Anne McGrath's essay "Night Piece" originally appears in Issue No. 52: In Transit.
I WANT TO SLEEP, but I hear the moans and shifting plastic on the bed as my fifteen-year-old arthritic dog, Chip, stiffly hoists himself to a sitting position. “What more do you want from me?” I ask him. The plastic on the bed, like something out of a Dexter murder scene, was added after he peed there twice last week. My husband Steve sleeps through it all. Like Steve, our poodle Ollie is still whistling air through his nose under the covers and doesn’t come up from his puppy dreams, not even curiosity rousing him at this hour.
I look at the green glow of the LED clock and see it is 2:23 a.m.
Pretending to be asleep, I still feel Chip’s penetrating gaze burning a hole through my eyelids. I relent, and pet his bony head, inhale his Ritz cracker scent. Sighing, I roll over to my side, to where the bed is still hot from dog-sleep, rub my eyes, and lifting the plastic I whisper into the silk blanket underneath, “This better be a business trip because if it’s about sniffing and standing on the stone wall, I’m gonna be all kinds of mad.” He looks at me softly, without judgment.
A scruffy terrier mix who tends toward white-tipped taupe, Chip used to catch snakes, chipmunks, and the occasional slowpoke squirrel in his youth. He earned his name by being so like the chipmunks he loved to chase. It was futile to call him, because he never stopped whatever it was he was doing. He once chased a groundhog up a tree where we had to rescue it, Steve climbing a ladder to face the terrified and terrifying snarling creature. We ended up bending the branch close to the grass and dashing away like cartoon characters when the groundhog hit the turf running. Other casualties: a six-inch-thick stone retaining wall that remains a crumbled mess off our driveway years after Chip demolished a chunk of it trying to dig out a family of black snakes. We had to give away our chickens because he could not get it through his head that the birds were not there for his chasing or eating pleasure, no matter how often we reminded him that we don’t eat family. These things happened back in the days when he would bark incessantly, and I had contemplated a cruel antibark collar just to get some damn quiet. Since the tumor destroyed his vocal cords, his bark comes out all wrong these days, hoarse and muted. Far more pitiful than no bark at all. He looks wounded anew each time he tries. It hurts me to my teeth.
He walks with difficulty from the foot to the head of the bed until he towers over me, panting, his expressive face leaning down inches from mine. Moist bad breath steams up my face as he stares at me through milky eyes as if to say, “It is not lack of will but rather lack of opposable thumbs that prevents me from opening the door for myself.” I can hear the coyotes yelping across the street on the horse farm. I hope none of them head over to our side while we’re out there. We’ve never had a problem with the foxes, bobcats, bears, or raccoons who frequent our property, but I always feel like I’m being watched from the hushed darkness of the woods when I’m out at night. The brambles on the edge of the lawn throb with wildlife. We live off a busy road with a couple of acres of yard flanked on all sides by trees and the rule is clear: the forest is animal territory. They have their tribes and histories. Like us, they take care of their sick and aged. They strive to keep their young safe and warm. I take my kimono robe off the chair, put my arms through it, and tie the belt around my waist.
WHEN MY MOTHER WAS DYING, she refused most offers of help. I lived far away, and she didn’t want to be a burden, was horrified by the thought of being dependent on any of her three children. Once, when I was visiting her, I’d had to give her an enema. I don’t remember the details, but it was mortifying for her, though only slightly gross for me, and she cried for some time after.
“It wasn’t such a big deal,” I said, wanting to pretend it had never happened. “It’s done, let’s move on.” But she wasn’t having it. “It was big for me. I never fathomed you would have to do something like that for me. Imagine one of your boys doing it to you. How would you feel.”
Terrible. I’d rather suffer whatever health ramifications than have my son insert an enema into my ass. It’s unthinkable. Until it isn’t, I guess.
