadded up my bedding and stuffed it into a garbage bag, with the dog shut up in the tiny bathroom so she couldn’t smear her shit-covered fur all over the place.

Before I washed her off under the hose, I took a sample to take to the vet. Maybe she had eaten something bad, maybe her monthly worm medicine didn’t work, maybe I had forgotten to give it to her.

Nope, perfectly normal poop. The vet looked grim and silent.

“What do you think it is?” I didn’t tell him about her long history of pooping on people’s beds.

“Dunno, maybe she’s stressed or something. Come back if it happens again.”

It happened again, that very night. I am sorry to say I lost my temper and hit her, then felt horrible. She didn’t seem to mind. She looked at me and wagged her tail. I guess any attention is good attention to some people.

That night I tied her up in the aisle of the van. In the morning I had to bag up the carpet runner and throw it in the trash, because she had shat all up and down it and rolled in it too. All I could do was cry and wash the dog again.

The next night I put her in the bathroom, which has a molded plastic floor, and lined it with potty pads (did I mention I had lined the entire van with potty pads, but she scratched them aside so she could get to the floor?) thinking perhaps that would at least make cleanup easier, but this time, instead of shitting, she went to work attempting to chew her way out, so that now I have something to remember her by—a totally trashed, formerly brand-new bathroom door. Got me again.

In the meantime, my friend’s husband caught her twice sneaking up the stairs, trying to get to their bed. Oh. My. God. My friend has a poop phobia, and vomits if she even smells it! And Noga snarled at him when he intercepted her. Who would have imagined???

Then I got a call that my aunt, who is 93, had been moved to New Jersey from Florida to live by her daughter (my cousin, I guess you could say), and her daughter needed to go to Florida to close up her mother’s house. That meant Auntie would be alone. I volunteered to Auntie-sit, so off I went to New Jersey, with one or two stops at Laundromats along the way.

Hell had descended upon me. My beloved little angel had turned on me, and it seemed there was nothing I could do about it.

My cousin made arrangements for me to stay at a campground very near the nursing home, so I could visit my aunt two or three times a day. It was a normal campground, full of kids running around and riding bikes. Noga bit two of them, not badly, but she bit them. Fortunately nothing came of it, except that I had to walk her in the nasty woods behind the campground.  I got two ticks.

I continued making daily trips to the campground Laundromat. This was getting very expensive, as well as being just, I can’t say it any other way, hell on earth.

I took another poop sample to a local vet. No parasites, pathogens, nothing. He was very sympathetic, and sent me to another vet who specialized in behavioral problems. He listened to me carefully and here is what he said:

“You know, there are two main classifications of behavioral problems in dogs. There are neuroses, like separation anxiety, that we can treat with medications and behavior modification. Then there are personality disorders, which in the case of dogs, are inborn disorders of the brain. We can try medications (listed them off) if you want…”

I mentioned that I had been giving her Ativan, in case of anxiety, but even though it did make her groggy it did not stop the shitting behavior.

“I thought not. What she is doing is expressing her displeasure. She is punishing you.” I nodded. I knew that. I just had not allowed myself to believe it, because she was my little angel and that just could not be true!

“You have choices. You can try medicating her. Or you can live with it.”

At this point I’m shaking, tears and snot are streaming down my face. Noga is strangely quiet. It’s as if she can understand what we’re talking about.

“I can’t live like this anymore!” I blubbered. “What about finding her a new home?”

He shook his head. No, she would just do the same thing, and then maybe she would end up in some shelter, and she’s adorable so someone would immediately adopt her, and eventually she would end up being abused, maybe sooner than later…I was shaking by this time. I knew where he was going.

“So the only good choice for her is to put her to sleep?”

“Well, it depends how long you can tolerate this. As I said, we can try medication, but frankly I do not believe that it will work.”

I searched inside my heart. I could not live this way. I had already been literally swimming in dog excrement for a month, with no end in sight. I handed her over to the vet tech and stumbled to the front desk, paid the bill, and blinded with tears climbed into my van and fell onto the bare bed, stripped for the thirtieth time, and laid there crying until it was time to go visit my aunt.

“Where’s Noga?! I thought you were going to bring her today!”

My aunt and I have always been close. She’s been much more of a mother to me than my own mother ever was. I blubbered out the whole story.

“Oh Baby, I’m so sorry. I had no idea. Well, you did the right thing. She would have had a miserable life, and she certainly made your life miserable. You’ll both be better off this way.”

I got the same feedback from other friends who knew what was going on. My son was really devastated, though he tried to hide it, but he knew how long I’d been trying to help Noga get over whatever this was, because I loved her so dearly.

