Death is not my genre. My relationship with death is acutely dysfunctional. I’m terrified of death for the people I love, and also for myself, because I can’t reconcile the finality. Provoked by the thought of never being able to connect with the people I love again when they die, having just peeled and all, I ache for evidence that we’ll be together in our next life. If I had that, I could be patient-ish. I need concrete proof that I’ll be with the people I love after I die, reassurance I’ll never get in this lifetime.
After a death, my mind often wanders about snippets of time I wasted doing inane things when I should’ve been focused on the person I love. Wishing I could take back those wasted moments. Adding them up, I realize they translate to hours and ultimately more time with who I’ve lost.
As a result, I love death humor and cracking jokes about it, “So-and-so’s had one foot on the peel for so long; she’s turned it into a sixteen-act drama” or “Oy, I wish she’d go into the light already. Doesn’t she know it’s free?” and “How should we dress for casket shopping today, Emilio Pucci loud or Anne Taylor bland?” and “Post burial, there is an after-party, right?” Essentially, I can do death if I make it funny.
I do believe in a heaven. I think. (The only hell I subscribe to is living under a republican administrations.) So, okay, maybe my fear isn’t about finality, but my need for communication. If I’m not IM’ng or text mesaging or emailing with my mother and my sister, we’re probably on the phone. Similarly, I am in perpetual contact with my brothers, my dad and my friends.
Or, perhaps it’s about pain-avoidance. I often recite the adage, “Time heals a broken heart”, hoping it will sink in, but that’s bullshit, it never does. The moment my heart was first broken by death it felt like glass chards in my veins, like a storm that slaughtered my bones and corroded my flesh. Dramatic, yes, and truly how I felt. My first experience with death changed the landscape of my heart and my outlook on life. Life was gone and life was interrupted.
I admire my parents’ ability to deal with death. My father does it with savagely dark humor. When he spun a yarn about casket shopping when his mother, my grandmother, passed, he went on and on, almost in a stream-of-consciousness way, “When we walked into the funeral pahlah, the mortician showed us ‘The Titan’. I nevah saw anything so fuckin’ awwstentatious in my life. Three different metals, hardwoord flooring, a featherbed, dust ruffles, shit, all that thing was missing was a latke fryer and a fuckin’ refrigerator. I says to the guy, ya got a plain box we can throw her in? What about a rental? He didn’t think that was funny—fuck em’. They just kept getting worse, from the ‘Silver Angel’ to the hot pink ‘Athena’, to my favorite, ‘The Ebony’! Stick ivory in an ebony box, funny, real funny, Mortimer. Hidden in a corner, I found a small pine box. Your grandmothah woulda hated one of those gaudy boxes anyway. She would’ve been pissed off that we spent so much money. We got the box for a hundred bucks. It was beautiful and simple with a Jewish star carved at the head. He asked if we wanted bedding. No. A pillow? No. A blanket? No. Not even a vault to put the box in? No, just the fuckin’ box.”
My mother’s approach is equally beautiful; allowing the waves of heartache to break, traversing each one, head on. She doesn’t avoid feeling it, regardless of when it hits. She knows that absorbing it is as important as knowing it will pass.
As for me, when someone I love dies, the world feels too muted. I want to hear the voices I’ve lost, to smell their scent and lose myself in their happiness. I know all the clichés, “We live. We Love. We lose. That’s life.” “You can’t appreciate life without death.” Blah, blah, blah. I GOT IT—it’s been drilled into my head. It’s just never resonated. The harmony between my heart and mind is grossly impaired, defying the natural order I need. So, consumed by loss, there is no mourning after for me. The pain swells, growing in strength and I never know how to make peace with it.
The two most profound deaths in my life were both sudden and unexpected. My grandmother died when I was a teenager, “fine” until she committed suicide. My canine kid was healthy until he wasn’t on the day before he died.
As these deaths occurred, it seemed that my menses was the only adept expression of my feelings, uncharacteristically a vigorous flood that charged through my vaginal canal. Usually, it began as a trickle before making a grand appearance. But, cycles following death were the tears I couldn’t shed and the anger I couldn’t speak. Menses worked out the pain within the recesses of my sorrowful, aching core, pulling each drop of anguish and solitude from the lining and resolutely driving it through my tunnel. If I was to learn anything, it was that at the very least, my heart and womb were interconnected, evidence that acceptance did, or could, exist somewhere inside of me even when I feared it did not.
