Monthly Musings

A Column by Nia

Reborn

At its core
at the centermost ring
of the circles within circles
that are life
where is life?

Here, in the sable-soft earth,
where eons of dust and death
nurture graceful limbs
too massive to walk,
too humble to fly?

There, in the rush of transformation
where chlorophyll greets sunrise
coursing through spiderwebbed veins
in tributaries that waft and weft
in rhythm with the wind-tossed tethered leaves?

If not there, where?
Here, in the sky-drenched colors
that shift from verdancy to marigold
with the cyclic undulations
of temperature and time?

Or perhaps, here,
in the sinews that bind
infinitesimal specks into patterns
that are "tree" or "hawk," "coyote," "man"?
Earth strong. Feral eyed. Skysome fierce. Just.

Perhaps not. Perhaps there,
behind those moonsung orbs of windowed light,
at times absorbing, at times reflecting
perceptions, conceptions,
to and from and ever of all those who witness

life?
But if so, why, since time will
splinter, sever, darken,
sober, dry, and wither all?
Bloodless. Eyeless. Dissolution.

Disillusioned fragments
resolving, recomposing
into songs reflecting life
recollected, re-imagined,
reborn.

 

Dawn

Joy is a bouquet of ribbons
Pink and green as the stone-walled towns of Tuscany
Warm as the lemonade sea that greets the sun
At a dawn that is larger than the sky can hold,
Washing scorched colors clean against the rocked-smooth stones
As the air breathes deep the salted air
Still heavy with the sleep that transfigured
Yesterday's sorrows into the clean still bright of day.

 

Reincantation (Music Lyrics)

For My Father

[cry of the red-shouldered hawk]
Kee - yerrrrrrr! Kee - yerrrrrrr!
When did city ears take note and hear?
[cry of the red-shouldered hawk]
Kee - yerrrrrrr! Kee - yerrrrrrr!
Inside a month, outside a year?
[cry of the red-shouldered hawk]
Kee - yerrrrrrr! Kee - yerrrrrrr!
Can't tell. What the hell. I remember.

Only a cry, in the distant sky
Long time past saying my goodbye
Kind of shy, taking hold
Only sound, nothing bold
Then a day, deep in May
I remember.

[cry of the red-shouldered hawk]
Kee - yerrrrrrr! Kee - yerrrrrrr!
A victory cry taking hold of day,
[cry of the red-shouldered hawk]
Kee - yerrrrrrr! Kee - yerrrrrrr!
And knowing I had lost my way
[cry of the red-shouldered hawk]
Kee - yerrrrrrr! Kee - yerrrrrrr!
Searched the sky, wondering why. I remember.

Heard the sound, 'nothing round
Then he soared without sound
Into view overhead
Looming large, shoulders red
Lost my heart, lost my head
I remember.

[cry of the red-shouldered hawk]
Kee - yerrrrrrr! Kee - yerrrrrrr!
No bird in the city ever loomed this large
[cry of the red-shouldered hawk]
Kee - yerrrrrrr! Kee - yerrrrrrr!
Never felt so safe, never cried so hard
[cry of the red-shouldered hawk]
Kee - yerrrrrrr! Kee - yerrrrrrr!
Was it him? Was it me? Who could know? Who could see? I remember.

Mornings after, he'd be there
Soaring sure, without a care
Large as life, no larger still
Wings and song a heart could fill
Invincible, I thought, I willed -
I remember.

[music to create rhythm, but without the cry of the red-shouldered hawk]
È - / È - /
Until daybreak came without song or sound
[cry of the red-shouldered hawk]
È - / È - /
I found him dead on the cold still ground
[cry of the red-shouldered hawk]
È - / È - /
Severed feathers everywhere. Rent and mangled. Empty stare. I remember.

Heartbeats frozen in despair
Early winter holds me there
Death-still days and silent nights
Waking cold and sweating fright
Till a day, deep in May
I remember.

For when Spring found its way home
I realized I was not alone
A smaller hawk singing smaller songs
Reclaimed the sky for his father, gone
Reminding me, though we all will die
We all can fly.

[cry of the red-shouldered hawk]
Kee - yerrrrrrr! Kee - yerrrrrrr!
The bird child sings his father's song
[cry of the red-shouldered hawk]
Kee - yerrrrrrr! Kee - yerrrrrrr!
Will his time be short? Will his time be long?
[cry of the red-shouldered hawk]
Kee - yerrrrrrr! Kee - yerrrrrrr!
Can't tell. What the hell. I remember.