And now she’s gone, and I have another dog, because I must have a dog to let me know what’s real and what’s not.

But there will never be another little sweet thing like Noga, even though things got so bad that it had to end.

When Does Life Become Unlivable? Thinking of Frida

Dearest Readers, rest your minds, I am not there yet.

Today is rainy and soggy.  The ground is thawing out in our Spring Thaw, which is a prelude to actual Mud Season.  I grew up mostly in New England where there is a time of year called Mud Season, generally starting the end of February and going on and off through March.  It’s a beastly time because everything from horses to tractors–not to mention cars and pickup trucks–gets bogged down in the mud.  You can’t get any “purchase” (traction) because under the foot-and-a-half of mud is the frost line from the winter, which will stay frozen even into May, as any New England gravedigger will tell you.

What this weather means for me is misery.  My hands hurt.  My hips hurt.  My neck is even now packed in pillows so I don’t forget and move it.  Et cetera, ad nauseam.  Oh and my asthma is suffocating me.  Go away, damn it, and let me just LIVE!!!

I saw my orthopedist this morning for another cortisone shot into my right shoulder.  Unlike last time, when the needle slid in so easily I didn’t even feel it, he had to do quite a bit of wudging around till he was able to get the needle into the joint.  It hurt.

I remarked on this, in a casual tone, like this:  “Fuck a duck, Doc, what the hell are trying to do to me???”

Actually I did not frame it in those terms, more because I know that all 6’5″ 300 lb of him are made of good nature and kindness–he and his saintly wife have, on top of their own eight children, adopted eight more, all of them older children who needed a good home.  Even if he wasn’t on the short list for sainthood I would still try to maintain a modicum of dignity and say something more like, “Sonofabitch, Doc, that hurts!”

He grinned and mentioned casually that I am certainly going to need that shoulder operated on at some point, as the joint is proliferating with calcium deposits that will need to be “scraped off” (oh, I don’t like the sound of that!) so they don’t tear up the muscles.

Here my vision goes blank and all I can see is my father lumbering along with his elbows stuck out to the sides like a chimpanzee, because both of his shoulders had frozen up….eventually becoming bone-on-bone.  He was literally stuck, couldn’t do anything with his hands–and he was a ceramic artist.  Hell on Earth.  And it didn’t stop there.  The arthritis ate his spine, just like it’s been slowly but surely eating mine since the 1980’s.

I had emergency surgery on my neck in 1987 for a ruptured disc that was pressing on my spinal cord.  Over the next 3 years I ruptured 4 more.  The spine surgeons proposed installing steel rods on either side of mine spine–no thanks!  I’m a dancer, a horse-and-dog trainer, a hiker, an aspiring Yogini.  A rigid spine does not suit my lifestyle.  So I spent 12 months in a Minerva Jacket, which is a hard plastic shell that the brace shop guy molded directly to my Stockinet encased torso, from just below the armpits to just above the groin, so that I could kind of sit.  It had Velcro fasteners in front.  I was to be encased in this walking tomb for 23 3/4 hours a day–with 15 minutes off to bathe.  I admit that I had to take the damn thing off at night.  Nobody could sleep with that thing cutting into your skin no matter how many layers of cast padding, etc., they fixed up for me to try to make it more comfortable.  I even coaxed the brace shop guy (“You have a perfect hourglass figure…!  He crooned, while I was immobilized in plaster yet again…stupid sod, I thought, only worse) into punching hundreds of 1 cm holes in the thing when it got to be summer and I was overheating in it.

Yah.  I spent that entire year standing up 120 hours a week–my work week–because the tension on my spine from sitting down sent the nerve pain all the way into my feet, and all the way into my hands.  But I soldiered on.  I refused to let the pain stop me.  I was young, and had the iron will that sustains my people.

Look, I follow a lot of people who have it much worse than I do.  Much, much worse.  And they keep right on living, kvetching now and then as is their right.

But I am staring into the face of a dilemma, which is:  I can’t work if I can’t look down.

Say what?

I can’t work if I can’t look down.  Not at my regular streams of income, at any rate.

I had to give up practicing regular medicine, not exclusively because of my brain, which wasn’t doing so well either but got right-side-up very quickly once I got the proper diagnosis and the proper meds, but mostly because my hands gave out due to whatever it is that is eating away at my connective tissue.

So I relied upon my acupuncture training.  Palpating meridians and slipping needles into the right places takes no strength at all.  But damn it, the last few treatments I’ve done, I swear I’ve squawked as much as my client!  I can’t look down without incurring an acute, unremitting ache that spreads into my shoulders and down my arms.  Nerve pain.

