Personal

One year on

“Maybe you pre-grieved the loss of your dad,” my pastor said to me.

Father and son, about 1970

I sure hadn’t felt much grief since he died. It bothered me.

But my pastor has a point: we knew it was coming for a long time, and I was actively preparing myself for it.

I’d found a level of peace with my relationship with my dad. It would never be as close as I hoped it would be; he was probably not capable of it. But he had shaped his two sons into good men, and he provided well for us. From his working-class life he helped his two sons into upper-middle-class careers and lives. I have to call that successful fathering.

But it’s obviously not a perfect peace, because for many months I wondered why I wasn’t sadder over his death, one year ago today.

I won’t belabor the terrible year my wife and I had, except to repeat that it was terrible. The stream of hard stuff that came our way and the need to respond to it all surely got in the way of whatever grief I might have felt.

The last photo of my dad, with his sons and grandsons. 2017.

During my recent unemployment I had about a month between securing my new job and my first day at work. I worked on my blog, I made a lot of meals for my family, and I learned a little of the Java programming language. But mostly I was at loose ends.

In that downtime sometimes, seemingly out of nowhere, tears came. One rainy afternoon I was burning calories on our treadmill, watching an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. It was just an ordinary episode. The Vidiians had attacked and had boarded the ship. Routine stuff. But the emotional plot points brought me to heavy tears three times.

That was just the pregame show. On the afternoon of Christmas Day I could feel depression fall like a heavy theater curtain. By evening I was so sad that my body ached.

Margaret suggested we take an immediate impromptu road trip to help me cope. She was so right to suggest it. Road trips were a major way I coped with the grief over losing my first marriage. Being on the road kept me screwed together.

North into Plymouth
The Michigan Road entering downtown Plymouth, IN

So up the Michigan Road we went on the day after Christmas, through Logansport to South Bend, my hometown. The afternoon was chilly but sunny, fine for photographing the old houses and charming downtowns of Rochester and Plymouth along the way. After we checked into our downtown hotel I rang up one of my oldest friends. He and his wife were totally down for meeting us for drinks. It was so good to see them. The next morning it rained, so we drove the Michigan Road straight to Michigan City and shopped in the outlet mall there. We took the long way home. The trip took away the worst sadness for a little while.

The next several nights were choppy. I alternated between bad dreams and lying awake processing. And crying, lots of crying. It seems like every night something different was on my mind: my dad, the job I lost, the challenges my wife’s elderly parents face near the end of their lives, the challenges several of our children have had, how disorganized our lives have been through it all, how it has challenged our young marriage.

It felt like all the deferred grief came all at once. Thank heavens I’ve built good skills at just sitting with my feelings — not wallowing in them, not denying them, just noticing them and letting them be, even when they’re uncomfortable.

By New Year’s Day the worst of it had lifted. I didn’t exactly feel light on my feet, but the sadness had returned to a low level and I started sleeping through the night.

What I know about grief is that it crashes in like waves. This was a tidal wave. I hope the remaining waves are gentler.

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“You are five times the father I ever was,” my dad said to me

I wanted to be there for my sons like my dad was for me. But I couldn’t, not fully, because of the divorce.

That’s the real horror of my divorce. Of any divorce, really, where children are involved. And I don’t think I’m overusing that word, horror. When any parent who wants fully to be in the parenting game can’t do it, it’s horrible.

The court allowed me to see my sons every Monday and Wednesday, every other weekend, and half the summer. Most of their lives happened without me being there.

I made the most of the time I got. I made sure I saw my sons when scheduled, missing maybe once or twice a year, usually due to illness. I was very intentional that as much as possible our home time together would be relaxed and easy, just us men having dinner, watching TV, reading, playing games.

And I followed the model my dad gave me: I went to their soccer games. I went along on field trips and met with their teachers. I saw Damion perform in his fourth-grade play. I went to every one of Garrett’s choir concerts and Damion’s band concerts.

Just for fun, here’s Damion in a clarinet duet with a classmate eight years ago.

