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Brokenheartedness

Brokenheartedness

Godspeed, Pat Conroy

I can’t believe he is gone. My wife is usually the one to write these eulogies – she has far more literary heroes than I do. But Pat Conroy changed my life. He is why I decided to teach at The Citadel. He is why Annmarie agreed to let us move to Charleston. And when it came to writing, he taught me everything I know. I once bumped into him South of Broad, as I walked our dog down the same streets he wrote about in Lords of Discipline. I mumbled a hello, and stared awkwardly as he rounded a corner and disappeared. I have repeated that encounter a thousand times in my head, imagining myself saying something profound, something that would tell him how much he meant to me. He described brotherhood better than anyone. And family. And even though he never served in uniform, he had a knack for writing about war. Next to Pericles, he wrote the greatest eulogy ever delivered, for the real Great Santini. Now, there’s no one left to match him, no one on earth to write the farewell his passing deserves.

You will be missed, Pat Conroy.

Brokenheartedness

Alan

I first fell in love with Alan Rickman in Die Hard. I know Bruce Willis was the one we were supposed to like. With those yippee-ki-yay lines and beefy muscles, it was hard not to be charmed. But it was Rickman’s portrayal of villain Hans Gruber that floored me. I never knew the bad guy could be so… good – so droll, so unpredictable, so smart. Rickman played a similar role as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. And even though we were treated to a glimpse of Kevin Costner’s naked tush, it was Rickman who became the object of my affection.

So, of course, I was not surprised when he turned up in Sense and Sensibility, as a behind-the-scenes, waiting-in-the-wings, older suitor. We were expected to be distracted and all a-flutter in the face of Hugh Grant’s Edward and that bad-boy Willoughby, but I found myself delighted whenever the camera panned back to Rickman’s Colonel Brandon who was desperate to serve the ladies who’d been wronged.

Yes, we loathed him, and then loved him as Professor Severus Snape in all of those Harry Potters. Though I confess, I grew a bit tired of the way they usurped him all those years. Especially now, I feel cheated of films that might have been. Only Love Actually fell short. In his other villainous roles, Rickman had a loyalty, a self-possession, a delivery of lines that left one breathless. In Love Actually, his marital infidelity was simultaneously matter-of-fact and so very shocking that it completely ruined the movie for me. I imagine it was someone’s idea of irony — in a film full of romance, the only happily married man turns out to be a cheat. But I found it difficult to forgive Alan Rickman for the plain meanness of that role.

But then there was always Truly, Madly, Deeply tugging me back. I watched it on video one college winter break, and was floored.  There was this long-haired Alan Rickman — a lover, a cellist, a ghost – and I understood the sacredness of love. Some people simply cannot be gotten over. We may will ourselves to go on, to trudge along, but only because we must. Some people are irreplaceable.

Jamie and Nina, the main characters in Truly, Madly, Deeply, sing a duet, awkwardly, at first, but then with a kind of bumbling perfection:

 Sun ain’t gonna shine anymore,

Moon ain’t gonna rise in the sky,

Tears are always clouding your eyes,

When you’re without love.

That he died today, on the day the Academy Awards nominations were announced, was fitting. Alan Rickman never received one. Was never even nominated. I find this a tremendous oversight.

For those of us reeling, thinking dejectedly of the body of work we have been denied, that he will never be an elder statesman of stage and screen, Rickman left us with words to keep going. His character, Jamie, muddles through a Pablo Neruda poem, La Muerta, or The Dead Woman, about loving and letting go:

[…]perdóname.

Si tú no vives,

si tú, querida, amor mío, si tú

te has muerto,

todas las hojas caerán en mi pecho,

lloverá sobre mi alma noche y día,

la nieve quemará mi corazón,

andaré con frío y fuego

y muerte y nieve,

mis pies querrán marchar hacia donde tú duermes, pero seguiré vivo […]

***

Forgive me

If you are not living

If you, beloved, my love, if you have died.

All of the leaves will fall on my breast,

It will rain on my soul all night, all day,

the snow will burn my heart,

I shall walk with frost and fire

and death and snow,

My feet will want to march to where you are sleeping

But I shall go on living…

 

I’ve wondered today why I felt so compelled to post about Alan Rickman, an actor, on DadvMom.com, a site about parenting. And I’ve boiled it down to this: he is a man I grew up with. I snuck into rated-R Die Hard when I was in junior high, and I watched Robin Hood with my prom date. Truly, Madly, Deeply saw me through my worst college break-up, the loss of the guy I had thought I would marry. And Sense and Sensibility ushered in the era of my now husband. We first saw the Harry Potter films on date nights, and later, with our children. Like Nina from Truly, Madly, Deeply, I am simply astonished that we must go on living without him.