Writing.  I don’t sell much yet, but then I haven’t made much of an effort.  I get going with writing and at some point my hands seize up and won’t work at all.  I am experimenting with Dragon Dictate.  It is a pain in the arse, but many people swear by it (I swear at it, cliches be damned!).  I’m starting a proofreading and copyediting business.  That should be a good income stream, if I can market it successfully.  There must be a way to mark-up copy using Dragon or something, right?  At least I can get my computer at eye level.  God, I can’t stop thinking about Frida Kalho.

Money.  At the moment I’m fine.  I made one single good investment in my life, which sustains me now.  That stream of income goes away the moment I turn 65, if I make it that far.  I’m socking away as much as I can, but one little bit of extra expense can throw me seriously in the hole.  It’s unsustainable.  I have to find another way of supporting myself.

This is where the equations meet.  I cannot live as an impoverished cripple.  Please do not play the “Oh, no, you’re going to be just fine” game.  I get that enough from people I live around.

The truth is, I am not and will not be fine.  I have two progressive diseases, and if one doesn’t kill me, the other will make my life a living hell, just as it did to my father.

Dad didn’t want to live like that either, but he got taken by surprise.  It was as if he woke up one morning mostly paralyzed.  He was too bunged up to even take his own life!  So he lived another 5 years in unrelenting pain, totally dependent on the kindness (or unkindness, as the case often was) of others.

When we were alone he would ask me, “How much would it take?”  He was referring to his insulin: how much would it take, to take him out of his misery?  I could not, would not tell him.  He would smile sadly, saying “I know you can’t tell me.”  And we would change the subject.

Gentle readers, there will come a time when those two lines intersect: the downward spiral of my health and productivity, and the linear decline of my ability to sustain myself with food, shelter, medicines, and everything else one needs.

No.  I do not want to enter a nursing facility.  Neither do I want to be dependent on others, which is convenient because there ARE no others to be dependent upon.

I do not want to be locked into a crippled body the way my father was, until he died an excruciating death, screaming out his last hours on earth through blood-filled lungs.

I pray that I will know the right moment.  I pray even more that if there is a Deity, that he/she/it will take me out of this life before I have to make that tough decision.

Pray with me now, dear readers.

Pray that I get to dance at my son’s wedding.

Pray that I get to hold my first grandchild.

Pray that I get to have a sweet, gentle kiss of Death, and go Home before I have to make that tough decision.

Frida’s last diary entry, the night before her not-entirely-accidental death, went something like this:  “I hope my end is joyful, and I hope to God never to return.”

How My Father Outlived Death

In case any of you are new to BPFL, or happened to miss it, my father died on October 2nd.

It was an expected event, as I will explain; and although I miss him, I am glad his long suffering is over.

You may be thinking, but she said in her title that he outlived death.

He did.

Let me explain.

I have written before, somewhere or other, of the nights when I would come to visit him, from undergraduate school or medical school or work somewhere out West, and we would sit up long after my mother had said her good-nights in her short thin nightgowns that make me blush.  I have never liked to expose my body parts, not out of religious prudery but from sheer terror of exposure.  But I digress.

Dad and I had a lot to discuss in those days.  He called it “talking philosophy,” but it was really his way of being my teacher, guiding me through the process of critical thinking, of Devil’s Advocacy, hypotheticals–he would have made a good lawyer, except that he had a conscience and that was problematic.

Truth be known, he had always secretly wanted to be a medical doctor, so he lived that part of his life vicariously through me.

Our late-night philosophy-fests always featured a liquor bottle: either Dickel (Tennessee corn likker) or Dewar’s Scotch, depending on our taste and what there was.

One night waxed into three A.M. and we were both high as kites, and he says,

“Promise me something.  I mean, really promise me something.”

“Promise you what, Dad?”

“Promise me, and I mean really promise me, that if I get to where I can’t wipe my own ass, that you will shoot me and put me out of my misery.”

He did not own a gun “because if I had one I might use it,” he would say with a darkly suggestive rise of the left eyebrow.  I was never quite sure whether he would be tempted to use it on my mother or himself, but the situation was moot because he did not have a gun.

I, on the other hand, had a couple of guns at the time, a .22 caliber Ruger assassination pistol, which I still own, and a lovely child’s shotgun.  The latter always made me squirm, to think that a century ago and even more recently, people taught their 10-and-12-year-old children to shoot a highly destructive weapon like a shotgun.

