Letting Summer Go and Other Travails
Sunday, September 30, 2012 at 09:52PM
Caitlin Shetterly

Dear Friends, Loyal Readers and Family,

 

It’s been a while since I’ve written one of these. Time seems to have sifted through my hands like the most silken of sands and I’m somehow unable to discern the expanse from May till now as more than an instant. This morning, waking to cold air on my face, my legs warm underneath a down comforter I had pulled up over myself in my sleep, I thought “How did this happen?”

 

I had plans for my summer—they weren’t big, per se, but I wrote them down on my calendar for some day in mid-June when I figured I’d begin to see the months unfolding as limitlessly before me as the ocean here in Maine sometimes seems on the clearest of summer days. I wrote, “Summer plans: croissants; find peanuts and almonds that are other tree nut free; jars for canning--and can!!; Maine sunflower seeds; & cheese making?” Looking back at it now, it seems like a very ambitious list. But I remember that when I wrote it, it seemed luxuriously care free and even practical. I probably don’t need to tell you that I’ve moved that list ahead day by day on my iCal and that not one of those things has been accomplished. But oh how I wanted to learn the art of baking the perfect croissant! And cheese, how hard can it really be? Anyway, here we are: It’s September 11th, a day that will forever be seared in my mind as one full of blue skies marred by incredible loss, and that list still stares at me each time I turn on my computer.  Each day, fruitlessly, I find myself (even this morning!) moving it ahead one little square more, hoping, somehow, that I can go back against the current. [1]

 

I have my defenses: There’s a story here behind the story (and behind yet another story!), as there always is. For starters, I was assigned a long nonfiction feature this summer by a magazine, and so I spent the end of May and the early part of June traveling and gathering information and, of course, worrying. (I’m like the opposite of the Obama campaign; “No You Can’t” is my personal slogan. I should make myself a t-shirt or a bumper sticker and get people to donate to my “I Can’t Do It Campaign.”) Then, in the first week of June, our ceiling caved into our little rental apartment in Portland. It’s funny how these things happen, and then, in that moment, so many things can start to go awry, sometimes with startling alacrity. It was a Friday, Master M.’s last day of preschool. And because it was the last day his teachers had given him a bright green Popsicle. Now, Master M. is allergic, we’ve been told, to yellow # 5. And usually that yellow dye is in electric green yummies. He ate half the Popsicle and then his teachers remembered, freaked out and, to add insult to injury, took the Popsicle away. (He was totally fine, by the way, which made us wonder…) That evening, in recompense, I’d made him a triple scoop ice cream cone, which alternated homemade vanilla and homemade orange sherbet. As he sat licking away, the green popsicle and school itself quickly fading into the unimportant past, there was a crash bang and Dan hopped up to stand in Master M.’s room. M. and I turned warily. Dan stood there, his hands outstretched as if he were trying to catch rain and he kept saying, oddly calmly, “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.” And then another crash bang and more of the ceiling caved in. The story goes on, but I won’t bore you with it. In short, there was mold (what is it with us and mold?) and then it got unpleasant with our landlady (a shame, we had been so fond of her!) and then a two month long battle to get the problem fixed while we all camped in one bedroom (back to the family bed again, Dr Sears!). Finally we got our friend Frank to fix the holes in the ceiling (which he did expertly with Dan as his sous-fixer-upper). Unfortunately, however, while searching for paint to match our walls, Frank found asbestos crumbling over our boxes of stored things in the basement. This has led to more unpleasantness and, well, the whole thing has really been a mess. As my friend, Andrea, said to me the other day, when I bemoaned how hard it had been with our landlady, “this is when you really see what people are made of –moments like these.” She’s right. It’s true. And yet. So, we’re looking to move now, which is always hard to do. Sometimes, it seems, at least with us, when the snowball starts rolling downhill it’s hard to stop it.

 

