Well. I’m now one week shy of being six months pregnant and I still don’t think I’ve wrapped my brain around it. We found out we’re having a boy – another surprise.
In addition, we’re making the final preparations for my father to move up here with us. He will be 83 in July and still lives by himself in Jacksonville. But he no longer needs to be alone and could use help with his daily affairs, so we’ll be opening our doors to him in the middle of May. Having him live with us has been in the works for a long time, but I had no idea it would coincide with having a baby. I guess I can just add that to the growing list of surprises.
And of course having him move here entails selling his house – the house I grew up in, the house he’s lived in for over 50 years. That’s a mixed bag of emotions if ever there was one. I have a few good memories from before I was aware that my parents weren’t happily married – Dad teaching me how to shoot a BB gun in the backyard, tie-dying t-shirts in the driveway with neighborhood friends, the oak trees covered in Spanish moss and the camellia bushes with huge pink and white blooms – but the later memories of coldness and tension, and an empty dark household are much stronger. My mother off on some weekend spiritual retreat or out on an expensive shopping trip with her friends who my father always said were much wealthier than we were; my father sequestered in his library laying down on the couch with the lights off because of a migraine; and me off at anyone else’s house where there was activity and noise and people.
My father still loves the house. He had a very happy second marriage to my stepmother Sheryl, and they redecorated it totally – getting rid of the pale blues and greens and clean-lined furniture chosen by my mother and a professional designer, and replacing it with warm brick red paint, colorful wallpaper, antique dressers and sideboards, and big prints of Monet and Van Gogh. They had friends and family over for dinners and weekend stays, and there was laughter – always laughter. Sheryl’s family seemed full of emotion and life compared to anything I was used to; between her teenage daughter and her brothers and their families in the house, there was cooking and messes and cleaning; practical jokes and mock outrage; anger, tears, and reconciliation; joy and love and warmth. When Sheryl passed away it left everyone with huge wounds, but the relationship had changed my father so much for the good that he couldn’t help but heal. Within a year, he adopted a neglected Cocker Spaniel named Robbie, who quickly decided my father was the source all that was good in the world, and he and Robbie lived comfortably in that house together for 17 years.
Robbie was not the word’s best dog. He was obsessed with my father and destroyed anything keeping them apart, including a plastic crate, a metal crate, drywall, living room curtains, and doorknobs. He bit my husband and both my children on numerous occasions when they either came too close to Dad or moved past him too quickly. I can only assume I was exempt from attack because I shared DNA with my father. Robbie was a finicky eater at best, and as the years went by, Dad’s entire day revolved around trying to get Robbie to eat, putting Robbie on a leash and letting him shuffle slowly down the sidewalk, and attempting to force Robbie to take his (many) pills. He maintained his determination to bark hysterically and angrily at anyone who came in or near Dad’s house right up until the bitter end, and would occasionally still bite an ankle even without any teeth to do so.
He was not the world’s best dog, but he was the world’s best dog for my dad. He became a legend among our friends and family for his sheer will live to live despite being unable to see, hear, or chew, and for his incredible devotion to Dad. I’m quite sure Robbie kept my Dad sane in those most painful times after Sheryl’s death, and I know that having him made the house a home. It never felt empty when you came in to Robbie.
We were able to be with my dad when he finally said goodbye to Robbie a couple of weeks ago. Robbie’s vet is the same woman who became our vet when I was a child, and she is still practicing without seeming to have aged. I had not seen her in 25 years, yet she looked the same and had the same competent, authoritative manner. When we brought Robbie in, there was no doubt it was the right time: he had become emaciated and was barely able to stand. After it was over Dr. Jones said, “This is not sad. The other day, I had to put down a 2-year-old dog who broke his back, but was still looking me in the eye and trying to wag his tail. That was sad. But this dog here, he had the best of everything for so many years. This is not sad at all.” My father still had his hand on Robbie and tears running down his cheeks, and I don’t think he heard her. But I did.
I’ve had a lot of losses. Steven and I together have had a lot of losses. Many of them were untimely and tragic; some were not. But what amazes me is how we keep setting ourselves up for more. We keep giving our hearts to people and animals, we keep caring, we keep getting involved and invested. How many dogs and cats must Dr. Jones have put down in her decades as a vet? And yet she still clasped my father’s shoulder, told him what a wonderful job he had done caring for Robbie, and spoke tenderly to Robbie, stroking his matted fur as she listened for his heartbeat to stop. How many horses have I lost that I owned or trained? And yet I still have horses. I look out the window at them grazing in the pasture and my heart is full. After so many years and so many heartbreaks, I still spend all day looking forward to getting on my big goofball horse in the evening.
My parents were miserable together for a long time, and then they divorced, but I still got married. Twice, as it happened. My childhood was characterized by a lot of worry and fear and hurt, but I still had children.
And just now, as I look up from my computer screen to stare out the window at the mountains for a moment, I see something else. Steven has come home early and he and Evelyn are together on the back porch. She is wearing the rainbow nightgown she never changed out of this morning, and a headband with a unicorn horn and ears. They are deep in conversation, and then I realize what he is doing: he is teaching her how to shoot a BB gun.
Despite loss and pain, we keep going. We keep doing it again. We keep holding our hearts out and entwining them with other lives. We know it will hurt again, but we also know we will smile again. We never replace what we lose, but we go on to experience new love, different love. We learn that we can still love. Losing that ability would be the deepest loss, but reminding ourselves that we still have it brings the deepest joy.
We say hello, we say goodbye, we say hello again.