The Canine Kid was nestled in his mother’s womb with five brothers and sisters until he was born. When I first saw him, he was woven into his siblings, huddled against his mama’s belly. I was at the breeders every week to watch him putz around his new digs and find his way. I fell madly, desperately and passionately in love with this child, when, at just three weeks, he separated himself from the pack. He sauntered a few yards away to observe his siblings play and I was in love with his moxie. Here was this kid fresh out of the womb and already he had such a strong sense of self and a desire for independence. All of that meant he had a plan for his life and that’s when I knew unmistakably this was my first-born son.
I was born in one of the worst blizzards New York had seen in almost twenty years. My grandma, Helen, was there that day and the first thing she said was, “This kid’s got great gams.” Everything about Helen felt like making a wish before you blow out your birthday candles. Her creativity, love and joy were bewitching, her strength and sense of self were beguiling and her scent was sacred. To this day, when someone passes me on the street wearing her perfume, I feel her, her love, I remember her tchotchkes, the cozy smell of her kitchen, her handbags, her closets, her jewelry, her hats and her warm hands, and every memory I have of her floods my brain.
The Kid was a hundred and thirty-five pounds of robust personality. He was Lon Chaney, the man of a thousand faces, a face for every mood and occasion. He was busy with himself all the time and perpetually on the move. When we were in the car, he loved to stealthily slip his head out the window and try to bite cars that raced by. He schlepped his toys throughout the house, hiding them from himself between cabinets, underneath furniture and in every corner he could find, he hocked to go to the park every five minutes and negotiated his way into extra treats. He was me—pushy and busy with himself.
My grandmother’s closets were filled with costume jewelry she’d collected throughout the years from Alexander’s Department Store. She organized everything in small perfume boxes and labeled them according to outfit. She loved haute couture Joan Crawford suits from the 40s, but couldn’t afford them so, an expert seamstress, she created patterns and scrimped for materials to produce enviable duplicates, preserved in garment bags and carefully draped on sturdy wooden hangers. Her shoes were in boxes, also labeled by outfit. She was radiant, tall and lean with short, curly red hair and big brown eyes—beacons of hope and history that expressed an inner life when she vocally could not. She had this animated, broad smile that delivered wise-ass smirks, subtle smiles, and gregarious laughter. Her voice was husky and soothing. She had bags under her eyes. She joked they were her luggage.
The Kid had a million nicknames: Dori, LouieJew, Juice, Shagaboobie, Shagaboombas, Shagamuffin, Super Bug, Buglette Wugglette, Schmuck, Putz, Prick, Doreenie, Shagalicious, Shagarincess, Schwartzy, The Kid and Elliot Gould, but, officially, he was Shagadore Louie Vincenzo Schwartz. He vivaciously responded to every single name by widening his effusive, hypnotic chocolate eyes and cocking his head to the side, to listen attentively to everything I had to say, regardless of how frivolous or asinine. Though he was a Bouvier des Flandres, a Belgian herding dog, to me he was a little person in a dog’s costume. He had a furry black coat and sweet floppy ears and when he wagged his docked tail, his boundless enthusiasm for life made his entire tushie and lower back shake. He was spirited, kind and gentle. He felt like an old soul.