 

Jasmine

There was nothing normal about her.
The other girls, guys would call
"Awesome!" "Incredible!" or just "all right."
Words you could relate to, you know?
It would not have much mattered
even to have been deemed "all right."
Just a category, any category - a box
of some kind, however narrow its expectations,
would have been better than this
unclassifiability.
Only the name, Jasmine,
and occupation, student,
tethered her to their world
of ordinariness, as free
of all strings save that one -
she flew herself wildly at the stars,
only to be pulled back, violent,
to this place where she must remain
nameless…an unfamiliar scent
riding the galactic winds.

 

Art: A Prayer

We touch
folds of melted stone
gentled to fluidity -
wondering whose hand
has wrest it free
from rock and stillness.

We see
luminescence borne
of color and its lack -
wondering whose eye
imagines light
where there has been none.

We hear
rapture songs of sound
awaking mem'ries -
wondering whose voice
and heart charm tears
as though it knew them.

We feel
beauty borne of man
yet man transcending -
wondering whose hand,
eye, voice, and heart -
and seeing God.

 

Why Critical Analysis? - An Essay

Writing is communicating. Some forms of writing, such as plays, are more public methods of communicating than others. But all writing needs an audience to complete its journey. The way a writer finds out whether he is truly communicating what he is trying to communicate is to "test" his work before an audience.

Critical analysis is intended to help writers find out whether what they think is on the page, is really there…whether what they are trying to convey has been successfully conveyed. It has nothing to do with what the audience likes or dislikes. It has only to do with what the audience understands or fails to understand.

Arbitrary subjective criticism is harmful to every writer, no matter how experienced, no matter how successful. Our goal is to help fellow writers by objectively critiquing any work shared according to the specific wishes expressed by the author. Our ground rules for critical analysis follow.

Ground Rules for Critical Analysis

1. What a person writes may be totally true, totally made up, or anywhere in between - and which it is nobody's business but their own.

2. Never presume that the moral values expressed by a character are the values of the writer.

3. Art must be judged on its own terms. That means, according to what its creator is trying to achieve. As an audience member, you have every right to avoid works that make you feel uncomfortable, threatened, frightened, or whatever. However, as a participant in a critical analysis of that work, your job is not to make moral judgments on the content. Your job is to make aesthetic judgments based on the work's aspirations (what it is trying to achieve) and context (the historical/social/cultural environment in which, and for which, it was written.) This is why honorable directors keep the Indians in Peter Pan and the "Jews" in The Merchant of Venice. An objective critic's acknowledgement that a work of art has indeed achieved what it set out to do, should not be construed as a moral sanction of its content.

4. During a critical analysis … before you speak, and whenever you listen, remember that (as Shaw once said) all criticism is ultimately autobiography. What you hear and see and feel is shaped by a lifetime of personal experiences. Some of us are more visually oriented, others are moved by characterization or the musicality of language or the complexity of thematic content.. Know and share your own biases when you are offering criticism; learn the biases of your critics when you are gathering information. Learning how to hear and use criticism is as difficult a skill as learning how to provide it.

 

Iced Over

Reflections on the landscapes of Frank Wilcox, 1887-1964

Winter or summer landscapes
uniformly muted.
Tasting of sugar maple
or fresh-squeezed lemonade.
No matter. Ice or sun,
night or day, landscapes breathe
a calming still transparence.
Breaking through, breaking out
from somewhere under, distant.
From a time that never
was nor not yet is and yet
is possible. Only
listen to the stillness
calling.

 

Peace

We tell our children tales
of castles and princesses,
of battles fought and won
without horror; only valor
riding white against the night
whose hoary breath
and rancid stench
are ne'er allowed to breach
the innocence of their hearts.

We rock them to the sounds
of sweetness, melodic fifths,
and major chords resolved
without a note of dissonance;
harmonies, all blithe and blind
and hushly sung
in whispers
that alone belie the
terrors of discordant night.

We walk them through a wood
all anthropomorphically
arranged to paradigm
a nature, alike to us, yet
nobler than we, somehow,
all great and small
together,
as though one did not the
other eat - we hide the truth.

And when the truth arrives,
unholy, demonified,
we shake our fists and shout,
"Unfair! Unkind!" as though the face
of evil unfamiliar
were; as though
we did not know;
as though unseeing it
would somehow make it so.

It has a name, this stench, this rank discord of tooth and claw,
enemy  of  children's  dreams,  of  lullabies,  and   wild   things
whose  freedom  is  nought  but  illusion -  this  evil lie denying
that       the       only       peace       possible        is        death.

