Riding With the King

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Clarabelle, a stunning white-blonde, regally roamed a large enclosure on the right.

An Australian Shepard, she may have been in search of subjects to herd.

An insanely yippy Jack Russell terrier was barely contained within his own barred space on the second tier of corner crates.

Clearly not a satisfied prisoner of circumstance.

Needs attention, does not get along with other animals or young children,” his card unsurprisingly read.

Between the arc of spittle punctuating Jack’s non-stop shrieking yaps and the lure of the puppy window diagonally across from him, it would not have been hard for visitors to miss the no-longer-quite-a-puppy beagle who soundlessly pressed himself against the back wall.

Rufus.

1 1/2 – 2 yrs, trained, responds to his name.

My youngest daughter and my husband spearheaded the ensuing negotiations and sequential visits to get all family members on board with our first adoption.  Every time Rufus haltingly padded out to meet one of us, he did the same thing: he waited for us to slowly approach, then promptly rolled over on his back to await a belly rub that dissolved his anxiety.

He would close his eyes and point his quivering nose to the heavens with a smile of pure contentment, transformed from a beleaguered rescue trucked all the way from Indiana into Snoopy, dancing outside in a field of pure green.

Rufus.

King of Belly Rubs.

******

 

 

Rufus’s sixteenth birthday would fall later this month.  His tri-colors faded to a more even coffee-with-extra cream and he was completely deaf, but I talked to him nonetheless, both because he was my most constant companion and because he had so many listening skills beyond  hearing.  What an extraordinary listener he was.

Even as he began to give signals that something more than sheer antiquity was amiss, he never missed a walk.  During the recent heat wave he still tugged, with improbable force for twenty-some vintage pounds, to go farther than halfway as far as he could go .  I had to twice cradle and carry him home.

These past few weeks I had talked to him about his human dad and his later-adopted little brother, Brady, whom he loved and has missed so much and whose bright traces he never stopped searching for.

Remember when you used to run away when we first got you? 

He would pause our walk and glance up at me.  Of course I remember, mom.

He adored riding in my husband Jim’s rust-mottled white pickup truck, nose to the open air, ears aflutter.

He was such an escape artist that he once managed to extricate himself through a sliver of space when Jim parked off a busy road, and Rufus made a break for the hills of Stratham, New Hampshire.

Remember the time you ran away by the farm and I  panicked and yelled for you to come back and you kept running and I was sure we’d never see you again–and then master put his hand on my shoulder and dropped down to one knee and calmly called your name and then you stopped running and looked back over your shoulder and you saw him holding his arms out?  And you started running  back to him?

I can still see them both, Jim enfolding young Rufus in his arms and holding him against his own still-beating heart.

I don’t think Rufus ever ran away from Jim again.

But he would run with Jim, and when we adopted sweet Brady the two best buddies would enter nirvana every time Jim sat to put on his running shoes.  They eagerly waited, white-tipped tails swishing on the slate floor, until he grabbed the leash.  Off they ran, up the hill from where our home nestled at the town green.

When  our son’s Boy Scout troop–one in which Jim was an enthusiastic and dedicated Scoutmaster–learned of Jim’s diagnosis, they organized a gathering and presented him with a hand-drawn flag of special design: You can do this, it urged, underneath a drawing of him and the beagle boys running up the hill by our home where he made his daily run.

Someday, I would tell Rufus, looking away so he wouldn’t see me cry, you’re going to see master again, and you’re going to see Brady, and you’re going to want to run with Brady and you’ll be able to run anywhere you want.  But every once and a while you should look back for master because he’s missed you, too.

******

 

 

On what I did not know would be our second-to-last walk, Rufus took me only to the midpoint of a short jaunt.  He initiated a meet-and-greet with a weeks-old foster puppy named Delta, who eagerly nuzzled him with her bright mahogany head, which bobbed atop a pure white body that seemed to vibrate with the joy of being outside and about and finding a friend.

After that, Delta bounced happily along and Rufus stepped into the shade of a suddenly-bloomed plant, bright magenta and violet buds arcing rakishly over one velvet ear, like a fascinator at a royal wedding.  He paused and looked up at me and waited expectantly.  Of course, he knew I’d want to take some pictures of him.  He was very patient that way.

Then he inexplicably looked up and away, directly into the sun, and stretched.  It had the opposite trajectory of a downward dog pose; it was as if he were being gently lifted by his front paws.

And he smiled.  I swear he smiled.

