The sad and quiet two months have begun here at John and Hank’s house. Hank got his first heartworm treatment shot last Monday, which means he is strictly forbidden from getting his heartrate up for the next two months while the series of arsenic-based injections kill off the heinously disgusting worms in his body. The vet said the X-ray indicated he’s likely had these worms more or less his whole life, which is both horrifying and a slight relief, inasmuch as it means that I can put to rest a bit my immense sense of guilt at his plight.
It is so wonderful to field questions from people about Hank’s wellbeing. He is a loving and loved dog, and I am so glad that his ability to spread joy reaches far beyond my own quiet house. Anything less would be a selfish waste. It is also hard as they inevitably ask if he’s “almost better” and I reply, “Well, he’s got two more shots and seven or eight more weeks of bed rest.”
People get a bit quiet then, as if even their own removed optimism can’t overcome that daunting timeline. It is a long road indeed, and it highlights a grim battle that I fight daily—what to do with these two months where my best friend is laid up and I am empathetically waylaid with him. Because the reality is that I am counting the days in the worst of ways, which is something I fight so hard not to do in life. But what choice do you have when all you want is a time when elevated heartrate doesn’t come with a sudden death risk for your excitable best buddy who doesn’t understand at all why you force him to calm down every time he gets pumped or why you leave him behind on every tiny adventure you embark on?
Thoreau said it best: As if you could kill time without injuring eternity. I feel eternity’s wounds every slow and silent day here; I long to wring every last drop out of our time together and out of our days on earth, but instead I spend my days sitting beside Hank on the couch, addicted to the melancholy feeling because it is at least a feeling. And I know that he is grateful for the company and the ceaseless head scratches, but he is also puzzled and saddened by the dramatic change in our days. That makes two of us. It is difficult to find virtue in this chapter, aside from perhaps that the rapid plummet towards an unreachable bottom makes me excited for the inevitable return to some version of the top. I feel perhaps a bit more qualified to speak confidently about the nature of sorrow and man’s mystifying ability to cope with immense dissatisfaction with basic comforts—the “trappings” of modern life, so-called because It Is All a Trap.
No part of me is assuaged by my late model automobile or my ample square footage for hosting dinner parties that do not materialize, yet all of me is rendered restless and wrecked by me and Hank’s current chapter. This is saddening, but it is also good. It is good because it proves that there is hope yet; this aching, yearning feeling is life-affirming and as refining as a fire. I look around at our surroundings and lament the cost of this treatment, but I would trade all the surroundings and many thousands more dollars to heal Hank more quickly and get back to living.
* * *
As ever, life has been an interesting mix of prolonged periods of solitude and silence interspersed with intense conversation with people who want to dig deeply, who want to strip away the posturing and the sense that happiness is a right, and instead want to explore the meaning and commiseration of a certain type of piquant sadness, which isn’t quite pitiable or sad but instead marks a thirst for what remains. What these conversations reveal is that I am not alone in this thirst, and that in some small way I have managed to convey the war between comfort and reality in terms that others can relate to. And as long as I can have these conversations and provide ears to hear and encouragement to act to those who are seeking, I will remain a certain type of addicted to the razor-thin line between pain and ecstasy. That is where the living happens.
As of my dear friends who can relate to this feeling said recently, one wants to beg of the universe, “Hurry up and teach me the lesson!” And yet, it rarely obliges, instead insisting on dragging us through the gauntlet in exchange for some nugget of truth. I live in this gauntlet, I live for those nuggets of truth, I believe—perhaps delusionally—that I was made with an extraordinarily high pain tolerance precisely so that I can bring the wisdom of suffering to those who also suffer, or perhaps to those who cannot. That is part of the public service of the writer—by self-identifying as one, you sign up for an unstable life and an infinitude of discourse, and, miserable as it may seem, most of us wouldn’t want it any other way. We cannot hurry the lessons, because the collection of dust and atoms and souls that make us human requires a very specific combination of time and feeling to internalize things.
There is a yearning within all of us to find more joy in a simple evening stroll than in a new Porsche, but there is also a reluctance which holds us back. We can work hard and save our shekels and buy the one, but the other requires solemn introspection and much harder work, and nothing which can be bought with ink on a dotted line. And that is what writing and conversation and coffee and whiskey are all about; it is why we must make a thousand words out of the way the sunlight dances along the sidewalk during the evening dog walk or spend a week with a mild headache and only speak aloud when ordering coffee, it is why I stare cross-eyed at my own human nature in order to learn one small thing about what makes us all tick. Poetry teaches us to make mountains out of molehills, not so that we must climb them but so that our own days may be filled with more scenic vistas and a greater sense of perspective. Photography slices reality into razor-thin sheets so that we may stare at any one fraction of a second and learn something true about every given moment.
I have been dragging myself out on my bicycle decently often lately, in an almost perfunctory manner, seeking physical suffering like a drunken poet seeks a bottle of gin on a Thursday afternoon. There is nothing ecstatic about it so much as there is a dutiful submission to the pain and the inevitable joy that stems from it. Without Hank to laugh at or yell for through a sloping thicket of oaks, riding is quieter and more internal. Without Hank to motivate me to go for the occasional run to maintain a more complete fitness and more natural bone density, I keep my likely-broken foot elevated and sit on the couch, eating chocolate covered pretzels and wondering why people insist this vision of life is more socially acceptable than waking up in a tent or an Airstream trailer somewhere in the desert southwest. The foot is hurt because I chose to accept an insistent invitation to go whitewater kayaking during an Ozark flash flood, both because I rarely receive invitations to anything anymore and because there is nothing I relish more than a visceral challenge and the soul-cleansing feeling of an ambulatory adrenal response. I am far from an adrenaline junkie, but perhaps that is exactly why I like it. With staid impartiality, I like to observe that moment when every gland and synapse aligns and forces us to swim, to duck under the floating tree logs and swim mightily out of the churning eddies that trap anything that gets stuck in them. The cold, chocolate milk-stained river really did not care whether I was on it or in it or a million miles away, and I appreciated its honesty. And though I have not seen a single one of the four men I paddled with since that day, there was a brief and grim camaraderie in the passed flask of cheap whiskey afterwards which was a better window into the human experience than a million empty conversations around office water coolers or supermarket aisles. My body was brutalized that day, but as horrible as I am at whitewater kayaking, I was reminded how important it is to try.
When I think about what I do to fill Hank’s days while he is waylaid, it is not all that different from how I’d like to fill my own. We go on slow and scenic drives so he at least gets to see and smell the outside world. I go to Whole Foods every other day to buy the missing ingredient for whatever elaborate meal I decide to cook up too late in the evening, and of course I buy him an organic smoked shin bone so he can spend an hour in smug delight, gnawing away at it while I stir and chop and music plays on the lonesome speaker in the other room. Music sounds so much sweeter when our emotions are pricked, and that alone makes living in purgatory almost pleasant. I rarely play a song on repeat when I’m wholly entertained, but when the prospect of every missed opportunity begins to play like a blooper reel in the back of my mind, that is when a song can affect me so deeply that I need to hear it again just to feel that intersection of misery and company once more. It is bitter and it is sweet, and it is what separates the fully alive from the merely living.