At some point I said I knew she’d dealt with plenty of my gross bodily fluids and we could now call it even. We half-laughed about the enema episode, but it was lukewarm. I don’t think she ever fully forgave the indignity of it. She was, after all, the kind of woman who was still doing her everyday hair as if for the prom.
WALKING BACK TO THE BED I stand up and tighten my abs as I reach down to pick up Chip. There is a long tail to his collar because he’s losing weight, sliver by sliver, probably ten pounds in the past six months and is now a scrawny twenty or so, but still. I don’t need to mess up my back again. I place one arm carefully under his torso to keep it parallel to the floor, avoiding the enormous tumor in his belly, and carry him like a baby lamb out of the bedroom and down the stairs. He feels so fragile, like his bones might crumble if I squeeze too hard. I’ve been carrying him up and down the stairs for a couple of months now. He wants to do it himself, but his slipped disc has only recently healed sufficiently for him to be able to walk at all. I turn on the outside light and sense the frenetic scurrying of beings whose long shadows dart across the lawn. Unlocking the front door, I carry Chip out into the late fall night. It is the hour when an abandoned rake admits its loneliness. The retreating tail of a deer dissolves into shadows made less sinister by the glow of the moon. There are still peepers peeping, crickets humming, and leaves rotting; the wet leaves smell like something fermented, fungal, but slightly sweet. Sweet rot. The air is still with no hint of breeze. This is important to remember. The air is still.
Placing Chip on the mossy ground I say, “Hurry up. Go potty,” and he does, crouching in his new emasculated pee-pose, all four legs bent looking like he’s about to keel over. On the ground near the front door lies a heart-shaped mound of moss I know by heart. It feels like good luck. I cross my arms over my chest and wonder what’s going on in the woods around us. I hear branches shifting. I feel eyes on us. We’ve only been outside for a minute and already things are stuck all over Chip— small twigs, tree seeds, prickly little burs. A crumpled brown leaf hanging from his chin makes me laugh out loud. Yard debris has started using him to hitch a ride inside, his matted fur easier to cling to than in its smooth days, I suppose. He looks out at things I am too tired to consider, staring and sniffing, and I say, “Okay, all done? Let’s go back to bed,” trying to sound chipper and sing-songy. He ignores me, standing stock-still and seriously staring.
After a few minutes he hangs his head low as if he’s guilty of something.
Then, he walks slowly over to the stone wall around the brick patio, each step a monumental effort, and he carefully lifts himself up the six or so inches so he’s standing on it, statued, like a mountain goat. A frail dog who sees something I cannot. An owl whoos, not too far away.
I wait. I know this frozen-staring-thing is what Chip most loves to do these days, that and eating and sniffing with his nose pressed so close to the ground it ends up crusted with dirt. So I wait. A small kindness. But I’m not thrilled about it. I’m sighing. Yawning. Stretching. Shuffling around. “Finish up,” I say. “There will still be plenty to stare at in the morning.” I pick up a round green something or other that fell from a tree. A walnut, I realize. It feels like a prize. Sixteen years we have lived here and it didn’t occur to me until now that these green things we’ve been ignoring or raking away with the leaves are walnuts. How inattentive can I be?
Suddenly I am a child, some fifty years back, with skinned knees and a pronounced overbite, eating walnuts with my friends when we stopped to rest from a daylong bike-riding adventure. We were given so much freedom to explore at such a young age, dogs tagging along. We made a few bad decisions —like drinking from what we later learned were sewer pipes, or swimming in streams with too-strong currents—but intestinal distress and cuts from craggy rocks were all we ever suffered. Mostly we just imagined we lived in the forest and sometimes made it true.
ONE OF MY MAIN memories of being a young girl growing up in Virginia was the need to be out-of-doors as much as possible. Confined indoors one afternoon by rain and parental rules, I wrote a song about the desire to live an unrestricted life. At least, that’s what it seems to be about when I think of it now, fifty-four years later.
Suzy, Suzy open the door,
I want to see the birdies fly,
And never ever close it,
Holen, holen, rainy day.
