Sweet Child o Mine

Music helps memories stick. Once in a while I’ll hear a song or pick up a whiff of something familiar that takes me back to a memory so vivid it’s. They visit from a very specific time and place, pick me up out of a mundane task — driving a daily route or a boring meeting — and take me back to relive vivid moments, locked behind doors and still intact, their settings, people, emotions still vibrant. It’s like walking into a room at Monticello where nothing has changed for decades. Thomas Jefferson’s bed still looks too small, the windows too big and that duplicating writing instrument impossible to use. The docents repeat the same script, and there’s a slightly eerie feeling of being an anachronistic voyeur.

“Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” puts me in my mother’s pickup truck when I was two, driving across Houston freeways one night when it was raining and the AM station played the hit song BJ Thomas, who grew up, I would later find out, somewhere near our neighborhood. I had been at my grandparents, where it was intended I spend the night. But I wanted to be home with my mother, someone, it seemed, I seldom knew. So I cried until my grandfather cursed at my grandmother and told her to call my mother to come get me, in the middle of the night, twenty miles away, during a Houston thunderstorm. She did, and we rode in the truck, just the two of us and the song. We sang and together and I traced raindrops as the wind blew them across my window. My mother twitched her double-jointed thumbs at ten and two on the steering wheel.

I’m not always transported to childhood, and memories sometimes evoke complex feelings I haven’t completely untangled yet.

The Guns N’ Roses song, “Sweet Child o Mine,” leaves me feeling confused, intimidated and naive, and there’s always this blonde in the picture.

The first time I remember hearing the song was one afternoon in 1988, in an apartment in College Station, Texas, my sophomore year at Texas A&M. I don’t know whose apartment it was, and I knew only one or two of the ten or so people there. It was a crowd I had heard about, but had not been part of. The kids had all gone to high school together, a larger school than mine but only a few miles away and in the same city. The one guy I knew, Scott, had been a bag boy with me at the Brookshire Bros. grocery store in the Gaslight Shopping Center. That had been almost four years earlier, when we were 16. Scott was a big guy with short red hair. He played football, and, partly because of football and partly because I heard his dad got him the job, I expected him to be a jerk, looking down on me, a lowly, skinny, awkward basketball player from the country school. He turned out to be the nicest guy, an earnest, hard worker who was pretty smart and didn’t take shit off anybody.

I bumped into Scott in the A&M library early in the semester and he asked me to play flag football with him and other guys from his high school team, a team that had gone deep in the state playoffs, a team whose starting left tackle, at six-eight, two-eighty, was now starting for A&M. The high school’s starting quarterback was also at A&M, and he quarterbacked the flag football team. There was another guy on the team I knew. He had transferred from my country school to the bigger city school in ninth grade because his father thought his son possessed superior athleticism. This guy was every bit the jerk I thought Scott would be. Another guy I remember was tall and skinny. He had longish hair, seemed to be high and walked stooped over, like he was constantly taking a hit from a joint and didn’t want anyone to see.

I showed up for the first practice, introduced myself and tried not to show how intimidated I was. All these guys had grown up playing football, they all knew each other, they were part of the popular crowd at a very cliquish high school and they all drove nice cars or trucks sir parents had bought for them. The fact that I was popular in my high school, with a total enrollment about one-fifth of theirs, suddenly meant nothing. I had grown up with a single mom who made barely over minimum wage and never socialized with other parents. I drove a hand-me-down K-Car with a huge dent in the side where someone backed into me in a parking lot four years earlier. I was struggling to stay in school, struggling to pay rent, struggling to figure out what it was I was meant to do, not feeling I was meant to be on that flag football team.

These guys, with their new cars, new clothes, educated upper-middle class backgrounds had everything figured out. And if they didn’t, I was sure their fathers would float them along until they figured things out.

All I remember about practice is running routes as a receiver and catching a few passes.

After practice, everyone headed to an apartment to hang out. I guess I was invited. I went.

With this cohort of cool, popular, well-fed guys came an equally popular cohort of attractive, popular, cool girls from the same high school. They were at this same apartment, being cool. I recognized one or two. Guys like me had heard about girls like these in high school, but we never met them. The ten or so miles that separated our schools was enough of a gulf to create a sense of exoticism: girls who lived in nice houses with nice lawns in nice neighborhood’s and drove nice cars. We called them stuck up, even though we never met them. It was a way of protecting our fragile egos in case we ever did drum up enough courage to talk to one of them only to be rebuffed. These were girls who partied in parts of town where we never went. They were mysterious. They were hot. And now, on a random afternoon, they were standing in the same living room with me and the cool guys, around a lone Lay Z Boy, drinking Budweiser and watching MTV. I was out of my element.

Even MTV was foreign to me. Not because I grew up in the country, but because my parents were old. My father was almost fifty-one when I was born, my mother thirty-nine. My mother raised me in Rogers and Hammerstein and other Broadway stars. I knew Oklahoma and South Pacific by heart. I had seen Porgy and Bess in Houston’s Alley Theater when I was about six and my mother worked a second job there as an usher. Fiddler on the Roof was the very first movie I saw in a theater. We didn’t watch MTV, we watched “Name That Tune.” My mother was against anything representing counter culture, especially music. Rock and roll led to drugs and sex and living in sin. Elvis Presley was vile and vulgar. Ozzie Osborne and KISS had emerged straight from hell to grab young people by the ankles and pull us into eternal fire. I did not listen to rock.