I was caught between a rock and a hard place, Psylla and Charybdis, all of those really tight spots, you know, and I was, of course, obliged to tell him yes even though I fervently meant no.  This was no drunken demand.  He really meant it.  The part about not wanting to live if someone else had to wipe his ass.

We all thought he was doomed to perish in the course of his work as a ceramic artist: so many ways to keel over face first in the spinning clay, or burn up in the heat of the kiln and make an ash of himself.

None of that happened.  Instead he got about ten years of his brain and body being whittled away, subtly at first, then galloping along with each day reaching inexorable claws and ripping out some other vital function.  It wasn’t long before indeed he could not wipe his own ass.

Always the teacher, he accepted this new indignity with much more grace than I would have had.

He was about 88 when this happened.  Things tumbled down from there.  Eating became problematic because his hands had ceased to function, so he had to be fed a lot of the time; or else I had to guide his utensil to his mouth, and he might get half of it in if we were working well together.

As you can see, I never did shoot him.

He did make some inquiries regarding how much of his insulin it would take to kill himself, and also about what would happen if he just stopped taking his insulin.  But in the end he did not really want to die by his own hand, or else he was too afraid.  In any case he managed to live until he died.

He outwitted death by about two miserable, agonizing, humiliating years.  He lived right up until the moment that he died.

And wouldn’t you know it, his last request was for something I absolutely cannot do.  He made me promise, though.  Promise me you’ll….

Well, I think he knows what I can truly promise, and what I can’t.

But as far as he and I are concerned, he cheated certain death by two years, and that’s something.

 

My Magic Wand

When I was in active Pediatrics practice, anxious parents used to ask me all the time, “When will this get better?  Will it get worse?  Can you make it go away?”  This, usually in reference to some unpleasant chronic condition like asthma or psoriasis.  My answer to them was always the same:

My Magic Wand is in the shop with my Crystal Ball.”

This usually provoked a crestfallen look.  But I do not lie, I do not dissemble.  I tell the truth even when it is not what anyone wants to hear:

“Your child has leukemia.”

“Your child has meningitis (because you staunchly refused to give him the vaccination against that--but I would never say that.  They will either figure it out or not, but I will not increase the suffering of an already stricken parent.)”

“Although we did everything in our power, we were not able to save your child.”  That was the worst, the one I dreaded the most.  Where there is life, there is hope, is a true statement.  There are conditions which are dangerous, which are usually fatal, but where there is life, there is hope.

But the outcome, in the end, is not in my hands and I cannot foresee the future: my magic wand is in the shop with my crystal ball.

And now that I am the patient, I juggle these things.  Some things about my diseases can be predicted, and some can’t.  I think sometimes the most distressing part of having a disease is the uncertainty of how it will turn out.

Take Ebola, for instance.  The media has whipped the fear-and-paranoia quotient to the moon.  People are starting to fear each other on the streets.  There is talk of people wearing masks in public places, even though it has been proven that in order to pass the virus via the respiratory route, like a sneeze or a cough, someone would have to be so sick that they would be on life support anyway, not likely to be in the subway station or the mall.

Will the virus take hold in other nations, or will it peter out the way Bird Flu did, the way the previous Ebola outbreak did?

Sorry folks, my magic wand is in the shop with my crystal ball.

I am fortunate to live in two countries where one is relatively free to chose one’s own doctors, for many things, anyway, if one’s health plan permits.  If I don’t like my doctor, I simply fire them and get another one.

Very fortunately, my shrink in America, whom I have been in a cordial therapeutic relationship with on and off since 2001, is a funny, pragmatic man, who is just as likely to say “I don’t know” as he is to say “Hello, how are you?”  –which he says in a jovial yet businesslike manner, because he REALLY wants to know how you are.

Thirty minutes later I leave his office both confident and perplexed, which is the way he means for me to feel.  I am not sure our plan of treatment will work.  Neither is he.  His magic wand is in the shop with his crystal ball.

He must be in cahoots with my therapist, whose office is just the other side of his wall.  I give her a hard time, saying, “I could do your job right now.  Right now!  All I would have to do is rotate the following exclamations:  “Really?  No!  You HAVE to be kidding. [silence]”  She did not quite find that funny, but I did and that’s what’s important, especially if your DSM diagnosis was changed, without your permission, from Asperger Syndrome to Autistic Spectrum Disorder NOS.

But in reality she is a really good therapist, because she does indeed give me both space and support, and cognitive feedback, which I truly appreciate.

She DOES have a magic wand in her office, but it’s one of those fake ones, you know what I mean, with some kind of thick fluid and glitter than flutters down through it when you upend it.  But crystal ball, no, she leaves that part up to me.