I know one person who had a happy childhood and it wasn’t me. Looking back, I’ve never been well versed in the art of self-esteem. It feigns more than it flows. It’s something I’ve always wished was bottled, so I could buy a lifetime supply. When I was a kid, my Grandma Helen eased that by sharing her imagination and the idea that possibilities existed. She loved writing, knitting, cooking, sewing and exploring and she shared those loves with me. Living in Brooklyn, she was a subway ride away from Manhattan, the city she extolled. She made me laugh– she made everyone laugh. She loved to curse– fuck, and every fuck–with-pronoun made her top five. Schmuck, and putz were her favorites. She managed to be a renaissance dame at heart, though a part of her felt bound by archaic values about a woman’s role in the home. The depth of love in Helen’s eyes reflected who I was at heart, at an age I when I was too disjointed to realize. She didn’t want to be a wife. However, she loved being a mother and a grandmother. Her husband wasn’t the love of her life; he was her ball and chain, her albatross. My grandmother could’ve left him, walked out the door and made a life for herself, by her own design. Yet, obligation seemed sewn onto her ring finger, consummating her fate as an adulterous to her beloved self. Still. The depth of love in Helen’s eyes reflected who I was at heart as an adolescent, a gullible age, too disconnected to realize that if I looked hard enough, I might’ve seen the positive qualities she saw, perhaps.
The world through Shag’s eyes was magnificent. He appreciated how bountiful the earth was and ran wild in every patch of grass he happened upon. He raced outside to feel the wind and rain whipping through his fur and showering his coat. My greatest pleasure was watching him experience it, all of it—nothing made me happier. Life always made sense through his eyes. It was simple to him, really. Love and be loved. Be kind to others. Share your toys. Laugh (or wag your tail, as the case may be) as often as possible. Find joy. Push for extra treats. Live out loud—let the world know you’re there and what it is you want.
When I went through the most difficult and challenging period of my adult life, Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disease that ravaged my body after annihilating my mind, I didn’t think I would survive. Shag was my extension of sense and sanity, but more than that, his daily requirements anchored me to life. He innately knew how sick I was. When I was vulnerable, he was cuddly. When I couldn’t drag my ass out of the house, Shag would sit across from me watching over me. Glancing my way, the twinkle in his eyes served as a reminder that I was strong enough to get through my misery. His love of life foreshadowed happiness that I wasn’t feeling within myself, but one day would.
I felt lucky to love and be loved by such healing, altruistic souls.
One of my first memories of Helen is riding on a subway from Brooklyn speeding towards Manhattan. Before we boarded, we stopped at a newsstand. She bought me my first Archie comic book. I immediately flipped through it and smelled it. The newspapery pages and ink was such a comforting scent, I now have a collection of two thousand to huff at my discretion and when I do, it transplants me to that day. She gave me carte blanche to her assortment of fine baubles to embellish my imaginary characters with. Though she adored her costume jewelry, nothing was off limits. My joy superseded any concern she might’ve had about breaking her jewels. She taught me how to make latkes, blintzes, kugel and other Yiddish dishes passed down from her mother’s, mother’s mother. The traditional Jewish dishes that Helen made were savory and fried or sweet and baked. Her house was so fragrant; like passing a homemade knish shop and 30-year-old deli. I spent hours watching her recline in her sturdy wood rocker that creaked ever so slightly on the third “rock”, the sound a handful of quarters make when they simultaneously land on Berber carpeting. She would sew, embroider and knit vests, sweaters, scarves, hats, mittens, and elegant and casual outfits. Whenever I was with her, creativity flourished; and I felt like a normal kid with an opportunity to explore my own imagination. When I’ve felt out of sorts, recalling those times brought me unprecedented comfort. Even now.
I got The Kid a few months before I ended my Starter Marriage. The night my ex moved out, I sat on the kitchen counter and asked Shag to sit across from me. He inquiringly tilted his head to the side, instinctively knowing I was going to say something important. “Okay, kid, listen. It’s just you and me now. I’ve never had a dog. You’re the first, so there’s a really good chance I could fuck this up, but I’m gonna do my best not to. I want us to get to know each other. I feel a responsibility to provide you with your own life and your own friends. Your happiness means everything to me and I want you to know that I am committed to safeguarding that. I love you. Be patient with me and I’ll be patient with you and we’ll find our way. Cool?” He sighed and smiled. He heard me.
The night before we drove to New York, we sat on the floor of our empty apartment in Los Angeles. He was eating a cheeseburger and French fries and I was eating a veggie burger and potato salad. There we were, mother and son noshing, and it was the best ever.
