While Sweetheart and I were somewhere loud and happy Saturday night (a wedding), loud and not-so-happy things were happening close to us.
In the morning, my friend Walter, a Baptist minister, posted this selfie on his way to his church. He invoked Nehmiah 1.
By then, we’d heard the news. Riots had broken out hours after a police officer shot and killed a 23-year-old who’d refused to put down the gun he was carrying. Mobs of people gathered, shooting in the air, burning businesses and, according to one video on Facebook that I did not watch, looking for white people to beat up.
There were photos of the businesses that had been burned. A gas station. A bank. A beauty supply store. Before it burned, looters were carrying out bags of weaves.
My house is a mess. We got written up by the city for “weeds” (we have a prairie in our front yard). I do not spend enough time with my mother or my grandson. But it could be worse. I didn’t lose my business, and I still have a job to go Monday.
It would be great if the world got better by burning things down, but it doesn’t. It just makes more heartbreak and fear which, last I heard, isn’t high on the list of building blocks for neighborhood stability.
I had to go over there and see if I could help clean up something. I’ve driven by that gas station a gatrillion times, and when I go downtown after work, I drive past the bank and the auto supply and beauty supply stores that were burned.
I wasn’t sure what I’d find when I got to the intersection a few hours after Walter had left. He’s black and big, and I am white and not. It didn’t matter. Being afraid isn’t enough of a reason not to do something that matters, and for some reason I couldn’t articulate, this mattered.
What I found were groups of people in the park across from the gas station. I instantly recognized my neighbors, Michael & Carolina. On the grass just off the sidewalk, three people were sitting alongside a pallet-sized stack of bottled water. There were bags of gloves and cartons of garbage bags.
“People are just going out and cleaning up,” Michael said. He and Carolina had been there long enough to fill a couple of bags, and were taking off.
I got a pair of gloves and a bag from a woman, who told me that the effort wasn’t really being organized by anyone. People were just showing up. (Click here for a photo, courtesy of Neighborhood News Service.)
“Kind of like last night, only not” I said. She knew exactly what I meant. I headed out with my garbage bag and a pair of yellow gloves, the kind you use to wash dishes.
I hadn’t taken more than a few steps when a young black man asked me something about where the organizers were. I told him what I knew and pointed to the water stack. Then I asked if he wanted to pair up.
Which is how I met Chad, an electrician who recently bought his first house, some 20 blocks away from where we were (roughly the same distance away as Sweetheart and me, but in a different direction). We headed east toward the beauty supply store. There wasn’t a whole lot to clean up, but we picked up some trash, and some glass. And then I saw the bullet casing outside a storefront. I photographed it, then picked it up and showed it to Chad.
“Whoa, a slug!” he said.
We chatted between his cell phone ringing intermittently as he told people where he was and what we were seeing, and as we got to the beauty supply store, his phone rang. His cousin had come to help out. He went to meet her. The street had been cleared of glass and the windows were boarded up, but the ground between the board-up and sidewalk was a mass of piled glass. I dug huge chunks out of the dirt, filling up my bag.
Chad returned and introduced me to Tiffany, who’s working on her master’s degree in public health and works in the field already. We walked and talked as we made our way along the street, surveying the damage and talking about upcoming community events we knew about and were involved in. When we got back to my car, I gave Tiffany my gloves, and asked if they’d be willing to be in a picture. We got another passerby to take it.
I took quiet comfort in the presence like-minded strangers who care as much as I do about the city I love and call home.
The mom and daughter from Whitefish Bay who were picking up garbage, the woman in traffic who called out from her car window to ask where she could drop off donations, and all the other people we saw along the way. Some were cleaning up. Some were just walking along. The front-seat passenger in carload of girls in an SUV announced (with a dash of salt in her tone) that they’d been there the night before. In the park, groups of people were gathered in prayer circles, including a shirtless guy with a huge snake hanging from his shoulder.
There was a lot of work to be done before last night, and a lot of good people already doing it.