 

Racoon

Sometimes, when bad things happen, writing helps. Until I wrote this poem, it was hard to get his face out of my head. Writing has moved his image from my head into my heart, where it belongs.

If there is no God,
how is it that they glow,
those eyes?
Bright, with their faith
in a humanity whose speeding cars with headlights bright,
no Darwin had forseen,
slash night with fear,
reflected green.

By the time I reach his longing,
the grim twitching has subsided.
He seems not so badly injured,
so I blanket him against the night and sound of raging cars,
in the hope of a humanity
that sees beyond the injury to innocence
still hungry for the day.

When they come, they call him "danger,"
call him, "nuisance. Nuisance species."
Hail Darwin. They have lost and you have won.

Yet, as I walk away,
a memory lingers,
God's face -
head raised eager, scenting faith, hope,
scenting love
where she waits
there, in the ditch, across the road.

 

The Hawk

There must have been a first time…one clearly defined moment when the who and what and why of him imprinted itself indelibly upon the who and what and why of me. But looking back across the distance of sky and time, all I am able to recall is the sense of his being - a presence constant and sure, whether or not I could see him, whether or not I could hear him, whether - or not.

Where I'd lived before that time, a robin was a big bird and the raucous cawing of the crows was as brave and free a song as our sorry skies could ever sing. It was a sad and noisy place, all sharp and torn and scattery. Incongruous pieces of nothing and everything scraping against each other and themselves at volumes so loud that all memory of silence was banished.

When the silence returned, at last, it might well have gone unnoticed - if not for him. His voice, written bold and powerful across the morning sky tore across God's stillness in a spasm of magnificence so great that the sky was quite unable to hold it, and instead tossed it about wildly, cascading it to earth and to my ears in a boundless paroxysm of might and joy.

So it was that I became reacquainted with silence. I heard it there, in the deep empty spaces within and between his wildly majestic cries.

It was a very long time before I actually saw him. And an even longer one before I knew him for what he was.

Northern Red-Shouldered Hawk. Buteo Lineatus. That was the name the book gave him. And though I came to know him close as the blood of my red blood, "The Hawk" was the only name I ever called him. To have done otherwise would have intruded mortality on a being who seemed ever to have been…ever to be…ever.

Oh, I hear what you are thinking, but you are wrong. Those other hawks you may have seen or heard were not like him. Once I'd become reaccustomed to the quiet, I came to know the sounds and songs of many birds, among them hawks with ruddy shoulders red. Their voices, jay-like, soared, as so did they, in feeble, pale counterfeit of him.

If you still doubt my word, there is a tufted titmouse there, beyond my window, who will gladly stand witness to my truth. For he too knew him. I remember well the day when first I saw him chatting at the hawk, all sweetly calmly serious. My friend attended, listening, silent - the very essence of rectitude and serenity. The one so small and humble, the other strong and proud and larger than a hawk of any kind or color should be.

There were other times, other wonders. The way he'd guard us on our walks, my aged dog and me. The one, all blind and deaf and lame, the other filled with fear of what would come.

Two summers passed in just this way, and then another spring. I blessed what're it was that brought us safely through the other side of winter. And as my prayer rose from my lips, another wonder. The Hawk had returned, and with him, a family. He had brought his young family home to us.

Was it possible that the quiet he had led us to, now nested here, within our home and hearts? It must be true. For they took up residence, the three of them, in a tree just beyond the clearing of yard in the wood behind our house.

There came a day when my old dog could no longer climb out of his favorite ditch, as we walked our old familiar walk…other days when he could hardly stand at all. But then, there he was outpacing me, as he ran up the drive in a mighty burst of speed and joy. And as I heard our friend wilding his cry in the not-so-very-distant-sky, I thought it might be forever.

All spring long, I watched them and heard them. The wife and son never ventured far from the wood except in soaring, celestial climbs away, beyond. But the one whom we loved best seemed to have lost all apprehension of us. Often now we'd find him sitting low in trees quite near the house, swooping his greeting as we took our ever-shorter walks…guarding our home, and his, with the vigilance of a father, the majesty of a god.

Again the sibilant whispers come, scoffing disbelief. But I tell you, you are wrong. We did nothing to woo him to us, to gentle or cajole him. Not a crumb of food. Not a drop of water. It would have seemed somehow a sacrilege, like playing god to god.

We spoke to him only with our hearts, and he responded in kind - with wings opened wide enough to hold us safe within them. Or so we thought…but we were wrong.