I looked in the direction where his deep brown eyes seemed to have settled, but it was far too bright. Rufus nuzzled me just under my knee and canted his head back towards the house.  He ordinarily resisted turning around so quickly.  “It’s OK, mom.  I’m good now.  I’ll be OK.”  

******

When Rufus looked for all this world as if he were just sleeping I whispered in his ear, because I knew he could hear again now, that Brady must be so happy to see him again, but every now and then he should not forget to look back over his shoulder.

 

 

 

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The Lady in Orange

 

 

I leaned against a cement pillar.

The sun was high and heavy and far too bright.

The woman who came over to me wore a vivid orange shift dress.

This near stranger, who had led us into the surgeon’s office where we heard the diagnosis, was no doubt leaving the hospital to go home after a long day.   Instead, when she saw me outside, leaning against the pillar in the awful heat as Jim waited for another scan, she came over, wrapped her arms around me, and let me wordlessly weep into the bright linen on her shoulder.

******

Today, exactly nine years later, I had not realized that the keynote address at my conference would be about trauma in surviving victims of violent crime.  It can reorder the brain and alter the consolidation of memory.  Time may be rearranged.  Some images may forever be indelible; other pieces may eternally be missing, never having formed, leaving disordered space like like the indeterminate bokeh beyond a sharply-focused photographic image.

The speaker paused.  “So, what’s the essence of trauma?  What is trauma?”  For a room full of lawyers it was uncharacteristically quiet.  “I’m willing to wait.”

Not one to leave a void, my right hand flickered.

“It’s the violation of expectations, something you don’t see coming and can’t prevent.”

She nodded, as if reading my mind.

******

I used to cling eagerly to dreams Jim visited, alive and healthy, sometimes a young college student again, though never any older.  Envisioning him at an age he never reached seems beyond the power of imagination.

But early this morning–so early as to be deepest night for anyone else–I awoke from a nightmare I did not understand until hours later, when I noticed the date.

My dream was of imagined calamities, all of them my own doing.  I steered obliviously backward, veering off a sand bar into the ocean, endangering three of my children who sat quietly in back.  In the next scene I drove furiously in the wrong direction on a highway, yet was aggrieved at the other drivers innocently in my way.  Then I was back by a beach, in the driver’s seat (of the car I’ve in fact quite safely put well over 120,000 miles on) when I saw Jim walking on a jagged cliff edge, weighed down by a bright green backpack.  I eagerly called out to him.

He looked at me in a way he never had, abjectly disappointed, and said words he never would have said, in a tone he was incapable of using: “Why would I want to go with someone who can’t even drive?”

I tried to shake off the dream, tended to my now lone beagle, left the house and turned on the car radio.

On came “Last Kiss.”

“Oh where, oh where can my baby be?”

That’s when I considered the date.  And reconsidered the dream.

In the yawning space between that June 28th and this one my focus has remained  disordered: I see the blurred blanket of disruptions and mistakes, and think not that Jim would, but that he should be disappointed in me, though I know he was never disappointed in me when he was here.  I miss that, too: how lucky I was to spend my adult life with someone who always saw in me the best person I was capable of being.

He would have wanted me to bring the other pieces into focus.

Like the strength and warmth of his hand holding mine as we first walked inside the hospital, when he must already have known what we would hear.

The buoyant tiger lilies, which arrived earlier that year, backlit by sun, tickling our legs as we brushed past a stone bench with a carved cherub on our way inside.

And the kindness of the woman in the orange dress.

 

 

 

 

 

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Out and Away

All it’ll take is just one moment and
You can say goodbye to how we had it planned
Fear like a habit, run like a rabbit, out and away
Through the screen door to the unknown….
Live like a pharaoh
Sing like a sparrow anyway
Even if there is no land or love in sight
We bloom like roses, lead like Moses, out and away
Through the bitter crowd to the daylight

—     “Live and Die” 

On Father’s Day my husband’s ashes billowed like a bubbling cloud the instant they touched open water at Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.

I was certain he would want to be among the elements, star stuff in swirling salt water, out and away to the horizon, a kinetic memorial for a man who never liked to be still, and had so many places left to see while the earth was below his feet. Few parts of the world did not call to him.

On Father’s Day, five years later and just a few years ago, my father died.

For my father’s theoretical memorial our plan had considerably more comical complications.  The objective was, we thought, simple: to disperse his ashes exactly where he would have wanted to be, at the landlocked academic building where he spent the bulk of his teenage years and his entire adult life.