My family doc in Israel is a one-of-a-kind gem.  He listens to me; he is open-minded yet erudite, and he most certainly owns neither magic wand nor crystal ball, and if he did he would have to lock them away from his kids.

Now.  I want you to know that luck played very little part in my finding my Medical Knights and Ladies.  I fired many a therapist, and several psychiatrists, before I happened upon the ones I have.

The position of Primary Care Physician in America is still open.

My psychiatrist in Israel, bless his heart, had a severe psychotic episode and had to be hospitalized, and I don’t think he’s practicing anymore.  I hope not.

Far be it from me to be anti a mentally ill psychiatrist; my shrink here has Major Depressive Disorder, and he knows how it hurts.

But my Israeli shrink started showing signs of paranoid psychosis while I was in his office, which was in a basement room with no windows and you had to be buzzed both in AND out.  Oh dear.  Nothing short of Magic Wand was going to help him, poor man.  He was kind enough to renew my prescriptions for three months, giving me time to find out there wasn’t anyone else on my health plan who speaks English.

All of this is to say:  We just don’t know.  We don’t know what will happen to us in the next moment, let alone days, weeks, months, or years.

I was in a traffic jam going up a steep hill on a two-lane road once.  When traffic finally got moving it became clear that a huge tree, its roots sodden with the torrential Monsoon rains, had fallen atop a Jeep, crushing both it and its occupant.  She died instantly.

After watching my father wither slowly away over years, months, weeks, days, and moments, it was hammered home to me: I don’t have a crystal ball, and I certainly don’t have a magic wand.  But I want that lady’s tree-falling-on-vehicle sudden death.  I don’t want to fade slowly into more and more and more pain, up till the very last breath.  If only I could have that crystal ball, to see my death, and that magic wand to change it, if it isn’t one I can live with.

So That I Not Forget

A dear friend of mine who holds down a spot for me in Jerusalem gave me this advice today: write down your memories of your last years, months, days and hours with your dad, because these memories fade quickly, and you don’t want to lose them.

I moved from Jerusalem to my parents’ property in 2011, in order to ride herd on the situation with my dad.  He had had several bad falls already by then, and flying back and forth from Israel every time he got a concussion was eating up my savings and causing me way too much stress.  So I packed up and moved here.

Dad was still pretty lucid then, but showing signs of dementia, and his physical body was falling apart piece by piece because of the same degenerative joint disease and degenerative disc disease that he passed on to me (thanks, Dad).  It was getting so that he couldn’t do much for himself anymore, between the cognitive decline and the physical disability.

We have always had what I can only call a platonic love relationship; certainly a father-and-daughter love relationship, but something more–a collegiality, a mutual admiration, and a non-sexual transcendent enduring love free of any vestige of pettiness or jealousy.

In the years since I have been here, our relationship was forged even stronger thanks to my mother’s need to have time on her own, a healthy thing that provided my dad and I with ten or so uninterrupted hours every week to review the events of our lives and our life together, to share our meaningful and downright fun times, and our regrets at not having spent more time together.

We also had the blessed chance to talk about how we felt about each other, the feelings and the hurts and the wishes.

As he moved toward his death, we moved deeper into the dark side of his relationship with my mother, who has always had a short temper, no patience, and no particular respect for much of anything.  He had always kept her under control by means of fear–whenever she (or, rarely, I) got out of control he would seem to triple in size, and bear-like, roar his displeasure.  My mother was terrified of these “Hulk” episodes, and the fear of provoking one kept her screaming fits in check, most of the time.

But as he became incapable of terrorizing her, she pulled out all the stops and reveled in her newfound power over him.  I won’t go into detail, since this is an essay about him and not her, but I mention it only to say that he often poured out his anger and feelings of helplessness during our ten hours a week.

During his various stints in the nursing home in his last months, I sat with him many hours a day.  Often, we just held hands, since his brain was further damaged by head injuries sustained in various falls.  And until he lost the faculty of speech, in the last weeks, we processed things that we cherished, things we wished we had done while we had the chance, and things we had done or experienced that we wished hadn’t happened.

We held hands and kissed our dry pecks said “I love you” a million times.  I am so glad we did that.  It’s bitter-sweet now, and perhaps will always be, but at least I have the comfort of knowing that we did not hold back out of artificial formality.

Two nights before he died I was restless, could not sleep until four in the morning, when I fell into a dark slumber from which I awoke with a feeling of urgency.  I dressed quickly and drove to the nursing home.  He was lying in the “quiet room” where they put people who are about to die.