When the end came, it was not the end I had expected. For it was we who buried him. Another winter season, and yet one more would pass before my old dog took his rest beside him.

My dog's death came gently, at home, safe within my arms. The Hawk's, in the dark of night alone, all sharp and torn and scattery, where we could not see nor hear nor help him.

We found him in the brightest of summer mornings, a shattering of incongruous pieces that were at once nothing and everything of who he once had been.

The titmouse followed us into the garage, as we prepared to commend The Hawk to the earth. As we nested him deep within the ground, we heard soaring in the distance a mighty cry of immortality. Perhaps, it was the lament of his wife and son. Perhaps, it was something more. I only know that when the time came to release my dog to that self-same earth, it was the memory of that cry that gave me the strength to say goodbye.

I hear the silence of the deep and empty spaces within and between the cries of his son. Will hear the deep and empty spaces within and between the cries of his son's son. And so on and on and ever on … knowing, fully, that one day, it will be quieter still.

 

Last Night   (For Linda)

Last night, I realized that ever since my dog died, I've been mixing up his name with the name of my teddy bear. I never did that before. Not once, in all the 17 years I had them both here with me. But now, I cannot seem to keep their names straight. Perhaps I am more confused than even I know. Perhaps my mistake is in thinking he ever really left, in thinking they were ever really separate, from each other, from me. Perhaps.

Names are not for remembering.
Eyes…hands…voice…heart
attached to names -
they are only a confusion of longings
and disappointments.
Yet wilding, unfettered, free -
they end as they began -
One.
"Are you a Mother or a Sister?"
the child asks.
No name, you see.
And even if you told it to her
she would not remember it
after.
Yet she does remember something,
someone. Who?

Last night I heard her call her
rabbit "Daddy."
Her Daddy is no longer here
and even when he was
his look was nothing of the rabbit.
No rabbit soft. No rabbit swift.
Is it whiskers she's remembering,
as she rocks
rabbit safe, rabbit strong?
Her Grandpa calls out,
"Jenny."
Jenny was his wife, my mother.
His Jenny is no longer here
and even when she was
her look was nothing of my own.
He looks into my eyes and calls
me "Jenny" as I pour him coffee
and straighten
his tie, he calls me - why?
Mary, Mother of God,
Mother of man.
If He Is Who Is
who then We?
Mother. Daughter. Husband. Father.
Wife. Son.
Hail Mary full of Grace
the Lord is with thee.
We. One.

 

War Story

I don't know why the story keeps coming back to me. I've tried hard enough to forget it. It's not a story I like. There's nothing in it of warmth or hope or comfort. Only a harsh, cold, brittleness that will not bend, no matter how often its details blunt against the corners of my brain.

Why did it come back to me, again, today? Why - when all I wanted was to find a quiet corner in which to write a happy story - one that would take me away from here, to someplace different, better. Why?

He was crying again, last night. Not the gentle tears of an old man, nor the angry sobs you'd expect from a man whose life is too far gone in the wrong direction to ever make it back again. I could deal with that. The one, or the other. Remorse. Anger. But this -

They were not the tears of a man. They were the tears of a terrified child. They filled me with fear and loathing, not for the child - but for the cause of his pain. A cause, neither he nor I could hope to touch.

I tried, at first, to let it go. Thinking that some part of him must need to cry, to worry things through in order to find rest. I remembered how it was with Hunter. How he'd wake me, sometimes in the night with muffled growls and yelps of - what?

With Hunter, too, I had tried, at first, to let it go. Perhaps, I thought, he's chasing rabbits. I could see his legs racing through the darkness, and could almost imagine that he was winning.

But then, his little paws would of-a-sudden be cast to stillness, and the little yelps would grow louder, more insistent, until I could no longer bear it, and climbing from my bed into his own I'd wake him gently to the safety of my arms.

If I were a better person, a stronger person, I would have done the same last night. But I could not. I could only watch, helpless, and curse at the terror that disturbed his slumber.

I studied his face. It was a boy's face, wrinkled and worried as a newborn child's. Eyes scrunched tight against whomever was taunting him. What was the sense of waking him? I knew too well what would happen. As one who walks another earth, he'd turn away, fall asleep, and start again, wretched sobs breaking open the night. He would not care. Would not remember. Would only cry until, at last, all crying spent, in slumber deep, he fell, ever farther, away from me.