We gathered outside there one afternoon and worked around the sauntering strides of an unambitious campus security officer.  He had eyes only for his cell phone, and obliviously passed us from both directions even as bemused graduate students began gathering and buzzing at the sight of us discovering a new form of condensed matter: ashes awkwardly clumping among the lachrymose recently-watered flora surrounding the building’s entry stairwell.

That, too, was perfect in its way.

My father and my husband had many things in common, including improbably clear analytical minds, and absolute loyalty to their friends and families.

Neither had even a soupcon of guile.  It was not simply that they did not possess the ability or inclination to deceive , or to willfully hurt someone else; for them it was  impossible to compute the concept of acting at someone else’s expense, much less execute the most quotidian trespass against a fellow traveler.

Neither of them ever criticized or insulted anyone.  I did not reflect on how remarkable that is until both of them were gone.

They diverged in temperament: my father had a temper that perhaps I–the only daughter, and possessor of some heaping attitude even before adolescence made it de rigueur–knew how to spark.

There was a little girl who had a little curl/right in the middle of her forehead/And when she was good, she was very, very good/And when she was bad, she was horrid

Jim had no temper.  Zero.  He never raised his voice.  He never responded to anger with anger.  In more than 25 years of marriage I saw him mildly irritated twice–in the kinds of situations which not uncommonly transform others into criminal defendants (whose requests for jury instructions on mitigation I routinely oppose).

To an extent, although not as great as it may have appeared, they differed in their tolerance for error.

Jim had infinite tolerance for other’s errors.  I’m not sure he even conceived of them as mistakes: they were just learning experiences.  I have continued to screw up in epic fashion,  from the more innocuous Lucy Ricardo variety to such egregious financial missteps that I’d probably be doing time were someone else’s money involved.  I know he would be fine with that; he always was.  “Don’t sweat the small stuff, Steph.”  Not even the big small stuff.

My father, on the other hand, at least was perceived as being so exacting in his standards, so unwilling to brook even a grammatical nuance in translation that could be viewed as lessening a scientific truth, that he was intolerant of error.  (One of his graduate students told me how my father had helpfully informed him that a few words of text in a dissertation that was essentially pure mathematical equations sounded more like a translation of Parisian French than that of its author’s Provincial provenance.)

As hard as it was to understand as a child why he seemed so disappointed in less than an “A+”; I actually don’t think he was intolerant of error–at least, error unaccompanied by lack of effort.  It wasn’t that he couldn’t tolerate it; it was that he was genuinely perplexed that not all brains worked like his.  Like dishonor, I don’t think he could conceive of a person not being capable of mastering all disciplines.  I sure couldn’t.  He was no harder on others in this regard than he was on himself.  Clearing out his office I saw that a textbook he’d written decades ago was covered with his own penciled-in corrections, in waves, as he’d probably begun refining it as soon as it rolled off the presses and continued until Parkinsonian tremors began to destabilize the surface precision of his tiny left-slanting script.  No one else would  ever see his revisions; he did it simply to make his work better,  to bring it closer to real, ascertainable truth.

In dedication to truth, they were the same.

They were very  different when it came to fear.  Jim had no fears for himself, including the death he knew was coming and despite his medical knowledge about how it would come. He spared me the latter, which would have made it that much worse for us.

My father had fears, notably a phobia of hospitals that derived from his being dropped off alone as a young child at a New York City Hospital for significant surgery.  His fear of hospitals was so profound that he could not cross the threshold of Mt. Auburn Hospital when my siblings and I were born.

But when his only son-in-law was dying he came to his suffocating hospital room and tenderly touched his sock-clad foot, one of the few places he could reach as other family  members encircled his bed before we finally brought him home.

And my father was, like most people, afraid of death.  I know this because I talked to him about it, in great detail, making sure I would know what he wanted because Jim was not there to have those conversations with him and take charge.

Jim had no fear.

And so he raised fearless, thoughtful, kind children who have seen and followed his and their grandfather’s examples, using their incredible minds and hearts to do what they were born to do.

And I hope they will always hold their father’s essence of living and loving with no fear, whether they are pulled back to the comforts of a known and settled home or carried forward, out and away and wherever the currents take them.

Sing like a sparrow anyway...

Happy Father’s Day.

 

 

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Cover Me

 

Every once in a while I experience a fresh burst of heartache when I listen to a song that Jim can’t hear.