“Holen isn’t a word,” my brother said.
“Who is Suzy?” My sister asked.
“You made up a new and perfect word,” our father noted. “Holen has a nice ring to it.”
I had little in common with my father, except for our shared love of birds and our quick tempers. He was mostly kind, drank too much, and always insisted on being right. When I was in college, he presented me with a large, framed oil painting. It is the only gift I can recall him giving me. He had painted the canvas with images from that childhood song of mine. He signed it: To Anne, who composed these words at age four. –Dad
I PEEL THE SOFT GREEN hull with my fingernails and it parts in four perfect sections. I crack the hard shell with a rock to find what looks like a neatly formed miniature brain inside. I eat a morsel of the bitter meat, most of it is buried too deep to extract. It makes me happy, unearthing and eating this treasure, knowing a walnut when I see one. Years running wild in the woods taught me this. Chip is still standing front feet on the low wall with a vacant look in his sagging, cloudy eyes.
I hadn’t realized the coyotes had stopped carrying on until they start up again, yelping and laughing like they are eating something alive, tearing it limb from limb. The silence was as loud—no, louder—than all the critters combined. I sense cautious movements and hear a faint rustling from the nearby bushes. “Hey friends,” I say softly, “Chip’s just doing his thing over here . . . would never hurt you.” No reply.
A year ago, Chip would have found anything lurking around the edges and had his way with it. Now, I doubt he even hears it. A mutt blessed with a terrier’s dedicated nose, he was a wild creature once, a skilled hunter with a single-minded urge for conquest. He would race around or wait however long it took to strike and, when on his game, kill. Now, reduced to his stoic gazes, his hearing and eyesight so shot he might not guess what lies in the waiting brush, he won’t hear the footsteps of death walking close at his heels. But hell if he doesn’t look almost wise and brave, in the middle of the night, surveying his kingdom from on high, bones and burrs notwithstanding.
MY MOTHER talked an awful lot about the weather near the end of her life. She called from ten plus hours away to tell me when it would be hot or cold, windy or humid, in my town. I’d say, “I live here, I know how hot or cold it is already.” She knew whenever it made for dangerous driving conditions. She lived in an adult home and didn’t go outside much, so I wondered why the weather was important to her.
Cover your neck, she’d say, if it was even the slightest bit chilly out. She ended up finding comfort in a narrow five-to-six-degree range; otherwise, she was forever complaining of being too warm or too chilly. I still have the long, skinny scarves she’d knitted for me. Six hundred miles away and she’d know when my neck was exposed. Cover it up. Even buried in the ground, I think, I hope, she still knows.
I miss having someone eager to protect me.
I KNOW that we cannot, with any reliability, predict the last time our children will need us for something. Like hair washing, teeth brushing, or middle-of-the-night comforting. And if the thing they need us for exhausts us, we can’t wait for it to end. But then when it does end, we’re nostalgic for it and can hardly recall what was so bad about it after all. My young boys coming into our bed at night seems like a cozy gift, in retrospect. At the time when it was happening every night, I wanted peace. Now that they are nearly men, I welcome their rare requests for help.
I remember the time I took Chip to the vet when he was having nonstop seizures, the result of multiple snakebites. It was ten years ago and I thought I could not live with a dog as crazy as him. But incidents like that don’t happen anymore. Now he spends most of his time dozing in bed. One day follows another and suddenly our dependents no longer need us in the same ways. I know Chip has begun his metamorphosis toward death, and as annoying as I find his vomit, diarrhea, and middle-of-the-night walks, I know I’ll miss these nights, feeling needed and adored by him, when he’s gone. I’ll miss the way he looks at me with devoted, oozing eyes, the way he spins in a joyful circle when presented with food, the way we voice his imagined commentary (he mostly talks like a surfer dude, but sometimes like a petulant child, and rarer still like Stewie from Family Guy). So I wait, struggling to be patient and understanding, but feeling anxious and irked. I try to tell myself there is nothing to hurry about, that I’m already awake, and should make the best of it.