And, so our adventure began. I schlepped that kid across the country three times. We lived in six different apartments. I became his continuity, and he became mine. We went to the park, to run and play catch every day for hours at a time. I sent him to day school to socialize with other dogs. When I was out of town, he vacationed at a Shangri-la for canines in Malibu Canyon. He wanted for nothing, which was exactly what I hoped to achieve. When I got sick with Graves’ disease, I didn’t take my own life because this little person needed me. I didn’t overreact when I was boiling inside; ready to burst, because I couldn’t risk losing him.
When I was fifteen, my mother answered the phone and cried. Having just tried to commit suicide, my grandmother, Helen, was in a coma.
One night, for three nights consecutively, my dog vomited, because he had a sensitive stomach and we’d been down this road many times, I thought nothing of it. However, on the fourth night, I knew something was wrong, so we went to the ER.
Within a few hours of learning Helen was in a coma, my mother and I boarded a plane to be with her.
Shag’s vet said his blood work was normal and The Kid just had a stomachache. The clinic sent us home with anti-nausea medication. That night, as he tried to sleep, he was miserable. He couldn’t get comfortable and I massaged his back and tried to put him at ease.
Before entering Helen’s hospital room, my father said, “She’s hooked up to a lot of machines. But, it’s still Helen. The nurse is turning her.”
After a long, sleepless night, Shag was wrecked. He vomited, and didn’t want to move. He tried so hard to find comfort and could not. My sister and I coaxed him to the car and to the vet again. Overnight, Shag’s situation turned dire. Now, with fluid and bacteria in his abdomen, we took him to an urgent care facility. As we left, my vet said that if Shag made the trip to urgent care, he had a 50/50 shot at survival.
Helen was in the ICU. Her room was filled with flowers, aunts, uncles and grandparents. She was in the center, lying in a hospital bed, underneath a soft grey blanket.
The traffic en route to the urgent veterinary care center was impenetrable and Shag kept slumping further into his seat and onto the floor. My sister held his face. I held his face and cried, “You can make it, Shaggy, hold on.” I cried, “Hold on, baby. Please hold on.”
Helen was intubated and hooked up to machines, as my father warned. I sat beside her. I held her hand, massaging it—it was warm and familiar and I begged her not to die.
My sister and I spoke with Shag’s veterinarian. Shag had abdominal sepsis precipitated by an obstruction in his bowels, now pouring bacteria into his stomach. He had a slim chance for survival and even if he did survive, he would need multiple surgeries. The quality of his life, something I was emphatic about preserving, would’ve been grossly compromised.
Helen looked so angry in her hospital bed, a foreign expression on her. She didn’t want to be there. She was desperate to go, as being in a coma was not her choice but a consequence of her actions.
My sister called my mother to come quickly to the veterinary office. Not wanting him to be alone, I went into the ER to be with Shag. He was lying on a table, wrapped in a grey blanket, hooked up to machines and looking thoroughly exhausted. Shag was done. He didn’t want to be there.
Helen was in the room at the beginning of my life and I was in the room the last week of hers. I was there at the beginning of Shag’s life and I was there at the end.
My dad wouldn’t allow me to be in the room when he turned off the machines. He wanted to do it alone. I wanted to be there with Helen to say good-bye. I couldn’t make the decision to end Helen’s suffering. But, I could for Shag. When my son was euthanized, I held him close and tight. My face was buried in his and all I could say was, “I love you. I love you. I love you.” Though I had so much more I wanted to say. My sister massaged his legs and his belly. My mother stroked his chest and held my head, until he exhaled for the last time.
I miss their scent, their smile and how safe I felt in their presence. I miss the responsibility of preserving the sacredness of Shag’s life and his joy. I wish that and the love I had for Shag and Helen was enough sustenance for them both to survive. I found and still find happiness in our history, gratitude for what they each gave me and how much I learned from them.
I knew Helen suffered from depression and had attempted suicide three times previously. I understand she felt her only option was suicide and I can guess what that feels like, but I will never really know why my grandmother committed suicide. I don’t know how Shag’s bowels were obstructed, but I know that he was born with stomach and intestinal issues. What they struggled with the most in life was the cause of their deaths. Memories won’t resurrect the dead, I get that. To vanquish my heartache, I needed to honor the best of who they were or risk minimizing what I willfully sought to preserve, their quality of life and happiness.