Before there was Pandora (in her modern incarnation), I had someone who took my tastes in music and life and sheparded me into a wider world that stays with me as surely and indelibly as images do.   Another ever-expanding gift, as when he handed off the camera to me.

For my 30th birthday, which my husband attended in the customary corporeal way, he burned me a CD–a precursor to the gold one he left for me to find when I was very nearly ready to hear it.

Jim had an incredible, encyclopedic knowledge of music.  In college he occasionally jockeyed discs–when they also existed in the traditional way (though I understand vinyl has made a comeback, and I still have his boxes of records among the very few things he carried).

(He would have been equally as unnerved as I had he survived to the day one of our teenage children informed me that Nirvana now occupies the radio genre of “Oldies” music.  Sigh.)

Until the very end he followed and appreciated music of all kinds–even, to a degree, country music.  It was a remarkable feat when one of our daughters took it upon herself to produce a collection of his favorites to play at his Closing Ceremonies.  From Bob Dylan (father of The Wallflower’s Jakob)  to the Biff Jackson Group (whose motto is “Quality Through Volume”), decades-long friends with whom Jim played one last time on the same snowy winter day he must have known would be his last time at the wheel.

The CD he made for my birthday included some musical amalgams outside my imagination: not, strictly, covers, but companions, unexpected unions which honored the heart of the original but extracted rich new facets of both chords and lyrics. More marriage than replication.

Bruce Springsteen accompanied The Wallflowers on “One Headlight.”

So long ago, I don’t remember when
That’s when they say I lost my only friend
Well they said she died easy of a broken heart disease
As I listened through the cemetery trees

Luciano Pavorotti joined Bono in soaring interludes of  U2’s “Miss Sarajevo”.

Is there a time for keeping your distance
A time to turn your eyes away
Is there a time for keeping your head down
For getting on with your day

My husband was able to compile such esoteric musical wonders considerably before the internet placed them at our fingertips.  (How fitting that the physical monument to him is a bench dedicated “in musical memory” of the Portsmouth Clipper Band’s supreme chaperone.)

I, on the other hand, only just figured out how to put together a playlist of my own favorites to listen to during my prize-winning longest-in-the-country commute to work.

My new 78-song playlist contains a cast of bittersweet familiar characters, quite a few of them singing songs which were not yet a glimmer in their artists’ eyes when Jim’s playlists ended.

I have subconsciously coupled some of Jim’s enduring favorites, which along the way have become mine.  My personal soundtrack includes two Richard Thompson covers: REM does a surprisingly upbeat “Wall of Death,” and Greg Brown does a haunting acoustic “Vincent Black Lightning.”

Alphabetically, I discovered I have four “One” songs, including  the eponymous U2 version included on my 30th birthday CD, the original “One Headlight,” “One Last Time,” and Springsteen’s “One Step Up.”  Our youngest child introduced me to “Sunburn,” which appears in her own breathtakingly clear cover of a lesser-known Ed Sheeran song.

I’ve moved far away from you
And I want to see you here beside me, dear
When things aren’t clear …

Memory was painful
Whenever I was away, I’d miss you
And I miss you

Among its more peculiar trivia, my commuting playlist contains three different songs which prominently feature train tracks, and two with references to bearded ladies (one of whom does a double back-flip).

My compendium includes the heart-filling and mind-blowing duet by performers Jim never had a chance to hear, but attuned me to savor: Lin-Manuel Miranda, covering Ben Platt on “You Will be Found,” harmonizes with Platt as he covers Miranda’s part in “The Story of Tonight.”

Only very recently have I come to appreciate Jim’s genius in sending gentle signals for both me and our children to get out of our comfort zones, at our own paces, to adopt and  adapt to shining examples of how to live life lyrically, whether the song is “just” a song or the  music is a metaphor.

If Johnny Cash can cover Nine Inch Nails, I can certainly get past my routine and set out into the world, to places I would have rather seen with him but can still take in for both of us.

I still hear Jim speaking words he never spoke and lyrics which were as yet unwritten and unsung when he died.

My love, take your time; I’ll see you on the other side.

And the inestimable John Hiatt keeps rendering both our old lives and my new life in song.

And if I told it true, all these memories of you, well that’s why I play the game
Friend of mine said a long time coming, like it never came

I’ve sang these songs a thousand times, ever since I was young
It’s a long time coming and the drummer keeps drumming, your work is never done
I still see you there in that silver-blue air and I never have moved on
Friend of mine said a long time coming, I’m just a long time gone

 

 

 

 

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