Monthly Archives: May 2012

Moving On…with a Dog’s Help

In the three months since my sweet Olga passed, I’ve gone through the usual and expected process of grieving. I miss her presence on the hallway carpet near my front door when I arrive home from work at night. My trips into the kitchen in the dark used to be cautious excursions in which I stayed close to the walls to avoid stepping on her; now I walk more carelessly as I know she isn’t there. I miss our slow forays to the park in the evenings. The house seems cleaner but more sterile without her. Quieter. Empty despite all the people. I kept her collar and bowls out until my daughters decided they needed to be put away, for my sake.

Olga was an exquisite animal. She walked only on your left. She didn’t jump on people or sniff crotches. She never got up on the furniture. She didn’t bark or bite. She leaned. She sometimes sat on my feet and stretched her head straight up so that I’d rub her neck. When I sat at my desk, she put her nose beneath my elbow to lift my arm for a pet. She loved to swim, but loved holding still and hiding under a towel even more.

Now as I walk in my neighborhood I miss the old camaraderie of dog ownership. I stop and pet other people’s dogs much in the way that other people once stopped for Olga. Our dog walker Will was a sweet and popular man. He let himself into my apartment every morning at 5:30 to take Olga for her first walk of the day. When I had houseguests I had to remind myself to inform
them that a 6’5” African American man with dreadlocks and a British accent would come in early for Olga, not to worry. He came back in the afternoons, fed Olga lunch, and walked her again. She stayed at his house when I had to go out of town.

I decided not to get another dog after Miss O died. I work too much, long hours, and had grown dependent on my kids’ help. I think living in a condo in the city is hard on a dog as well as being expensive for a dog owner. And it’s not as though you can just replace a pet that has been an important part of your life for over fifteen years.

But Sunday I met Athena.

She is a smallish boxer, a rescue dog that belongs to my nephew Jack and his wife Katie. They came to stay with me for the holiday weekend. Then they went off with Liz to the beach and someone’s house for a party. Athena and I stayed home. We took a nap. She got into my bed with me. She doesn’t snore. She woke me up when she wanted dinner. So we ate dinner together. We read the newspaper on the porch. Or rather I read the paper while she took a nap on the sofa. And now she’s sleeping beside me while I type. I think she’s a little large for a lap dog, but she doesn’t seem to know it. Over the course of the day I realized I could love again. I still miss Olga the Magnificent. But it turns out there is room in my heart for another dog. My heart just needed to be pried open a bit.

Can a Democrat date a Republican?

As I gingerly dip my toe back into the world of online dating and, let me be blunt, it is very gingerly with the smallest of toes, I find it more awkward and awful than ever.

It is worth trying, I think. Because otherwise I am a hopeless couch potato staying home reading obsessively about death and writing a new book that is an attempt to make the subject of aging and its natural history (outcome=death) relatively humorous. That’s hard work, not always fun, and the humor doesn’t present itself in the first or even second drafts. As a topic, it isn’t a rip-snorter. So even my sense of humor is getting the workout of its life, which is why my children and best friends have nagged me into trying to date once again. That’s in addition to the fact that they’re sick of my whining.

With the conviction of a fruit fly applying for a mortgage, I signed up for Match.com and E-Harmony. I committed $130 to E-Harmony and lasted for twenty minutes. Match.com fared slightly better. I have hidden and unhidden my profile at least a dozen times in the past three months, with the profile hidden over 90% of the time.

But here’s what I’ve found.

I have written to four men, total. (I don’t do that wink-y dink stuff.) I studied their profiles and wrote to them because I thought they showed some humor, some character, and seemed worth investigating. Two did not respond. The third and fourth men wrote back, we corresponded for a few days, planned to meet, then they never confirmed. All four removed their profiles. I may have leprosy.

One man wrote to me who seemed very reasonable.  We corresponded, talked on the phone, had a date, and it didn’t work out. Fair enough.

Another man wrote to me. I checked out his website where I learned that he is a Republican lobbyist. I am an ardent Democrat. I don’t want to be hyperbolic or anything, but dating a Republican lobbyist is—for me—the equivalent of dating a crystal meth wholesaler.

