Won this award in the Memoir/Personal essay division of the Writer’s Digest contest this year for the following:
Travels with Charlize, in search of living alone
I was holding Rosalie close, cradling her head in my arms when she died. As I write this, it was ninety-four days ago. On April 23, 2013 we would have celebrated fifty-three years of marriage. I’m coping, sort of.
A week before she passed we were sitting next to each other on our recliners, not paying attention to the endless commercials incessantly interrupting the program struggling to interest us. “Well,” she said, pulling out the nasal tube flowing oxygen into her nostrils, “pretty soon you’ll be able to get a dog.”
Bear, our previous German shepherd died six years ago and we didn’t get another dog. That was the only period in my life that I can remember, being dog less. Rosalie developed balance problems, the aftermath of a viral encephalopathy and a brain biopsy, and we were worried that she would trip or fall over a dog. Thus we were dog less. She knew I missed having a dog and her out-of-the-blue statement was typical of her dark sense of humor.
“Stop talking nonsense,” I told her, gruffly.
The last six months we had together I prayed that the end would be fast and with as little pain and discomfort as possible. Her diagnosis was stage four-lung cancer. It came on January 4, 2012 after we noticed she had trouble breathing after only mild exercise. I have to explain that she was an animal on our stationary bike. She routinely logged eleven to fourteen miles in fifty or sixty minutes and burned more than three hundred calories and did this four or five times a week.
Our oncologist at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance explained that the average statistics for her diagnosis were survival for three to six months. As a scientist I was, and still am, convinced that the brain can heal any disease of the body if we could only figure out how to invoke the necessary killer cells, or immunological responses or whatever other body defense mechanisms are necessary, by sending the correct messages from the brain. So I nagged her with all the determination I could muster about the power of positive thinking and prayer. I encouraged her to visualize her tumors and direct her body defense mechanisms to kill those nasty, unwanted and unwarranted growths.
With her typical quiet determination, Rosalie made it to six months, then eight, then ten and counting. She tired easily but appeared normal to all but me, and our two sons. She was a very private person and didn’t want friends, or especially acquaintances, to know she was seriously ill.
In mid-December she needed supplemental oxygen and on Dec. 27 the oncologist suggested home hospice care. The hospice people showed up and enrolled her on Jan. 2. She died two days later.
My first German shepherd was named Mister. He and I hooked up during the summer before my second year in veterinary school. His normal home was the back seat of my car. Before I met Rosalie all the girls I dated made a big fuss over him but he was a regal sort and mostly ignored them. When I held the car door open for Rosalie on our first date Mister was all over her. She gave him a perfunctory pat on the head but he would not leave her alone. He kept nuzzling her, pushing his head under her arm and hand begging to be petted. I twisted in the seat to order him down and to stay and noticed he had an erection. Mister was always very discerning and I decided then and there to not ignore his intuition. It wasn’t long until I agreed totally with his first impression.
Charlize, pronounced Charley, is a rescue dog, the third German shepherd I have been responsible for. She is about three years old and has been with me since January 15. We are two injured beings who need each other. The first two days she was apprehensive and distraught but every day since we have bonded more and she is now calm and protective of me. I keep her with me all the time. She is housebroken and vehicle broken (yeah), and fetches a tennis ball like a retriever, good exercise for her and saves my gimpy ankle.
The frustrations of the last four days before my obsessively determined departure date were over. Who would believe that a newly single adult male and his dog could experience so many last minute problems trying to get out of town? But all came together and Charlize and I, comfortable in Old Blue and pulling the Frog, were the last to board the Edmonds-Kingston ferry.
Old Blue is the 2012 Dodge Ram 1500 in charge of making our journey possible. The Frog is my brand new, albeit slightly crowded with both of us in attendance, camping trailer. Frog pulls like a dream sticking close to Old Blue’s tail.
The purpose of the road trip was to try to figure out what I should do with my remaining years and how to do it. I’m seventy-six years old and was married to the only girl I ever truly loved for over fifty-two of those years. I’m not accustomed to making decisions on my own. Charlize is a good listener but doesn’t contribute much, except enthusiasm, to the decision-making process.
Charlize and I traveled familiar roads, taken previously with Rosalie, to Port Townsend, Sequim, and Port Angeles. Once west of Port Angeles we were in new territory. We took a short detour to see what the destruction of the dam had wrought to the Elwha River, now flowing grey with silt and debris, but I hadn’t seen it prior to the return to a more natural state. Undoing our well-meant but destructive “improvements” to Mother Nature may take some time.
Decided, at the last moment to forego the civilized amenities of an RV park in Forks and pressed on to the Kalaloch campgrounds, where my Senior Pass to all the National Parks and Recreational Lands bought a night for only $7, there are some advantages to being “senior”.
We parked about fifty or sixty feet above the beach, where gentle breakers provided a soothing, monotonous background to my day of calm healing, away from the reminders of our house, her things and a previous life. Charlize kept close watch on me. She seems to need respite from her previous life as much as I do.
Half the campground was closed, the road barred by a red and white-stripped railroad-crossing-type gate. I suppose only those seeking solitude find their way to that place, normally rain soaked but now dry. There are thirty odd camping spots in the open half but when I went to bed last night only seven were occupied. Charlize and I walked the place before and after dinner and not a single person greeted us, everyone holed up in their campers. In the fifties my family used to do a lot of car camping, with a luggage trailer and big umbrella tent. The only type of vacation my folks could afford. Our sons and I backpacked and many momentous decisions were made about their lives while we sat freezing on a mountain. Rosalie wasn’t much interested in camping, preferring modern plumbing. I remember campgrounds as friendly places.
Thirty feet west of where I parked Frog there was a sharp drop off to the beach, guarded by a split rail fence. Relentless waves worked their way onto the sand. The sound they made was similar to a busy highway. A vez en cuando, (the English translation of this expression would be “from time to time”, but in Mexico in 1967 when we lived there for a year, it conveyed a connotation of inevitability, an inability for any human to change events) a wave much larger than its brothers breaks over, roaring its delight.
That night, about four AM, I woke up thinking about Rosalie’s last minutes and started crying. Charlize immediately came over to stick her nose under my arm, determined to comfort me. It worked. The next day in Old Blue she barked when a highway construction flagman approached to kibbitz about Frog, not that incessant barking typical of some dogs, just one sharp warning to let the person know she was on duty. I guess she decided I belong to her and am in need of both comforting and protection.