It would be I, not he, who would hold the broken silence tight against my chest. I, not he, who would process the fear as though it were my own - as indeed it was. For how could I ever be held safe, when he, who should have held me, was himself held helpless against whatever it was his memory would no longer hold - except in unconscious slumber?

I could not touch the child. The child was out of reach. Hiding. Someplace dark I could not go.

I tried to imagine him, but I had not known him then. Knew him only from the stories he'd sometimes reluctantly tell, coldly, without emotion, as though they had happened to someone else.

I saw the wide-eyed boy from his photo album running down the basement stairs, to see whether the drunk who'd fallen there was dead. Where is your mother, I wanted to shout? Your older brother? Where are they? What can you possibly do, little, little boy - crouching in terror at the bottom of those long dark steps, lifting from the floor the bleeding head of the man who should have been holding you?

I saw him on a crowded downtown street, watching as the man who should have held him stood watching a dime far far below, through unsteady gaze, circling, swaying, descending to retrieve it for yet another drink.

I saw him leading his stumbling father out of the bar up the street past neighbors and friends who pretended not to see.

What difference did it possibly make now, nearly 60 years later? But it did. Every minute. Every hour. Every day. Most especially - every night.

Helpless, I watch. Helpless, he cries. And the distance between us grows.

Myself, I never cry at night. My only ghosts are soldiers, waging war. I do not cry. I only fight. Bloody battles. Mangled flesh. Nails broken. Hair torn. Wounded, crippled, struggling to rise. Smashing, pounding, kicking, clawing -

Once, I awoke with a scream. Never, with a sob.

Somewhere there must be someone who has never been to war, never been warred upon. Someone who knows how to hold an injured person against his pain until the morning, at last, returns. That is the someone he should be with. Not me. All of the horses, and all of the men -

Where are they, the unwounded ones?

I know. But I do not like the answer. It is the story, I started to tell.

He was in the army then. It wasn't a real war, he likes to say - he never thinks anything he does is important. Only two years of wasted time - that's what he calls it. But he is wrong. It was a war. As real as the one he'd tried to leave behind.

He was a private then, stationed at a U.S. Army base just outside of Louisville. And he was counting the minutes until his release. He'd figured out, that first month, that the only way he could survive was not to think. So he turned off his brain, and did what he was told. Getting by on three hours of sleep. Killing cockroaches, the size of daddy rats, with the butt of his rifle. Cleaning floors and pressing trousers as though his life depended on it. War.

But that day, on the parade ground, he was feeling almost good. With three other fellas, he stood, at ease, talking about nothing in particular, happy to be outside in the sun without a pack on his back or a blister in his boot. Truth was, he was more fit - straight, tight, and confident - than he had ever been. War or not - at that moment, he felt strong and whole.

So it must have seemed to the Captain from airborne who was visiting that day. Tall. Handsome. Captain. He of the great and powerful unwounded.

Suddenly, with a single, violent motion, the Captain kicked the boy-man's rifle from out of his relaxed posture, into the air, and 20 feet across the universe. Bellowing an order to retrieve it, he waited. Then delivered the dressingest dressing down of the other's young life.

Returning to full attention, rifle shouldered like the soldier he was pretending to be, the boy-man listened, unflinching. But he had been reminded that he was broken, and he would never stand quite as straight again.

When the Captain, at last, departed, nonchalantly continuing his parade across the commons, this boy, whom I would never know, adopted an at-rest posture, rifle butt rooted firmly against his right toe, its barrel nested tight within his hand. Pretending ease with his friends, he resumed talking, casually, as though what had happened was not at all important. But all the while, his one eye remained upon the Captain. Seeing, without being seen. Watching, as he paraded his way across the long, wide perimeter of the field.

This time he saw, as the other drew near, and prepared, stood firm, as, violently, the Captain kicked his rifle once again. Neither boy nor rifle budged. Fixed solidly in their pain. A pain they could no longer feel.

There was no cry of victory, no peel of laughter. Only the grimmest silence, as the Captain walked away.

And it is that same silence I hear, at night, if I should try to wake him from the horrors he cannot remember, yet cannot forget.

I no longer try. Frightened, I only curl into the tightest nothingness I can reach, and quietly, wait out the night. Alone. Knowing that there are only us. And them. And that we, who are wounded, cannot help. And they, who are not, care not.



Home

He wasn't supposed to be what he turned out to be. Who among us ever is?

He was supposed to be a Labrador. Big, black, lumbering. Large enough that my elderly father would not stumble over him in his forgetfulness. Lumbering enough that he would not be discouraged or disheartened by my father's increasingly unpredictable states of bewilderment, neglectfulness, agitation.

