“Oh, yes,” my mother moaned, exasperated. “Just take me. Please, just let me go. Take me now.”
She’d consumed several Tylenol Migraine pills to quell yet another relentless headache that prevented her from sleeping, and my father had admonished her.
“You’re going to overdose and die!” he said matter-of-factly, as if he was a cardiologist talking to an obese man who’d just had open-heart surgery and still refused to give up beer and hamburgers.
“That’s fine,” my mother replied, equally blunt. “I’ve had enough.”
My dog, Wolfgang, looked at all of us, as we stood in my parents’ bedroom in the pre-dawn hours of some nondescript weekday. He finally sauntered back into my room and curled up with his towel. He’d always had a fetish for towels.
In the spring of 2005, I’d lived and worked in Oklahoma; laboring on a special project for the engineering company where I worked at the time. Wolfgang had stayed with my parents throughout most of that period, except for the month of May when I decided to bring him with me. Instead of flying into Tulsa and renting a car to drive to the work site, as we’d normally done, I’d rented a vehicle in suburban Dallas and drove up to Northeastern Oklahoma on a Sunday night. I just didn’t want to put him on a plane for a 30-minute flight just to end up in a car for an hour anyway.
One evening, as I sat at the desk in the room, scouring over my laptop, I noticed Wolfgang strolling out of the bathroom – a damp, dirty hotel towel in his mouth. I had a small pile of towels beneath the sink. I didn’t allow housekeeping into the room, unless I was there. I didn’t want to take the chance that Wolfgang would dart from the room in a frenzy and somehow make it out of the hotel into highly unfamiliar territory. I’d grown too attached to him by then; only two years after I’d taken custody of him from a troubled ex-roommate.
A few minutes later I looked again at him and was startled to see all of those damp towels stacked in front of the closet. He’d literally hauled every one of them out of the bathroom and then plopped down in front of the stack. I chuckled. Dogs do the funniest things sometimes; things only they fully comprehend and amuse we befuddled humans.
He was almost three back then. Now, he was eleven and just didn’t want to be bothered by the drama we bipedals have the tendency to create. I turned back to my parents. My father merely stared at the lamp on a nightstand, while mother rubbed her forehead; more out of frustration, I suspected, than pain.
I massaged my forehead, too. At their age, they were enduring – sometimes just tolerating – the physical quandaries of a long life. My mother with her headaches; my father with his acid reflux. On nights – mornings – like this, they sometimes openly wished they’d just die. They were tired; they’d had enough. I heard Wolfgang sigh.
There’s a price to pay for living so many years. You get to experience a number of different things. Hopefully, most are good, but for certain, many are bad. Regardless, at some point during that time, you fall in love; you laugh; you dream; you enjoy good food and beverages; you dance; you ogle at sunsets and sunrises; you may have children; you might have a pet; you become sad; you get angry; you work; you get sick; you drive a vehicle; you fall and break something; you meet all sorts of people; and you die. You can’t possibly live as long as my parents have and not go through a few bumps and bruises. You don’t even live to be my age – 50 – and experience some of that.
Last summer Wolfgang fell mysteriously ill. I was recuperating from a freak accident here at the house in which I’d severely damaged my right arm and hand. For some reason, amidst my frustrating recovery and exhaustive job searches, Wolfgang became incredibly lethargic; he’d yelp if he barked. Even the slightest growl seemed to hurt him. Then, he began urinating spontaneously, as if he’d grown so old he couldn’t control his bladder. My priorities shifted – and I thought back eleven years.
In August of 2002, my then-roommate Tom* had to put his miniature schnauzer, Zach, to sleep. In the few days preceding his demise, Zach began throwing up and urinating uncontrollably. His body shrunk so much we could see his ribs. It turned out he had a kidney infection. If Tom had gotten Zach to a vet in time, he probably could have saved him. Shortly after Zach’s death, Tom got a new puppy; the one I’d adopt when we parted ways in January 2003 and would rename Wolfgang. Zach had been 11 when he died, and I wondered last summer if Wolfgang was facing his mortality. His vet diagnosed a mild intestinal infection; an ailment a couple of shots resolved. But, it was a frightening week – for all of us. I caressed Wolfgang’s downy ears one night and whispered, “You can’t leave me now. I’m not ready to let you go.” And, I wasn’t and I’m still not.
My father sat near his computer one evening last fall, after doctors had confirmed that his acid reflux was more critical than anyone had realized. His gastroenterologist had referred him to a colleague who – unbeknownst to her – wasn’t accepting new patients. He referred my father to a younger colleague; a doctor who, although pleasant and affable, looked like he’d just graduated from high school. My father said bluntly on this one particular evening that he was waiting for his parents to come get him.
“No,” I said, “not now. I’m not ready for that.”
My father and I want to write a book about our family history. On his mother’s side, we are descendants of Queen Isabella of Spain, the woman who financed Christopher Columbus’ voyage westward across the Atlantic. On his father’s side, we are descendants of Spanish noblemen who first arrived in what is now South Texas in 1585. My father began doing genealogical research in 1990 as a hobby; a way to spend the free time he’d encountered while working part-time at a printing shop. He’d been a full-time employee since before I was born. Then, in 1989, the company owner laid off him and a few others; only to rehire them as contract employees. The genealogy metamorphosed from a quaint past time to a heartfelt passion. The book I want to write with him would be a true labor of love. I couldn’t do it alone.
“I talk to Margo sometimes,” my mother revealed one day. Her older sister died of cancer in 1989 at the age of 59. “I talk to her when I’m ironing, or doing the dishes, or folding towels.”
That, I realized, provided her with a sense of normalcy. Like my father, my mother has never lived alone. She’s always been with someone. She came from a time when women got married young and had a family. Career women were alien creatures; unmarried women without children were subhuman. When I was born, my father didn’t want her to return to work – ever. But, she did – and retired at the age of 70.
I get so frustrated with everything here – bouncing back and forth between my parents’ all-consuming ailments, my unpaid student loans, recycled resumes – that I want to grab Wolfgang and everything I could pack into my truck and just go. Leave. Run away. Far away. Some place no one knows me. And, start all over.
I can’t. I just can’t. It’s not a question of fortitude or finances. It’s a matter of love and commitment. I can’t forsake the people who brought me into this world.
“I think I’m going to die in this house,” I told a close friend over lunch at a favorite restaurant.
“What’s wrong with that?” he replied, looking at me as if though I dreaded such a day.
“Nothing! I’m just saying I think I’ll die in that house – alone.”
Hopefully, alone – meaning no dogs will be trapped in here with me. I never got married and had children and I’ve never had any long-term relationships. But, I see a future as a secluded writer with dogs rescued from shelters.
Wolfgang will be 12 in a couple of weeks, and my parents bide their time; my mother doing crossword puzzles, and my father digging through ancient church documents. Sometime, I’ll have to let them all go.
But, not just yet.