I knew what motivated my friend, Jeanne, to devote as many hours as she did to her volunteer job at our local, municipal, animal shelter: her deep love of animals and belief that each pet deserved a loving home. It wasn't an easy gig. The shelter, at the time when I first volunteered there, was in a hideous, run down, roach-infested, airless building, bursting at the seams with unwanted pets. Jeanne was the fiercest advocate for those pets, and in many cases, the first kind person they had ever encountered. Jeanne could see the beauty in the most raggedy-looking, fly-bitten "junkyard dog" and often was able to assess their temperaments faster than anyone else. She saved countless dogs from being euthanized by calling rescues, enlisting the help of other volunteers, pleading with the on-staff veterinarian, and taking them home herself. Jeanne could often be found in the volunteer office at the shelter, spending time with a dog who she found cowering in the back of a cage; so convinced was she that all the dog needed was time and love.
Rather than recount the stories of tenderness and kindness about Jeanne, because I couldn't pick just one, I choose most often to re-play in my head the scene that, to me, was the most indicative of Jeanne's humor, creativity, and determination.
On a gorgeous Spring Saturday, I met Jeanne early at the shelter. We made our walk-through together, attempting to get a jump on our day by seeing which dogs were new to the scene, talking about their demeanor and what kinds of homes we thought would be perfect for them, and making note of the ones Jeanne thought were in the greatest danger of not getting adopted. Those were her mission. A sunny Saturday always meant it would be busy. Spring is kitten and puppy season, and they came in by the dozen, and if we were lucky, the adoptions were brisk, too. This particular day, a couple in their mid-70s came in to pick up a dog they had adopted, and who they were claiming after spay surgery. They recognized Jeanne right away, and in a very excited tone, the woman said, "Is she ready to go?" Jeanne smiled and said we'd go get their dog for them, and as we turned to go to the back and get the pup, Jeanne said to me, "Ya' gotta' watch this one, she's a runner." Jeanne told me that she had tried to gently steer the couple toward an older, more docile dog, but this young, energetic one had caught their eyes and their hearts, and there was no deterring them. I went to the dog's cage, leash in hand, and opened the door carefully. She was darting all over the cage, wagging her tail furiously, and smiling with her long, pink tongue hanging out the side of her mouth. She let me put the leash around her neck and practically yanked me down the hall, headed toward the lobby and the certain freedom she could tell was awaiting her. Jeanne was laughing hard as she watched me attempt to calm this creature and deliver her to her new family. The couple was so happy. They named her "Peony" and crouched down to greet her, and the dog jumped all over them, almost knocking them down with her enthusiasm. Jeanne said to them, more than once, "Make sure you have a good grip on her now" as the dog dragged them through the door and toward the car. But as they opened the door to put her in, that dog took one look at the wide road, the perfect spring day, and bolted. I mean she was FAST. That dog took off like a bat outta hell and left her people standing in the parking lot, dumbfounded and dismayed.
Jeanne and I watched this nightmare unfold from inside the shelter, and she shouted at me, "Get your keys! Get in your car! We're going after her!" I did as instructed, and the two of us took off, screeching down the road in my wagon, chasing this dog who was running on the grass, the smell of emancipation filling her nostrils. We followed that dog for a couple of miles, when she seemed to start losing steam. Jeanne told me to slow down but not stop, and as I did, she rode, door wide open, calling to the dog: "C'mon, girl, get in the car. Get in, sweetie, c'mon. Here, girl, here, girl... Aw COME ON, DOPEY, GET IN THE DAMNED CAR!!" The dog trotted along beside us, happily waving her head and flapping her ears, and ignoring Jeanne. If we stopped, she'd dart off into the brush, and we were back at square one. This hilarious one-act play carried on for several minutes, with the lead actor evading our advances, until we saw two teenage boys walking along the road, enjoying the weekend. All of a sudden, Jeanne said, "Hey, you have any money? Any money at all?" I told her to rifle through my purse til she found my wallet, and she pulled out 2 twenty-dollar bills. She leaned out the car window and yelled at the boys, "Hey! Y'all! Wanna make some money?" The kids looked at each other, and then back at these two old broads, driving like lunatics and offering them cash out the window of a moving car, shrugged their shoulders, and said, "Sure!" We stopped, they came over and got the money, and we said, "GET THAT DOG!!!!" pointing at the damned dog who was darting in and out of the bushes on the side of the road. They set chase after her, we set chase after them, and all of us went charging down the road in hot pursuit.
At a point, the dog turned around, the boys pivoted, and we pulled a u-turn, and we all high-tailed it back toward the shelter. The boys gave out and gave up; the dog kept running, and we were able, miraculously, to get the dog, put another leash on her, and hand her back over to the old couple who were still where we left them, empty handed, in the parking lot.
On March 24th, I texted Jeanne at 9:10 a.m. She didn't reply. At 11:21 a.m., in a message unrelated to my text, I learned of Jeanne's sudden, unexpected death, in her home, with her rescue pups by her side.
For a million reasons, I'm so sad that Jeanne is gone from this world, but she will forever live in my memory, silver hair flying in the wind, on a clear spring day, chasing down a dog and laughing.