It was cruel. I can see that now. Procuring a dog for someone, who was descending, all too rapidly, into the ravages of Alzheimer's disease. But aren't people more important than dogs? They are, aren't they?

My father was in desperate need of companionship and consolation. I did what I had to do.

The Seeing Eye Dog Academy was willing to let us try out one of its student dropouts. A dog trained - albeit, not to the Academy's stringent graduation standards - to understand, guide, nurture, and protect. My father would have nothing of it.

"I'm not blind! I want a little dog. I've always had little dogs."

And so, the quest began. We traveled, my father and I, across the county . . . across neighboring counties . . . searching for the perfect dog. One who would satisfy Daddy's need to "care for," and my own, desperate need to see him "taken care of." I knew it would be no ordinary dog who could see past my father's meandering confusions and thundering outbursts to the increasingly frail, unflinchingly defiant man inside. No ordinary dog, to brave those tempests, to love that man.

After weeks of searching, I was beginning to think that there was no such dog, anywhere, at any price.

That day, a call came in from the Fairview Park Police Department. We'd left messages all over town about the kind of animal we were looking for; at last, it seemed as though our persistence was about to pay off.

"A beagle," the caller said. It had belonged to an elderly woman who had died. The police had taken it, reluctantly, to the APL. It was no longer a young dog. Not a dog most people would want. If we hurried, it might still be there. If we didn't, well, the APL can't hold on to a dog forever.

We hurried. The APL is in a bright and shiny new building now. Then, it was a prison-like fortress, nestled in the bowels of the city under the city. New or old, a dungeon just the same. In fact, it was almost better then. At least you didn't have any false expectations when you went inside.

We'd already been here twice. Each time, was a little worse than the last. It would be weeks before the memory of those smells would efface itself from my sub-conscious mind, before I could breathe deeply, without fear of what I'd find there.

My father didn't seem to mind though. Raised at the turn of the last century, the place must have seemed to him a living testament to the benevolence of man. He could remember a time when an innocent pup would be kicked clean across the street by a drunk whose path he'd haplessly crossed; when the unwanted among us were conveniently drowned or, not so conveniently, smashed in the head with a brick till dead - when a dog was "just a dog." Old memories were never a problem for Daddy; it was recent time that he couldn't seem to grab hold of.

I asked the lady at the desk if they could steer us towards the beagle, we'd come specifically to see; I couldn't bear the thought of searching all those cages again. But she only waved, carelessly, in the general direction of a seemingly endless line of kennels. Undeterred, my father valiantly led the way into that darkness.

The noise and stench made it quite impossible for me to see or think about anything but getting out. I didn't know what a beagle looked like anyway. Silently, I relinquished our fate to God - hard as it was to imagine Him, here, in this place.

Every now and then I'd turn to my father and ask, "Do you think this is him? Is that a beagle?" But Daddy was in a world of his own, steadfastly searching with dogged determination, not for a "beagle," but for a friend.

I'll never forget that first moment of recognition. Everywhere about us there were dogs cowering in fear, dogs barking with menace, knowing too well what destiny crouched in wait.

Not this one. No barking or cowering here. He was in a cage by himself, standing up, defiant, eyes melding into the eyes of my father, in mutual understanding and acknowledgement. The tail was wagging. The eyes, bright, intelligent, engaged.

"Did you find him?" I asked, thinking that this must be what a beagle looked like.

For a long while, it seemed as though my father had not heard me. He was busy conversing with the dog. At last, he pulled his eyes away, and looked at me. "Do you like this one?" For one horrible moment, the fate of more than I could bear to be responsible for lay there, in my hand, my voice, my heart. Following my father's gaze, the dog looked up at me, then barked sharply, clearly intent on recapturing Daddy's attention.


The lady at the desk politely explained that, no, this dog was not a beagle. And, no, he had not arrived at the kennel due to the untimely death of an elderly owner. This dog had been found, roaming wild, in one of the most dangerous areas of the city. "He's already full grown, you know. He's been with us two days." We'd learned on our previous trips that this was their euphemistic way of telling us that he was slated for death unless somebody claimed him. Soon.

She looked at my father with some obvious misgiving, "He's a lively one, you know." My father only smiled, then signed the papers. The woman gave us a box of puppy-chow - dead give-away that all but the puppies usually exit through the back door. Then we were gone, this strange commingling of our own making: My father, the dog, and me.

And that's how it was, for the two and a half years remaining in my father's life. And longer. Strange.