Summers spent with my dad were filled with long car rides to round on his customers with KQUE on the radio. It was a big band station that sometimes played contemporary music like Herb Alpert. I knew more about Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey than I did about the Rolling Stones. 

So here I was, in a cool apartment with cool guys and hot girls, drinking beer illegally, watching MTV, when this new video starts playing and everyone pays attention to it. I didn’t know Guns N’ Roses. It seemed like an awful,name for a band to me.

And then the blonde walked into the room.

She’s one of the girls I had seen from afar, and almost kind of knew a little, but I had never talked to her. She wasn’t especially pretty, and she wasn’t hot, but she was a cool chick and oozed sexy. She was tall, thin and had long, straight blonde hair that just hung around her shoulders. I think her name was Jennifer, or maybe Jenny. She had acne scars and didn’t seem to care. She was kind of gritty. She had great legs, long and shapely and tanned. She was the kind of girl a guy could hang out with all day, drinking and partying, on a beach somewhere, and maybe he’d get laid or maybe not, and either way it was cool. 

She started swaying to Sweet Child O Mine and mouthing the lyrics. She said something about how cool Slash was, and I deduced he must be the guitar player with hair like Cousin It on the Addams Family. I just stood in the room, against a wall, staring at her.

I heard her talking about playing tennis, and she was thinking about transferring to LSU and trying to walk on the team there.

Someone said something about pot, which I knew absolutely nothing about. Jenny made a reference to being able to get pot back home,  where her dad was a cop. 

I sensed an opening, a chance for me to say something cool. I must have had a few beers in me; liquid courage. I spoke up.

“Cops know where the best pot is.”

Where did I get that bit of knowledge? A TV show? Hill Street Blues? Maybe I had heard it from my sister, a great authority on the subject of pot and other illegal activity. But I spoke on absolutely zero authority. This was the very first thing I said while standing in the apartment, surrounded by the cool. And I said it out loud. To Jenny, in an oblique way. And Jenny heard me. I know this because she replied.

“Cops HAVE the best pot.”

Here was a cool chick, in a cool setting, with cool people, saying col stuff, and I said something I think would be cool. Only, it wasn’t. Because Jenny struck me down with five little words and a quick sideward glance that said, “dude, who the hell are you and why are you breathing my air? Go back to your little country school.”

I played in only one flag football game. I showed up with my real friends, a little drunk, and looked for Jenny without trying to be seen like I was looking for Jenny. I played a few downs on defense. On one play I dived at an opposing player running toward me, flailing my arms and hands and somehow stripping him of a flag. I don’t know if Jenny was there or not. I don’t remember sticking around for the end of the game. I think we lost. I remember my friends cheered and yelled when I got the flag. 

The next week I came down with some kind of sickness. Maybe it was the time I had pneumonia. I used it as an excuse to leave the team, which I did without any announcement. I just stopped showing up. After the season I ran into the jock who was a jerk, and he asked me where I’d been. I made up a story about getting really ill and having too much school work. He told me the team came together and jelled in time to make the playoffs. Maybe they even won the division, I don’t know. I had probably tune him out.

I never saw Jenny again. I don’t know if she transferred to LSU or continued to play tennis, or dropped out and got married and pregnant, or pregnant and married.

I’m not sure I was really attracted to Jenny. I think I was attracted to the idea of Jenny — cool, athletic, carefree, smart enough to be in college, and maybe a lot smarter, but she didn’t let it show. She was kind of pretty but not caught up in being pretty. She didn’t really give a fuck, and she liked bad-boy rockers with crazy hair and she smoked pot her dad confiscated. For a few minutes one afternoon I was in Jenny’s circle, while, Slash shredded a solo and Axl Rose screamed and whined.

Where do we go, now? Where do we go? Where do we go, now?


Why Robin Williams’ death matters to me

From August 11, 2014

I have known personally four people who have killed themselves. I know of at least two others who ended their lives, and at least two family members who tried to.

When I was 17 I answered the phone late one night. It was the local police. They asked me if I knew someone, and gave a loved one’s name.

“Yes,” I said. And then, instinctively, “what has she done?”

The police described a drug scene with my loved one and a stranger who had supplied the drugs. They said they had received a call from someone in another state, someone in another state who I’d never heard of, who said my loved one was going to kill herself. Police and an ambulance responded took my loved one, nearly overdosed, to the hospital.

That, I knew, wasn’t the first time this person I loved so much had attempted suicide. There were several previous attempts. Hearing about them was no surprise. Neither was it a surprise to hear that another close family member had attempted suicide when I was very young. Depression leaves deep, noticeable scars.

When I was much older, in my 30s, word came that a co-worker had shot herself. I was stunned. I didn’t know her well, but she was someone I admired. I was shocked by how hard it hit me. It brought back thoughts of my loved ones’ attempts to end their struggles with depression and anxiety. Over the years I knew other people who escaped suffering of one form or another by taking their lives.