Here’s Garrett singing with his choir from later the same year. He’s on the right, the bespectacled boy under and to the left of the rightmost overhead microphone, always a half step behind everyone else. He hated the dance moves — he just wanted to sing.

Our time together was of the highest quality I could make it. Yet when it comes to parenting, to do the job all the way you need quantity time. With enough time serendipity can happen — that random fun, those unexpected conversations both serious and lighthearted, those hard life events where a well-timed word from Dad can ease the difficulty. These are experiences through which you connect meaningfully, where you share deep love. We got a little of that, here and there, and I think they were our most valuable moments. I wanted more. We needed more.

Damion has let me fully off the hook. “You’ve been fantastic,” he said. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out between you and Mom. It would have been great if I could have seen you every day. But I have several friends whose dads live with them, but ignore or mistreat them. I’m better off than they are.”

Garrett was all shrugs, as the kids say today. “I don’t remember any time before the divorce,” he said. “This is all I know. It’s been fine.”

Even my dad told me not to worry about it: “You are five times the father I ever was, even though I was there every day for you.” It might well be the most encouraging, most affirming thing he ever said to me.

Still, I grieve. I loved the time I spent with my sons while they were growing up, and I miss it. But when court-ordered parenting time ended last spring, the door closed for good on the time I lost. I know that door actually closed the day I moved out so many years ago. But feeling that loss was partially deferred because during the parenting-time years I held out hope, however unrealistic and illogical, that it could be better than it was.

I’m beginning to feel it only now because the intervening time has brought several heavy life challenges to us. I’ve been in go/do mode for about a year. But fortunately those challenges are slowly clearing, giving me brain space to think and feel and process. Thinking lately about my own father’s successes in parenting has brought it up.

I’m choosing to cling to the good, kind words my sons and my father said to me.

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The Christmas bellwether

This is the third in a short series of stories from 10 years ago. A sad story for Christmas Eve, but with a hopeful ending. Just one more story to go after this, next week.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, having Christmas as a family. It was our last.

I couldn’t see, didn’t want to see, that my marriage was over. How did I miss it? She wanted me out; I had holed up near our home in a one-room apartment. My wife was lighter, happier without me. She changed churches, she made new friends — this was what moving on looked like. It frightened me.

What did I say that convinced her to do Christmas together in our home? I can’t remember. Perhaps she wanted a show of normalcy for our sons. Maybe she wanted one last memory with my mother; they had been close. I can’t believe my parents were willing to come. They had to convince my brother. They did it for me, they did it for my sons, even though they knew, even though it would be anything but comfortable.

I recall only random details. There was dinner: not elaborate and overflowing as in years past, but a routine Sunday pork roast. Decorations were sparse, with no tree, but gifts were piled up for our boys. I bought my wife a gift, pajamas, something I knew she needed, the kind she liked; “I told you not to buy me a gift.” I slept on the couch, my parents on the futon. There must have been breakfast; there had to have been. I don’t remember everybody leaving.

But I remember being back in my apartment that morning, alone, the whole day after Christmas before me. I sat on my bed for hours, pain and loneliness pinching my face, loss pressing into my shoulders, grief crushing my chest.

Divorce hurts. Have you been through it? I can’t speak to yours, but mine was so destructive that it took me years to recover from it. I’m not ready to tell those stories yet. But I am ready to say that I remember that Christmas, the one that foreshadowed a terrible year to come, a year of loss after loss, of anger, of agony, of tears.

Opening a Christmas gift in my childhood home

Opening a Christmas gift in my childhood home

I remember better the Christmases that followed. My sons and I spent the next one in South Bend, comforted to be with family in my childhood home. That next year, stability crept in and I found solace; the grief and pain eased some.

By the next Christmas my church had invited me to live in its parsonage. I invited my parents and my brother to share Christmas there; it is where our family’s Christmas spaghetti tradition began. A year of rebuilding followed, of figuring out our new family ways, of making new traditions.

By the next year I had bought the little house in which I still live. We’ve had seven Christmases here, my parents, my brother, my sons, and I, and we will enjoy our eighth tomorrow. For a few years, each Christmas was better than the last, foretelling a better year to come.

