Five years ago, there was a knock on my door and Max was standing there bleeding from his mouth. He handed me a tooth. “What’s this?” I said. (Mistress of the obvious.) “My tooth.” “Put it under your pillow!” I said. “Mom. I’m 13 not 9,” Max said. “Okay l will give you some money, it wasn’t a permanent tooth, right? Where did it come from?” I said. Max responded: “MOM. It came from my FACE. And I don’t need money. It’s your birthday present and Chanukah present and kwanza present and Christmas present in one precious bundle.”
My precious bundle has been gone since August. I’ve gotten more accustomed to an empty nest. Well, sort of. It’s not completely empty. And I have become more aware of the habits of the remaining inhabitants of my nest. My mother and the dogs, Atticus and Lilo. Atticus is an Australian Shepherd mix. We adopted him from a rescue when he was a puppy, over 13 years ago. He is now arthritic and requires more frequent vet visits. I am grateful for his steadfast pathetic-eyed, bow-legged company. My mother’s dog, Lilo, is a 7 year old border collie Aussie mix who is neurotic and energetic. She spends her days digging holes in my backyard or hiding under my vanity. If she was a human she would chew her nails and wear all black and listen to Morrissey.
My mother’s bedroom is adjacent to my home office. About five or six times a day, the dogs clatter to her bedroom door. Atticus creaks up from his customary spot near my desk and Lilo wanders in from her backyard emo mischief. I don’t know what commonality causes them to arrive at the same time at my mother’s door. Their collars clang and their toenails click across the laminate floor into her room. And then I hear her say, “NO. No more cookies!”
Every time, a few minutes later, the dogs march out, tails wagging. My mother follows them to the Treat Desk. This is a refurbished old-fashioned school-house desk, acquired from a Goodwill store. We got it for Shane when he was little, cleaned and sanded it and spray painted it gold for him to use. He kept it in his room until he moved away to go to college in Oregon two years ago. Now it stands against the kitchen wall and serves as a shelf for boxes of dog biscuits.
The desk and the treats are at nose level, but the dogs know better than to help themselves. My mother was a public-school teacher for decades. At 85 years old, she still has the voice and tenacity of a professional who can keep 30 high school students in their seats. “There,” she says to the dogs. “Now go away.” They take their treats and slink away. Until the next time.
Every few days, she asks me to order groceries. “What do you need?” I ask her. “The large box of dog biscuits. And the special dog jerky treats.” I know better than to observe that we go through these items pretty quickly. That badass beautiful teacher raised me to know when to keep my mouth shut and just get sh*t done.
Later, at the dinner table, when Atticus is lying next to her feet, my mother will typically observe. “He is always following me around. He thinks I’m going to give him some food.” “I wonder why,” I say. She says to him, “No human food for you. It’s bad for you. You’re getting chunky.”
He stares at her adoringly, panting. An hour later he happily lumps up from his spot on the floor and click clack jingles into her room, along with Lilo. “NO more cookies! I mean it.” Then the parade meanders out to the Treat Table.
When the Wallbridge Fire was burning towards us a month ago, in August, I told my mother to pack to evacuate. When I checked to make sure she had what she needed, I found that she carefully packed a large bag of dog treats.
When my mother arrived here to live with me two years ago, she had lived alone for almost 30 years. Throughout those years, she had given photos and art and books to family. She winnowed her life down to about 20 boxes of clothes and books and memorabilia to come here. But she kept all my report cards. And all of the certificates and awards I received, from junior high (we called it junior high back in the olden days) to law school. Now they are packed in a go box, one of the important boxes that will go with us if (when) we have to evacuate again for a fire.
After you have evacuated your home for a fire, you look at possessions differently. When your loved ones lose everything in fires and floods, your heartbreak for them teaches you. Things do matter. Even if you scan in old photos, the originals are priceless. Even if you take photos to remember, they cannot really ever be replaced. The handprints of your children as they grew up. The baby albums. That first lock of hair. The first tooth. Your grandmother’s wedding photos.
These days, I am finally in the process of clearing out the piles that my sons left behind when they moved out. The reams of homework and notes. The shoes that have been piled next to the garage door for a decade. The toys and the books and the far-too-small t-shirts and clothing that hung in closets, untouched, for years. The posters that hung in the stands at high school football games, that ended up tattered and taped to a bedroom wall. Dried roses from a band performance, crammed into a vase on a half-empty dresser. School photos lining hallways and piled on bookcases.
I was unwilling to change or move a lot of these items after my sons’ dad and I divorced, afraid to make the change more drastic than it already was. Today, it occurred to me that I was still hesitating to make changes because I want it all to stay the same for my mother. If it all stays the same, we won’t disrupt the Force and we can keep her cancer at bay. It’s not rational, but neither is faith. And sometimes, that’s all we have.
So here it is, Rosh Hashanah 2020. This is a year we will never forget, for so many reasons. Today is an opportunity to evaluate the year before, to ask for forgiveness, to cast off, to let go, to prepare for the coming year. It is a good day to clear away the detritus. It is a good day to forgive yourself for missing the mark, for being less than perfect. To forgive others, to remember we are all doing our best. And to make a promise to do better. We can always do better. We are blessed that we can. That’s a really good thing to remember.
I’m letting go of some of the piles but I won’t let go of all of them. Not the piles that remind me of the best birthday presents and Chanukah presents and kwanza presents and Christmas presents that are my precious bundles, my heart and soul. Not the carefully packaged dog treats ready to go in case we have to evacuate, because fire season isn’t over yet and the dogs will want their cookies.. Not the hope that this time next year, both dogs will still be clattering into my mother’s bedroom and I will still hear her say, “NO more cookies.”
Yes, yes, yes, to piles of hope and a sweet new year to all of us. L’Shanah Tovah.