Sun 16 Aug 2009
razors pain you
rivers are damp
acids stain you
and drugs cause cramp
guns aren’t lawful
gas smells awful
you might as well live
– Dorothy Parker
i have always thought myself a cat person. and by some alchemical trick of metaphysics and assumption, my medieval mind has occasionally, therefore, convinced me that i am thus – metaphorically, of course – a cat.
it is only when things change drastically that i am forced to notice one significant problem with this little identification of the heart: penchants for napping and sloth and shedding notwithstanding, i am no feline. felines, thrown through the air, make graceful arcs and solid landings, all twenty-plus paw pads absorbing shock.
pretend felines, thrown through the air, claw and shriek and flail, spinning paws in mid-air like old LooneyTunes characters discovering the earth has given way beneath them. then they go splat.
both kinds of felines, the real and the ones with pretensions to cat-ness, then retire to corners to lick their wounds in private. when one is not a cat, this can take awhile.
all this to say, i have been quiet, learning yet again that i am not a cat. and that landing on one’s feet is not a graceful process, when one is not a cat. seismic shifts disrupt my comforting routines and leave me anxious, unstable, vulnerable.
uh, yeh. who, me? a tissue? don’t mind if i do.
but then this strange new world begins to take shape and its reflection in the mirror grows less foreign and i begin to understand the ways i can be competent with this, the ways not all is different, the gifts and possibilities of what this new will be. and my equilibrium recalibrates and i find my balance and stop kicking in midair, stop licking my raw spots.
when one is not a cat, one sometimes realizes one is an old dog, struggling yet again with these damn new tricks.
Friday, 3:56 pm
with a little wincing grimace that means, “i’m really sorry i’m leaving with a pile of painfully tedious data entry left to do so students can register Monday especially since i already left early Wednesday but Dave’s in Vancouver so i HAVE to go get the kids ’cause the sitter’s on summer hours” i wave happy weekend at my poor, patient, beleaguered boss – left sitting in the disorganized pile of new Soviet prison furniture dumped in my office earlier that day – and race out the door.
starting work has been easy, really. the office is both familiar and welcoming, the culture there affirming and social and all i’d hoped and remembered it would be when i took the job. i’m taking over from a person who is tidy of mind, and working for a person who’s been the closest thing to a mentor i’ve found since i moved back here four-and-a-half years ago. my bestest friend, lifelong, is in the office next door. the data entry part of things literally nearly blew my brain wide open for a couple of hours until i pried it open and personally lobotomized a few errant and unnecessary bits i wasn’t using much anyway, but other than the fact that they have no couch for me to recline upon and Gulags R Us designed the gray aesthetic anaesthetic that passes for new desks there, i’m happy.
the rest has been harder. Dave was away. kids weren’t sleeping, either at the new sitter’s or at home. time was suddenly chewed up like an all-day pizza and come 9pm i’d find myself at the end of a long, long road of supper/tidying/bedtime/laundry/prep for tomorrow and staring down the prospect of watering my poor sunbeaten pansies and tomatoes and wanting to wilt myself for want of sweet downtime. Oscar grew dawdly and i found myself frog-marching him through our hours together, trying desperately to get me and two kids dressed and fed and out of the house with all we needed for the day by the hour that two weeks ago meant we’d be sitting down to breakfast. Posey cried whenever she saw me, and my heart ached and fretted and pined for her, for the impossible assurance of a good decision made.
Friday 4:09 pm
i wedge the children and their daycare bags and the dirty-diaper bag and my own work bag (which is, ahem, actually still my regular diaper bag/purse/chasm of magical disappearance) into the sun-stroked, stifling car. four years ago, when we bought the cheapest car on the market, paying $1000 extra for A/C sounded like the most ridiculous idea i’d ever heard. now, of course, the most ridiculous thing i’ve ever heard is the whimpering of my sweaty baby slowly cooking in the back of a non-air-conditioned car because her mother is a cheap sow, but i digress.
the baby’s dress, i notice as i strap her in, is covered in a sticky brown substance that is unmistakably either Fudgsicle or chocolate ice cream. Oscar cheerily informs me that he didn’t nap today because a movie was on during quiet time.
my brain conflates these two pieces of information and comes to the logical conclusion that my children spend their days drinking Coke and watching soft porn and will grow up to skin kittens with their teeth. my spirits slump on the steaming, filthy car mat. i wallow in the certainty of my own failure.