How unbearable must life be to decide that the easiest way to end the pain is to end all life? One must come to the conclusion, only imagined, that there is no other option. Desperation writ final.   

From the CDC: In 2009, the number of deaths from suicide surpassed the number of deaths from motor vehicle crashes in the United States. Traditionally, suicide prevention efforts have been focused mostly on youths and older adults, but recent evidence suggests that there have been substantial increases in suicide rates among middle-aged adults in the United States

Here’s a pet peeve: the flip comment, “god doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” Really? Seriously? What about victims of suicide? They had more than they can handle. Don’t tell me they weren’t godly enough. What does that even mean? Don’t go there. It’s not fair to the victims or to anybody’s god.

The reality is depression is an illness. It’s a chemical imbalance. The demons it creates are real, they’re powerful, and they’re difficult to defeat. Science hasn’t provided enough answers for everyone. Stigma prevents some people from getting help. People who perpetuate stigma and stereotypes prevent people from getting help.

People who commit suicide aren’t weak. They’re not ungodly. They’re not weird. They’re ill. They’re tired, exhausted, beaten by a disease just as powerful as cancer. We might see them as extremely powerful, powerful enough to sway our emotions during a 30-minute sitcom or a two-hour movie.  Powerful enough to work a day job and keep a family afloat for a while. They are handsome, beautiful, talented, sincere, intelligent. And they fight the disease as long as they can until, ultimately, they give everything.

Of course, I never knew Robin Williams. He made me laugh. He scared me a few times (“One Hour Photo”). He brought characters to life. But his death, from a disease much more powerful than himself, reminds me of others I’ve known who were not famous, but who fought the same foe, and lost.




A Tobin moment

February 7, 2007

I’ve been avoiding this post. That usually means something’s trying to come out, and I should just settle down and let it come.

One night last week Myowndaughter had a difficult time going to sleep. It was different from her usual recalcitrance. She was crying, but not out of fear. She was in pain. Believe it or not, dads can also distinguish their children’s cries. I shouldn’t be suggestive; this is something I was surprised to learn about myself, that I could be so emotionally attune to a little person so as to read the subtleties of similar sounds.

Sexymom was already with Mod, but I went into the bedroom to see why my baby’s cries communicated urgency and pain, and fear.

I was having a Tobin moment.

Myowndaughter’s knees were pulled up to her chest and she clutched her stomach. She wouldn’t stop until her mom picked her up and held her. She might have had gas, might have eaten something that didn’t agree with her, maybe she was feeling a pain for the first time and couldn’t understand it.

But in the first few moments, in the dark room, seeing a beautiful, energetic, sweet little child in pain, I was carried back to a hospital room in San Antonio in 1998. A 2-year-old little boy named Tobin was dying of cancer, a neuroblastoma. I was a medical reporter, and had found Tobin’s story while mining for a Christmas feature about kids in the hospital. I was freelancing, but I had a regular gig with theExpress-News, and my editors quickly latched onto Tobin. I was to take as much time as I needed. They would play Tobin on 1A in several stories, first an introduction, then a New Year’s day story about the bone marrow transplant the boy would recieve from his brother on New Year’s Eve, then follow-ups about the boy’s progress.

I wrote three stories. In the first story I introduced South Texas to the family — Tobin, a sweet little boy with a big round face; his considerate, mannerly older brother, all of 8; their infant sister, curly blonde; the dad, big and sloppy, cheerfull, loud and always smiling; and the mother, small, quiet, attractive. The family had just moved to town from Southern California so the dad could take a new job. They had never even been to Texas, they hadn’t seen house they were moving into, they knew nobody. Somewhere along New Mexico Tobin started crying. Crying in pain. The next day he had a lump in his belly. They stopped at the first doctor they could find, out in the West Texas plains. The doctor urged them to hurry to San Antonio, where there was a children’s hospital and two cancer centers. Scared out of their wits, they drove non-stop, pushing the U-Haul to its limits, and arrived at the children’s hospital.

Tobin’s tumor was deadly, but only because of the very short window of time in which it appeared. Neuroblastoma is a common childhood cancer; children who are diagnosed with the mass recover quickly, sometimes almost spontaneously — if they’re younger or older than 2. For reasons the oncologist could not explain, the 2-year mark was an especially vulnerable time when the cancer wreaks havoc. Informational sidebars explained the diagnosis and treatment.

The second story was to run on New Year’s day, the least-read paper of the year. I didn’t know that at the time. I was a young reporter and excited to be given a shot at the front page. At 7 p.m. on Dec. 31 I went to the hospital, donned scrubs and went into the OR. Two physicians inserted large-gauge needles into Tobin’s brother’s hips, one on each side, and plunged out deep red marrow. One doctor stood on a stool for the extraction, to get better leverage because he was short. The collected stem cells went right into an IV drip threaded into Tobin’s arm.