I remember the day when, intent upon dislodging a cooking pot from the nethermost regions of my father's cupboard, I crouched on my hands and knees upon the kitchen floor. I happened to glance back over my shoulder to discover the dog. Staring. Feral. Mysterious. Wary.

For one cold moment, I simply stared, frozen, terrified. I've always been afraid of dogs. Our eyes locked, and only then did I realize that he was, in that moment, afraid of me. He was not so much preparing to attack, as to defend.

And so I stumbled upon the secret to his character. Never was a dog so in need of being held, comforted, protected - and here, I had shamefully set upon him the awesome challenge of providing comfort and protection to a confused, stumbling, old man who could no longer be counted on to remember to feed himself, let alone another.

Is there a God so generous as to forgive such a sin? He was my father. My father. And the dog was, "just a dog."

Every day, several times a day, I'd call from work to ask, "Have you fed the dog? Have you taken him for his walk?" I had to be careful how I asked, so as not to offend him. My father didn't know that he didn't remember things.

Oh, he knew that something was not quite right, that something was eerily "wrong." But whenever his mind tried to wrap itself around that idea, give it a reality, claim it for his own - the thought, which was never quite a thought, would vanish. The dull uneasiness, which was his body's way of alerting him to danger, ebbed and flowed with the vagaries of sunlight and shadow . . . but his ability to connect that unease, to process it in hope of resolution, only ebbed - until, at last, it was entirely, completely, gone.

Oddly, the relentless, progressive failure of those physical synapses seemed to shift the very fiber of my father's being, bringing to the surface emotions long-buried under layer upon layer of, now useless, thought.

I believe it was that which saved us. For the dog knew nothing of words or reason, knew only the secret soul of spirit-like connection. His ancestors had honed, over centuries long past, the skills of intuitive perception. He knew, instinctively, when to be afraid. When to run. And when to stay.

That he chose to stay speaks well of the sterling at the heart of my father's character. For no matter his confusion, anger, fear - my father never for a moment ceased to love that dog. We, his family, at times became the enemy. But the dog, never.

In the early mornings, my father, well into his 80s, would sit on the kitchen floor like a little boy, shamming dismay at the dog's still-full dish of food. Playfully, he'd pretend to eat "the brown ones," in a vain attempt to convince the dog to eat what was good for him.

But who could blame the dog? Never have I met an animal so enamored of food. And, from his first entry into my father's heart, he had opened to him a cornucopia of splendiferous fodder: delectable cookies, pasta most Sundays, tender roasts, fresh celery.

Yes, my father sometimes forgot whether or not he had fed him, whether or not he had walked him. But the net result was more opportunities to eat, more opportunities to run - not less.

Still, my father's lapses into terror must, at times, have frightened him. How could they not?

I remember the day my father called me at the office. It was still early, perhaps 10 a.m. His voice was strange. "I'm lost," he said. Terrified, I tried hard to stay calm, to keep him on the phone, talking, until I had determined what had happened. "Where are you calling from?" I asked. "I don't know," he replied. "Well, maybe you could describe it to me, where you are." "A house. Somebody's house." "And how did you know my number, what number to call?" "I don't know." "Is there anyone there that I can talk to?"

There was a pause. My heart stopped. If he hung up the phone, I knew I would be unable to help him. Please, God, don't let him hang up the phone. At last, he spoke, "The dog," is what he said . . . and in that moment of recognition, he, once again, felt anchored, safe.

He had been home all along. But he was no longer able to recognize it as such. Home was no longer a place, but a feeling - and that feeling of safe-and-soundness had deserted him, except for the dog. Seeing the dog, he was no longer afraid. He felt, "home."

We knew, then, that it no longer mattered, whether or not he remained in his own home. What mattered now was to keep him safe. He didn't understand, when we talked about moving. But we kept reminding him that wherever he moved, he would have the dog. The dog would be with him. Always.

On a bitterly cold day in early November, I once again received an early morning call from my father. He was clearly distressed, disoriented. Within fifteen minutes, I was there, unlocking the back door - a door I had been opening with a sense of stability, security, serenity, for more than 30 years.

The house was cold as ice. I found him, sitting on the sofa with the dog in his lap. Electrical wire was tangled across the heavy door at the front of the house. A chair barricaded the door. What horrors had his impaired mind imagined that last night, as he huddled in the darkness with only the dog as witness to his terror?

As I sat on the sofa, the dog pulled away from my father, settling himself hard and tight against my body. "He doesn't want me anymore," my father said, his eyes brimming with tears. I tried to hold them both, but they would not be held - the one, a huddle of despair, the other, afraid to hold too close too long.