I hope it’s enough.
The house is so quiet. No one needs to go outside before we go to bed. There are no clacking feet in the middle of the night, the prelude to a trip down the stairs and outside into the dark. No one needs to go outside first thing in the morning. And no one is chasing Sweetheart out of the driveway when he leaves for work.
How things went
Four of us left the house to go to the vet on Saturday morning. Three of us came back.
Tuki and I sat in back of Talia’s SUV. Sweetheart sat in front. T had put the seat down on Tuki’s side and spread blankets out, so she could lie comfortably. She’d also bought a bag of freeze-dried duck hearts for her Best Girl. I spent the ride feeding them to the grateful recipient.
When we got there and got her out of the car, Sweetheart took her over to eat some snow. It had snowed the night before. Fitting, as it had done the same thing the first night she’d been with us all those years before. That morning, she’d been in constant motion, dancing all over the yard, sticking her nose in the snow and tossing what she didn’t eat, openly delighted at this toy that spanned everything she could see.
I walked into the office. Joanne was sitting behind the counter. She’s been the receptionist there since before Tuki was born. I put my head down on the counter and burst into tears.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s the hardest thing we have to do.”
She took us into the exam room and got a blanket so Tuki wouldn’t have to get up on the table. Tuki, never one of Park Pet’s grateful patients, stayed true to form, growling at the vet. Dr. Poehlmann told us what would happen – first a shot to send Tuki into the Happy Place where Everything is Wonderful (or that state of mind where, as Talia said later, Tuki would be doing things like staring up and saying things like, “Wow! My paws are SOOOO big!!”). Then, five minutes or so later, she would shave Tuki’s back leg, insert an IV and inject the drug that would stop her heart.
Sweetheart held and petted Tuki, so she was distracted when Dr. Poehlmann put the needle into her left flank. The vet stepped out. We got Tuki settled onto the blanket, and Talia and I laid on either side of her and stroked her. We talked and sang to her.
When Dr. Poehlmann came back, Tuki was unconscious. Dr. P shaved Tuki’s leg. She told us that the knee was very swollen and that Tuki had practically no muscle in that leg.
“I take comfort in biochemical information,” Talia said. “Can you tell me exactly how the drug works?”
I don’t remember what Dr. Poehlmann said. It had to do with interrupting some process or other.
Pho and tears
After it was over, we dropped Sweetheart at home. Talia bought pho for lunch, and we ate at Oldest Daughter’s house. We hugged Layli, my granddog, and talked about Oldest Daughter’s impending baby (yes, I’m going to be a grandmother, which feels very weird although I’m told by all my friends who have grandchildren that it is amazing). And, of course, I cried some. But it was easier because I wasn’t home. Then, I was. I spent the rest of the day sobbing.
I was a little better on Sunday, though not much.
“You need a bottle of wine and a cat,” Sweetheart said at one point.
On Monday, Sweetheart took the car to work. I managed to get all the dog things – water dish on a stand, food dish, food container, grooming tools and toys – gathered up and put away.
Then, I picked up her bed. She slept, ala “The Princess and the Pea,” atop a dog bed under which several blankets were piled.
I am not ready to wash it, or throw it away.
I’m writing this with a view.
Tuki is lying with her head on my outstretched leg. In two hours, she will be gone and I will be bereft. I’ve never had to put a dog down before.
In between writing, I put my hand on her head and stroke the space from just above her nose and between her eyes with my thumb.
We’ve had nearly 15 years together. Our 15th Doggiversary would have been November 30th. That was the night I found her, a three-month-old stray puppy gamboling in the grass with a friend’s dog.
“Who’s the other dog?” I said, as we watched the two of them frolic from a porch above the patch of lawn where they were having a grand old time giving chase.
“No idea,” she said.
I ventured out into the dark for a closer look. Lucas, Ann’s dog, was a seven-year-old Schnauzer/Yorkshire Terrier mix. He weighed about 10 pounds. The other dog was bigger but, as I got closer, I could see how young it was.