ALL MY LIFE I will remember a transformative and destabilizing experience that happened just after my mother died three years ago, something that made an enormous impression on me and changed how I am in the world.
I was walking Chip and Ollie in the early morning, early enough it was still dark outside, and I saw something otherworldly in our backyard. I didn’t know if I was having a paranormal or religious experience. I didn’t know if I was losing it. I still don’t know. My shadow—arms stretched out to full extension on either side of me with two dogs pulling in opposite directions—was crucifix-like. But that wasn’t the odd thing, that was something I saw on every dim morning walk as the house floodlight illuminated us from behind. What was bizarre was meeting an ambassador from another realm.
Something was dreamily suspended on the air in the near distance as I walked through our backyard. I came closer and saw it was a crumpled brown leaf, hanging in the air about two or three feet in front of my face. I walked slowly toward it, feeling odd, skin tingling. The leaf was acting out of character, for a leaf or any other thing. It defied gravity.
It was suspended in midair, gently fluttering, but not going any farther from or closer to the ground. I remember thinking, this is not how reality works. Things in the air are supposed to fall to the ground. That’s one of those rules that doesn’t get broken.
I dropped the dogs’ leashes and got right next to the leaf. I don’t know what the dogs thought because I was too involved with what was happening to pay them any mind. It was like when you’re in a dream but you suddenly become aware that you’re dreaming. I waved my open palm parallel to the ground above it, thinking maybe it was connected to a thread or web. It fluttered, but did not rise or lower. I waved my hand under the leaf and the results were the same.
The leaf remained perplexingly poised on nothing. Challenging all logic. It felt like there was an electrical charge in the space I occupied. For a moment, I too was suspended in time.
I thought of my mother. It seemed she was both everywhere and nowhere. Then I thought, this is my mother. Aloud I asked, “Mom, is that you?” and the leaf went twirling and spinning like it was in a wind tunnel, but stayed aloft in midair. On the still air.
I started to cry.
I opened my palm perpendicular to the ground and I slowly moved it toward the leaf. Closer. Closer. Closer still. Until I pressed my palm against it. Like a hug. Like a parade. Like a connection to something I knew was there but never really knew or if I had known I had forgotten. Holy mackerel, as my father would say. I am touching a thing behaving in a way that things do not behave. I’m glimpsing something from a place of limitless possibilities. I am moving among mysteries.
A warm surge spread through my body, making my face hot. And still, the leaf hovered. Still, my palm met it in the air, touching it, but not holding it.
My tears were in my words. “I love you, Mom. I hope you are OK, wherever it is you are. I miss you. I’m so glad you did this. Thank you. Thank you. Thank . . .” I felt crazy but also full. Like I was special, like I’d been plucked out of the ordinary and dropped into the extraordinary. I had my doubts, but I knew what I’d seen, what I’d felt. My mother was just beyond my view, not all-knowing, but still her. Flawed, funny, caring, selfish.
A leaf suspended.
No web. No breeze. Nothing to hold it there, or something magnificent for it to hold onto. I stayed out there close to ten minutes. Even in the midst of dazzling miracles there were routines to be kept, a child to wake for school, breakfasts and lunches to be made, dogs to be tended to. I would bring my son back out to witness it minutes later, but the leaf would be gone. I now think these things occur when we are at our most vulnerable. When we are gutted open.
I get a chill. I love these things the dead do for us.
SO MUCH QUIET. So much dark. So much astounding wonder and possibility. Now I am standing like a mountain goat. Bewitched. Suddenly aware of my own death. I am standing near the stone wall long enough for my legs to get tired. Chip’s eyes suddenly say it all—that he is grateful I take him out at all hours, that I carry him up and down the stairs and lift him onto the bed, that when it all becomes too much, for either of us, he trusts me to make sure his ending is a peaceful one. On this night we can both pretend I won’t ultimately fail him.