Friday 4:25 pm
the hot little car of misery and chocolate stains arrives at my grandfather’s cottage, because PEI actually is only three apples wide.
the cottage – and i use the term loosely, as “rustic plywood shack” might cover it better in some estimations – is a living testament to my late grandmother’s foray into creative needle art of the 60s and 70s. the curtains are faded brown and orange op art specials, the walls plastered with crewel work depicting owls, turtles, boats, and various other flora & fauna. souvenir ashtrays abound, relics of guests long since forgotten. the faded patchwork couch, a Coat of Many Colours for the furniture set, was replaced two summers ago by well-meaning family friends who meant to surprise my grandfather, but i think he misses the zany, threadbare thing. i do.
Rusty greets us at the door, from a prone position in front of the fan, towel laid over his hind end. in German Shepherd years, Rusty is about 107. he’s my father’s dog, though my grandfather’s soft spot for him is notorious and deep. they are the patriarchs, my grandfather and Rusty. he calls Rusty noble, and i sometimes wonder if he isn’t fishing for the compliment to be returned.
i met Rusty first as a pup in the Yellowknife airport in the summer of 1996. it was early August, tail end of the midnight sun, and i was flying back north for a second year of teaching. i crossed paths with my father’s clan on their way back from PEI to the town they’d called home for ten years. my half-sister had sweet-talked them into a puppy, and he sat bouncing in his cage, smiling at me. when he licked me, i laughed, and was surprised.
Rusty still has the same open gaze, the same trusting brown eyes. i’m not a dog person, have never been a dog person, but Rusty’s sweetness charms me. and even splayed on the orange shag rug in my grandfather’s cottage, his bounce long since gone, he charms my kids. Posey puts her hand on his nose and he bats his eyes at her like a scene out of Disney. Oscar, upon discovering that Rusty can no longer swat flies away with his tail, fans them for him dutifully.
Rusty is a dog on borrowed time. his left back leg stopped working awhile back, and on Wednesday my father and stepmother had planned to make that last sad trip to the vet to put him down. there is a point after which sustaining life is no mark of love. but mercy is a tricky thing. when Rusty perked up and started enjoying his food, stopped showing pain, they decided a last week at the shore might be nice for all concerned.
at 89, my grandfather has to pick his way down the crooked steps to the beach with a cane. my father brings the old sky-blue motorboat in from its mooring, readies it, helps his father in. but once in the driver’s seat, my grandfather drops thirty years. he is still the best waterski driver i’ve ever seen – patient, smooth, able to read the pull on a rope and adjust accordingly.
Friday, 4:45 pm
Rusty can no longer go down the steps to the beach. when the crew make their way down the sandy red cliff – Oscar included, life-jacket-clad, in my stepmother’s arms for his very first boat ride ever – Posey and i stay behind with the old dog. he whimpers at them leaving. he is a water dog, a people dog, part lab, part shepherd. this being left behind alarms him, say his big brown eyes.
i look at him and feel as if i’m looking in a mirror. i feel grizzled with exhaustion, with heat, with the anxiety of inexorable change and my own inability to keep up, to land easily on my feet anymore. i reach out and rub Rusty behind the ears, where he’s still soft. i coo a little song of “we’re here, buddy, it’s okay,” though he is long since deaf. and we are companionable, two old dogs; one who thinks she’s a cat, one who’s sure he’s a person.
then i hear the boat grumble to life down in the water and i forget Rusty because it is Oscar’s first boat ride and i want to know that he is okay, want to mark with my eyes that he once rode in the boat with my grandfather at the helm so i can tell him someday. i step out the old screen door with the baby in my arms and it slaps shut behind me and i am peering, craning out to see the small form in the seat beside my grandfather when i hear the door creak again and it is Rusty nosing it open, unwilling to be alone. he pauses at the small threshold between cottage and porch and then leaps, old strong front legs carrying his bulk despite the dead hind end and he crashes down beside me apparently unfazed and my jaw hangs open and i turn my head in strange respect so he will not see my tears.
Posey claps in delight. and my grandfather’s boat speeds away over the water like it has done every summer since i can remember but this time with my son in front, so small and riding away from me, wind in his hair. and i sit with Rusty in his reprieve, in his last days, and ruffle his fur.
when one is not a cat, all you can really do is get through today and keep leaping, no matter how graceless your landing.