Around 10 p.m. I went to the newspaper and wrote probably the worst story I’ve ever written. Over the past few weeks I had gotten to know this little boy and his family, the oncologist and several of the nurses. I stood at the bedside while his brother gave of himself — and had volunteered to do it — to save his brother’s life. Inside I was an emotional wreck, but I didn’t let that spill out onto newsprint, and it showed. The story came off as cliche, simple.

To be brief, Tobin’s body didn’t respond well to his brother’s marrow. He underwent radiation therapy, which is designed to take the entire body as close to death as possible in order to kill the raging cancer, a physiological battle of attrition. I visited Tobin often. On one of his worst days he lay on the bed in an isolation room, naked because his skin was so tender, literally burned a deep orange color, that to clothe the child would have been to inflict wounds across his body. He was heavily sedated. His mother was stoic. His father was in pieces.

Weeks later, I wrote a story about the boy’s funeral, about how the hospital staff and new-found friends, strangers even, had pitched in for a small casket and the use of a dimly lit room at the back of a church in a poor part of town. The father never started his job; the family was almost penniless. Afterward, everyone walked outside and released balloons. The piece ran on the local section front, under a story about the livestock show and a photo of a boy with a pig. A few weeks later I went to dinner with the family, now just four of them. The dad was a loud, emotional, trying to come to terms with his son’s death. We drank Scotch far past my limit, and I smoked his cigars, and I said good-bye to them; they were going back to California. I went home and threw up, purged myself of the experience.

Reporters have tremendous opportunities to view people’s lives as they’re being lived. It’s a voyeuristic profession, to be present during the most vulnerable moments of someone’s lives, then tell millions of people about it. I cherished the opportunity, and at the same time it’s a responsibility that weighed on me.

There are times when I can’t shake the visions that I wish I’d never seen Tobin splayed out in that hospital room. I wish I couldn’t remember how sweet he was when I fist met him, how he talked about “HoHo” at Christmas. I wish, sometimes, that I’d never met that family or written those stories. I wish I’d stayed away from the funeral. Tobin’s death brought to life in me emotions that sometimes still feel raw. I don’t remember ever hearing Tobin cry, but the sound is familiar.

Sometimes my wife doesn’t understand my reactions, doesn’t understand how these memories awaken deep empathies, or personal fears. I don’t, either. The lessons I learned from Tobin and his family I couldn’t have learned from anyone else. Amost 10 years later I’m still parsing the details. Some are just now making sense as my life evolves, and new dimensions are added, like having a daughter. Some lessons might remain mysteries, or never surface. But they’re there, whether I’m conscious of them or not. I’m getting better at recognizing them.

In the Beginning

My father looked youthful, sitting in his desk chair, almost a bystander to the conversation I was having with my stepmother about what to do when the two of them die.

We were in my parents’ basement office. My daughter rolled golf balls around on the floor. I was prepared for a serious discussion. My stepmother, Margaret, started explaining what to do with their bodies. I’m certain that this was the first time in their combined 172 years that they’ve both seriously discussed their last wishes.

“We both want to be cremated,” she said. But her sister had requested that her ashes be scattered around the property at home near the mountains. Margaret and her brother-in-law complied the day after Thanksgiving last year. “That was a very difficult thing to do,” Margaret said, which is as close as she’ll come to saying she was sad, or crying. So, she said, she wanted to be buried in her family’s plot, both because she feels no special connection with the land under her feet and because she doesn’t want to put anybody out. “And,” she said, “Daddy said he wants to be buried where I am.”

I looked over at my father. He sat quietly. I had never before seen the expression on his face, or his posture. Dad usually has four emotions: serious and all business, as when he’s explaining how to drive; critical, which usually involves sarcasm and incredulity; jocular, when he’s joking around with his old-fart buddies over a few beers; or silly, like when he makes faces and wiggles his ears at Ella. But at this moment, when we were talking about his death, he was relaxed, serene, sober. He seemed calm.  He literally looked young. He smiled lightly. His blinked away mist in his eye. Maybe his heart felt heavy, maybe his body tingled, but he was definitely in his own skin. He wasn’t someone’s husband, or a father or grandfather. He wasn’t entertaining a crowd. He was himself. He said in response, simply, “yes.”

My father will be 90 this year. His age — rather, his health at his age — inspires awe in people. Men 20, sometimes 30 years younger often look older, appearing as though life served them more hard knocks. They just didn’t know how to bob and weave like my old man. Just yesterday, someone stopped us as we were drivining out of the snack bar at my dad’s golf course. “How old are you going to be?” Dad told him. “Well, bless your heart. That’s really great. I’ll be 72 this year.” The deep wrinkles on the man’s face was covered with gray stubble, his eyes looked tired, he speech a little faulty. He looked like a recent discharged from an ICU. Dad is always clean-shaven, sharply dressed, ready to discuss world affairs.

It’s not surprising that Dad is only now talking about his will, his death. He is the last man on earth who wants to die. He has always made playing hard a very serious endeavor. He was a tennis pro when he was young. He married four times, had seven kids. He ran his own company until he was 75, and he continues to chair boards and committees, always looking for the next opportunity to create a legacy, finding ways for people to remember him fondly while running as far ahead of sedentation and death as possible.

