We were living on the boat this summer. Wilson and Molly and I had come back that morning from a long swim along the edge of Great Salt Pond, and another walk in the afternoon. Wilson stumbled at dinner… went right down flat with his legs splayed out. So we went over to him and he got up and he seemed all right.
I rowed the dogs to shore in the morning and Wilson went into the grass and faced the hill, away from the ocean. He had never done that before, he had always looked out to see what was happening. And beyond that he seemed a little vague. There was clearly something wrong with him. So I packed our stuff and we called the launch so that we could get from our mooring to the island. Then we had to wait for the ferry to the mainland. Bill spoke to the Chief and he set us up on the car deck so that Wilson wouldn’t have to climb the stairs. We had to load Wilson on from the freight area and as we waited we saw all the cars and trucks come in to pick up their groceries and building supplies and packages. Some people positioned their cars so that others could get around them, and others thought that it would be all right to save a minute by blocking somebody else, as if they would be the only one who would do that. The result of course, was gridlock. In any case, we got Wilson onto the ferry. I fixed my eyes on the ocean, steadying my emotions, and held myself like that during the hour ride to the mainland. Every single young man who worked on the crew came over to see us. Did I need a drink of water? Could they wait with Wilson for me so I could take a little break? Another man came out of his truck. He did it three times. Could he do anything for us? Anything at all? Was I sure?
We got to the vet by about 3 in the afternoon. She took one look at Wilson and immediately sent us to Ocean State Veterinary Hospital, where a whole team of people converged upon him. His heart rate was 250 beats per minute and they could find no reason, nor could they bring it down. They gave him three medicines and nothing happened. Then early the next morning, his heart rate suddenly stabilized. He was in the hospital for four days. They did every test you can imagine and still didn’t find the cause. They sent us home with beta blockers and antibiotics and put us on a waiting list to see a cardiologist. I decided to stay on the mainland where I could keep Wilson in air conditioning and we made tentative plans to take him to Nova Scotia as soon as we could get that appointment. So the following week we were all packed up and on our way, and the cardiologist was looking at Wilson. He was in there longer than expected and when I came in he showed me the ultrasound, and the tumor in the center of Wilson’s heart. He said it was a highly aggressive cancer. He said Wilson would be dead in 2 – 6 months.
We decided to take him to Nova Scotia and stay where it was foggy and cool and where we could be together on my families’ land on the Bay of Fundy. We have a little house so at night we could sleep inside, away from coyotes and porcupines, but for the daytime, we put up a tent on the land. I was careful with Wilson at first, but when he broke away from me and ran down a bank to get to the ocean I decided to let him figure out how busy he could be. We sat on the land, saw the waves come in, over and over, never stopping, the big tides washing in and out over rocks that are 350 million years old. We watched the pine and cedar through the fog in the distance, the grasses bending together in the wind. That’s what I saw anyway. Wilson saw deer bones and seal bones, which he dragged from the rocks, up to our camp, until it looked decidedly Paleolithic. I didn’t care. I thought if he wanted them, he should have them, and I thought that a few probiotics never hurt anyone. I brushed him and brushed him, and Molly too, leaving massive amounts of fur, until it looked like golden retrievers had been shorn like sheep all over our land. Wilson was very happy and so was Molly. I was working to a schedule, trying to be productive, so I would go out every day and write until the battery on my computer ran out. I was trying so hard, working with so many thoughts and emotions. I didn’t stop until the great electronic angel of death came by. It broke the hard drive in my computer and the battery in my car on the same night. After that I had a little peace and quiet, and I rested, being held in that place, feeling the presence of that place.
I remembered how I had fallen in love with Wilson when he was a tiny puppy, how my love for him was made partly out of my grief for Mystie, the Samoyed we had lost a year and a half before. I thought how he and Molly have been with me in every picture I have taken, how they have stayed with me every minute, how important that is when you live on an island. Sometimes Bill has been overseas for six weeks at a time, and it was Wilson and Molly who made it so I was never alone.
I remembered how it seemed like such a miracle, this puppy who didn’t exist at all just weeks before I met him. I felt like all the bouncing, joyful, curious, loving, playful energy in the universe had gathered into this furry little peanut. I wondered if he had gotten a tumor in his heart because he thought I didn’t want him and at those times, I thought that my heart was going to kill me also. Then I wondered if I could learn something, if I could find something in being with Wilson at the end of his life, that was as close and dear as all the times I had with him when he was small.
We stayed in Nova Scotia for the rest of July and part of August, and leaving was quite a transition. I had seen the reliability in nature, with the waves coming, the grasses bending, the birds in formation, the sun setting, the dark night sky and the Milky Way so bright and clear. I had felt the patterns, taken them in. Then we rode the ferry from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. Then we drove off into a Saturday night in downtown Portland, Maine. Headlights beamed. Music blared from every restaurant. People popped out suddenly, into the street. Cars cut me off in the dark, in the rain, in fast moving traffic.
I hadn’t realized how random people are, how within a group of people anything can happen at any time. I saw all those people, all with their own agendas, all at the center of their own perceptions. Hurrying, trying to get in first, pushing to gain some ground. I felt like an Eskimo coming out of the tundra, battered in staggering chaos.