To go with this snowball metaphor for a moment, there’s been another hard thing: Hopper, our princely black and tan gentle giant of a dog has been sick. At first it was a slow progression.  “He just doesn’t seem quite right,” I’d say to Dan at night when I had time to worry. Then, this summer, we had a full on problem: his skin had sores all over it and he was nervous and losing weight.  We thought we were dealing with allergies so we began a long and confusing reformulation of his food, cooking up sweet potatoes and turkey instead of lamb and millet, adding in store bought dry food, taking it back out, trying different medications, theories and lots and lots of baths. And then, last week, on Friday, he collapsed. He couldn’t eat, he was vomiting, he was weak. We were told he needed emergency surgery and we were sent to Boston. So, at 8:30 at night, we all piled into the car, Master M. in his P.J.’s, the audio book of Stella Luna playing on repeat on the stereo and Dan driving like a bat out of hell. When we arrived at Angell Memorial Hospital, a tech came out with a gurney and Dan lifted Hoppy’s frail body onto the metal platform.  Hop folded his legs under himself, looking, I remember thinking at the time, almost like a cow resting in a field.  I put my arms around him as he was wheeled inside. Perhaps this was histrionic, but as he was taken away from me to the ICU, I grabbed the DR’s arm and said, more like a charge than anything else, “I can’t lose this dog right now.” I felt myself wince with the knowledge that my most raw self had just been exposed to this perfect stranger. How many times has she heard this, I wondered later? How many times has any one of us entreated a medical provider to attempt the heroic for someone we love, as if our own desperation will somehow tip the scales in their heart?

 

While I sat on a hard wooden bench waiting, Dan took Master M. to Andrea and Harlan’s in Cambridge and then came back to get me. At around midnight, we were lead into the ICU where Hopper lay blotto on a puffy bed on the floor of a large cage. They had stabilized him and didn’t want to rush into surgery. Wearied, we went back to our friends’ and Dan stayed up, sitting at their kitchen table writing emails and trying to do the things he had meant to do that evening at home. I collapsed into bed, but could not sleep. Every few moments, a harbinger of doom, I kept coming out to Dan: “I’m sure this is our fault,” I’d begin and then launch into all the reasons we should have done this or that differently. I worried about how thin Hoppy was and how often we had refused to feed him more dinner, even though he was getting thinner and thinner. I felt angry. Finally, I said, “I just can’t take all this right now.” Dan, having a tiny bit of patience still in him, offered this: “We just have to keep going, Cait.” The next morning, more tests were done and in the evening Hoppy was allowed to come home. Prognosis: Possibly lymphoma or some acute inflammatory disease, maybe stimulated by an allergy or an underlying infection, which caused his digestive tract to just shut down on Friday. We will know more in the days to come, we’re told. But it may be a fight, whatever it is, and, as Dan reminds me, we’re going to have to fight all these battles—the moving and asbestos and Hopper and the constant check-to-check struggle of our artistic lives--even when we’re our most tired, because this is what we all do in the end, keep going even when it’s hell.

 

But I’m not going to end this letter here, with the word “hell” because there have been some peaks this summer which have soared over the valleys: In June, we spent a few days at a friend’s cabin in the woods on the ocean near where I grew up. There we gathered shells, ran long distances, watched bald eagles, held sticky-legged June bugs and left the light on at night to attract moths so that we could identify them in the morning while sitting on the porch with our coffee and plump, ripe nectarines. During our few days there, Hopper gathered every stick he could find on the beach and made a beaver-like pile on the grassy yard. Later, in July, we went to a fishing camp in Northern Maine, a few miles from the Canadian border. There we took a boat out to a little island where we swam in water so clean, with sand so sparkling, we felt we’d been transported back to a time when we didn’t question the purity of the elements around us. On that trip, Master M. started “fishing” with a pole his Nonnie gave him (which I believe used to belong to my brother) onto which he’s affixed 5 bobbers of different sizes. (He and Dan did catch an actual fish, by mistake at that lake—Dan was showing him how to cast with a real pole that happened to have a lure on it. When the fish flopped up onto the dock, we were all so startled for a moment no one knew what to do. Then Dan and I ran around trying to figure out how to get the three-pronged hook out of the fish’s mouth with pliers and clippers. The fish was fine, in the end, thank God, if a little tore up. But the Master is definitely against hooks after that episode.) All summer, we spent every Sunday, rain or shine, running together on a trail we love in the woods.

 

And so, this morning, I’m reveling with gratitude in a few small simple gifts:  Despite the odds, we didn’t lose Hoppy on Friday night (he is, in fact, lying at my feet right now, his belly and legs shaven for the various catheters and instruments that were needed to pull him through the other night, but his breath is steady); Master M. loves his new preschool—he’s actually excited to go, which is an unexpected blessing; and I feel lucky that we had some beautifully present moments together, when we were at one with the natural world. So, even though it seems like we’re in another all-to-familiar free-fall, and even though the chill of fall makes me mourn the summer I had dreamed of, I find myself wanting, right now, to reach out and hug this big, complicated world we have. Because, in the end, what other choice do I have?

 

Tell me your summer stories of ups and downs, if you care to share. I’m here.

 

Love, Caitlin.

 

Article originally appeared on Passage West: Caitlin Shetterly (http://caitdangowest.squarespace.com/).
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