… I never wanted anything from you / Except everything you had / And what was left after that too…
~Florence Welch & Isabella Summers
With tonight’s Harvest Moon and next week’s equinox, autumn is upon us. I’m not sorry to see this summer go: my once-disciplined practice of writing first thing each morning gave way this summer. Now in my second MFA year, other responsibilities vie for that most coveted time slot. I question my commitment and my craft. What else is here to sustain me?
Slurp. Slurp. “Flynn, please stop licking!” I try not to sound sharp as I plead with my terrier, who licks his leg by my feet. I threaten him with the cone, but the threat is empty: I don’t think I could find it.
* * *
The fourth week of August was a string of terrible days. On Sunday my husband, Chad, started a business trip, leaving me alone to manage my job, a writing deadline, and our five pets. Chad and I deploy a texting-only communication strategy when he travels alone for business or I for my MFA residencies. When we are time zone crossed and each so crazed that a phone call seems impossible, we tether with written words. We had gotten my dad an Amazon Fire TV Stick for his birthday though he’d been watching too much Olympics, possibly all the Olympics. We joked in the card, “You don’t get enough screen time!” I was delighted the games were closing that very day—no more rocket’s red glare wafting into my writing room. Olympics over, things looking up, I texted Chad Sunday night, “Dad loves it!”
Around midnight as Sunday became Monday, on routine patrol of the foyer, Flynn spotted a possum outside and promptly lost his mind, attacking the right sidelight window in vain while Arthur the labradoodle stood bewildered by the left: Why we bark? Flynn spent the night pacing and panting, biding time to spring through the door the next morning on the possum’s cold trail. I texted Chad when I woke, “I’m tired.” I walked the dogs and let them sniff around the bushes where the offending possum had lingered.
On Tuesday morning, Flynn vomited his breakfast. His medical history is a novel, but the synopsis is he has atypical Addison’s disease, requires corticosteroids daily to balance his endocrine system, and is prone to occasional vomiting. In his vomit was a swirly nest of my hair, his hair, a stick, and some leaves. I fed him again, blaming this offensive plug of foreign material. He vomited again. I gave him more steroid to counteract the stress and started some rice on the stove. I would attack this with the “bland diet.” I shaved some chicken breast off a rotisserie in the fridge. Flynn vomited the chicken and rice and his body started twitching.
I changed into jeans and we went to the veterinarian’s office. Flynn’s abdominal x-ray looked okay; his labs did not. He was in acute liver failure. After some fluids and an antiemetic for his nausea, I took him home for the night. Because of my history in her industry, the vet had been frank: she told me to snuggle Flynn.
From there, it was impossible to concentrate on the writing and reading I needed to do. Instead, I tried to anticipate which extensions I might need in the days ahead. I had no work shifts until the weekend. I alerted my Lunch Ticket teams I might need help, then connected with my digital writing workshop to excuse a delay of my comments due that day. I emailed my MFA mentor: twenty pages of creative work and literary annotations on two books were due to him on Friday morning; my creative work was ready enough (perhaps), but my annotations, unwritten as they were, might be late.
On Wednesday morning, I took Flynn and Arthur to the specialist hospital. (Arthur had to come since he is destructive when left alone.) I dressed for comfort and professionalism. Conscious of my choices, I cataloged them to later write an essay titled, “Getting Dressed to Take Your Terrier to his Possible Death.” I tried out first lines and decided on, Do I wear jeans? I texted Chad to warn him that we might need to discuss surgical options.
Flynn’s ultrasound was unremarkable. He was admitted for fluids and antibiotics while the fine-needle aspirate of his liver went out to a pathologist. The specialist added a toxin binder. In Florida, in every damn cluster of landscape architecture, we are blessed with potently toxic Sago Palms. The specialist told me stepping on a Sago seed and then licking his paw could have caused the liver necro-inflammation of Flynn’s magnitude. Arthur and I went home, adrift.
I don’t pray. I clean. I cleaned the shit out of the house. When I should have been revising my sprawling digressive essay for my MFA mentor, I scrubbed toilets and vacuumed. I broke a sweat. Arthur has many nicknames, but he’s The Bird when he’s extra derpy. In the glare of his solitude, The Bird emerged to help me clean. I took him for a long walk when an evening breeze broke the August afternoon oppression. The Bird pulled and marked and growled. He was being Flynn. Bird’s imitation game carried into the night. He tried “big dog little bed,” and assumed the role of primary sentry.
