through the door of the studio, Lex was sitting on the model stand. She was nine years old at the time. Linus was so excited to see her it was if they had been old friends and had been apart for a long time. He gentle climbed into her lap and went to sleep. It was nobody’s choice. In his mind he had come home.
They were inseparable. They played together, ate together and slept together. He was a quiet and well behaved dog. The only time he got riled up was when he saw young boys wearing baseball hats. That’s when he would bark. Even then I feel it was to protect us. When Lex left for college Linus was as heartsick as Jack and I.
He slept by the front door for two weeks waiting for her to come home. That’s when I became his surrogate. He was so distraught he was like a toddler waiting for his mother. Gardening with me became his new pastime. He was eight years old when we worked in the garden that spring. With great burden he would haul himself up and reposition himself next to me as we inched our way around the winding 600’ area of stones. Sometimes Mac would join us. He was like a hired clown at a birthday party. You were never comfortable having him there and yet inevitably he would make you laugh.
I remember questioning to myself why I would allow myself to be caught up in such a laborious task for my spring break from classes. The fact that everyone else in the house was asking me the same question made me think about it more. The answer wasn’t too difficult to find. With trying to keep everyone happy, I was under extreme stress and I wanted to be alone.
My days now consisted of picking up after Sam so that Suzie wouldn’t yell at him. We were also helping Sam deal with the social ramifications of high school including his responsibility to school work. When we discussed this with him we were painting a better future for him to see; as if it were carrot dangling in front of his nose. He equally won as many races that he lost that year. Sam was also a musician. He played many instruments and although it is not my forte, to me he sounded pretty good. Having a musician in the house as, I’m sure many of you know, takes patience. Having a teenager in crisis that is a musician takes finding a strength you only wished you had. Jack and I having worked with children for so many years have that kind of patience. Suzie, with her own issues didn’t. As peacekeepers we didn’t have a choice. Sam was as most kids are, pretty adaptable. He tried as best as he could to not ruffle any feathers. For me as his care giver it was a concern. Children shouldn’t have to feel so stifled especially when they are dealing with such grown-up issues. Suzie just wanted him to be an adult. Lex did what any daughter would do…she stayed away.
Lex didn’t have patience for such things. She had empathy for Sam when the situation first arose. But the first time she came home and experienced how much the house had changed she had different feelings. Suzie living there just made it worse for her. She also couldn’t understand why we disapproved of her boyfriend. We didn’t understand her love for a man that didn’t believe in her as we did. When Lex did come home she fought with us like a person dangling on the end of a rope. She was trying to hold on to that last bit of childhood she had. Yet at the same time, she was trying to be an adult. She was living a duel existence. Tending the garden was my escape from these explosions that were happening all around me.
After the first few days of working with the rocks my fingers started to ache. Not being afraid of physical labor I figured it was just from overuse. When I was eight I had complained of severe leg pains at night and in the mornings. Year after year my mom would take me to the doctor and every year the doctor called it growing pains. After it was obvious I was no longer growing he diagnosed it as Juvenile Arthritis. When I questioned my mother about this; she said what a lot of parents said back then. “Don’t worry about it honey, a lot of people have arthritis and they learn to live with it. It was probably the best thing she could have said. I didn’t feel different. With not much that could be done with treatments at the time; I learned early on that it was just a fact of life. That is why on that day in the garden I ignored the familiar pain and kept on working.
Linus and I would spend the entire day in the garden and climb sleepily into our bed to wait for Jack to return from his evening classes. My bedroom became the center of my home. My house was no longer my own.
One night Linus had difficulty getting on the bed. As I lifted him up he moaned softly in protest. This was unusual for him and I became concerned. Rubbing his back I talked gently to him until he was fast asleep. I had not realized it at the time but that night would be the beginning of a three week journey that he and I would share descending into illness.
For Linus he stopped eating and at times became lethargic. We took him to the vet and soon learned he had cancer of the spleen. It is condition that is common in large dogs and it devastated us. With the vet’s advice he had surgery. When he came home from the hospital a few days later he just wanted to be left alone. He sat in the living room with a big cone around his neck and only lifted his head to give us a loyal glance when he could. He was sore afterwards but he was alive. The only solace he had was sitting with me to work in the garden. To get him there I practically had to pick him up. He was a big dog and it was difficult for me. My fingers were still sore but I wanted him to feel like he was still a part of my world.
We fed him an organic diet which also consisted of Chinese herbs. The vet said that he had seen some success from this treatment but couldn’t guarantee anything. It was expensive but I never regretted it. We stopped short of giving him chemotherapy. I didn’t want him to suffer. Those few weeks he came everywhere with us. We were afraid he would die alone. The house became a somber place. For a brief time the bickering between our guests had stopped. Everyone walked around lost in their own thoughts with the same respect of a hospital ward for the infirm.
Lex came home more often. I was happy to see her yet it didn’t ease my sadness of the situation. It was unbearable to watch her in such anguish over him. Combined with her heartache over her relationship woes, I’m sure it must have been difficult time for her. When she had to she hated to leave him to go back to school. When she left she would look him in the face and gently kiss him on the nose as if it were the last time. As a mother I tried to comfort her. But she didn’t want my comforting. Instead she would argue with us about the current situation of Suzie, Sam and her tumultuous relationship between us and her boyfriend.
