Death's Calling Card

Mr. Brown was my 90 year-old back door neighbor when I was in kindergarten. With Mr. Brown’s permission, my parents installed a wooden ladder over the brick wall that separated our yards, and my brother and neighbors and I would climb the ladder each morning and afternoon to cut through Mr. Brown’s yard on our walk to school. Some afternoons, as we made our way home, Mr. Brown would be sitting on his screened in porch and would call us over and give us Dixie cups filled with peanut M & Ms. He also let us make a fort in the hollowed out bush that flanked his driveway. I don’t remember talking much with Mr. Brown, but we (the neighborhood children) all had an unspoken admiration for him.

Mr. Brown is the first person I distinctly remember dying. I had switched schools by second grade to a school that was arguably much better, but sadly a car ride away from home. The news of Mr. Brown’s death came over a bowl of ice cream I was eating as an after school snack. The news made me very sad, but the platitudes—“he lived a long, happy life,” “it was his time,” “he didn’t suffer long”—were soothing.

Most fears, when you trace them back to their root, are ultimately about death. My scripted bedtime prayer as a child initially was:
“NowIlaymedowntosleepIpraythelordmysoultokeepifIshoulddiebeforeIwakeIpraythelordmysoultotake.” At some point along the way, I actually paid attention to the words and the prayer went from being a sing-song to having actual meaning: “Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep; If I should die before I wake; I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Me? Die? Before I wake up? Like tonight…I might die tonight? And thus ensued many fitful nights—not wanting to sleep—thinking that if I stayed awake I could guard more effectively against death.

Eventually, my parents suggested a new prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep; let angels watch me through the night and wake me with the morning light.” We are not a particularly religious family, and my parents have always had a strong realist bent to them (for instance, before I lost my first tooth I knew the Tooth Fairy was a hoax). So looking back now, I find it interesting that they suggested the path of “just don’t think about it” with regards to death that evening. But as Adam Mansbach and Ricardo Cortez so masterfully highlight in their children’s book “Go the F**k to Sleep,” a sleepless child trumps just about everything, and any and all tactics are fair game to remedy the situation.

At certain points, however, as much as we may try to turn a blind eye to death, it arrives and lays roughshod to our fantasies of immortality. Mr. Brown was the first death in my circle; the second notable death was much more searing.

My family, a friend and I had gone to a nearby lake for one of the last weekends of summer. My friend and I were starting Middle School the next week and the incipient brattiness that seems to accompany this life transition was rearing its head.

The lake was the one place our family dog, Winky, was allowed to go off leash. Upon arrival, Winky dashed out into the woods and my friend and I flounced down to the dock. The dock was in a cove that jutted off the main part of the lake, and there were several other docks and one boat ramp that dotted the shore.

Suddenly amid cannonballs into the water there was a terrible sound of frenzied barking. I looked over from our dock to the boat ramp to see two big Chow-Spitz dogs tearing into Winky—our little Yorkshire terrier. His cries were heart wrenching. There was no way to swim or run to him fast enough. The owners of the other dogs arrived first and were able to pull their big dogs away. I watched with terror rising as Winky dragged his mauled hindquarters towards the water away from his attackers.

The rest was a blur. We rushed to the car, leaving everything else awry. In wet swimsuits with my mom at the wheel, my dad supporting Winky his lap, and my friend, brother and I pinched in terror in the back seat, we flew through red lights and blew past stop signs rushing for the emergency vet that at a legal pace would have been an hour away. Winky was alive, but barely, when we made it to the vet. They took him in and promised they would do everything they could. My friend’s mom came to pick her up. My family went home, all crawled into one bed and waited for the phone to ring. “We’ll build him a little cart if he’s paralyzed” my parents promised. But we all knew he wasn’t going to make it.

We buried Winky in my flower garden. This time there was nothing soothing about the platitudes. We didn’t even speak them—they were far too hollow. I was devastated. I felt my brattiness somehow was responsible for his death. I felt red-hot hatred for those other dogs…for their owners…for God (who promptly lost all credibility in my mind). I felt regret for every missed opportunity where I could have spent time with my dog and didn’t. I played the “if only” scenarios over and over in my mind until each eventuality had been thoroughly exhausted and I ended up back in a flower garden crying over a tiny grave.

There have been other deeply devastating deaths in my circle in the years since Winky was killed, and each death has brought in its wake incredible grief. And yet somehow the amnesia of the reality of death persists day-in-day-out after the initial wave of grief subsides.

But recently, I’ve been given reason to get familiar with death’s calling card. My current dog, Pia went to the vet a few weeks ago for her annual check-up and shots. “How is she?” my vet asked. “Besides perfect?” I asked. “She’s perfect.”  What I didn’t tell my vet is that I think Pia has quite literally saved my life, and that I love her beyond measure. Instead I said, “The only thing that worries me is that when Pia gets excited she sometimes can’t catch her breath and she starts honking for lack of a better descriptor.” After a bit more conversation, my vet announced, “It sounds like a collapsing trachea, and there isn’t much you can do for it—it’s fairly common in some small dog breeds and the surgery for it is complicated and doesn’t have great success rates.”

Pia’s collapsing trachea likely will not kill her right away—or perhaps not even any time soon. The oracle Google doesn’t take a clear stand on timelines—it only says that it is not curative without surgery, and surgery is fairly fraught.

So now each time Pia starts honking, I am reminded that our time together (no matter how long we have) is going to be too short. Death’s calling card is not a correspondence I would wish on anyone, but here it is. And it is simultaneously breaking my heart and making me profoundly grateful for each moment I have with Pia.