But three or four years ago, I felt it: we had a routine Christmas — wonderfully good, full of food and family and closeness. But that had become the norm. And I knew our lives had recovered, and we were just living again.

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Good night, Gracie

I didn’t want her.

We already had two dogs and three cats, which I thought was more than enough pets. And I was concerned about bringing this stray dog into our home where our curious and active baby boy might accidentally provoke harm. But my wife’s boundless compassion for unwanted animals overruled better judgment. After a couple days of driving by the golden dog who hid in the bushes of a nearby Shell station, she stopped, coaxed her into the car, and brought her home.

Gracie

Purple-spotted tongue

The filthy dog was starved and had been beaten, presumably by whoever dumped her. My wife cleaned her up as best she could, and as she healed and gained weight she became quite beautiful. She had the size, color, and general markings of a Golden Retriever, but the thick fur and purple-spotted tongue of a Chow. My wife named her Gracie.

Thanks to the abuse she suffered, Gracie was highly anxious around us. She growled in fear every time I or my teenage stepson entered the room, which led us to believe that her abuser had been a man. Whenever the doorbell rang, you could hear abject fear in her barking. She tucked tail and ran every time somebody stood up near her. But she didn’t run from Sugar, our Rottweiler. Subtly and gently, Sugar befriended Gracie, and soon wherever you found Sugar, you found Gracie. Gracie remained high-strung and anxious, but Sugar’s friendship helped Gracie find security and let her slowly settle into her new home.

Gracie and Sugar

Gracie and Sugar

And so we went along for about five years, until my marriage fell apart. I moved out and hardly saw our dogs for a couple years. When I found myself unable to properly care for an especially difficult cat that my sons had given me, I asked my ex if she would take it, and she said yes – but only if I traded her for the dogs. And so Sugar and Gracie came to live with me.

Sugar died less than a year later. I’m just going to admit it: I wished it had been Gracie. Sugar was an outstanding dog – happy, smart, gentle, easygoing, and loyal. Gracie, on the other hand, was still anxious, needy, and demanding. She was also deeply attached to Sugar. When Gracie figured out that Sugar was never coming home, she fell apart. In her grief, she destroyed a great number of my possessions, including chewing a huge chunk out of a solid wood table. I never knew what destruction I would find when I came home from work. I was still recovering emotionally from my divorce, and I was pretty fragile. Coming home to find one more thing destroyed could unhinge me.

The veterinarian prescribed Prozac, and within a couple weeks Gracie calmed down. In parallel I built new routines with Gracie to help her find anew the security she lost when Sugar died.

And then, bit by bit, Gracie bonded to me. Hard. I’d never experienced a dog becoming so deeply devoted to me before. She became expert in reading my moods. She would quickly figure out my internal state and respond accordingly. When I was happy, she was energetic and eager to go for a walk or explore the front yard with me. When I was ill or depressed or angry, she would rub against me and lean into me and stay near my side.

One of my travel companions

On a road trip

Gracie became my devoted companion. When I’d sit in my office to write, she always curled up in the corner created by my two desks. She loved to be in the yard with me when I worked in it. And she loved to ride along on my road trips. Wherever I was, whatever I was doing, as long as she was there, too, all was well in her world. And what a blessing it was to me. It took me a long time to recover after my destructive divorce, and except for the time I spent with my sons I mostly wanted to be left alone to heal. But the other side of that coin was loneliness, and Gracie gave me wonderful companionship and affection.

But she still had a damaged psyche and was a bottomless pit of need. No amount of attention satisfied her, and she remained at best skittish around, and at worst outright frightened of, people she didn’t know very well. Her constant demands could overwhelm me, especially when I needed to unplug after a tough day at work.

It didn’t help that I had to leave her home alone a lot – minimally nine hours a day, five days a week. It was very hard for Gracie. I gather that Chows were bred to spend all of their time working with and protecting their families, and are happiest when they are always surrounded by their people. Even though Gracie was only half Chow, she had this trait fully. To ease her separation anxiety, I developed some happy routines around my going and coming. But even when I was home, I had things to do. I couldn’t make enough time just for Gracie.

