Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Little Bad Bonnie

"Want a puppy? She's awfully cute." I heard these words fourteen years ago while working at a local restaurant. Common sense must have been on sabbatical; the next day my husband and I found ourselves at a hunt club checking out our third dog. She was adorable in spite of her questionable pedigree. Her mother, a Scottish Terrier named Cora, belonged to the daughter of the woman who took care of the club's army of hounds. Unsupervised while in heat, Cora had an encounter with a Jack Russell Terrier named, of all things, "Chance". The coupling resulted in two pups, one of which was about to become the next monkey wrench in our lives.

Bonnie barrelled into our home and straight to the food dish without a hint of respect for the canine hierarchy already in place. Sheila, our Australian Shepard, and Wednesday, the raggedy old man we rescued from the streets of New York City, saw their worlds rocked that day. Seniority had no meaning for the swaggering combination of Napoleon and James T. Kirk-she came, she saw, and she most definitely conquered.

The "Scotch Terrier" had a limited tolerance for other dogs, especially females. Since he was old enough to have maybe one or two of his senses in working order, Wednesday couldn't care less. Sheila, however, often found herself at odds with Bonnie and fights would end up with a trip to the vet's office. Our newest addition was an incendiary bomb, going off in a succession of squeals and howls at the sight of a strange dog. I soon concluded that she was not fit for public consumption.

Bonnie made the assimilation of new dogs an absolute nightmare. Our first golden retriever, Emma, was quarantined to the kitchen for months before we were comfortable enough with their relationship. We had it a little easier with Gracie, but it was still no picnic. Blood was drawn as the two dogs watched me eat an order of buffalo wings in the kitchen. After a flurry of snarls, poor Gracie broke into a pathetic puppy yowl. I picked up the sweet ball of fluff, only to have her sneeze a spattering of red spots all over the kitchen counter. Minutes later, my husband arrived home to what looked like a crime scene. We were held hostage by a canine goon.

Eventually we reached a state of compromise, thanks to Gracie's inability to hold a grudge and her willingness to submit to the little one's tyranny. However, Bonnie remained the sheriff of the household and would reprimand our benign golden at a moment's notice. She had the teeth of a Great White Shark and was not afraid to use them. As you can imagine, we were always a little on edge.

In the fall of 2005, my father's Macular Degeneration took a turn for the worse and he found himself no longer able to drive. My mother had been in a nursing home with dementia for about 6 months, so he was incredibly alone. His need for companionship triggered a light bulb- how would he like to have Bonnie come live with him? "I was thinking the same thing." he said. What is it they say about great minds?

They spent the next four years together, two crotchety seniors on the same page. Bonnie stepped into the role of my father's second wife in the same way she entered our home. No questions asked, my way or the highway. She nagged him to go to bed, woke him up for a midnight snack and demanded attention worthy of a princess. He doted on her and acquiesced to her every whim. In return, she did what the best of dogs do-she made him feel needed. "You see that?", he would say as she lay at his feet. "That's as far as she ever gets away from me." Lucky for you Dad, I thought, and lucky for me. I had killed two birds with one dog. Dad had a companion and my home was considerably quieter. But all good things do have an end.

Bonnie came back to live with us over a week ago. Both she and I are doing our best to adjust to the new arrangements. My father's cancer is advancing and as he lies in bed in a Hospice ward, he can no longer take care of "his girl". His goodbye to her will always bring me to tears, but I try to console myself by remembering the time they spent together and the incredibly great work Bonnie did. As my friend Betsy said, "Who ever thought that such a miserable little cur would have such a noble purpose?" Somehow I think Bonnie knew.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Not So Just Desserts

How many times have you relished course after course of a fabulous meal, only to have it go downhill with a not so fabulous dessert? This particular culinary faux pas has the power to forever mar the evening simply by virtue of its placement in the meal. No matter how many talk shows extol the virtues of "new beginnings" or "fresh starts", we have a tendency to remember most clearly the ending of an event. It ain't over until the fat lady sings, so let's hope she delivers on key or we'll be stuck with a dissonant memory.

With this in mind, it might be better to start out at the end of our life and work backwards. Our recollections would be colored with youthful optimism rather than the melancholy of age. But then, moviegoers saw how it worked out for Benjamin Button; I guess either direction brings with it the possibility of winding up in diapers.

As I witness my father's decline, I am trying to view his life as a whole. Rather than focusing on these final images of exhaustion, I search my mind for the man who fixed my bike, drove me to college with a U-Haul trailer full of way too much stuff, and made me check my suitcase for cockroaches whenever I came home from New York City. No kidding- he'd insist I go through my bags out on the picnic table. I may have grumbled at the time, but now it brings a smile to my face and reminds me what a wonderful pain-in-the-ass he was.

Friends attempt to help with the "He lived a long, full life" bit. Yeah, 83 is not a bad run, but let's see how we feel when we get there. How many of us will truly be ready to cash it in? Dad's later years have been assaulted by my mother's dementia, his own macular degeneration and a laundry list of painful and debilitating maladies. Sure, he's told me many times that it would be better if he just "popped off" and how he wished he were laying next to my mother. Loneliness and depression plagued him daily, but he has persevered. Cancer is, however, bringing down the curtain and we are moving him into an assisted living facility for his final months. I will do my best to look past the disease and spend my time with the man and the memories within the tired shell. This final course may not be particularly sweet, but I'll try not to let it ruin the whole meal.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Return of Florence Nightingale

Last Thursday I got a call from John Roushey, my father's neighbor. He had stopped over to help Dad get his garbage ready for the next day's pick up and found him suffering terribly. "I've called Hospice and told them that your father probably should be hospitalized. I think you should come home."

