Surprise

When three-year-old Ava came to visit, her eye lighted immediately on the Russian nesting doll sitting happily on the bookshelf. Together we twisted the top of the doll, and then the next and the next. How I wish I had filmed Ava. Puzzlement at first, then surprise, and that glorious child-like determination to twist again. From then on, she filled my living room with delight as wooden doll after wooden doll appeared, each tinier than the last. And then the wonder of going in reverse, until the many objects became one smiling babushka.

e8e6ac9815cbc069c5a5a53357183ff0Ava, beautiful child, reminded me of the fascination I have for objects within objects within objects. Droste art has the same effect on me—the loop of smaller and smaller versions appearing as long as the resolution allows. Mirror images in tinier replications seem magical to me, their revelations renewing themselves endlessly.

I need these memories to live well in this present time. Delight, laughter, and surprise—that “Aha” moment—are not newspaper or internet headlines. Instead, suspicion, expletives, and fury take my attention. The placard reads, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Ava was paying attention: engrossed, happy, and full of wonder. What if I added a political button that read, “If I’m not surprised, I’m not paying attention.” Surprise means I am caught off guard, the way a joke’s punch line unexpectedly tickles my funny bone. Surprise (it lasts as long as a blown bubble) refuses to rage against another.

Little wonder that the scripture story tells of Jesus welcoming children. I imagine he found it more fun to be with creatures of wonder than jaded intellectuals or clueless disciples. How do I become a child again? I will never erase my angry self, yet I want a reprieve. In my best moments I would like to bring a different kind of alertness to the world: that of the child—face alight with surprise—who holds a doll who holds a doll who holds a doll, every face of flesh and wood fully alive.

Bone-Talk

Children, you are very little
And your bones are very brittle
If you would grow great and stately
You must try to walk sedately.
— Robert Louis Stevenson

Even though I received, in 2012, a diagnosis of dangerous osteoporosis of the spine, I was skeptical. What’s a little wing-bone pain anyway? Once home, I stripped to the waist, picked up my hand mirror, and took a critical look at my spine. I saw a hump—a hump, for God’s sake—where my right wing bone should have been. Clothed once more, I saw how my purple T-shirt folded between my clavicle and right shoulder. And to think I’d blamed poor factory seamstresses for how my clothes hung. The mirror did not lie. Neither did the test.

My internet use quadrupled as I squinted over photos of crooked spines, dowager’s humps, Fosamax studies, and bones porous as Swiss cheese. Click, click. Osteoporosis causes over a million fractures every year. Click. Nearly half of women over 50 will have a fracture due to osteoporosis. Click. Fosamax, the most common osteoporosis drug has side effects. My fear turned to anger. All those jogging and walking miles I’ve put in, all those calcium and vitamin D pills? My spine could snap like the Thanksgiving wishbone we fought over as children.

While the diagnosis, at first, had caused me little concern, deformity terrified me. What if I turned out like that lady, the one with the huge hump on her right side, the one who shuffles along with her grubby Shih-Tzu? One morning I stopped to watch her. Does she see that driver turning? How does she wash her dog or sleep at night? Osteoporosis was at work in both of us, snapping bones, curling them, slyly healing them in place.

yoga-for-osteoporosisI turned to Yoga for Osteoporosis by Loren Fishman and Ellen Saltonstall. Under the authors’ specific directions, (always use the support of a wall or chair) I began an hour-long daily regimen of isometric lifts, turns, and stretches meant to strengthen muscle, bone, and balance. Days have blend into months and months into five years. The hump is gone. I have regained the inch and a half of height loss. My blouses no longer bunch near my clavicle. At times the accomplishment makes me proud, even smug, but other times I wonder why I fear my body’s inevitable decay.

I don’t plan to schedule another bone density test. At seventy-four years of age, cracking up isn’t worth the worry. Each day I lift and stretch, push and pull my old bones. True, my spine could curl me in half.  My thin shell could crack wide open. Who knows, though, maybe a soft, winged creature will emerge.

Fur Tales

The first day of July mourning doves lamented and a slight breeze made the trees glimmer with shadow and light. A perfect time to sit with a cup of foamed coffee and Moriarity’s Big Little Lies. Instead, I stood in a small windowless room of the vet clinic, stroking the black fur of a small Shih-Tzu, and crying over his unexpected death. I fostered him briefly until a family took him home and loved him for six of his twelve years. In that enclosed room, I found no comfort in envisioning him on the “Rainbow Bridge.” Mortality–that lurking, inevitable reality—was my meditation.

Why is it that so many dog books end in death? The blubs may preach companionship, but sooner or later the dog dies. Where the Red Fern Grows, Rawls 1961 classic, tells us in the first pages that this story is one of “wonderful love, unselfish devotion and death in its saddest form.” I relished every splendid chapter of Rick Bass’ Coulter: The Best Dog I Ever Had, a paean to his German short-hair pointer, but one of his last sentences pains me: “We tend—despite our best protestations—not to want a happy ending.”  C’mon, I want to plead, let the dog live. I still read these books. I hooked a wondrous, heart-breaking ride on Gizelle’s Bucket List with Lauren Fern Watt and her brindled mastiff. Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain kept my reading light on past midnight and Kleenex in my lap, so in love was I with the old soul Enzo.

That recent July day, though, one more beloved dead dog lay wrapped in a blanket, large eyes fixed and sleepy. The technician entered, gently inquired if the family or I needed more time. We shook our heads.  She picked up the small body and carried it out.

Once home, I thought about all the dogs who have entered and exited my community: Hershey, Buck, Gabriel, Josie, Cappy, and Jacques. I know too well the smells of veterinary offices and the click of a door opening, the almost imperceptible whoosh of the syringe and the soft escape of air, that last heartbeat, and the words, “I’m so sorry. Take all the time you need.” Yes, the familiar memory is not always the welcome one.

I thought, too, about authors who let the dog live. I smiled to think of Gordon Korman’s No More Dead Dogs. Oh, how I love Wallace Wallace, tired of books where the dog dies, who refuses to write a class essay on (get ready) Old Shep, My Pal. Two other gems perch on my bookshelf—Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. On a July day of grief I needed to imagine magnificent Buck running with his wolf brother, side by side and to delight in that fine old French gentleman, Charles le Chien, Poodle extraordinaire. Let’s hear it for dogs who have not been shot or cancer-ridden or too hobbled to last through the final pages.

On a day weary with sadness, I did not sit on the patio with foamed coffee, but I did turn to books. Hail to the truth-tellers about mortality, but blessed are those books when, by the end, good dogs don’t die. And what do you know? Safe in their living room bed, Angel and Sugar, the remaining two of my eight-dog pack, watch me. My inimitable owners and guardians were there, fully alive. For now.

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