Tuesday, April 7, 2020
The next order of business is to wake up my eight year old grandson who lives with us weeknights during the school year. I am careful not to startle him; I have always hated abrupt awakenings myself. I am not quiet by nature, but I make every attempt each morning to use my "inside voice" as I urge him into consciousness with the same greeting: "Good morning, little man" and I rub his legs and feet. He is spoiled, in some ways. I warm up a pair of socks in the dryer before rousing him, and slide them on his feet so they don't hit the cold bathroom tile unprotected. When he's ready to wash his hands, I make sure the water is not cold. His preferred temperature, if you ask him, is "warmish-coolish." He stands in front of the sink, eyes still closed, and hangs his hands there until I tell him the temp is just right, at which point he washes them and uses his own Memphis Grizzlies hand towel, dubbed The Growl Towel, to dry them. He dresses and makes his breakfast choice, which is almost always a scrambled egg with cheese; sometimes he cooks it and sometimes I do. We go about the business of packing up everything that goes in the car: the backpack, the chess set on Tuesdays and basketball clothes on Wednesdays and Fridays, and my bag, my water bottle, and my coffee. As we prepare to leave, we check everything-is the hall light off, is the stove off, is Susie's coffee cup out and next to the pot, and are his shoes tied? He holds the security door open as I close the front door and lock it, and we're off. Normally.
Right now, the school clothes are folded neatly in the drawers, it doesn't stink of gym shoes and squished snacks, long forgotten in the bottom of the backpack. There are no plastic super heroes in my tub, no Legos underfoot, and no piles of paper to be signed and returned tomorrow.
And the bed. It's clean, smooth, neat, and empty. And 6:15 has lost its luster.
Sunday, April 5, 2020
At times when I am out each morning clearing my head and stretching my legs, my eyes are downcast. In our lovely neighborhood, filled with modest houses cheek-to-jowl, there are many places where the sidewalk is uneven. At 68, I cannot take the chance of falling. I look down and scan the sidewalk for bumps, gaps, stones, or any other flaw that might send me careening onto the pavement, ungraciously and potentially with horrible consequences. Who among us can afford the risk? The thought of needing medical care right now is dreadful to me.
As soon as I am assured of my safety, I return to reviewing the houses, flowering trees and bushes, Little Free Libraries, and other landmarks that I have set for myself to gauge how long or far I have walked. I almost always have earphones in, with a podcast going, but from time to time I pull them out, stuffing them deep in a pocket, so I don't miss the sounds of the cardinals, so abundant in our trees. Every time I hear one, I try to find the source of the call. I stop, turning my face skyward, scouring the branches above me for that speck of brilliant red, darting madly from limb to limb, or perched confidently among the leaves. The trees in our city, ubiquitous and old, are legendary; we boast the largest virgin forest in any city in the country, and by my house, the century-old pin oaks create a spectacular view through which to enjoy the endless blue sky on a spring morning when the only other things that seem endless are isolation, distance, and trips to the refrigerator.
I know that there will come a time when this is the big, historical event we all use as a frame of reference. We will pin our memories around this time, the way we have with other catastrophic events. For now, however, I feel stuck in the sameness: worried about my family, resentful of the consequences, and longing to hold my grandchildren.
Yet somehow, each day, the mere chirp of a vivid red bird can ground me and center me and remind me that upward will always be the way for me to look.
Thursday, April 2, 2020
When I was in my 20s, my father was hospitalized for a month following a brush with death. The hospital to which he was taken was about a 30 minute drive from my home, up the Merritt Parkway in Fairfield County, Connecticut. It was May, and in the 1970s, May was springtime in New England, although that has moved much earlier in the calendar now. The dogwood trees lining both sides of the parkway, alternating white and pink, were in their absolute glory; just budding, really, at the beginning of his stay, but in full, burst-open beauty as the weeks passed. They extended past the exit onto the road on which the hospital was located, and my memory of it is that the weather was spectacular nearly every day. We knew he would recover, so the drive to visit him daily was not frightening; I never worried that we would arrive to find some ominous sign like the blinds in his room being closed or the door with a foreboding notice on it, but it was troublesome nonetheless. The trees made the routine more bearable.
He was a brilliant man, and funny and sarcastic and handsome. Although small in stature at only 5'7" and probably 145 lbs., he was an enormous personality with a deep, resonant voice. He was charming beyond measure; he had a deep, rich history of being respected and loved as a boss, and women were completely taken with his looks and his success, my mother most of all. She had the added pleasure of having snagged him at a very early age. She was not, however, amused in the least by how his charm and intelligence had engaged his doctors; she thought his near death and the resultant hospitalization would "teach him" to treat his body better and perhaps straighten up and fly right. When my sister and I would visit him, he would boast about how the doctors had remarked on his wit and mental acuity, and how the other inmates, as he called them, were in awe of his clever tongue, to the point where we would roll our eyes so hard they nearly burst from their sockets. Over the four weeks he was there, we saw progress in his recovery, and were hopeful that he would return home to my mother, behave himself, and quit worrying all of us.
In the mid-south, where I live now, it is dogwood season. Their lacy branches filter the light in the yards, dappling the azaleas and hydrangeas with sunlight, and nearly glowing against the deep blue sky in the early morning light when I am out walking. It's been over 40 years since that time, my father has been dead for more than 25 years, and yet there isn't a single day that I see those trees and am not transported to the drive back and forth, and connected again with the man who shaped me in so many ways.