I told him I would be there as soon as possible, which meant my arrival would at least be within the same day. I believe I've hinted at my inability to get out of the house quickly in an earlier post. "I have to shred last year's phone bills. I need to clean the hummingbird feeders. Oh, and I can't forget to alphabetize my breakfast cereal." Well, maybe it's not that bad, but you'd have to visit some parallel universe to see me get somewhere on the early side.

Four days later(just kidding), I'm in Trucksville, Pennsylvania, at the family manse. I took care of Dad's dog Bonnie and unloaded my 17 or 18 suitcases. I'm sure just about any circus travels lighter than I do, elephants included. I guess I have more than just a few issues.

Dad had been taken to the Hospice Unit at the Geisinger Hospital in South Wilkes-Barre. It really is quite the place and exactly where Dad should be. His room is spacious and private with a couch and a flat screen TV, a step up from his 13 inch analog with sub-basic cable. I had a hard time leaving the first night to go back to Dad's house where I knew the only channels I could get were standard broadcast, QVC, and a talking nun. It's comforting to know that I could remain shallow enough to be concerned about TV reception; one does not want to lose oneself in a time of crisis.

When I returned the next day, I had Gracie with me, but left her in the car in the parkade. Just for the hell of it, I casually asked the nurse if they allowed dogs on the floor. Actually, my question was pre-meditated, as she and I talked about dogs the night before. She spoke of her daughter's golden retriever with a great deal of fondness. I figured she might be Gracie's ticket to the unit.

Bingo! I got clearance and went downstairs to get my canine Marilyn Monroe.

Gracie entered the building with her best "Can I have fries with that shake?" wiggle and an air of enthusiasm as if she knew she was back on the job. We stepped out of the elevator and onto the fifth floor. Her smile leaped from face to face as we walked down the hall to Dad's room. Bouts of heavy petting ensued.

The bitch was back.

Florence Nightingale

The last two years of my mother's life were spent in the dementia unit of a nursing home. One warm summer day I stopped by for a quick visit with Gracie in the car. When I mentioned to the supervisor of the facility that I was going outside to take water to my dog, she told me to bring her into the building. Within minutes, Gracie's unofficial career as a candy striper had begun.

She sauntered into the building with the confidence of a politician and the smile of a USO show girl. Always the belle of the ball, she quickly won over the staff and the residents and added an element of fun to potentially monotonous visits. Gracie was tailor made for the job; she went through her repertoire of tricks on command and never made notice of the errant senior hand tugging at her tail. I wasn't surprised-she is the ultimate party girl.

Gracie and I joined my father at the nursing home at 9:30 p.m. on May 22, 2007. I drove him home at about midnight and returned with my co-pilot. She sat patiently with me until 4:00 a.m., when she tried to crawl into bed with Mom's roommate. I accepted this as a sign that we should head back to the house. At 6:00 a.m. we got the call.

Although I had every intention of returning to the nursing home with Gracie, I only managed to stop by once or twice. Enduring a loved one's stay in such a place is not easy, but I must say my experience was not entirely unpleasant. Gracie had accompanied me on every visit; sharing her spirit was a gift I gave as well as received.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

What A Difference A Year Makes

The passing of a year is a revelation of varying degrees. Sometimes we look back and wonder what the hell we did for 365 days. Sometimes we sit back and marvel at a dizzying list of events and accomplishments. Most years are between the two extremes, allowing us to beat ourselves up while patting ourselves on the back. So you thought you couldn't tap yourself on the head while rubbing your stomach.

I made a bit of a hasty retreat from my Dad's yesterday and am paying for it today through my heart, gut and bowels. Medical research may be up to its eyeballs in diseases to treat, but they really should turn their attention towards guilt. A pill to counteract its effects, while giving the pharmaceutical industry a whopping case of reflux, might eliminate the need for antacids and proton pump inhibitors. Isn't the general idea to feel better and to feel better about ourselves? Guilt may be making me delusional, but I really think I'm on to something.

My father's cancer seems to be sending in more troops to increase his pain. How long the present barrage will continue I have no way of knowing. I do know that he is a far cry from the man raking the leaves of 2008 in his "Go to Hell" hat. ( The origin of that term is my father's own brain; there's more where that came from. ) He spends most of his time dozing in his black leather Lazy-Boy. "I've got to get the oil changed on this chair. I've put a lot of miles on it." In between the bouts of crying and moaning, he can still make me laugh.

He can piss me off too, and when he does, it doesn't take long for guilt to set in. I momentarily forget his condition and sound off like a 13 year old. Where's that puppy when you need to kick one?

Unfortunately, I have to end this post prematurely. My father's neighbor just called and told me I should come back right away. He had come over to put Dad's garbage out and found him in bad enough condition to call hospice and feels that a trip to the hospital might be inevitable.

It's a good thing I hadn't unpacked yet.