Meanwhile, that night I spilled two full glasses of water: one all over the wood-block kitchen island, the other on the mid-mod bedside table I’d just cleaned and reorganized with yet another book stacking strategy. I went into Chad’s office to feed the cats. In the middle of the freshly vacuumed area rug, I stepped bare foot in cat vomit. Distracted by the vomit and the cleaning of the vomit—so many days of vomit—and the dash through the sprinklers outside to dispose of the puke in the pet trashcan, I forgot I’d set some cat medicine down on the rug. Back in the office, sprinkler-wet and full of rage, I saw the wrong cat eat the meds. I smacked her. Then I texted Chad and confessed to the smacking and broke down crying. I hadn’t smacked hard, but still.
Later, after fitfully falling asleep, a forgotten splinter in my thumb woke me only an hour into the night.
Thursday morning found me unable to turn over in bed, and mostly uncovered. Bird was stretched next to me with his head sharing my pillow. The rest of the king bed was empty. On our morning walk, Bird got scared and pulled me back home. It was probably a bumblebee buzzing past his head, a fear he learned from Flynn. While I made his breakfast, he slunk into the dining room and pooped. I screamed silently as I cleaned it up, then walked it outside to the little can. I texted Chad the poodle plus the yellow bird head (our combination of emojis for Arthur; Flynn is the reddish dog plus the warthog head) with the smiley poop and the lit cannonball.
At the hospital later, Flynn barely noticed me. He gave me one tail wag and then took to sniffing dog things on the floor: he’s a dog’s dog. While I waited for the specialist to come into the exam room with updates, Flynn stood at the door, away from me. (My dogs often treat me with indifference, though I saved both their lives. At least Arthur loves Chad.)
Some results were in: the Sago Palm toxicity was ruled out; the remaining possibilities were Leptospirosis or autoimmune Chronic Active Hepatitis. Lepto is transmitted when a dog comes in contact with the infected urine of a raccoon or a possum. Though dire, at least Lepto is curable. We hoped for Lepto. I got to bring Flynn home.
There, Arthur wanted to play, and Flynn wanted to sleep. Though I waited for the sun to shine brightly in a blue sky before I took both dogs out for a quick walk, a torrential sun squall soaked us. Back home and dried off, I had to dig out Flynn’s winter coat to stop his shivering. I texted Chad about the rain. I was relieved he’d be home late that night, in time for his birthday the next day.
Before bed, I scooped cat litter and found I had chosen a bag with a failed seam along the bottom: litter-dusted turds and clumps of lavender scented urine fell down my front and into my flip-flops and all over the rug I’d just vacuumed, again, in Chad’s office. On the trek out to the little trashcan, the sprinklers started up.
* * *
On Friday morning, I hand-wrote a draft of that essay, “Getting Dressed to Take Your Terrier to his Possible Death,” instead of working on my other digressive essay or starting my annotations. I emailed the packet to my mentor at noon, sans annotations. In the packet were two essays: the first was one I’d extensively edited after workshopping it with the same mentor at an MFA residency. I thought by now I’d nailed it. The second essay was a digressive, messy rough draft.
When my mentor’s feedback came late Sunday, the capstone night of the terrible week, I was finishing a shift at work and may have had a tad too much whiskey during closing. Here’s the quick and dirty on the feedback: in essay one I answer the wrong question (clearly, clarity is not my primary concern); essay two exemplifies why I shouldn’t write digressions (what is this essay about?). After reading my mentor’s comments, I woke Chad with my maudlin lamentations (my writing room is our bedroom), and I texted my blog editor to ask if I could write about “turning over $40k to have my heart broken.”
The feedback was brutal, painful, and correct. An alien of self-doubt now germinates in my chest.
I look for what I can hold. I see Flynn at my feet. Slurp. I don’t know how long he will be with us. His diagnosis, of course, is the autoimmune disease. So I let him lick his itchy leg where his hair was shaved for his IV catheter. Slurp.
This summer I’ve learned that where I thought I had control, there is often a blank page. I wonder how to write better than I write—my next packet for my mentor is due in a week. I’ll keep trying, adding words. Slurp. I find the cone under the bed. There’s only so much I can take.