It’s been almost three months now and Wilson has started fainting. At first, he’d try to run away from it, and that would knock him out cold. Now he’s smarter about it. He starts to stagger and he stops and waits. He wants to ride in the car, front seat by the window, in the coveted spot. I’ve made a sling for him so that he won’t fall if he faints while I’m driving. We take walks. We take a step and wait, take another step and wait. And sometimes he stops and won’t go any further. I have found that I am able to carry him.
While this has been happening, we’ve moved, and had a photography show, and then we moved and then moved again, and we had a wonderful little grandson, and now we’re back in the house, and putting our offices together, and unpacking the kitchen, and so on. But this is what I want to tell you. In the middle of all of this, I still feel like I have so much time. I’ve had all this slow walking with Wilson, all this sitting by his side, and even though everything has gotten done in its time (more or less), I’ve done none of my usual rushing around. It’s been making the days feel long, like the way they were when I was a little girl. It’s made me think I can do as much by going more slowly, or do as much that matters. It’s made me wonder if being so busy is only for people who think they will live forever, and if there are times in life where time deepens and stretches, when time gives itself in a different way, when all that matters is being together.
I was sitting in Great Salt Pond with Wilson. Molly was running up and down on the beach. It had started to rain. I was up to my chest in the water and Wilson was on my lap. A man was walking on the beach with his black lab. I explained about Wilson. He said, “That’s too bad.” The sky cleared just enough and he said, “I think there will be a rainbow. Then he said, “Yes. Oh, there it is!” I didn’t tell him that I couldn’t see it from where I was sitting, because he was so happy to be able to say something hopeful. But then while it was still raining, the sun came through the raindrops and they started to shine like diamonds. They were hitting the dark water. It would have been a quite a picture.
I can’t take pictures right now. I need my hands free for Wilson. But I still have my eyes and I can still see the beauty. I still trust this beautiful world.
Bill is here and we’re going through this together. There are times in life when you see what your husband is made of. When Wilson started fainting, I would drop right down next to him, all hover-y and upset. Bill decided that Wilson needed happiness. So he pulled himself together, got down on the floor all excited when Wilson opened his eyes. He got Wilson smiling, got his tail thumping on the floor.
The vet says that Wilson is not suffering. I can feel myself getting ready. It’s getting harder for Wilson to eat. Today he refused both chicken and steak. I finally got him to take some hamburger by showing him that I would give it to Molly if he didn’t eat it.
I have lived this summer on the big hearts of others, on beauty, on cool fog, on a growing sense of a palpable presence in nature. I realize how much we need each other. Now I’m all wrung out from telling you this story, but I’ve taken my computer outside and everything has immediately gotten better. My dogs know this. They have shown me how to know it as well. Nature is intimate, personal.
Wilson is still strong with a beautiful coat and with clear eyes. It’s just that he needs his heart. It’s made me see how fragile life is, how we’re held at the very margin. It’s a good thing that nature meets us because we’re totally dependent upon it. Because we are made out of it, made by it. It is who we are.
The grief and strain caught up with me, the other day, on Water Street. There was a lot of very poor automotive behavior all compressed into the spot where the folks drive out of the freight area by the ferry. That was intermingled with three sets of jaywalkers, taking advantage of a one foot opening to plow between the cars and into in the road. One particular woman was starting to cross the road at Chapel Street. She couldn't make up her mind. She was smiling and laughing, changing her mind and and going back and then starting again. She may have been the only pedestrian on Block Island in an actual crosswalk, but she was holding up the car that was letting her do this, the one that had been the third to squeeze out in front of me when I had the right of way. And that car was holding up cars in four directions. I started yelling and bouncing around. The poor woman who until that moment, had thought she was being adorable, looked like she was going to cry. Then every other jaywalker in the universe came out in the next hundred yards. I had to pull over because after brief but careful consideration, I realized I was in the mood to run them over, or perhaps just to bump them a little bit.
Then I remembered how those people could also be good to Wilson. That’s what we’re like, we humans, capable of a range of behaviors that luckily for me, at least in my life, at least for now, are expressed in very small ways. I'm not in a war. I'm not running for my life. I'm not starving. I just have to get through this one fine day, and possibly enjoy it. Because I won’t live forever; because all the small things matter; because it is enough just to be here; because we're not alone; because I don’t have to hurry; because Wilson and I belong in this world.
There is a light drizzle. I can hear the waves. There’s a big storm coming up the coast but the clouds have broken a little to the west and it’s pink way over there, just for a minute, just in a small spot. The clouds are low and smudgy. Most everything is grey but the wind is soft and cool. The sound of the ocean is beautiful. Wilson and Molly are lying on the grass, facing the wind together.
I am here, right now, with Wilson still alive. I’m so lucky. There has never been a better dog than Wilson.
PS. When Wilson stopped eating completely and the boats were not running for the foreseeable future on account of the storm, and there was no way to take him anywhere, I talked to Bill and to my sister Cathy who is a pharmacist. We made a decision to slowly cut back on Wilson’s beta blockers. He’s down now, to about a third of the dose he was on. His heart rate might be at risk, but I believe we’d be putting him down if we hadn’t done this. Now, he’s eating. He’s walking. He’s not staggering or fainting. He’s wagging his tail. So maybe we have another chance for some time with him, at least for a little bit. I’ll take it.