Still True: Two Years Later

In the midst of the season of our joy, as the Jewish holiday of Sukkot is often called, I find a small measure of sorrow in my heart. The pain of loss has been smoothed around the edges, softened by memory. Old photographs of Jenna with young children, now nearly grown, elicit laughter.

jenna at beach 2

Nevertheless, Sukkot always stirs up memories of her last days in our home.  Here are the words I wrote about Jenna’s life when she died; they are still true.

The Truth about Jenna

There is no “one truth” about Jenna, but the story of her life contains three true statements:

1. More than ten years ago, my spouse and I decided to rescue a dog. He had grown up with numerous pets and had brought a cat into the marriage. I had grown up with fewer, furless pets—many goldfish, a solitary turtle and parakeets that probably should not have been kept in captivity—because my mom suffered from severe allergies.

We did not take this step lightly. We did cave under the pressure of our eldest daughter’s relentless begging, despite her younger sister’s anxiety around dogs. When our younger daughter was a toddler and we encountered dogs in our neighborhood, she would shriek with fear until I crossed the street. She insisted that we avoid even the least fierce and tiniest pups whose noses could not reach above the stroller wheels.

Her truth about Jenna: “When I was little I was so afraid of dogs; my parents thought that getting a big, slobbery dog would cure me.”

2. My scientist-spouse undertook an extensive research project and discovered that Labrador Retrievers were the most popular breed for family pets in the U.S., because they are gentle with children, intelligent and good-natured. After an intake interview with Kim at Georgia Lab Rescue, I began dragging my youngest with me to meet potential adoptees in their foster homes. We met only adult dogs, already housebroken. He was still in diapers, and I had no intention of training a puppy.

We rescued Jenna a few months later, when my son was just weeks shy of his second birthday. She was easily 25 pounds overweight and totally docile, except when she needed to be a protective mama to my son. He would grab her bulky flanks and attempt to climb on her back; she would respond by covering him with slobber.

His truth about Jenna: “I can’t remember anything before we got her. She was always in our family.”

3.  Jenna had never been trained, had no leash manners and she did not retrieve. Not once in her life did she chase a ball. My project was to get her into shape and teach her some basic vocabulary. She lost 20 pounds within the first nine months, but never mastered more than a few commands. I lost ten pounds and—more than a few times—nearly dislocated my shoulder trying to restrain her on our daily walks. She was always energetic, returning to her fast pace after surgery six years ago to repair a torn ACL.  Eleven years old when she tore her other ACL and already suffering from ailments common to elderly, large-breed dogs, Jenna was too old for another surgery. Our walks decreased in both speed and distance. Lately they decreased in frequency, as well.

Jenna on bedWe adopted Jenna so that our children would grow up having a pet. Unfortunately, she was too big and undisciplined for the kids to walk her. But she was my walking buddy for nearly a decade. My eldest child would often say this truth about Jenna to me: “You may have gotten the dog for us, but she’s your dog. Jenna is your favorite child.”

I never denied this truth. I embraced it, replying: “She’s always happy to see me when I walk through the door and she never talks back. Of course she’s my favorite!”

My relationship with Jenna was one of pure, mutual affection. It was uncomplicated.

Until this week.

As it became clear that the end of her life approached—would be hastened by our compassion for her suffering—I was deeply troubled by the realization that I would not be present during her final moments.

For a decade, I sat with her at the Vet’s office and sang to her. For the first half of our life together, it was Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” After the second diagnosis of torn ACL, I switched to Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty.” These last few months, our soundtrack changed again to Phillip Phillip’s “Gone Gone Gone.”

“I’ll lie, cheat, I’ll beg and bribe, to make you well.”

“I’m not moving on, I love you long after you’re gone.”

“Like a drum, baby, don’t stop beating.”

How will I know?

I asked the Vet this question every six weeks, back in the office for new meds or a recheck. I’d never had a dog as a child. I’d never dealt with this before.

You’ll know, everyone said.

I kept singing to Jenna, if only to reassure her of my blatant favoritism. Still, I feared her time was coming.

I cried a lot this week, mostly when I was alone. I held it together so that I could comfort my kids. I came to terms with my choice not to sit in the Vet’s office singing Phillip Phillips one last time. I prefer to remember the Springsteen years.