The previous day, he hadn’t known me.  Even though I knew this would likely happen at some point, it hit me like a cannon ball in the gut.  I lost it.  Hot tears choked me, I fell off my feet into a wardrobe which came close to falling on me, and I didn’t care.  I slid to the floor sobbing.  My mother wanted me to get control of myself.  I ignored her.  After some time I sobbed myself out, and asked her to go get me a latte, which gave me some time to just look at my father, who was now asleep, and remind myself that it wouldn’t be long.

It wasn’t.

The following evening I packed up my “24 hour kit” with my jammies, toothbrush, meds, and what-all, drove to the nursing home, and took over the other bed in his room.  He had his eyes open, and they seemed to be clear and not hazed over like they had been the last few days.

“Hi Dad,” I said tenuously.  I didn’t know what I would do if he didn’t recognize me this time.

“Hi Laur,” he said weakly.  I breathed out.

“I love you, Dad,” I wept.

“I love you, too, Laur.  I really, really, really love you.”  He had hold of both my hands, and I stood there, physically hurting from the odd position but with heart full of love.  I stood there till his hands relaxed and his eyelids drooped, exhausted.  I extricated my hands and, taking only minimal meds so that I could wake at any sound, lay down on the spare hospital bed to rest.

His breathing became more difficult, and he began to cough.  The coughing was followed by the gurgle of fluid.  I called the hospice nurse, and she ordered a cocktail of morphine, atropine (to dry up secretions), and Ativan.  This helped a lot.  It was ordered for every two hours as needed, and we needed it.

I must have fallen asleep, because at 4 am I was awakened by a high-pitched, primal, animal scream.  I rushed to his bed and found him unconscious, breathing deeply for four or five breaths, followed by 25 seconds of no breathing at all.  Cheyne-Stokes respiration: the breathing pattern that precedes death.  I called the hospice nurse again.

She arrived fifteen minutes later.  Yes, she said: death was imminent.  It could be minutes, hours, even days–but it would be here soon.  I cried, but she did not offer a hug.

Half an hour later, his breathing pattern changed to a regular rhythm, but very rapid.  The nurse took his pulse oximetry: 78.  Normal is in the high 90’s.  We knew it wouldn’t be long.  I called my mother, and she appeared in record time.  She must have flown over the mountain roads.

The moment before he left, his face contorted as if making a huge effort.  It seemed to me as if he had to consciously make that leap into the unknown.  And two shuddering breaths later, he breathed his last.

“His spirit is already gone,” mused my mother, doubtless trying to placate me–knowing how strongly I feel about keeping the Jewish burial practices, and not desecrating the body by burning it–“no more suffering, my love, no more suffering,” addressed to the lifeless shell on the nursing home bed.

Yes, he did suffer, mightily.  And as always, he was my teacher, my guru, in teaching me how to suffer.  He taught me how to live, how to suffer, how to die.

Tzeitcha be’shalom, Dad.  Have a safe journey.

Blessed Is The Righteous Judge

Baruch Dayan ha’Emet.

His already cold white hand slithered through my soapy gloves like a live fish as I tried to wash the fingers: blue sausages strange to me, unlike the skillful fingers that twirled and carved and painted in an epoch now seeming so long ago.

“Those hands, those hands,” my mother murmured over my shoulder.  She had volunteered to wash his body, a last act of kindness, but gave up when she saw that he was really dead.

“His fingers are turning blue,” she observed, almost casually.  I wanted to back-hand her, but instead interlaced my fingers with the cold dead ones in order to wash his arm and chest.  Just a couple of days ago we had interlaced our warm fingers just so, when he first lost the ability to talk.

“Look, his chest has hardly any hair left on it,” chirped the grisly bird at my shoulder.

How long had it been since she looked at his once bear-like chest, black with thick curly hair?  Probably when he ceased to be a “man” to her, which she had had no compunctions about trumpeting in that booming voice of hers, at her famous dinner parties, with him sitting right there shrinking into himself, mortified, unable to defend himself.

I concentrated on rinsing off the soap with clean wet washcloths, and tried to close his mouth, which had fallen open some weeks ago, making speech even more difficult for him; and now it seemed that it had stuck that way, and I couldn’t get it to stay shut.  I could not stand to let his gullet stand open to the public like that, so I called for some gauze and placed a carefully folded square behind his teeth.  It looked odd, but seemed better than the gaping maw.

The undertaker showed up before I had a chance to wash his face, and suddenly the hospice nurse became all business: a stark contrast to the all-compassion face she had on before he died.  Now it was just the routine, slide the limp item over from the hospital bed to the undertaker’s stretcher and strap it on.

