I’m presently writing a sad piece about the marital dog, which has inspired plenty of moping about other dogs I’ve loved and lost. Fortunately, I will soon be reunited with my mother’s wonderful long-haired German Shepherd, who slept by my side and followed me everywhere when I was home for my grandmother’s funeral, to the point where my mother got a bit pissy. “Honestly, I don’t know why she’s doing this,” my mother snapped, when the dog cried to be let into the bathroom while I was taking a shower. “Maybe you have an incurable disease. I’m serious! They can sense that, you know.”
The dog that came before this one in my mother’s house was a bigger, shaggier, long-haired German Shepherd named Misha. He was best friends with my marital dog–they were puppies together, and we have a series of adorable pictures of them, including one where they are sitting side by side on my mother’s porch, holding (I kid you not) paws. Misha was so enormous that my ex-husband used to open his jaws and stick his head inside. He was incredibly sweet, though terrifying to look at. I desperately wanted to dress him up in a flannel nightgown and a lacy nightcap with holes cut out for his ears for Halloween, and dress my son as Little Red Riding Hood, but we were never with my mom for Halloween, more’s the pity. You never saw such big eyes, such big ears, such lovely big white teeth.
Misha died when he was eleven. About a month later my mother was visiting and my younger son, aged three, looked up at her one day out of the blue and asked, “Is Misha still dead?”
So, here I am at the end of the summer, having failed to write anything on this website in ages, for which I apologize. I’m fine, mostly. The summer went quickly, once it finally took off, and now it’s over and gone. The kids are back in school–sixth grade and twelfth grade, shockingly enough. I’m over the shingles. In the mornings, I drink coffee and read the paper on my porch, in the shadow of four enormous hanging Boston ferns, and I thank Zeus and all the gods for this excellent little house, which I’m always happy to come home to. My boyfriend and an assortment of our various children and I drove up to Maine to camp and visit friends and, eventually, my mother and stepfather, and we had a lovely time, and the weather was stunning. It was a wonderful summer, on paper at least.
And yet subtending everything is the simple fact that the dead–my grandmother, the beloved dogs, that Spanish dictator, all of them–are, astoundingly, still dead.
When I was twenty-one, I lived in Paris for a semester and worked as an au pair. One day, the three children I looked after spiked fevers and cried and wiggled and complained and broke out in angry red spots. “Have you had chickenpox?” their mother asked me, as we stuck them in oatmeal baths and fetched washcloths for their heads and popsicles for their throats. I told her I must have, at some point, though I didn’t remember. “You must have, though I don’t remember,” my mother said, in a letter that arrived three weeks later, just as the children’s last scabs were falling off.
The very day her letter came I started feeling woozy. Twenty-four hours later I was a mess. Chickenpox as an adult is no fun. I had horrible sores all over my face, in my throat, on my scalp, behind my ears, in the creases of my elbows, under my arms, between my fingers, on the palms of my hands. I couldn’t eat, and my glands swelled up so much it looked like I had mumps. The boyfriend I was living with (secretly, in my tiny chambre de bonne on the ninth floor) taped newspapers over both our mirrors so I couldn’t wail about how freakish I looked, and walked all over Paris looking for Cream of Wheat, for which I developed an insatiable craving. (He never found it, alas, not even in the American grocery store.) Even after the worst had passed, I had hideous scabs for weeks. (The French, when I boarded the métro, avoided me as if I were a leper, which I suppose I was, in a way.)
“Well, at least you won’t get shingles when you’re old,” my boyfriend told me. His father was a doctor. “People who get la varicelle when they’re grown-ups seldom do.”
When I was thirty-five, my older son was seven and my younger son was a year and a half old. The baby was easy-going and cheerful and gorgeous, but he never, ever, ever slept. And then one day I woke up with a bad headache and swollen glands and a weird rash on my right ear.
“Shingles,” the doctor told me. “Ramsey-Hunt syndrome, actually. You might have some facial paralysis, or chronic pain, or hearing loss, or vertigo, or all of those.” I went home a little baffled, for surely I was not under undue stress? I didn’t feel stressed. (I took antivirals right away, and the rash faded and I was basically fine, barring a little bit of deafness in the affected ear, and a little bit of tinnitus that comes and goes.)
“The good news, though, is that you can’t get shingles twice,” the doctor said. “It almost never comes back again, after you’ve had it once.”
A month ago, I got a headache. A terrible headache, a spike of pain lodged behind my right eye, which seemed to be having trouble focusing. I spent a lot of time putting a hand over my left eye, then my right, then my left again, trying to figure out what was going on. Things were blurry in a strange way–a kind of fishbowl effect, actually–and the headache laughed in the face of painkillers. I was tired, and sad, and I slept a lot. Maybe crying is making my eyes feel weird, I thought. Maybe this is some somatic manifestation of grief.
And then I got a bump–a familiar feeling bump, accompanied by a familiar burning feeling–on the side of my nose.
Shingles. “It’s the fifth cranial nerve,” the GP told me, as he wrote the prescription for antivirals. “Luckily, that’s not the nerve that affects your eye.” I went home and googled “fifth cranial nerve.” (My ex-husband is, after all, a neuroscientist, and he teaches Human Brain Anatomy to med students every fall. We’d looked up all the cranial nerves on one of his cool brain imaging programs when I’d had shingles the first time. I was pretty sure the fifth cranial nerve did affect the eye, and both Google and the ophthalmologist I called that afternoon confirmed I was right.)
“You might have damage to your cornea or retina, facial paralysis, encephalitis, or a stroke,” my mother said, reading from the internet in a panicky voice. “Oh my god! This is serious! You have to get acupuncture! I’ll pay!”