Dad complains of aches and pains, and he recently had surgery to repair damage done to his right knee when he wasn’t agile enough to make it up a hill. Still, it’s hard to believe that this man will die soon. It’s easier to imagine that he’ll be around another 10 years or more. His grandmother lived to 103.

I agreed to have durable power of attorney for health care for both Margaret and my dad. She sought and collected the proper forms. She studied them closely and chastises my dad for not doing so. She’s engaged in the topic, firing off  questions.

We wade through their end-of-life requests and get to their will, and what they want done with their belongings. Again I’m surprised. It was as if I’d suddenly been dropped into another family. Margaret entered my life when I was just a baby, younger than Ella is now. I spent more time with her and my father — summers, school holidays — than my other siblings. I wanted to be around them. Margaret is a hard person to get to know. She’s very private. She can seem very cold. One time one of my dad’s golfing buddies came to the house, and he met Margaret. This man was a retired Army general. Big John. He was trying his best to be charming, and he asked Margaret if she ever went by “Maggie.” “Yes,” she said, “some of my very good friends call me that. But you can call me Margaret.”

Maybe it’s been her toughness that I’ve liked, her willingness to draw a line, even for my old man, and dare someone to cross it. She is, no doubt, the most intelligent person I’ve ever met.

I’ve always interpreted her privacy as distance, her close emotional boundaries (my father always says, “I love you,” but she never has) as disapproval.

I learned many things from my dad and stepmother, mostly manners and protocol. I also learned that I don’t want to raise my daughter the way I was raised. Many things I experienced as a child I strive to make sure Ella does not. I’ve recognized the gaps in their parenting that I’ve already started filling in for Ella. That also means trying to be a better husband. Many things they didn’t teach me, but I learned just the same.

But Margaret has entrusted me with her life. And she has decided to leave many of her possessions to me. It’s not what she’s leaving that’s important, or how much. At one point, she said, “you’ve been closer to us [than my six siblings], and I don’t just mean you’ve spent more time with us.” That’s as close as she’ll get to saying how much she cares. And it’s close enough.

Two hours after we sat down Dad and Margaret started annoying each other, bickering like (very!) old married people, and I knew the discussion was over. Life had returned to normal.

Build a better mouse catcher

If I’m lucky, there’s a mouse trap downstairs, in the pantry, that’s done its job successfully.

But I don’t want to go down there.

Catching mice has never been this complicated before.

Was it the trip to Disney?

Is it because the other morning Ella found the trap, empty, and threw it away because, she said, she heard on TV that mice are good?

Why would I rather catch the mouse alive and make it our pet?

Is it the vivarium I went into last week at work?

We’ve had mice in the pantry before. It’s a big walk-in job, with plenty of shelves for the little critter to scurry around on. But they never seem to eat much. There are no holes chewed in the corners of cereal boxes, no rice strewn along the floor. They only appear in winter, when it’s cold and wet outside. This one has been the trickiest to catch. The past two two nights it’s eating the peanut butter without tripping the trap.

Oy. Here I go.


After a lot of debate, and advise from my good friend Nancy, I decided to have Duke cremated. Trish sat this decision out. I had my last dog, Paco, cremated, and the tin canister that holds his ashes, that sits on the shelf in the closet of our home office, still creeps her out a little.

But, Trish did agree with me that talking with Ella about cremation would be too difficult to explain to Ella. We didn’t want to scare her. And we didn’t know how in the world to do it.

So I was surprised when Ella asked me as I tucked her into bed the night Duke died when she said, “Dad, you know your old dog? What was his name?


“Yes, Paco. You know Paco? Can I see his bones?”

There are occasions when I suspect Trish has said something when she really hasn’t, and I walk through a door Ella has opened into a conversation I could have avoided. So I probed a little bit.

“Paco’s ashes? What do you mean?”

“Mom said you have his ashes, that he was crematated.”


“Cremated. Can I see his ashes?”

Thanks, Trish.

Ella has this way of finding out information with a sideways into a line of questioning, like drawing a triangle — establish a baseline, ask a related question about 90 degrees in a different direction (that’s the set up), then asking a final question, the answer of which, she has already concluded, must return to the base. It’s a skill that I acquired only after I began reporting. By asking about Paco’s ashes she knew she was gaining information about Duke.

Trish later told me that Ella had interrogated her about Duke, post-death, for two days, and finally she caved. Trish supplied a mixed-metaphorical explanation, something about dinosaur bones, to explain what a skeleton is, or what bones are, and the ashes she and Ella have smudged on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, to explain, I guess, ashes. It confuses me still.

Now I was hearing questions like “why will we keep his ashes?” and “how do they burn the body?”

I did the best I could. On the burning issue, I was as honest. I told her I didn’t really think about that much how it was done. I tried to explain that when we die, our body stops working — our lungs stop breathing, our hearts stop pumping — and we stop feeling pain. But our spirits live in memories. Whatever happens to our bodies doesn’t cause pain (I hope!). Duke was a great dog, and I saved his ashes, which were more like coarse sand with chips of broken coral, so he would always be with us, and what I liked to think about most are the memories we would have of Duke and the photos that helped us remember him, and that would keep him alive in our hearts.