His elbow was caught up in the strap, and pinched horribly; it hurt me to see that already he was treated like a piece of meat, only not so carefully, having no intrinsic value.  At the very least it was disrespectful.  I bounded forward and started to pull his arm out, and was intercepted by the undertaker, who did it for me but was visibly miffed.  Fuck him.

As they took him away the man in black explained to my mother that they would not be taking him “over the mountain” to Johnson City, the nearest crematorium, until they had assembled “a few” (to make it worth the trip, I suppose), so it would not be the next day or perhaps the next.  Jews are normally buried within 24 hours of death, but since he was to be cremated, what’s the difference?  All of our customs were going up in smoke anyway, so why not that one too?

My mother won that round.  It was what he wanted, it’s in his will, they are not Orthodox, he did not want to be eaten by worms/beetles/what-have-you, and We Believe In Cremation.

Jews don’t cremate.  We believe that the soul needs the body as a kind of GPS cache, so it knows where it came from, at least in the month after death after which it ascends to its Heavenly Home.

And we believe that a part of the soul remains with the body, and will return to Jerusalem when the Messiah comes.

Burning the body deprives the soul of its orientation.  It has no place to rest in those vital thirty days, and it can get lost in the vast spiritual realms.

Not only that, but our enemies shoved us into ovens by the millions.  Do we really want to commemorate that by burning our dead?

I explained to her all these things.  She waxed romantic telling me how they had dreamed of the places where they would spread their ashes.

Where?  I asked.

Oh, um, you know, all those places……

The animal graveyard down at the bottom of the garden where all the pets are buried?  I volunteered.

Oh yes!  She brightened.  And maybe plant a tree, and sprinkle his ashes on it….

Bullshit.

Culture is defined by rites-of-passage and by lifeways: food, weddings, and the rituals surrounding death.  Over and over in the Torah, we are commanded not to take on the customs of the surrounding nations.  We do not share their food, lest our children intermarry and take on the customs of foreigners.

Jews keep Kosher, have special wedding rituals, and have very specific funeral procedures.  None of these involve desecrating the body, living or dead.

For those of you whose culture prescribes or allows cremation, I do not write this to denigrate or offend you, for those are your customs and for you they are good.

For us, deviation from these customs means assimilation, and assimilation means the death of our living culture.

And in order to live properly, we must die and be properly buried.

Baruch Dayan ha’Emet.  Blessed Be The Righteous Judge.

Dying On The Low Road

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When I walked into Dad’s room at the nursing home, he was writhing in agony and moaning.  He had succeeded in getting his hospital gown off, and was working on the rest of his attire–his diaper–and had the bedclothes tightly twisted around his legs so they stuck out at an unnatural angle.

I threw off my backpack and ran to him.

“Hi Dad, what’s wrong?”  I unravelled the sheets and put his top back on him.  He grabbed my hand and smiled, kissed my hand over and over, then a pain struck him and he rolled from side to side, moaning.

“Where does it hurt, Dad?”

He managed to get his good hand up to his head.

“You have a headache?”

Nods.  He has a hell of a concussion after his horrid fall a month or so ago.  I can relate, having had several bad concussions.  They give you a headache for a long time.

“OK, let me get the nurse to give you some Tylenol (Acetaminophen, Acamol, Paracetamol, etc.).  That will help your headache.

He looked at me skeptically, but assented with his eyes.

Since his last fall, Dad, who had been having difficulty speaking after a number of small strokes in the speech area of the brain, is now “locked in.”  He can understand a lot of what is said around him, but he is unable to produce meaningful speech.  It’s a horrible state to be in.

The nurse was very busy passing pre-dinner meds, but she knows my dad, and if he says he is in pain, he is.  She crushed up the tablets in applesauce and I fed it to him.  It tasted vile, and he gagged on it.  At least I was able to get some water into him, in the form of big mouthfuls to wash the taste of the nasty medicine out of his mouth.

The Tylenol did take his headache away, but it didn’t fix whatever was causing him to writhe and groan.

I called his nurse, and we made the joint decision to give him his morphine, which he has on order every 4 hours if needed, and it was clearly needed.

Thankfully, the morphine was just a few drops from a tiny syringe.  It seemed to help for half an hour or so, then the writhing and groaning began again.

I searched my mind and looked at the picture with soft vision.  I saw it.  He had to go to the bathroom!

I asked him.  “Maybe,” he says.