The rash never quite took off. The headache retreated. The ophthalmologist dilated my eyes, looked inside, and proclaimed my cornea and retina in perfect shape. A month later my glands are still swollen, though, and I’m tired and grumpy and my right eye still feels a little wonky. “The good news is that you can get the shingles vaccination,” the ophthalmologist said. “You might have to pay for it out of pocket, though. Insurance won’t pay if you’re under 50, because most people under 50 don’t get shingles.”
I’m forty-five. “Get the vaccine! I’ll pay!” my father said.
I’ve got an appointment with an acupuncturist next week. I’ll get vaccinated, I guess, when I feel fully myself again. It’s all quite mysterious. Has anyone else had shingles?
The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.
I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:
Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.
All afternoon the sprinkler ticks and sprays,
ticks and sprays in lazy rounds, trailing
a feather of mist. When I turn it off,
the cicadas keep up their own dry rain,
passing on high from limb to limb.
I don’t know what has shocked me more,
that you are gone, that I am still here,
that there is music after the end.
(I found this poem in the June issue of The Atlantic, which I was idly skimming at the pool. Yesterday’s poem came from the excellent poetry foundation website: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/, which I highly recommend you visit.)
Old fashioned murder mysteries work miracles. Better still if they’re part of a series–a series whose first seventy or so volumes have already been written, so you don’t have to cope with any cliffhanger angst. Agatha Christie, Dick Francis, Deborah Crombie, Patricia Cornwell…and Martha Grimes, whose Richard Jury mysteries have soothed my frayed nerves twice in my life–once when I was lying low after a miscarriage, and again these past weeks. (It doesn’t matter that I’ve read them before, apparently. I don’t remember whodunit or why, and don’t really care. It’s just lovely to be among the characters–Melrose Plant, Vivian Rivington, Jury himself, Wiggins–again.)
Rereading, always a joy, is a practical necessity when feeling undone. AJ Jacobs’s first book, The Know-It-All, saved me during several insomniac nights during my divorce. I also tend to gravitate toward Mark Helprin–his combination of earnestness and loveliness and old-fashioned writerly brilliance is, when one needs to be buoyed, the very thing. (You don’t feel like an ass tearing up at the end of a Helprin story.) I have a friend who swears that Dickens and Trollope got him through the end of his marriage.
Rereading one’s childhood and adolescent favorites is a balm to the soul. I Capture the Castle. A Little Princess. The Once and Future King. Anything by Mary Renault. Anna Karenina.
And then there are the books I’ve effectively worn out by too much rereading–Somerset Maugham’s collected stories, ditto those of Roald Dahl, most of Daphne du Maurier (one of my grandmother’s favorites), all of Edith Wharton. Possession, by A. S. Byatt. The Name of the Rose. All of Salinger. Howards End. Maybe, if I leave them long enough, my failing memory will erode their plots and characters enough to make them feel like old familiar friends again.
What do you read when you are feeling lower than low?
I’m staring at the laptop, trying to think of a good way to sum up what I’ve done since I last wrote here.
Well, let’s see. School ended in a flurry of concerts and class plays and standardized tests and half-days. My older son got his driver’s license. My ex-husband moved. I’m sure I will have things to say about all of this at some point.
But for now I’m still muddling along feeling stupid and slow. I drove to get the children at their father’s new house (half an hour away, very inconvenient, the mind boggles) and bumped right into his lovely girlfriend, who was walking her dog on the street. She hugged me. “I’m so sorry about your grandmother,” she said, and I started to cry. Well, that’s an exaggeration. My throat closed up and there were tears and I had to stare at the sidewalk in mortification, and she (bless her heart) got all teary-eyed too and when I could speak, she hugged me again and said, “For god’s sake, don’t worry about crying, I cry at the drop of a hat,” which made things worse. I wish crying were cathartic for me. It never is. I can’t ever progress past the initial stages, unless I’m shitfaced, and I’m never shitfaced any more.
Everyone–you helpful commenters included–suggested I needed time to simply be sad, and so I decided to take a week and do absolutely nothing. I finished an assignment and turned it in on time (this felt like a small miracle, actually) and then I set about wasting several days in a row. I read some books. I went for walks. I swam in the pool, which opened on Memorial Day. I hung around with the children, and drove them here and there, and sat on the sidelines at baseball, and watched my younger son’s class sing songs and perform little skits based on Aesop. I went to my boyfriend’s chorus concert and his daughter’s dance recital and ate dinner with his family afterwards, and through it all I felt as if I were underwater, dead to the world and separate from it. Then school ended and the week became a second week. For fourteen days now I’ve done nothing, and I’m fine as long as I don’t think too hard, or as long as no one is kind to me.
The one bright spot has been a renewed closeness with my brother and sister, both of whom feel the way I do about our grandmother. My sister in particular has been a tremendous comfort. “She loved you. You shared a name. It’s terribly sad when that connection ends,” she told me just today, after noting that not even adopting a Labrador retriever puppy has managed to cheer her up.
I’m starting to feel twinges of occasional guilt, but it’s mostly abstract. There is work I should do, there are projects I intended to start this summer, my driver’s license has expired, the usual chores await. Doctor’s appointments, financial matters, phone calls to insurance agents, thank-you notes. But the children are out of school and around all day next week before the older one starts work and the younger one starts day camp, so I may just coast a bit longer. Another week. Why not? I’m rereading murder mysteries whose culprits I misremember. I go to bed early, sleep poorly, rise late. The kids are a comfort. The days just go by, one after another, at a remove.
And I guess I’ll miss my grandmother forever. The simplest revelations still astonish. Today, for instance, I thought, I will never see her again. Not exactly rocket science, but somehow it shattered me.