She spent one night with us, and those of us not crazy in love with her from the jump (my then-husband) were moving in that direction. Animal Control picked her up in the morning so she could be reunited with her owners. We filled out a “first dibs on adopting” form if no one claimed her.
Fast forward three weeks.
The Humane Society says we can adopt her. But, they say, she has kennel cough and they want to keep an eye on her for a couple of days. The next day, they call and tell us to pick her up. We bring her home.
A week later, we’re at the vet for the second time. The first vet said it was bronchitis and threw pills at us. The second vet says, “I don’t know if this dog is going to live through the night.”
I ask how what it will cost to see if we can save her. Money is short, but I decide I can handle giving up three months of cell phone service.
As we leave, I can hear her shrill puppy cries as the vet tech and vet insert an IV.
The next morning, the vet calls.
“Good news,” he said. “The antibiotics did the job. She popped up this morning and gobbled her food. We want to keep her another night.”
Fast forward to now.
There are not enough or the right kind of words to express the universe of love, kindness and joy this dog has brought me. She was the valedictorian of her manners class. You could leave a plate of food in reach and she wouldn’t touch it if it wasn’t offered. She caught two squirrels, and tried to be a good friend to all her feline housemates, some of whom were more receptive to her overtures than others.
So, I am going to get dressed now and the three of us – that 13-year-old, who is now 28, and Sweetheart, who’s been my best human partner for 10 years – are going to do the last, best right thing we can for someone we love.
It’s been 41 years since the day my father dropped my sister and me at school. Neither of us knew that would be the last time we saw him. Debby was in eighth grade and got dropped first. I was a freshman in high school, so got an extra six minutes of one-on-one time.
What would I have done differently if I had known what my dad was going to do after he deposited me at that corner? Any number of things, probably. None of which really matters.
What I did was walk right, one short block to school. He turned the car left and left again, drove past the synagogue where he was the rabbi, and headed north, out of town.
Five minutes in any direction past the city limits puts you square into the middle of a postcard view of bucolica (if that wasn’t a word before, it is now, says I). That’s where my father headed. He went to North Bucolica.
It’s where the police found his car the next day, parked on a country road. On a bridge. Over a lovely little lake. When I’d gotten out the day before, I’d managed to grab my backpack, my lunch and my cello. I’d left a paper bag, though, which the police brought to my mother and about which I’d totally forgotten, understandable given what was going on. The police brought the bag to Mom and asked her if she had any idea about why it had been in the car. Maybe it would provide information they could use to lead them to Dad.
The bag did contain information. The Utica Police Department now knew that the missing rabbi’s oldest daughter a) had her period and b) didn’t wear tampons. Mom called me into the living room and handed me the paper bag. The look on her face was pure disgust. I tried to make myself invisible as I rushed upstairs to take refuge in my room.
Debby was in her room, reading “The Boys of Summer,” by Roger Kahn, a book Dad had given her for Hanukkah the year before. I lay down on my bed and tried to read, but I was too unsettled.
I went over to the record player, rifled my collection and put on “James Taylor and the Original Flying Machine.” Then, I picked up my guitar and played along.
“What good is that happy life/when all you wanted from the start was to cry….”
I didn’t think about the lyrics. I just played along, from tune to tune. Over the course of the next seven weeks, I did a lot of playing along to records, a lot of reading, a lot of talking to people and wrote in my journal. I went to school, to rehearsals for the school musical and to synagogue for services and youth group meetings.
I knew my father wasn’t coming back, that he was probably dead. But I had no sense of what that would mean, or how it would play out. I lived in a futureless present.
I kept flashing back though, to that moment at the corner. The moment of getting out of the car, juggling my backpack, cello and lunch, knowing Dad needed to get somewhere and not wanting to hold him up even as I wanted to hold on. He was the person I loved most and because of that, he was the person I most wanted to spend time with and the one I most wanted to please.