Rest in Peace, Alan. Your memory is already a blessing.

 

 

 

 

Brokenheartedness

He Was My Shadow

Every morning for the past three weeks, he has woken me at 4am with his pacing. Collar jangling, looking for God knows what. He has been talking to ghosts lately. He wanders into corners, gets stuck, and lets out a hoarse “woof.” I rouse myself from bed to feed him. Sometimes he eats, sometimes he doesn’t. Under my breath, I curse the sleep he is costing me. But he is sixteen years old, and in my heart I can’t really be angry with him.

When we moved him across the country more than a year ago, we were sure Shadow only had a few months left. But I suspect he knew we still needed him. Every night in this new house, he implemented a rotating shift, sleeping next to each of the kids’ beds, then finally settling next to ours once he determined all was well.

I got the call from my wife around noon. He wouldn’t get up to go outside, and one of his eyes would not open. When I got home, he was still breathing, but barely. He was laying right where I knew he would be, in the fur-covered divot by my side of the bed. When I stretched out next to him, he barely stirred. Then, slowly and with great effort, he lifted his head and laid it on my arm. It was heavier than I ever remember it being. He opened his good eye, looked into mine, and let out a sigh.

“I’m done,” he told me. He had settled us into this new home and made sure we would be okay. He had checked every corner and stood watch every night. He was happy, knowing he had taken good care of this family for 16 years. But he was also tired, and in pain, and he was asking me to make this easier for him.

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I know the difference between sorrow and tragedy. I have lost friends and family members, been to funerals for loved ones taken too soon. Putting down a pet is not a calamity. It is its own special kind of sorrow though, different from any I have felt before. My dog, my best friend, was asking me to take him on his last walk. He had given me everything he possibly could. And never asked for anything in return. Until today.

He sighed again, and there was something of an apology in it. “I am sorry you have to do this,” he told me. I pulled my phone from my pocket and called the vet. He said to come whenever I am ready. I said “a few hours,” to give the kids time for their goodbyes.

On the ride home from school, my wife explained to our children what was happening. They came in quietly and gathered around me and my dog. We ran our hands through his soft fur and told stories about his happier days. Like when he ate the whole fruitcake. Or crashed the wedding party at the beach. At one point, we all laughed. Beyond a doubt, I knew this is how Shadow would want to leave us. Everyone gave him one last squeeze. Lizzie laid a bouquet of flowers, plucked from the yard, by his nose. I cradled him in my arms and carried him to the car. I had not held him like that since he was a puppy.

I asked the vet if I could share one last story. He sat on the floor next to Shadow and me, as I explained about Afghanistan and how this dog helped settle me back home. I could not finish. Shadow laid in my lap, his breathing shallower than before. The doc put a reassuring hand on mine. “This is a dog in pain,” he said. “You’re doing the right thing.” He put in an IV. He flushed the vein. And then . . . .

I laid with Shadow for a long time afterwards, as his body slowly lost its warmth. I buried my head in the soft fur around his neck and let out one last cry. “Such a good dog,” was all I managed to say. When I went home, the kids hugged me and asked about heaven. I told them we would see Shadow there, but I was not really sure.

It is 4am now. I am haunting this house alone, desperate for the jangling of Shadow’s collar. He is the ghost now. Last night I dreamed I saw him across a wide river. He was wagging his tail and pacing happily, something he has not done in a long time. I wondered if he was trying to cross over to me. Then I saw his fur, already wet from a good swim. He wasn’t coming back. He was there waiting. If there is a heaven, our dogs are the ones who let us in.

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This essay was reprinted by Fatherly.com on Oct. 1, 2015.  

Brokenheartedness

The Shadow in My Heart

Our dog is dying again. That is not to suggest that he has been dying before. Only that we are preparing to let go of another beloved pet today and it all feels eerily familiar. Shadow has stopped eating. His breathing is labored at the side of my bed. In an hour, we will bring him to the vet, who will likely tell us there is nothing more we can do. We will say good-bye and hold him tight, and the vet will put him down.