The day I took Duke to the vet Ella was, I’m sure, confused. Her dog was alive, but he was soon going  to be dead, and I was taking him to the vet to make that happen. I picked up Duke, who had lost so much weight his thick, soft fur felt like a loose bag around his bones, and placed him in the back of my 4-Runner. Trish said goodbye, and I wanted Ella to say bye, but she resisted. But I insisted, and I’m glad I did. She went from angry and confused to a child simply saying hugging and kissing one of her friends. I knew, from experience, that she eventually might regret not saying goodbye and expressing her love.

Ella’s bedtime curiosity was, for the time being, satisfied. Over the next several days, though, she wanted to talk about Duke, about his being dead. She was still trying to connect, I think, his physical absence with our emotional connection.

Duke’s last day

Duke, summer '08

Duke, summer '08

I sat beside Duke, leaning against the exam room wall, as he lay on a blanket the vet provided, ready to give up. He rested his head on my leg and I stroked the downy soft fur behind his head, his silky ears. His eyes weeped drainage, almost like tears, for the first time in weeks.

I placed my hand on his chest so I could feel his heart beat, and I held it there until it stopped.

Duke was the second dog I’ve had put to sleep. I was determined he would have a good death, that I would spare him as much suffering as possible. I think I did that. Since Saturday, three days ago, his tail stopped wagging. On Sunday he seemed disoriented, and too tired to even lie down. He just stood, mostly, on sprawled legs like a new calf, as if he were feeling his legs for the first time. In fact, he was, for the first time since a newborn, feeling unsteady on legs that used to zoom circles around other dogs. All these strange things as the end of his life grew closer.

We called the vet this morning and told her it was time. We made an appointment for 3:30. I knew the time my dog would die. It was both surreal and, because I’ve had almost five weeks since his diagnosis to come to grips with his death, reassuring. I knew the moment my dog would no longer suffer.

I’ve heard that people waste away when they’re sick with cancer. I saw it in Duke. I could feel his spine and his hips when I petted him. He labored to breathe, and, these past few days, he wobbled when tried walking down the steps of our porch. Duke was the most vibrant, alert, healthy dog I’d ever known. he was fast, curious, aware, but not obnoxious. He did tend to raise his snout in most people’s crotch, which usually made me smile.

Duke loved being in motion so much he couldn’t stand still while he pooped. He’d poop a little, then waddle forward and keep going until he was finished, which made picking up after him on walks a little annoying. When he wasn’t pooping he was peeing. How he held so much urine in his bladder always amazed me. No matter how many mailboxes we passed he had a little left over to mark his stop. This drove Trish nuts. she’d hit a good stride and Duke would stop to pee. She’d get going again, with the other two dogs in the lead, and Duke would pause to piss. There often was a small trail of urine across the sidewalk where she’d have to drag Duke away from someone’s flowers, and he’d still be peeing.

Duke chased birds. Not little flocks that would land in the yard, but big hawks and crows. He’d catch a shadow of a bird and chase it from one end of the yard to the other.

Duke had the best ears — one up, one down. One night, not long after Trish and I married and we blended her dog with my two boys, we were in the living room visiting with a friend when we heard a loud yelp. Our friend let Duke in the house and said, “he’s bleedging.” His up-ear had been, well, dog-eared. There was a nice little notch taken right out of the tip, about an inch and a half wide.

We never found the ear tip, but we suspected that the dogs had been wrestling playfully — they got along great together — and one of them held onto Duke’s ear while he jerked it away.

I asked him today, his head in my hands, who did it. He still wouldn’t say. I asked him if the guilty party would finally fess up. Nobody has, yet.

Duke was the bad boy, which means he wasn’t always trying to climb in someone’s lap, like Tiger, or begging to come inside, like Abby. He did his own thing, mostly. He was less tolerant of Ella’s pawing. He didn’t like the suggestion of being ridden, and he hated being led around the backyard on a leesh fashioned from one of my belts.

This made Ella love him more than the others. And that makes me worry that she’s going to either be attracted to the bad boy image or play the bad girl role, pulling some hapless boy around, making him bend to her will.

One of Duke’s favorite past times, shared with many dogs, was riding in the back of my 4-Runner. I’d crack the rear window a little and he’d stand there with his nose sniffing the air as we drove around Nashville, or he would crane his neck forward and look through the windows intently, as if waiting to see something familiar. We did that less often after Abby joined the brood, because she always whined loudly and jumped into the front seat.

Today Duke didn’t perk up much when I told him we were going for a ride. I lifted him into the back and he stood there a little shaky, unsure even in one of his favorite posts. I drove slowly around our small town roads and kept glancing back to see if he were enjoying himself. Finally, after several miles, he made his way to the corner of the window, stuck out his snout and took a loud whiff.

