Humans and Other Creatures

Two years ago my mother’s baby brother passed away.  He was 74. I discovered mashed potatoes because of him when I was a little girl. I remember the moment: we were at my grandparents’ for a Sunday dinner. My cherubic uncle, whom I didn’t think was cherubic at the time…ahh, the beauty of childhood where the eyes and heart only see love.

He was enjoying his mashed potatoes and making this fascinating sound when he ate them. I now know the sound to be “smacking his mouth”. Something as an adult I truly find awful, but as a child it intrigued me. I remember thinking, “they must taste awfully good to make such a sound.” I tried them for the first time and discovered I loved them! Still do as a grownup woman! I guess it’s my uncle I have to thank for the loss of my 19 inch waist.

On September 18ththe following year I lost my beloved husband, Philip. (Lost implies “missing”, and although I miss him terribly, lost he’s not. I just can’t seem to use words that more aptly define the truth.) He was, and will always remain, the most important person in my life. He gave me supreme love and taught me the beauty of love everlasting.

Philip on the radio at Flagler College

Two months later, on Thanksgiving, my mother’s other brother, and my favorite uncle, passed away. He was the uncle that bought all of us children the best birthday and Chanukah presents. He bought me my first, and still my favorite Schwinn bicycle. He bought me the most fabulous pre-Barbie doll that I could put makeup on and comb her blond tresses. I loved her and played with her long after it was considered okay to play with dolls.

This past Sunday, July 22nd, my 94-year old mother died in her sleep. Her children and our respective spouses always joked that my mother would outlive us all; that she was made of steel – all 4’ 7” and one-hundred pounds of her! It may not have been steel, but she was certainly made of something stronger than most.

She overcame and survived much in her life. As a child she had rickets and wore leg braces; she had tuberculosis and suffered painfully blinding migraine headaches much of her life. She endured her husband of nine-weeks being deployed abroad during WWII. She gave birth and raised my elder brother for the first couple of years of his life all alone and far from her family.

She had four children and five miscarriages. The miscarriages were all between my older brother and my birth. I’ve always mused that it’s surprising that they didn’t name me “Joy”. It certainly would have been àpropos. Instead, I was named after her little sister, Norma, who was killed in a hit and run accident when she was just five.

My mom and sister at a dinner at my home

As I write this it is with the knowledge that my husband’s mother, my mother-in-law is dying of terminal cancer. Another strong woman, but unlike my mother, she never knew it. She always seemed a little lost in this world. As those who loved her, it was apparent that she was “born in the wrong century”. She would have been very happy in the days of corsets and long dresses where the days could have passed reading prose and dancing the minute.

Death and dying is part of living we’re told. It’s the awful part. It’s the part that rips your heart and swells your eyes from tears spilt. And yet, it is undeniable that we will all experience the loss and heartache and the reality of losing loved ones. It doesn’t make it any easier.

It’s not just our human counterparts that death comes. But anyone who has ever lost a pet knows the pain of loss. Our pets become part of our families and the anguish of loss is sometimes worse than almost anything else.

Our 8-year-old Maltese puppy has congestive heart failure. Nine months ago he was given six month’s in which to live. I came home and sat him down and told him that he needed to stay on with me – that he needed to “pull a Philip”. (Philip lived 23-months after the doctors gave him just six-months to live.)

Ziggy, my adorable puppy, understood me perfectly. Until this morning he has been doing excellently. He hasn’t exhibited a trace of breathing or coughing issues. That is, until this morning. Today, he woke up and began coughing and breathing with difficulty. My heart sunk into my tummy, but I implored him to “please be okay, to please not leave me now.”

Somehow, miraculously he looked at me and stopped coughing and wheezing instantly and he hasn’t repeated it all day! This is the same puppy that along with his younger brother (not by birth) got up and left our bedroom the moment Philip passed from this existence to the next. I’ve always marveled that they knew.

A few weeks ago, before I knew that I had a hole in my heart, my Ziggy woke up and was exceptionally affectionate that morning. He, and his brother, refused to let me out of their sight, even for a little while. Is it possible our little four-legged creatures have a sense we don’t?

My sister tells me that my mother’s two dogs refused to leave her side, or her bed, unless it was with my mother. Even after my mother was taken from her bed and her home, her two dogs remained steadfast in place and wouldn’t go anywhere. I can’t help but consider this connection has a meaning that we don’t fully understand.

So many times my pups have looked at me in such a way that I’d find myself thinking or saying out loud, “If only they could talk.” I knew a psychic once who had several cats. She told me she would just have to think that it was time to feed them and within a few moments they’d be meowing in front of her.

I know for certain that my two little boys have given me cause to get out of bed when I would have much preferred staying under my covers. I know, too, that without them the loneliness and aloneness would have been insurmountable.

They offer unconditional love. They ask for little and give so very much.  It’s time like this that I find myself reflecting on the connective nature of all living creatures. Something we don’t always remember.

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