…and through the woods, to Great-Aunt Doris’ house we go…When we were kids someone would get carsick. Someone (adult) would drink too much. We were always late, and heard about it (we still do). Politics — like religion, a verboten topic — would be broached anyway, and tempers would rise. Those were the days.
I went to see my Great-Aunt Doris the day after Thanksgiving, with two of my kids in tow. She’s 95 now, and I have mentioned how she recently had a pacemaker put in. But we’re long-lived on the Bailey-Upshaw side of the family, and she still has a few years left if she’s to catch up with her mother, who lived until a week before her hundredth birthday. (Not sure I want to live that long, but we don’t really have a say, do we?)
Aunt Doris is a pip, as my man says, and he’s right. She went to college and later got her master’s degree in social work, studying prostitutes as a project, which sent the dean of women and her own parents into a tiz. She got her councelor’s license and saw clients in her private therapy practice until she was 90, though people thought she was a mere 88, as she lied about her age. She was always politically active, hosting parties every Labor Day on her property up in Occidental and raising funds for local Democrats. Her husband, my late Uncle Joe, was a union activist with the Wobblies and a hodcarrier, and family lore says that he is the union man who called for the General Strike in San Francisco, who leapt to his feet and made the first call for the vote, which led to street violence and advances for workers and all kinds of other changes. They never took Labor Day lightly.
My uncle died when I was in my 20s, and Doris has kept on doing the same thing — until these last few months, with the pacemaker, and the loss of her two dogs, and her vision, and of course her driver’s license (she kept driving until literally forced to stop just about a year ago). She has plugged onward, working on her memoirs (tales of San Francisco in the 1920s and 30s, tales of Cal Berkeley where she got her master’s, tales of deciding whether or not to join the Communist Party, and tales of the love of her life, Joe Murphy). She finally finished a good draft and is working on chosing a cover and getting it published. She has done good work in her community getting a performing arts center established. She supports artists and writers with gatherings at her house and so on.
So here we are in her house, just this weekend, and things have gone downhill. She has got herself a new puppy, now about five months old, and it is not housebroken, and leaps all over the furniture, andruns between her legs as she walks, and drags pillows from the bedroom to chew on, and runs across the table looking for food. Need I say that despite its therapeutic company, the puppy is probably the worst thing she could have gotten. The house itself is a mess. There is a live-in woman helper who is no prize, as she’s never there (she was absent all the day I visited). The dishes are that particlar brand of filthy that develops when the dish-washer cannot see as she cleans. The bathroom is unspeakable. And there are dog bombs all over the house; I stepped into one within five steps of the front door and, not realizing it, walked it all over the house. So I spent the first half an hour just cleaning up after the dog and wiping up the kitchen.
And of course, with a fiercely independent relative like my aunt, you can’t just say, “Hey, your dog is pooping all over the house” or “Your housekeeping is a disaster.” That would be an invitation to leave forever (it’s happened before to other folk). So I surreptitiously try to clean, madly, furiously, whle the girls chat in the other room, and when she offers them a Coke, they want to drink out of the bottle while she insists that they drink from a glass, and the girls escape outside with their Cokes while I try to laugh off the bad manners of my children, who are merely trying to avoid the horrors of the dirty glassware.
Then we find that the puppy has got herself hung up on the fence outside and cut open her leg. My great-aunt can’t see how bad it is, so I look and the gash is deep, will need stitches, and so we call the vet, who is closed for the holiday, and then find another vet back in Sebastool, and after a while all pile into the car to take the dog to the vet.
Did I mention that I don’t like dogs? I don’t hate them, but I don’t really like them either. They sniff and lick and poop and throw their muddy paws on you, and they have big teeth that can (and do) bite, and they make messes and noise and cause a great deal of trouble. Much like children, in fact. And as I have three of my own children already, plus two about-to-be-stepkids, dogs are pretty low on my list of creatures I want to add to my life. I say this only to clarify how much of a challenge it was for me to clean up the masses of dog poop on my shoes and the floors, and look at the dog’s injury without fainting, and let it into my car, and so on. I just don’t like them, and I know I’m selfish and shallow and heartless (among many other faults), and going to hell to live among many snarling dogs (unless all dogs go to heaven…?), but there it is. (I do love cats, by the way.)