So I got out as quickly as I could, but not before I kissed him. I held the car door open while I organized myself. Before shutting it, I stuck my head inside, looked at him, and said what I didn’t know at the time would be the last words he’d ever hear another person say.
“I love you.”
Four Februarys ago, I attended two funerals in the same week. It was the first time that had happened. A month later I was in New York hanging out with my niece and nephew. My sister had decided to fly down from Edmonton during their spring break, and New York is always a great place for a family rendezvous.
Funerals must have been large on my mind, especially as our cousin Debbie (z”l) had died that January. We were (and still are) still more or less reeling from that one as a family.
Anyway, I was telling Elizabeth about the two-funeral week when this slid out of my mouth.
“I know a lot of people,” I said, “and that means that one day I’m going to know a lot of dead people.”
Elizabeth burst out laughing and couldn’t stop. I accepted the invitation and joined her.
Sure enough, it’s four years down the road and my dead people list keeps getting longer.
This past Thursday, our family friend Ruth Goldbas died. She and her late husband Moses loved my parents, and Ruth played a large and quiet role in helping to salvage what was left of my family the year after my father died.
Once a week for that entire year, my sister and I would go to her house after school. Mom would meet us there when she got off work from her teaching job.
They had seven children, which I thought was the neatest thing ever.
Two were around our age, but way too smart and cool to pay attention to a couple of fatherless social misfits. To be honest, Debby and I probably weren’t great company at that point in our lives. That mattered not one iota to Ruth. She always treated us as if we were the most interesting people in the room, and always had a dinner prep job for us to do that made us feel welcome and useful.
When I went to represent the family at Aunt Bessie’s funeral this past September, I used some of my 36 hours in town to find out where Ruth was living and go see her. It was clear that she was not going to be around for a whole lot longer, but getting to experience her radiant smile again was a huge gift.
“I was sure that the Waldmans were in my past!”
We just sat there, happy as a pair of pigs in you-know-what and then dialed up Mom, so she and Ruth could have a chat. When her son David showed up, he snapped a picture of us.
Like his son David, Mosie was an attorney. He even merited a mention in Roger Kahn’s book “Good Enough to Dream,” about a season Kahn spent with the Utica Blue Sox.
I mention this because on Friday, baseball great Ernie Banks (aka “Mr. Cub”) died. He never played for the Blue Sox, but he did spend a night at the Treadway Inn. I know this because our dad took me and my sister there the morning Ernie and his fellow Cubbies were to play an exhibition game in Cooperstown at the Hall of Fame. We brought our autograph books and cameras. The autographs are long gone, but I have my memories of Ernie Banks, and of his teammate Ron Santo.
Ernie Banks isn’t the only athlete I spent this weekend remembering. Baki may have made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame too, if he’d gotten a chance to grow up.
I was at work the Monday morning he died. It was 2005, and Baki was 12. His parents Marge & Andy are two of my dearest friends.
He wasn’t sick. He’d spent Sunday afternoon and early evening snow tubing with a group from synagogue. He went to bed happy, sharing a bed his nine-year-old brother, the way they always did. Their 16-year-old brothers shared another room, with separate bunk beds. M&A tucked four kids into bed that night. The moment before Marge went to wake them up for school was the last before her family’s life took a turn into a place no parent ever wants to go.
More than 1,000 people showed up for his funeral. On Saturday, about 50 of us gathered at the same synagogue for a Baki-centered memorial. There was some singing, some study of texts from Pirke Avot, and a lot of great storytelling. We shared our memories of Baki and what of him we have carried forward with us these past 10 years.
Baki was an astonishingly graceful and talented athlete.
He was a middle child who navigated the shark-infested waters of sibling competition with the same elegance he brought to his soccer and softball games; he had a quiet sense of mischief he deployed skillfully and well. There was more than one comparison to Buddha, and those making it were people who had known Baki, but not one another.