Perhaps in a non-election year, when there is less damaging and vituperative rhetoric flying about, perhaps then I could date a Republican, provided he was socially liberal. I understand why people are fiscal conservatives. I respect that. But working where I work, having seen what I’ve seen, there’s just no way I could ever date a social conservative. After the things they’ve said about women?!?

On my profile, I clearly state that I’m a liberal. I recently changed my picture, which for some reason has increased the number of letters I’m getting. And no, I’m not naked. But it seems that few men actually read what I have written. They just send letters based on the picture. Then they write something about my appearance, as if flattery works at my age. They are clearly uninterested in substance; it’s looks they’re after. Deeply, deeply shallow comments are so attractive in a man.

When I read the profiles, I look for the deal-breakers. I don’t want a married man, or a smoker. I don’t want a conservative, and I will not date anyone who doesn’t bother to spell properly on his profile. I hate it when men USE ALL CAPS, or write LOL at their own attempts at humor. I shy away from men whose profiles clearly delineate the kind of woman they don’t want because it seems likely they aren’t over the ex. And then of course I want someone who is moderately attractive. So in summary—the odds of finding the love of my life on a dating site seem slightly less than winning the multi-state Powerball Lottery. Especially in an election year.

So Whatchu Reading?

People always ask me what I am reading these days. They want to know if I am up on the latest fiction, the latest book club novel, the most recent New York Times bestseller. I answer vaguely about being busy, reading the paper, mention a few favored periodicals. I do not tell them the truth. I read obsessively about death.

I also read about dying. I include the fear of dying. I read about the economics of health care as it relates to the last six months of life. I’m interested in hospice and palliative care. I’m particularly interested in the plethora of books and articles being written now by people my age and older that reflect their fear of death, either through observations of their parents’ aging, or death, or meditations on their own. Illness has always been a ripe subject for writers. The inevitability of death, the fear of death, the question of an afterlife, the nature of suffering, the question of surrender vs. control, these are all topics that thinkers have pondered for centuries. Only now it seems worse because life isn’t ending as it used to, with a brief illness or some short period of suffering. Life isn’t ending at all; life is petering away in an interminable decline more often than not. That awareness has come to the fore of the collective imagination. It is an ugly thing to watch.

A couple of years ago The New Yorker published a terrific cartoon. It showed a couple sitting at their kitchen table going over a ledger. The caption read: “If we take a late retirement and an early death, we’ll just squeak by.” Or something to that effect. But the point is that we can’t afford our long lives, and the government can’t afford our long lives, and everyone thinks they want to live longer. But I would argue with that. I guess that’s why I read about it so much. It’s research for the next book, it’s partly obsession, and it’s my work. I spend a lot of my time taking care of patients who have outlived their bodies or their minds.

I work with surgeons who happily replace body parts on elderly patients who are never the same afterwards, who will never be able to do the rehab required. They don’t think twice. I don’t know what they tell themselves to justify the surgery. If I ask, they don’t respond well to the question. Maybe it’s a matter of denial. I used to think that the difference between those who like old people and those who are intensely uncomfortable around them is simple: You can handle being around old people under one condition only, and that is if you see yourself in their shoes someday. But now I see more subtlety at work, especially in the medical field.

I had friends and family members who visited my mom and I was struck by the way some infantilized her. I see the same behavior in the hospital all the time—treating the elderly as not quite human, calling them “dear”. I wonder at the people who do this: do they think old age will never happen to them? Old people can make us very uncomfortable because they force us to face our future. I had a lot of trouble with it myself when my mom’s dementia grew worse. I went dutifully to visit and stayed as long as I could stand it. At the same time, I knew that my visits were the best part of her day. But I was looking down the nose of a cannon.

So that’s what I read these days. Julian Barnes’ Nothing to be Frightened Of is an excellent depiction of his fear. An article by William Vollman called A Good Death. It seems nearly every day or every few days I find articles about an adult child caring for a parent, burying a parent, coping with the responsibilities of parenting a parent. There’s so much anger at having to pay for parental care! I wonder if our parents were angry at how much we cost them. Of course, I read those stories too. I search Harper’s and The Atlantic and The New Yorker. I read the New Old Age blog in the New York Times. It is a subject very much on all our minds. And it is costing the country a fortune.