I want to ask his forgiveness in advance for the cursing I will do when I find bloody diarrhea on the white carpet, pee in my bed, and eye goo on my pillow. I want him to make allowances for the times I wished he would go away forever and leave me unburdened. Like when lifting him into the car after a walk in the park landed me in the emergency room with a destroyed back, unable to manage an upright position for three days.
I want him to absolve me for what I will do in a matter of months, right after it starts to snow, which is ask a veterinarian to jab his bony body with the needle that will stop his heart. Moments before the needle comes out Chip will look at me with those same damp, trusting eyes. Adoring me.
What I mean is I killed my dog.
Why I would do this when I know I need him as much as he needs me, when he knows things about me no one else knows, when he was the dog of our sons’ childhoods, I can’t say. Or maybe I can say but don’t want to. Okay, fine. I was tired and busy and my back hurt. You want more? I place freedom above love. I hate cleaning vomit and urine and liquid shit. I like sleeping through the night. Using baby gates to confine a dog to a space without rugs frustrates me. I want to travel without feeling monstrous. I don’t want to hear him falling down the stairs or slipping on the
hardwood floors as his back legs crumble beneath him for the umpteenth time. His prospects are dim and I can’t bear to watch his decline.
After the veterinarian has given Chip a sedative, I question my judgment. “I think I’ve made a horrible mistake,” I say. “I’m taking him out of here.” I pick Chip up, despite the vet and his young assistant telling me to please come back, and I carry him out into the snow, half-running. It’s dusk. Some in-between time. I wish I could run fast to the middle of nowhere. Chip’s body goes limp as snowflakes land on his scruffy little top notch. I cry. After three or four minutes outside, I carry him back inside and tell the vet to “Go ahead and do it.”
The vet and his assistant will alternate giving me hugs and apologies. One or the other of them will say, “It’s so hard to say goodbye. I can tell from talking to you that Chip is an important part of your lives and you’ve taken good care of him . . . he’s fought hard to keep going but he has little strength left . . . never easy, but in his best interest . . . hope the memories of his happy years help ease your pain . . . you were lucky to have him but he was luckier still to have lived with a family who loved him so much.”
The guilt over my decision will lead me to anger for having to bear it. The feeling will start in the soft, inner parts of my bones and leak out into my blood, my lymph nodes and organs. Will I ever not feel ashamed for thinking how much easier it is to do this or that without him dragging me down? Will I ever stop feeling like I’ve lost something vital? Will I ever not smell him on his favorite blanket? I can’t bear to wash out what remains of his crushed-cracker scent.
I am wondering if the ground was somehow sacred at the place where the leaf danced in the air, a liminal zone where I might find a portal between this world and another. I’ve kept my eye on the spot for three years now, sometimes going there to rearrange the air since my mother died, but subsequent leaves have behaved as leaves normally do. Among the unanswerable mysteries: Why did she (if indeed it was she) choose that place, that time, that leaf?
I’ve decided the place where the phenomenon happened is sacred, though no more so than any other place. The secret is this: All the places are sacred. Every place is saturated in Edenic wisdom. We just usually fail to notice.
On this fall night Chip is still alive and I am thinking how good animals and perhaps the dead are at receiving love. I look back at the house as a viewer, an outsider. I hear the leaves rustle and realize my neck is exposed. There is no tenderness to compare to the gathering of my robe up to my chin as we walk back inside to where it is warm.
ANNE MCGRATH’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in River Teeth, Lunch Ticket, Brevity Blog, and other publications. Her audio stories have aired on National Public Radio, the Brevity Podcast, and Petrichor Audio Magazine. McGrath is an assistant contest editor at Narrative Magazine, a reader at Hunger Mountain, and a graduate of the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she was awarded a VCFA Writing Research Fellowship. She lives with her family in the Hudson Valley.
Read the other poems, stories, and art from Ruminate's Issue 52: In Transit.
Illustration by Scott Laumann for Ruminate.
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