In the midst of all this stress and despair I had developed strange symptoms of my own. The first thing was an odd painful non muscular sensation in my right butt cheek. Finally I spoke to Jack about it. Making light of it I laughingly said to him that I thought my butt was broken. Jack said quizzically, “What do you mean your butt is broken?”
“Every time I sit or stand I get a stabbing pain in my butt”
“I’ve always said you were a pain in the butt.” he stated smiling at me. We both laughed. He is the type of person that loves to tease. I always said it was because he was an only child. Now he sees me as the little sister he never had.
Since there were no visible signs of injury, we agreed it was most likely from all the work I was doing in the garden and maybe I should leave the rocks as they are. But of course I didn’t. The thought of leaving a job half done was not something I did easily. Besides there were other more important things I had to worry about.
The next day Linus started to look bad again only this time my cat was to blame. Her name was Booger but we always called her Boogie. We acquired Boogie when she was just four weeks old. The first few weeks she lived in my breast pocket. A black angora, she looked like a pompom with eyes and a tail. She was cute yet feisty; which is how she got her name. She lived in Lex’s dollhouse the first year we had her. We called her the sniper back then because she would lay in wait for someone to walk by and suddenly reach blindly out a top window and swipe at you. She was always jealous of Linus who had come to us several years after her. In their relationship she was the boss and he always let her be.
That day while he was most vulnerable, she left a puncture wound in his side; in his weakened state it refused to heal. As much as I loved my cat I never had felt such disappointment in her. I never thought she could be so mean. The vet told us that if Linus didn’t have another surgery he would be dead soon.
Suzie’s dog Mac was upset by this turn of events. He never got along with Boogie either. He refused to leave Linus’ side, kissing him periodically to let him know he had an ally. I never minded Mac living here. He was good for Linus and he made me laugh with his antics.
Around the time Boogie attacked Linus, I began to noticed another symptom I was having. Within two days I had developed plantar warts all over my feet as well as regular ones on my hands. Walking became impossible. When the first few appeared I wasn’t too concerned. I had had them before as a child and they always went away. But these grew to be more than the usual amount and quietly I kept an eye on them. I know now that I should have addressed these issues I was having but two things were stopping me. The first was that Linus was in such bad shape. The second was that I had real bad health insurance. With the expense of the vet bills I kept thinking that as soon as we get Linus out of the woods I would call a podiatrist. After all it was just a weird virus. What could he possibly do?
The pain on my backside was also still there and Jack and I were now thinking it was a recurrence of Shingles that I had the year previously. There was a part of me that was disappointed in myself. I had stopped weightlifting three years before because of knee pain that I summed up as age and my old joint pains. Since then I had begun to lose my tone and strength. In my head I deserved this. I did it to myself. After I make sure that Linus is ok, I’m going to do better, and then all my symptoms would go away. Never being a person in denial, when I look back at that time I’m amazed that I too could fall into that category.
I wasn’t completely without exercise. I did walk three times a week with my Aunt Tara. Usually we walked around the Salem Common. It was a charming place, with trees all around and a band stand in the center. There was a clay path along the outer edge of it with overhanging trees that dated back many years. Edging it was an old Victorian rod iron fence. It was very ornate and beautiful. The squirrels were so tame there they would eat peanuts from your hands. An old fashion popcorn cart sat at its entrance. A true New England setting it had been protected and preserved.
I visited this place often. I had photographed the trees at odd angles for many of my paintings in the past. Every time I painted these trees the artwork would sell. It is the place I grew up as a child. I loved going there. Tara and I had been walking the perimeter of the common about a year and averaged a mile or two each time. But as soon as my feet started acting up that became more and more difficult. I had to make the decision to take a break from this ritual we shared. I called her and told her what was happening and that for a few weeks until it went away I wouldn’t be able to go on our weekly meditative stroll.
Shortly after that, I woke up and I found my feet to be so swollen that my shoes no longer fit. That day I wore slippers to work and sat whenever I could. The next morning I could only walk if necessary; they were throbbing too much. I began teaching from a chair. The day after that my hands swelled as well. My ring size went from an eight to a ten. Gripping things were impossible. I began to drop everything I picked up. Always having slender hands with long fingers this was equally disturbing to me. But unfortunately I wasn’t able to address that either, that was the day that we had to put Linus “down.”
It was an awful day as one can imagine. We called Lex the night before and she came home. I was so concerned for her feelings of the situation that it made it easier for me to just grieve later. Putting my own needs aside for the sake of others was becoming a habit; one that I would soon regret.
She insisted she come to the vet with us. She wanted him to die in her arms. She wanted him to be held by someone who loved him and have it be his final thought. I admired her bravery, yet I was concerned for her. I didn’t want it to be her last image of him. It was a Sunday afternoon. The veterinarian office was closed to other visitors. Normally a very loud and active place with dogs barking and people talking its stillness struck me the minute we entered. It was as quiet as a funeral parlor. The vet was a tall and handsome man in his mid thirties. He had a voice that was sympathetic and tranquil. He was so concerned about our feelings the look on his face spoke volumes of the years of experience and love he had for animals. When it happened it was quick. Lex started to cry uncontrollable sobs. In a desperate attempt she grasped him so tightly around the neck it was if she was drowning in the ocean and he was her only life preserver. It wasn’t easy trying to convince her to let go of him after he was gone; especially when we were so upset as well. We were all in tears. We sat there a half hour and waited. I tried to stroke her hair, but she just screamed at me to not touch her. Until finally defeated, she released him. Her life as she knew it was no longer the same. In a short time all had changed.