Pandemic Diaries

Bodies In Motion

At some point, Jon woke me up. “You need to figure out what’s up with Lulu,” he said. “I took her out two hours ago and she’s up again.” I rolled over, looking out the window to assess the likelihood of falling back to sleep again after the task. Judging from the darkness of the sky, the first thought of sunrise hadn’t reached the horizon. We were still in the thick of night.

Lulu is our seventeen and a half-year-old ridgeback mix. Two months ago, she collapsed after the two-hour drive back home to Berkeley from Boonville, CA where my husband and I own a retreat center. It took Lulu two days to recover to her feet after the drive and we decided, with no small degree of sadness, we would not subject her to the car again. Lulu would not return to the hills she’d known for most of her life where she‘d bounded and raced across tall grasses, half deer, half-bird and returned to hunt lizards on the lawn for hours. Life would be simpler for her in Berkeley, less stressful at least.

For all of Lulu’s seventeen years, she’s been allergic to driving in cars. She seems to sense what Rudolf Steiner knew about the disequilibrium our bodies experience when they move at speeds beyond anything imaginably natural. Anything faster than what she could elegantly master herself leaping across the hills in Boonville threw her into terror. Panting relentlessly in the car throughout each trip, saliva would roll off her tongue, disgusting us all as she gummed up the seats, doors, and consoles of each car we owned. We learned to live with it in time and she’d always recover quickly once she bounded out of the car on arrival, reconstituting on stable ground.

But not at this age. Not with perhaps half her eyesight gone and since she’d lost all her hearing for nearly a year now. Not after we took her and her back legs gave out and we decided it was her last time.

“You realize we need to take her,” Jon said while he surveyed the bags and boxes piled up by the front door. “Who?” I said. “Lulu,” he responded looking towards her on the dog bed, her ribcage visible with the faintest rise and fall as she slept. “She needs to come with us, we can’t leave her with anyone this time and we don’t know when we’ll be back.” So, we stacked up both cars with as much of the raw materials of our lives as we could and left in the back seat of the Bolt a broad space for Lulu. Jon offered to drive her while I drove the boys in the minivan.

On the freeway, halfway to Boonville, I got a call. “She’s freaking out,” Jon said anxiously. “She barely made it from her bed to the front seat and knocked the car into neutral on the way.” “ Pull over,” I suggested, “create a barricade we’ll get her there.” For the rest of the ride, Jon did his best to keep her settled and an hour later he pulled into a parking space at the cabin. Having arrived first, I’d already settled our twin 10-year-old boys, Ben and Charlie into bed.

It was well after dark when he opened the door leaving the barricade in place while he brought in one load of the bags to tell me he’d arrived. We connected briefly in the kitchen to acknowledge the achievement of making it there and I asked where Lulu was. “I left her in the car,” he responded, but by the time we got there, our geriatric, and intensely stressed dog had tumbled her way past the barricade.

Lulu was excellent at recall in her day, but, minus her hearing and in the dark of night, a whistle or calling her name was no recourse. Jon and I quickly searched for headlamps in the house and headed out into the dark, drizzly night, scanning the area in front of, behind, and beyond the cabin. Slowly rotating our heads like light-houses we looked for a familiar silhouette. We split up, at first within earshot of each other and then as the distance between us spread, not able to hear one another any better than Lulu could hear us.

I walked to the front of the cabin where a stretch of level ground made up our family’s much loved outdoor playground given the postage-stamp back yard we had back in Berkeley. At the edge of the leveled grass, the hillside dropped about a thousand feet down to a gulley, beyond which the views in the daytime spread across rolling hillsides dotted with oaks, firs, and the occasion vineyard latched into the patchwork. Tonight, that immense view was a black cold vacuum of space, pitch dark. I dreaded the thought, not wanting this, amidst all the other changes, to be her end. Not another tragedy, a dog, broken in too many places at the bottom of a hill that we would somehow need to find a way to bury. I scanned the steep hillside slowly with my headlamp. Would she have yelped if she was hurt? She couldn’t even hear herself. She‘d barely made a sound for years.

Slowly scanning, Jon too far away in another direction to call out to, I moved over to where the solar panels are mounted on the steep hillside when suddenly, my head stopped. There, paws flat out on top of the panels, her back legs collapsed under her, Lulu was propped against the solar board like she was sitting down at a dinner table. Silent. Still. Her body covered in the sheen of the wet night fog lighting up in floating particles by the ray of my headlamp.