I called the Nurse Assistants, and the put him on the commode.  I stepped out for modesty’s sake.  Jewish children are forbidden to look upon their parents’ nudity, as we learn very early in the Torah where Noah gets drunk and takes off all his clothes.  One of his sons looks into his father’s tent, sees him lying there drunk and naked, and laughing, tells his two brothers.  The brothers get a blanket and, throwing it over their shoulders, back into their father’s tent and, not looking at him, drop the blanket on top of him, to cover his nakedness.  So I do not stay in the room whenever the nurses are doing anything that normally we consider private.

Now that we have opened the Jewish Thing, I want to talk about a concept that has been Jewish and Vedic and I don’t know what else, for 5,000 years more or less, that has recently been backed up by medical specialists in the art of assisting dying people.  Yes, there are such physicians.  They minister to hospice patients, for the most part.

The Jewish tradition, backed up by medical observation, is that there are two roads to death: the High Road, or easy death, like people who simply up and die in their sleep, just go to bed like normal and don’t wake up.  We call that “mavet be’neshikah,” or death by a kiss.  Whose kiss?  The kiss of the Master of the Universe, who says, “it’s time to come home now,” and that’s that.  Aharon ha’Kohen and Moshe Rabbeinu both went that way.  I pray that all of us go that way.

People who die like that have finished their soul’s purpose on Earth and will not reincarnate, usually, unless it is into a body that just needs a bit of  touch-up.  These are the babies who die very young, or in the womb after 4 months gestation.

Death on the low road is another thing entirely.  It is a slow and painful death, one that makes the sufferer long for the relief of suffering that death brings.  It seems as if the soul is having a struggle with the Malach ha’mavet–the Angel of Death.  They beat themselves up dying, like a moth beats itself to death on a lightbulb.  It’s not that they don’t want to die, although some of them struggled against Death out of fear of what awaits them on the Other Side.

My father is one of these.  He is a World War II Veteran, and saw and did some horrific things.  He is terrified that he will be held accountable for these actions, which he deeply regrets and spends each night living them over (he has classic PTSD), such that sometimes my mother would have to go sleep in the guest room in order to avoid being a partner in hand-to-hand combat.

The unfortunates who get Death on the Low Road suffer and suffer, and experience all of the unpleasantness and pain of slow death, even to the end, where they have the agonies of air hunger, hallucinations, thick secretions, and even seizures.

What does this mean?

In the Jewish mystical tradition, Death by the Low Road means that the apparently unfortunate sufferer is actually engaged in a process that completes and cleanses the soul from the difficult life it’s been through, and the suffering atones for misdeeds done in life, even if they had a good outcome.

For instance, my father once walked up a small hillock that happened to be on the battlefield of Alsace-Lorraine, and on reaching the top, found himself looking straight into the eyes of a German SS soldier.  For a brief moment, the two teenagers looked into each other’s eyes and saw…themselves.  They saw normal young men who liked to drink beer and chase skirts.  In other circumstances, they might have been buddies.  Then the German pulled his duty pistol, and my father ran him through with his bayonet before the other teenager could fire a shot.

To this day my father regrets that action.  He really, really regrets it.  And by taking the Low Road out, that necessary transgression will be cleansed and forgiven, so that his next incarnation will not be dealt with as that soldier was dealt.  We are held accountable for our deeds, for better or worse, and the blemishes in our pure original souls that these deeds cause must be repaired in one way or another.  This kind of Death is one way of doing it, and in the end it is a much more pleasant way of repairing one’s Godly soul.

But we can’t know.  Take me, for instance.  I did some pretty unsavory things as a young person, and even as an older person.  None of these were intentional or premeditated, and most of it was due to my undiagnosed, untreated Bipolar Disorder.  Yet according to our tradition, these blemishes must be cleansed in some way.

With the Days of Awe, from Rosh ha’Shanah  (the Jewish New Year, the Day of Judgement) through Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement, almost upon us, I am trying to make a Heshbon Nefesh, a close examination of my character and deeds, so that I may, through the Days of Awe repent of my misdeeds, whether intentional, whether accidental, whether hidden or revealed, please my G-d look into my heart and find it clean.

And please, please, Master of the Universe, grant me a judgement for a Death on the High Road, b’neshikah.

As it turned out, Dad’s pain was indeed caused by stomach cramps.  After relieving his intestines of their burden, he fell into an exhausted sleep.

I took my leave then, fiercely warning all of his nursing staff NOT to wake him for vital signs or anything else until the next time they had to turn him in the bed, another two hours.  Whether they did that is anyone’s guess, because Dad can’t tell me.  God help us all.