So we get to the vet, after many a wrong turn, my blind aunt railing at me the entire way about which way I’m going and how I’m doing it wrong, and the vet had given me directions, but Auntie says they’re wrong and I’m damned if I’m going to let a blind woman tell me where to go, because when I do take her directions, they get us LOST, and you can see just how much fun the ride to the vet was. Yes, we were late for the appointment.
My aunt complains about the wait and having to fill out paperwork, and the receptionist speaks to her as if she were an imbecile, which enrages my aunt, and I stand there just smiling, keep smiling, soothing, assuaging, trying to hang onto the dog and fill out paperwork for my aunt who can’t see it, and then we go into the room where the vet insists on sedation (for the dog) and an overnight visit, and this just about does my aunt in. She begins to waver and falter, and this powerful woman of whom I always stood in awe begins to look more and more like a tired, frightened, befuddled old woman, who might just begin to cry if her dog is in pain and they must be separated overnight. So I tell the vet to put on some ointment and a bandage and we’ll take her to her own vet the next day. My great-aunt is relieved, the vet is annoyed, but they fix up the puppy and an hour later off we go.
We get back into the car, the dog on my great-aunt’s lap, and we have to get back to the house because I am slated to meet the kids’ father in less than two hours, and we still have to backtrack to Occidental, then jam back to Petaluma through post-Thanksgiving traffic to make the appointed hour. My girls are in the back seat, and Doris in the front, holding the puppy who is at least not bleeding anymore, when suddenly the dog erupts and loses her lunch all over the center console, the seat and my aunt. The girls scream and open windows and I find a place to pull over. There are just two Starbucks napkins and a couple of Alameda Suns in the way back. I make an attempt to clean up but there is just no way newspaper will do, and traffic is rushing by the country highway and I am standing there inches from speeding cars, thinking, “I’m not going to die over dog barf. I’m just not.” I get back into the car and we continue back to my aunt’s house, while the dog just barfs over and over and over. My girls in the back seat have jackets over their mouths and noses and their eyes are rolling. All the windows are open. My aunt is worring over her dog and I’m just trying to drive calmly through the little towns and settlements and curves among the redwoods, to get back to her house safely.
We make it. The live-in woman has at last appeared and helps me clean out the car. I hate to rush away but I have to make the custody switch at the appointed time, and so our visit comes to a close. My aunt takes her dog to the couch and they settle in by the fire. My kids hang their heads out the windows all the way back to civilization, and by the time I get to my parents’ house, make the switch with the Ex, and get back to cleaning up reservoirs of dog barf from under my seat and out of the cupholders, I want to Kill. My. Self.
What I really want is someone responsible to live with my great-aunt who can take better care of her, and the damned puppy, too. I want my aunt to be healthy and whole for a long time, and I know it’s not possible; she’s started down the hill and it’s only going to get worse. I wish I lived closer, though I know my parents are helping, and that she has lots of friends. I wish for many, many things that are beyond my control, and swim between the memories of my through-the-woods to my auntie’s house and the reality of now, where she sits by the fire stroking her wounded dog, unaware of the layers of grime on her dishes, of the impossibility of dealing with this puppy right now, or probably actually knowing all these things and not caring, because she has her dog on her lap and that’s happiness. The slide toward assisted living or worse, a nursing home, will be hell for her, and I’m just not sure what is the best thing to do.
If this is the place where I drop in an epiphany or a platitude, forget it. I don’t have one. We try to live each day as best we can, and sometimes we suck and fail. I don’t know what to do for her, or what she’d allow if I could, which I can’t, and I hate to watch, and guess what? I’m going to have to. I hated almost every minute of the wretched visit; we never talked about literature or politics or life, as we always have, and instead just got through the crisis of the day. I’m glad I was there to help. But I’m stuck in the quicksand of watching a loved one fade, and it’s not a pretty sight.
Advice for Aspiring Writers: Life. And death. It happens.