As a divorced man who lives alone, Gracie anchored me in both the positive and negative connotations of the word. She was always at home eagerly waiting for me, and she showed me plenty of devotion and affection, things that were in short supply in my life and so were deeply welcome. But she was also always at home eagerly waiting for me to come let her out and put kibble into her bowl – I could be away from home for only so long. Because of her emotional issues, I couldn’t board her or let anyone other than a close family member check on her at home. My sons and I have always began and ended our vacations in my hometown of South Bend because my parents were willing to care for Gracie. But South Bend is far enough away to be practical only when I would be gone for several days. Weekend trips with my sons and overnight business trips have been impossible because of Gracie.

Despite all Gracie gave to me, and despite how deeply I cared for her, I was ready not to have a dog.

And then Gracie lived for a very long time.

Gracie

Old and gray

Gracie came into my life fully grown 16 years ago. That’s mighty old for a dog that size, and predictably, a few years ago she began wearing out. First, her hearing faded. When it failed entirely, I worked out a set of gestures and hand signals to communicate with her. Meanwhile, her eyes went cloudy. Then when she and I drove the National Road across Ohio together in 2011 she struggled for the first time to jump into the back of my little hatchback. On what ended up being her last road trip, in 2012, I had to pick her up to put her in my car. She hated that. Soon even routine car trips became uncomfortable for her. And lately her stamina faded. When I’d take her for a walk, she often pooped out before we got home. More than once we finished the last block of a walk at a snail’s pace because she was spent.

Then this summer she began rapidly losing weight. An x-ray revealed a swollen liver; blood tests showed highly elevated liver and kidney numbers. “This is going to be the end of her,” the vet said. “But it’s really hard telling how long she will live. She’s so very old that I recommend you just keep her comfortable.” Antibiotics and steroids helped her feel better, and her weight increased.

My parents have both retired now and will move to Indianapolis soon. I hated to make Gracie spend more than two hours in the car this past Thursday, but I didn’t want to miss the last Thanksgiving in the house where I grew up. I knew something wasn’t right with Gracie on Thanksgiving morning when I picked her up to put her in the car – she cried a little from discomfort. Then she was unusually unsteady on her feet in the car. When I let her out of the car at my parents’ South Bend home, she seemed oddly disoriented. But shortly she settled in and seemed to be her usual old self. She was happy to see my parents’ dog and was constantly underfoot in the kitchen looking for a handout while Mom cooked. She happily ate the table scraps Dad gave her after dinner, and she gobbled down her kibble as usual.

But while I was drying dishes Dad came in and said, “Gracie is standing out in the hallway all hunched up. You need to come look after her.” She was clearly very uncomfortable. Her belly was hard and a little distended. I thought it might be constipation, which had troubled her in her old age. I tried a usual remedy, but she wouldn’t eat it. I tried letting her outside in hopes she’d relieve herself. She just stood uncomfortably in the yard, so I signaled her back in.

When she reached the back door, she fell. I lifted her up and she fell again. I lifted her into the house, and she stumbled into the kitchen and fell, legs splayed out. Her tongue lolled out of her mouth and onto the floor. I knew it was bad.

While we tried to reach the emergency vet on the phone, Gracie slipped away.

Gracie and me

Gracie and me

I will probably always wish I could have better met Gracie’s considerable needs. But given where she came from, she was very fortunate and had a good life. And now I’m left with the conflicted feelings of having the dog-free life I’ve wanted for the past few years – and missing my friend and companion terribly, expecting to find her in the usual places around the house and wishing I could feel her lean into me one more time.

Good night, Gracie. I’m so glad you didn’t have to suffer long or hard, and that you died when you were ready. Rest well, my girl.

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Eulogy for Buckethead

My stepson was over at a friend’s house twelve years ago, running around in the back yard, when the Rottweiler next door sailed over the fence and bit him on the leg. The puncture wounds were not serious and they healed without complication. The dog’s owner was mortified, apologized all over himself, and swore he’d keep his dog from clearing the fence again. We decided to let bygones be bygones.