Put him down. There should be such a better euphemism for the death of a devoted 16-year-companion. Raise him up. Settle him in. Nudge him aside. Let him go.

He had a good run. We adopted him when we lived in Washington State, and he has scampered all over this great country. He has swum in both the Atlantic and the Pacific and chased tennis balls everywhere from Tampa to Seattle. He accidentally dismembered a squirrel in South Carolina – I swear, that thing just fell out of a tree and into his mouth – and ate two of our chickens when we lived in Ohio. But otherwise, he has been a lazy little dreamer, afraid of fireworks and marching bands, with a little bark and very little bite. Despite our attempts to feed him only dog food, Shadow has eaten every toaster waffle my 3-year-old son has ever held. He has unpacked every lunch box my daughters have ever left on the living room floor, and acquired a taste for cucumbers and granola bars in the process. And, of course, he has found the bacon no matter how far back on the counter I slid it.

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My husband comes from a dog family, and he has buried several pets. Out of all of them, Shadow is the one he has loved the most. He says Shadow is goodness incarnate, the most thoughtful dog he has ever known. In fact, Shadow is cartoonishly affable. He approaches all guests and welcomes all strangers. Did someone call a dog? He has never once frightened off an intruder or defended our home.

He has been a fixture of our household, this loyal pup that I had begun to think would never ever die.  He has few teeth and cannot hear, and he passes gas like it’s his job. But we have loved this stinky, old, arthritic guy for nearly the full duration of our marriage. I can’t help but feel a part of our shared history is dying with him.

Before our kids, Shadow and Hound (who died a few years ago) were our babies. We vacationed with them, road-tripping from one dog-friendly establishment to the next — except for that one motel in Iowa where we got totally busted for sneaking our dogs in the back entrance. We exercised them, bathed them, fed them, and camped with them. And for many years, they were very, very good to us.dadvmom.com_shadowinmyheart_xmashoundnshadow

Of course, with the birth of each successive child, our puppies slid further down on our priority list. After schlepping both dogs to an unfenced bungalow in Cape Cod, and chasing them down repeatedly, we started kenneling rather than taking them with us. Jogging Shadow led to walking Shadow, which led to keeping him hooked to a doggy clothesline-type thingie in the back yard. We felt guilty about that, but he always understood.

Over these past few years, Shadow has diminished, has seemed so much less of a dog than he ever was. The children throw balls he does not chase and offer biscuits he cannot chew. But if he became less a dog, it was almost like he became more a person – the friend who greeted me excitedly when I returned home, the nurse who kept the kids warm when they were sick, the brown-eyed companion who sensed joy and sadness alike.

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I wonder sometimes why we bother with these animals, when we know it always ends the same. Like bad boyfriends, you give them all your love, and they are destined to leave and break your heart.

The kids want to replace him. They have a list of pets they hope to acquire. Guppies, bunnies, a cat, a turtle, a guinea pig, and a new puppy named “Shadow, Jr.” are all on the list. Though Shadow cannot hear, and does not speak English, I do not like for them to discuss his replacements in front of him. It seems cruel. Also, I’m not sure I have it in me.

Of course, the only thing worse than loving a dog again is not loving a dog again. I have written this before, but dogs love us the way we wish we could love others. Their hearts are always open. They are always willing to give. They are forgiveness and understanding on four legs.

Anyone who has an old dog will tell you about buying food. Kibble is exorbitant. Wildly expensive. The only way to make it slightly less-so is to purchase a really big bag. Over the past year, I always hesitated before I lugged it into my cart. “Is he going to live long enough to eat all of this?” Again and again, he did. But Shadow stopped eating yesterday, I am down to the very bottom of the big bag, and the last available helping is still sitting in his bowl. Thoughtful to the very end, Shadow would never want us to waste our money. I can almost hear him saying, No, no. That’s okay. I’m fine. I’ve had a good run. I’m just not hungry anymore.

He has been a bit of a nuisance these past few weeks, always sneaking off to shady patches in the neighbor’s yard and the nearby school. I thought he was being impish, still a pup who likes to wander and explore. I think now he was just looking for someplace to die. He did not ever want to burden us, not with his care-taking, and certainly not with our grief.

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We have loved you Shadow. For almost as long as I can remember. And we are sorry, so very, very sorry, to say good-bye.  If there is a heaven, I have no doubt that you’ll be there, wagging your tail, chasing a tennis ball, and asking all comers, Did someone call a dog?