For a decade, I was attuned to Jenna’s panting breath, wagging tail, constant presence in my home and heart. For a decade, I was forced to contend with the accusations of favoritism.  At this moment, putting a decisive end to that friendly sibling argument seems pointless. Yet, I miss the pronouncement of truths about Jenna, joyful noise that is now replaced by quiet tears.

It’s true: she was always happy to see me when I walked through the door and she never talked back.

Perhaps this is the “one truth” about Jenna: I love you long after you’re gone, gone, gone.


Celebrating Creation

During the past few years, I’ve been teaching message-driven art workshops and creating found object sculptures with students of all ages. While I hope to get back to the pottery wheel and playing in the dirt soon, I’ve enjoyed experimenting with a variety of media and re-purposing trash to create art. This process of making art from trash is also practical, as I am slowly cleaning out my basement studio in anticipation of our move later this year.

This week, Jews around the world celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. Two themes of the holiday liturgy exist in tension: “today is a day of judgment” and “today the world was born.” I decided to focus on the second theme, to seek opportunities to celebrate creation and creativity in 5776.

Because the creative impulse is difficult to restrain, I head downstairs to the studio often, to reward myself after packing several boxes of books and filling my car with bags of clothes to donate. I know I cannot keep anything I create this year, and this inspires me to give gifts of art even absent any particular gift-giving occasion.

This morning, I packed up this piece as a gift for my friend and colleague at The Weber School:

DRSH landscapeFound Object Sculpture: D.R.SH

Materials: found objects—cell phone & Kindle, coin replicas—wire, paint, ink & polymer clay

I began creating this piece in an adult workshop sponsored by the Neshama Interfaith Center, to demonstrate how to work with the materials. We had been studying biblical text together for several weeks, surveying the variety of Jewish and Christian interpretations of Genesis 11 throughout the generations. I chose to focus on the Hebrew root, D.R.SH, and I used the mirrored innards of a Kindle as the base, as well as metallic paint/ink, because I wanted the definitions of D.R.SH to glow and to be reflected upward, toward the source of wisdom. Originally, the phone was attached to the base with terra cotta clay, and the coins were nested in the clay, to represent the riches of Torah uncovered through the process of D.R.SH. Unfortunately, as the clay dried it cracked and the piece began to fall apart. In the repair phase (re-creation), I used earth-toned polymer clay to reattach the piece to the base and glued the coins to the interior of the phone. The front and back of the phone are loosely held together at the top with wire, to indicate there is open space within the piece, at its foundation, for the continued accumulation of wisdom.


One Long Night


When the kids were younger and my spouse used to travel for business, we developed numerous coping strategies to make his absence easier on everyone. Generally, this entailed a relaxation of mealtime and bedtime routines. Once, our eldest wrote a list of “Single Parent Rules,” which included gems such as “there’s no such thing as too much TV” and “caffeine is a food group (for the parent),” and she displayed them on the refrigerator for him to review upon his return.

Time softens my memory of the challenges I faced caring for three small humans alone, while the cook, dishwasher and superior reader of stories at bedtime was gone. I’d nearly forgotten that almost every time he traveled, one of the kids would get sick. Often this involved a stomach flu or some other virus; an ear infection or sudden, barking cough occasioned a visit to the pediatrician, followed by a trip to the pharmacy. Sometimes, those awful times when “Mom Immunity” failed, my spouse would return to a full house of cranky, exhausted sick people.

This week brought my memory into sharper focus. Not because the kids were any trouble; the youngest is now old enough to take on the task of preparing dinner every night. The eldest is away at college.

This time it’s the canine child who demands all my attention while the leader of the pack is gone. Her symptoms appear after the Vet’s office is closed for the night, of course. As I hide a small pill in peanut butter and desperately attempt to fit the no-bite collar around her neck while she wriggles from my grasp, I remember the rules that no longer hang on the refrigerator door.

Curling up on the couch for a long night of telling her to “leave it,” I consider how fortunate I am to still have the energy to take care of everyone at home while my partner in parenting travels, how relieved I am that Luna’s ailment is not contagious to humans and how happy I am the Top Dog is only away for one night.

luna in collar again