Surrendered. Resigned. Inexplicably Patient. Had she the ears to hear us calling her, she would have known Jon and I were searching, but instead, she stayed there in the silent, dark, cold wet night, without the capacity to save herself. Such vulnerability and powerlessness, my heart felt like it sank ten feet down the earth with tenderness. I stepped sideways down the steep hill towards her, wrapped one arm under her frail legs, the other around her bony ribcage and stumbled back up, gripping at the mud with my boots. Her body tensed, quiet as a mouse, yet still, not fighting me, as we made it to the hilltop. I kept her in my arms, briskly walking across the wet dark grass towards the cabin where I laid her down in front of the fire.

I called Jon on my cell phone. “I found her.” “Where was she?” “ I’ll tell you later. Let’s just keep unpacking the car.”

Lulu slept for much of the following day. She took a few, slow walks outside, struggling to find her back legs as she rose. We’d brought her the fanciest dog food we could find before leaving town just to keep her eating for the designated two weeks that our children’s school had closed. Relieved to find she loved it and, against our expectations, she appeared to transition to recovery after the drive we feared would take her down. I set up her dog bed with a pillow for her head and a warm blanket to settle under. Looking down at her sleeping, nuzzled into the arrangement, I was grateful to have her sweet feminine canine body here with me, this dog whose primary language was always intuition, this dog who was the only other ‘girl’ in the house. Here, in our small cabin, I could almost always take a few steps and see her, now nestled into her silent world, appearing, as much as such an old dog can, appeased and content. We might have easily named her Grace.

When Jon woke up me in the pitch dark of night up saying she was up again, I knew it was my turn. I heard him taking her out (on a leash this time!) several hours earlier. Our cabin has a tin roof with corrugated plastic skylights and rainy nights here have always felt like being inside a tympany drum struck with tiny, metal instruments. This night was no different. The steady symphony of taps, sometimes like loud creaks in the wall or cracks opening in the ceiling, rose to a crescendo in waves when the wind swept through the oak tree above us, releasing a waterfall from its shivering leaves. I hoped I wouldn’t need to take Lulu out again. Perhaps she just needed to shift to another bed or have a drink of water.

I got up and walked into the main room of the cabin, turning some lights on as I went. With half her eyesight gone, Lulu was bound to walk into everything without light. I got her to the water bowl, but that wasn’t it. She kept walking back and forth between the two main rooms, circling the coffee table, then figure-eighting around the kitchen island, back to the water bowl, sniffing, walking by, then around to the couch again, then the bedroom, then taking the slow turn around again, back to the coffee table. I couldn’t figure it out. Maybe she does need to go outside. I put on rubber boots, attached the leash to her collar and walked her slowly out into the rain. She navigated the steps, circled unsteadily and then turned back towards the door. I helped her up from the grass to the deck and we went back inside.

Lying on the couch now as she walked through the cabin, I watched her. Circling, Circling. Was it senility or sentience that drove her in such circles? Tracking her path again around the island, I remembered back to the night I gave birth to the twins. That was another time, in the black of night, when I was woken up by dogs. Two of them because, that time, Baltie, our aussie, (aka Balthazar) was still with us. The barking at the front door didn’t register as odd at first. Eight and a half months pregnant with twins, I only knew my task was to somehow make it up off the bed to the bathroom – a regular necessity at that point several times a night. As I leveraged myself up, rolling forward towards the edge of the bed, I dropped my legs and hoisting myself up, hips and tailbone tightening in the effort. Shuffling around the bed, I turned the corner, slowly. Only halfway to the bathroom did I realize I couldn’t explain why the dogs were still barking and why they were barking at the front door, as the side door was their lookout of choice, given it was hard to see anything out the front. That night, though, it was something they were doing with an inexplicable urgency.

By the time I made it to the bathroom — no quick passage — the barking had not stopped. My mind shifted briefly to the challenge of lowering myself to the toilet seat, wiping and rising again. I toddled over to the countertop and rested my hands for a pause. The barking continued and I imagined Jon — who was sleeping downstairs that night given my pregnancy snoring had driven him out of bed — would surely be up soon to see what was happening.