Several months later my wife called me at work. “Jim, the people with the Rottweiler still feel so bad that they’re giving us one of their new pups! Isn’t that exciting?”

If the fact that they wanted to take the offending dog’s progeny did not prove that my wife and stepson were completely mad, the fact that we had a five-month-old baby most certainly did. But as usual I buckled and we got the dog.

Worried about the Rottweiler reputation, overblown if you ask me, my stepson named her Sugar so all would know she was a sweet dog. But when my brother inexplicably nicknamed her Buckethead, it tickled me so improbably that it stuck.

My little Buckethead was on the small side, having been the runt of the litter, but she was smart, gentle, and obedient. My baby boy used to crawl up to her and yank on her ears, and all she would do was look up at me with long-suffering eyes until I intervened. She favored my wife and followed her around the house, which provided good opportunity for my wife to play “head bitch” (her words, not mine!) so Sugar would know the pecking order and her place in it. Sugar did challenge for top spot a couple times as Rottweilers will do, but my wife put her back in her place swiftly and efficiently. Her care gave Sugar lifelong contentment and happiness.

When my wife picked up a stray abused dog, to our surprise Sugar took her under her wing and provided, in her doggie way, much of the same kind of esteem-building structure for Gracie that my wife had provided for Sugar. While Gracie will always have issues, I think Sugar’s companionship gave Gracie a lot of security and kept her from being a basket case.

Our dogs’ job was to secure the back yard against the great squirrel menace, and they poured all of their energy into it. When they spied one in the yard, they tore after it relentlessly, to the unending detriment of the patio enclosure’s screens. One day, a squirrel trying to escape Sugar scaled the maple tree, and then Sugar made a flying leap and scrambled right up into the tree’s crotch – which was six feet off the ground. She momentarily forgot about the squirrel as she looked down at the ground, her body’s tension showing her puzzlement. We had to coax her to jump down from the tree. After she did that, she realized she could go up there anytime she wanted to, and so she did. We used to entice her to do it to amuse our guests.

As she aged, arthritis crept into her joints, ending her tree-jumping days. And then my wife and I divorced. The dogs were hers, and she kept them; I didn’t see either of them for a couple years. But nine months ago she asked me to take them, and what a blessing it has been to have them back! I enjoyed the quiet of living alone, but missed having someone happy to see me when I came home. The dogs have been excellent company, and as the new top dog in their lives I’ve grown much closer to them. Sugar accepted the change with the characteristic good humor and serenity for which I always admired her, and set about making new routines in her new home. (I wish Gracie had transitioned so easily!) But she was almost 11 years old, quite elderly for a Rottweiler, and her arthritis had grown worse and she lacked her old energy. Some days I couldn’t get her interested in a squirrel in the back yard, and even when she did chase one, Gracie would sail off the edge of the deck after it while Sugar went down the steps gingerly before trotting out. I could see that I would have only so much more time with her.

Lately she has had some days where she lay around subdued, getting up only to eat and answer nature’s call. Then yesterday her legs gave out underneath her twice while I got ready for work. The second time, she just crumpled into the grass and I had to carry her inside. The vet diagnosed autoimmune hemolytic anemia (AIHA). He said that the treatment for it would be very hard on her, especially at her age, and he estimated only a 30 percent chance of success. He said that without treatment, she’d die within a week – and it would be a horrible death by suffocation as her body destroyed her red blood cells. Yesterday was the end of the line for my poor Buckethead. I scratched her ears and stroked her head until she was gone.

Everybody who’s ever had a dog through its old age has a story to tell, and this one’s mine. Gracie and I are both grieving in our way, but we will get along without old Buckethead. I’m telling people that to help Gracie cope with her big loss I’ll be giving her extra attention and making some new routines – tonight, I put her on the leash and took her for a run while I rode my bike, something we’ve never done before. But the truth is these new routines will help me grieve and move on, too.

Goodbye, Buckethead! You were an excellent dog.

Sugar, 3/1997-8/14/2008

Sugar, 3/1997-8/14/2008

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