His soccer teammates told of having started every game for the season after his death “one man down” for the first 10 seconds. Baki’s jersey number had been 10, and that was their tribute. The year they were high school seniors, their soccer team went to the state championships. They started their game “one man down,” because, as one of his teammates said, “If Baki had been alive, he would have been here with us.”
Everyone who spoke had beautiful things to say. His grandmothers read of adventures they’d had with Baki dating from shortly after he was born through to his last birthday, a month before he died.
The most powerful moments of the afternoon, for me, centered around Baki’s classmates, teammates, brothers and the family friends who had been peers. Now young adults, they had experienced his death and mourned his passing as children. Seeing them express, as adults, with adults, the grief they felt as children in a setting where their friend’s memory was the focus, was profound.
It was important for them in a way that was different for the rest of us, possibly because when you’re a child, adults are in charge. They may not be able to control death, but they control a lot of other things. So a kid experiencing a friend’s death may not really understand that the adults are as absolutely lost as they are in this particular situation.
What I saw happen in those young adults, all with the same particular searing hole in their psyches, is as close as I’ve ever been to a healing event in a spiritual setting. For them, being able to pull those feelings out and air them in a setting where they were not only safe, but welcomed and encouraged, was transformational in a very different way than it was for us adult mourners.
I know a lot of people, alive and dead. Yesterday’s event gave some things to chew on in terms of how it is and what it means to carry forward the memories of those we loved, liked and cared for.
Today, it also makes me realize that down the line, if I’m lucky, someone will be doing that for me.
I used to write poetry. It’s been a long time, but lately, I’ve had an urge to start again. So it was interesting timing that my Christmas present from Sweetheart’s father and his wife was a volume of Seamus Heaney’s poetry.
There are massive holes in my literary education. Heaney was one of them, but thanks to D&K, that will be changing.
All the Christmas books from D&K include, somewhere inside, a photograph of a dead white guy. It’s fun to get money any time, of course, but there’s something truly special about being part of a family in which every holiday means that someone spent significant amounts of time imagining what you would love to read and went hunting for it.
Getting back to poetry, one of my favorite under-appreciated poets is Kelly Cherry. I met her when I was a baby journalist and my first editor sent me out to interview her. We don’t see each other often, but established enough of a connection to remain friends nearly 30 years down the road.
I was writing a lot more poetry then. Reading hers blew me away. It still does. I once told her – because it’s true – that my poems were like melody lines and hers were entire symphonies. Here’s one:
“From Venice: Letter to an Ex-Husband” (The Horses of San Marco)
I am riding on bronze,
Astride a sea-city.
I love my horse
With more than human pity.
His helpless eye,
His cool, wide flank
Are no less real than yours,
I frankly think.
His deep gold hue is like liquid,
As if a canal had been poured into the mold
Of a horse. He canters
Above the world.
Bold as the sky,
Eternity between his teeth
Like a bit.
Oh I love my
Horse with more than human
Love, with love
That is truer, animalistic,
Given to no man.
On him I ride
Through salt air and
The sinister, traitorous streets,
It’s from her collection “Death and Transfiguration,” but she has many more. She’s written short stories and novels, too.
Anyway, back to when we met. It was an interesting time. First Husband had just met Better Wife than I’d Been, and I was madly in love with a guy I now refer to (when I refer to him at all) as Mr. Perfect from the Neck Down. The first time he dumped me was just after Thanksgiving.
This is a poem I wrote about it.
What I would like
Is a fuse
To attach to the solstice moon
Lighting the year’s longest night.
All ripe and round.
Both of you,
Full of yourselves.
I, temporarily eclipsed by
In the pursuit
Of personal illumination,
Want that fuse
Want to watch it crackle
Become a collection
Of harmless ashes
In a cold sky.
As unaware as the moon,
You have wreaked
Careless havoc in
Your attempt to ripen
And you continue on,
Willfully ignorant of
Any connection you
Could possibly have
As you orbit some