I think Duke died OK. I mean, if he had lingered beyond today he surely would have been miserable. I think the timing was right — for him, never for me. But Duke was never mine, and as I held him during his last breaths I thought about spirits, and how strong the desire can be to keep a the spirit of someone alive. I understand why people want to believe in reincarnation, why cultures believe a spirit is manifest in another living thing. I wanted to draw Duke’s spirit out, take it as he exhaled those last few times, and keep it alive, put it in one of those powerful birds that circles above our house, casting it shadow in our yard. In some ways, I think I can. I think I will do that.

I’ll miss you, Duke. You were the best.

Duke and Ella, summer '08

Duke and Ella, summer '08

Duke’s death, cont.

There’s a lot going on in this story. At the risk of confounding you more, I’ll dive in a little deeper. It’s now Aug. 25, a week after I wrote the first post about Duke.

First, an update. Duke still lacks the energy he used to have. He can trot out the door and across the street, but if he doesn’t get farther than a house or two away before he gives up and comes home, seeking the refuge of our air conditioning and the cool wood floors. But he’s been playful lately. Last night he lay on his back and wriggled with his feet in the air like he was wrestling and imaginary friend. Last week he patiently let Ella dress him in an old pair of her underpants and a t-shirt, necklaces and pink ribbons around his feet.

But I’m not finished with the vets. Our local vets were both evasive and defensive about Duke’s diagnosis. One wanted to assure me that she had examined him on Monday and didn’t see any problems, so this cancer came on quickly. But on Thursday, when I asked her to run his bloodwork (she still had a blood sample), it was clear that he was declining then. She either hadn’t examined him — hadn’t read his pale gums — or she completely missed what was obvious to the Wednesday vet. The Wednesday vet tried to sugar-coat a diagnosis. His blood count’s a little low, he’s a little sick, you need to take him to a critical care clinic where there are bigger brains. The Monday vet wasn’t much better. “One thing we start to think about is cancer.”

Please. It took the recent vet school graduates 10 minutes to tell me my dog has cancer.

Let me talk about those young doctors.

I wanted to go to the vet school. I knew they had more resources than anyone else in the area, including more brain power among the faculty. And, I thought they would be less expensive.

The internist came into the waiting room to get me and led me back to the exam room. She had kind, empathetic eyes. She explained what was happening with Duke and listened to my questions. She spoke calmly and quietly. I sat in a chair and she squatted on the floor against the wall opposite me and said we would be informal. A student trailed her into the room and sat on the floor. And, she brought the oncologist into the room, who explained a course of chemo that might extend his life. Media life expectancy — she patiently explained the word “median” — was nine weeks, and with chemo, an 11-week course, Duke might live 18 weeks. Together they explained what diagnostic procedures they could offer — bone marrow aspiration, ultrasound, CT, more blood work, careful observation in the ICU. They could perform radiation therapy in conjunction with the chemo. Then they left the room to let me think things over.

After 20 minutes or more I asked for the internist to come back into the room. Again, she was calm and listened, until I said that I did not want Duke to go through chemotherapy. I wanted him home, and I wanted him to die on our terms.

He demeanor changed from understanding to mild disbelief. She excused herself and returned a few minutes later with the oncologist, and when the two re-entered the room I felt double-teamed, like I was about to get the good-cop, bad-cop treatment. The room became a holding cell — bright lights, cold hard floor, stainless steel furniture, windowless. They were there to rescue me from my bad decisions, and my dog’s care would be better left to them.

The oncologist was in some ways the antithesis of the internist. The internist was in scrubs and sneakers, her hair in a pony tail. She looked like a doc who planned to be awake at 2 a.m. caring for patients. What she lacked in physical poise she made up for in apparent dedication.

The oncologist, however, was smartly dressed in black pants and the cuffs of her black turtle neck peeked out from the sleeves of her white coat –sure, it was August in North Carolina, but I thought she probably dressed to ward off the frigid AC. Maybe she was cold-natured. Before, when she ran through the rote response about leukemia, she stood erect, her head held back. Confident. That’s good. She was smart. This time, she came into the room and sat in the chair next to me, leaned back and put both hands on her knees. She started, “I became on oncologist because I wanted to offer …” I could tell she was preaching from her experience, but I stopped hearing her. You’re not an oncologist, I wanted to say. You’re a resident, an oncologist in training, and you’ve just crossed the line from healer to harper.

Duke’s death

Duke is dying.

But he’s dying a good death, best as I can tell. He eats well, and he’s perky, even happy. He wags his tail and wolfs down dinner.

But inside his body leukemia is choking out healthy red blood cells, pushing platelets out of production. According to the vet he might have six weeks left. It’s hard to tell, though. Her estimate was based on her few years as a student and oncology resident. She also figured a course of chemotherapy that would last 11 weeks.

My estimate, however, of a “good death” is based on experience with a very poor death, one that was lonely, painful, confused and sad. And, preventable. Paco, my dog before Duke, was gripped by a sudden illness that left his esophagus slack, unable to swallow. An inexperienced vet puzzled over him. I remember seeing her one day walking out of a church service, and she said she was going to go home and read her text books to see if she could find the answer. By the time she had an inkling, Paco was declining fast, and by the time I got him to Auburn University’s vet school, he had bacterial pneumonia. I had planned to bring him home to be put to sleep, but he died before I could.