It was somewhere in there, while resting my weight on the sink countertop, that my water broke. Such a strange sensation for any women the first time. I didn’t just pee on myself, right, I thought? That’s too much water. It took a moment to occur to me. This is it. I’m going into labor. At the same moment, another thought came to me. The dogs had been alerting me.

So it was this memory that came to me as I lay on the couch, eyes half-open, watching Lulu walk-in figure-eights around our cabin, bumping into the butterfly chair, angling her way back around towards the kitchen island and around again. This memory, and the feeling Jon and I both had after the birth that they must have known. We found ways to deny it, to explain it away, but our dismissals somehow paled against a strangely resurfacing respect that looped back each time we recounted the oddness of their behavior. They were speaking and, as we let ourselves become unseated from reason, we listened.

Watching her circle that night, I asked myself again, was this just Lulu’s dementia, or was her unsettledness a reflection of mine, of ours, upended, our routines removed as we drove away from home towards two weeks of exile from Berkeley, shedding a uniform we didn’t realize how much we relied on. Or, if it was her dementia, perhaps it was making transparent our unsettledness in ways we were, as yet, resisting?

Later that night, the symphony of rain on our roof quieted down to a soft silence and the following morning we awoke to a blanket of snow all around the cabin. I found Lulu asleep. She was still, but as I looked closely, still breathing on the carpet by the front door. I don’t know when or how she decided to stop her circuit. At a certain point, I chose to return to bed, leaving some lights on for her, trusting, or hoping at least, that if she bumped into something and fell it would wake me up. Lying there as her more usual sedentary self, I hoped the boys would be gracious and walk past her carefully when they entered from their sleeping cabin next door.

I got my coffee and returned to bed to find Jon listening to the Sunday morning news shows. Obama’s former CDC director reflected that the death count could range from the hundreds to the millions, a range that, itself, as a directive, or ‘estimate,’ left us disoriented, speechless. Perhaps it was the word ‘millions’ that brought to mind bodies, many of them, human, fleshy, hot, headaches, pain, these bodies, like Lulu’s, like Lulu, our vulnerable companions on the journey we take together each year around the sun.

Lulu stumbled into our room, scraping her long nails against the floorboards, her eyes searching through her nose as she passed into the room. Shakily, she walked to the dog bowl and lowered her head, paused and licked at the water’s surface, two or three times. She stopped. Settled herself, testing to see how the water went down, waiting for the feedback. Watching her, it was like her mind moved down slowly through her body as she tracked the water’s movement through it — the kind of mindfulness we humans have when we are sick, noticing the slightest impact of movement, water, the food we ingest. Lulu, sick bodies, me, acutely attuned.

Lulu’s feedback channel confirmed more water was OK and she lowered her head again for a few more laps. This mindful embodied, distributed intelligence was the intelligent embodiment I’d long since abandoned in my head-centered orientation to life. Her self care, so transparent, instinctual, so profoundly noble and tender.

Does the nose Lulu has for pending births, for the passage of water passing through her body, extend to a nose for pending deaths? Is her midnight circling around the cabin her dementia, or does she feel our collective disorientation, reflecting it back for those whose eyes open to see it? These dogs we call our pets… they are our teachers. Elders. Guardians. Ourselves.

How different it would be if we had left her at home, if we had needed to run faster still, like the families in Wuhan, who left pets by the thousands cooped up in apartments with no recourse but to starve. And how many other animals, across California, have become the sole companions and teachers of those home, alone, sheltering in place. Even with my two sons and husband in tow, how grateful I am for our old, fragile friend, for her grace, her patience, and equanimity. Animal spirit in the final chapters of life, she carries the secrets with her that we humans seem so easily to forget somewhere between our own births and our deaths.

On March 13th, after our children’s school announced a ‘two week closure,’ my family of four (plus one dog) packed two cars full to ‘shelter in place’ at our retreat center, on 600 acres in Anderson Valley. Privileged, isolated, my husband and I will learn how to become the ‘village’ that once helped raise our children. Along with the rest of the world, we don’t know how long we will be here. Facing that uncertain future, as time permits, I will write this pandemic journal.

A sleeping dog, covered by a blanket, rests her head on a soft surface.

Pandemic Diaries / 2 – The Great Invitation

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