Inside of two days, my father was gone.

I brought the dog to the funeral home, early, before the others had arrived. But he didn't seem to understand. He looked at my father, lying there, still, in the casket, for half-a-second, then struggled to get down, anxious to check out the many unfamiliar scents and sounds of this unfamiliar place.

My father's friend, Agnes volunteered to find the dog a home. It was only when I heard the kind offer issue from her lips that I fully realized how very much I loved him. I'm afraid of dogs. I've never wanted a dog. Not any dog. Just this dog.

For a while, we struggled to survive on our own, in a third-floor garret atop a splendid old house just west of town. He'd dash up and down the steps like a puppy, and strut the city streets at my side, wearing a mask of tough hostility that was entirely appropriate to our surroundings. We could do this. We didn't need anybody. So what if we were alone. People die. Things die. We're tough. Who cares?

But, at night, he'd lie close beside me - dreaming, I feel sure, of safer, warmer digs.

Within a year, we'd managed to move a bit farther west. To a place just quite big enough to hold all the memories of my father's house, of a home that was no longer ours.

House. Home. That was another life. A different life. It's over. Gone. Grow up. Get on with it.

I tried. We both tried. He, making enemies of every dog in the neighborhood. I, withdrawing into the brittle bliss of letters black, transferred in cold silence, to pages white.

Reasonably safe. Reasonably secure. Unreasonably afraid.

It was sometime during our seven-year sojourn there, that his fondness for playing catch began to diminish. Sometime, there, that he began to show signs of the back problems, which would eventually make climbing the stairs to our second-floor duplex impossible. It was there, too, that he finally took a firm stand against being lifted or even held. Was it the pain of a deteriorating disk, or was it the fear of being held too close, only to be let loose, alone, adrift, in the end?

Eight years without a real home, and never a complaint. It was he, who forced me to stop working long enough to make dinner. He, who cajoled me to walk or play, even when my head was exploding with pain. He, who found every child in the neighborhood, and made them our friends. He, who brought me outside myself, in spite of myself - a child, wanting only to hide.

Sometimes he'd stare at me accusingly, after too many hours spent at the computer. I would scold him, playfully, "You know I have to work. How else am I going to keep you in dog biscuits?" Then, one day, that old familiar mantra mysteriously reformed itself. The words rushed forth in a whisper, afraid, no doubt, that I might hear them. "Please, boy, hold on a little longer. I'll find us a real home, soon. I promise."

I have never wanted to live anywhere, except the place where I could live no longer. House. Home. Daddy was the only home I knew, and he was gone. What could I possibly be thinking of?

I'm not doing it for me, I said to myself. I'm doing it for him. He deserves to be able to run again, to feel safe, without the noisy sounds of city life, the constant terrors of city walks. I'm doing it for him.

Every house I visited, I saw through his eyes, walked with his paws. This one had too many steps. This one, not enough yard. For over a year, I looked and waited, whispering, again and again, until I too believed it: " I'll find us a real home, soon."

It was four years ago this January that we found this place. Rosa's House, we call it. Partly, because Rosa was the name of the lady whose family built it. Partly, because Rose Cottage was the name on a picture I fell in love with long ago. A picture of a little cottage, deep in the woods, with rambling pink roses, and a matronly mouse standing at the door.

Of course, I had expected to be living in it with a prince, not a dog. But somehow, that no longer seemed important. Somewhere, in those long years together, we had each ceased to feel alone. Caring for . . . taking care of. Home.

Until a few weeks ago.

I'd promised my father, some time back, that his dog would be with him, wherever he moved. I guess he must have figured it was time.

I can't really blame him. These last six months, things had gotten pretty bad for my dog . . . his dog. Some days, he had such a struggle standing, I could tell he was only doing it to please me. His back was hurting really bad.

It's been a long time since he could see very much or very far - but that hadn't stopped him from running up the drive to the house the last warm day of autumn. His hearing was just about gone. I know. But I had thought, hoped, if we could only get through one more winter . . .

In those final weeks, something strange happened. He let me hold him again. Like a puppy, in my arms. Never had he seemed so helpless. Yet, as I held him close, I could feel the steadiness of him, the absolute sureness of safe.

"Home," I whispered to him, over and over. "You're safe. We're home. You're home."

And as I set him loose, I knew - bereft, alone, adrift, afar - that only half was true.

Copyright © 2000-2005 by Nia

 


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