I can’t say my experience with Duke’s vets was better than with Paco’s.

One Sunday afternoon Duke came up to me outside and his eyes were swollen; the right eye was completely shut, the left one was open a sliver, but this third eyelid, that milky-white membrane that looks like a Venetian blind that pulls up from the bottom, covered it. I instinctively yelled for my wife, a nurse of 25 years. Neither one of us knew what could have been wrong with Duke, but we knew it wasn’t good.

Monday, the vet said Duke’s eyes were too swollen to examine. She prescribed steroid drops and a follow-up in a few days.

Wednesday morning I showed up, hoping to get answers. A different vet would be in that day. I left Duke and took our daughter to pre-school. Later that day the second vet, the Wednesday vet, called. She still didn’t know what was wrong with Duke’s eyes, but she was more concerned that his blood counts were low. How low, I asked. Pretty low. How low is that? Around 18 percent. And what’s normal? Normally around 40.

This was the first sign that something was wrong not only with Duke, but with our experience with vets. The Wednesday vet was very experienced, skilled, knowledgeable and well liked by her customers. But she hemmed and hawed. Eighteen percent is pretty low. I said, he’s pretty sick. Yeah, well he’s not doing too good. And his gums are pale.

The Monday vet said nothing about pale gums or poor blood results, although she had drawn blood, and, the Wednesday vet assured me, his gums had looked fine on Monday.

The Wednesday vet said we should try to get Duke into the North Carolina State University vet school hospital, where they have “bigger brains” and more resources to know what’s wrong.

All this from swollen eyes. After reflecting on it a while I thought Duke got sand in his eye from lying in Ella’s sandbox. Trish thought he might have scratched his cornea among the tomato plants. Maybe it was a bee sting. But none of those instances were likely to result in both eyes being swollen. Now Duke had low blood — which, Wednesday vet and Trish explained meant that he wasn’t getting oxygen.

The NC State vet hospital was full — no room in the kennel for a very sick dog. They suggested I try a couple of private animal hospitals, staffed by intensivists. That sounded fine, but it also seemed expensive. NC State, I thought, would be more reasonably priced. And I like the concept of academic medicine. So I decided to wait. I was instructed to return to my primary vet the next morning for more blood work.

The Monday vet was back at work on Thursday. She drew more blood; his counts were still low. That morning he had bled a little, and had apparently shaken his head and splattered drops across the floor of Ella’s bathroom. I mentioned this off-handed to the vet. She called me later, sounding anxious, and told me they knew where Duke was bleeding, from his nose. Swollen eyes, bloody nose, low blood count. I couldn’t add it all up. But the vet could, and probably did, she just hadn’t told me yet.

I adopted Duke from a shelter a little over a year after Paco died, and about four months after my divorce from my first wife (how many marriages end after a pet dies?). I was writing a story for the newspaper about the kennel late one Friday afternoon, and decided to take a look at the pups. I thought the timing might be right. I was living alone, lonely, and needed something to do in my free time. About four or five columns of cages with lack-luster pups, here was one with a bright black-and-white coat, sparkling eyes and cockeyed ears — one down, one up, his very own flag. He was about six weeks old and had a thick coat of medium-length hair, and a curly fluffy tail, so he was listed as a border collie-huskey mix. His name was Falco. I have a friend whose last name is Falco, but at the time I thought it was the worst name for a dog I’d ever heard.

I decided to sleep on the decision. It was late Friday, and the shelter was closing. But by Saturday morning I had already scheduled the vet visit and was the first one through the shelter’s doors, there to claim my new pup. I read books about dog training, and I walked Duke three times a day. He was the model dog and a quick study. That first day home he went right to the door and pawed it, telling me he needed to go outside. He never needed housebreaking, he was training me!

Thursday’s vet still seemed puzzled. She assured me that Duke’s gums were not pale on Monday. Yet I wondered how long his blood levels had been low. They drew blood on Monday, did they test it then? No. So could she test it now? Sure, and a few minutes later came back to say his levels were already at 18 on Monday. His gums had to have been pale. I knew the vet was starting to feel guilty, and I didn’t press her. Finally she told me that his bloodwork and symptoms were pointing to a diagnosis of cancer. If I still wanted, she could make some calls and get me into the vet school.

It was 5 o’clock before I got Duke to the hospital, and by then the attending vets were leaving.

A vet called me back to an exam room so we could talk — I noticed we didn’t stop in the corridor as some of the other families had. She was joined by an oncologist and they spelled it out for me. Duke had leukemia. The oncologist explained the disease’s course, and my dog’s prognosis. She offered ultrasound, bone marrow aspiration, radiation therapy, eleven weeks of chemo … to extend his life by a few weeks at best. If he responded to the drugs. If the treatments didn’t kill him first.

The young vets seemed surprised, and a little disappointed, in my decision not to pursue chemo. The oncologist left, but when I pressed the internist about not wanting chemo, she left and returned with the young cancer specialist, who began by telling me she had become an oncologist so she could save animals. She was sure I wanted my dog to spend quality time with my family. She offered to give him one dose of a drug that would carry him through the night.