Five Times Daily
Karen has committed us this year to entertaining more, which many middle-aged folks consider the logical next step after they lose their children to college or, in our case, iPhones. Our three kids are still in the house with us (we think), a fact frequently confirmed when they appear in the kitchen to shoot whipped cream straight from the can into their open mouths. Karen has learned that compressed whipped cream is the secret to seeing our children once in a while, so she stocks up. We sit vigil near the refrigerator, the one place in the house we have a chance of seeing them.
At first, we enjoyed the quiet. The television was ours again, and we literally had several minutes a day to enjoy reading fine books, which consumed our attention in the half hour after dinner and before we fell asleep in front of Jeopardy! It was during one of these reading sessions that Karen announced, “We need to start having people over,” and because I am the perfect husband, I said, “That’s a great idea!” Since Karen is magnificent with follow-through, we now have people trickling into our home every weekend, some folks we haven’t seen in years, others relatively new acquaintances. Like us, these people have children who have been abducted too, so we spend much of our visit reminiscing about simpler times when we parked the kids in front of The Wiggles with a sandwich bag full of Goldfish.
One couple we have known since our kids were little was surprised to see we still had Perry. “Wow!” the wife said. “Perry is still alive and kicking?” Alive, I said, but not kicking. Recently, because he is incontinent, I attached him to a doggie diaper, so he spends his days in a corner of our family room on his overstuffed bed, every so often raising his head, which I believe he does when he is urinating on himself. I have not tested this theory, but here’s what I think goes on in his doggie brain: “Ugh. I have to pee. Where’s the door? Ah, to hell with it.”
Perry is a bichon-poodle mix with short legs and a lipedema-like fat deposit that emerges from his chest like a hamburger bun. I got him ten years ago from the local shelter, which I am always quick to tell our newer friends, even when they don’t ask. I say, “Perry is a shelter dog,” because as I build my identity for these people, I want them to believe I am a Good Samaritan, one who cares for the abandoned and marginalized. The wives say “Awww,” and I realize I have hit my mark. I was told that Perry was five when I brought him home, which would make him fifteen now, or in dog years, older than George Washington, were he still alive.
At one point in his life, we called Perry “The Escape Artist.” There is a reason he was in a shelter, and it had everything to do with his talent for digging under fences. Nothing could contain him. It was common for us in our early years with Perry to return home and spot him roaming the streets or playing with the neighborhood children. We once left him with Karen’s parents, who went looking for him after he broke free and saw him in the passenger seat of a passing pickup, its driver likely hauling Perry off to the shelter from which he came.
These days, though, when Perry moves, he drags himself along. “Poor Perry,” we say. He grunts and snorfles like a hog. If he were an old man, he’d be grumpy at waitresses and intolerant of long lines. He would (and in fact does) have wiry black hairs growing from inside his ears. His coffee would never be hot enough and he would have a closet full of brown slacks. Quite likely, he would be a Trump supporter.
In other words, he would be my grandfather.
On top of his other problems, Perry is mostly blind. Our son, the last time we saw him, nicknamed Perry “Roomba” because he walks until he bumps into things, then changes direction, his fat deposit hanging so low to the floor that he picks up an occasional leaf. He once dragged a wadded-up tissue from the living room to the laundry room. These days, rather than watch him suffer, we carry him from one of his beds to the other. We set him down before his food and water dishes and his nose tells him where he is. And once or twice every day, we relieve him of his diaper; we deposit him in the middle of the backyard to defecate the way his forefathers did, in the grass, then we let him find his own way back. That’s really all the adventure he can bear. The next time Old Perry leaves this house, I’m afraid, he will be wrapped in a blanket.
During one recent get-together–an afternoon of Spades and coffee with two friends–I revealed that I had downloaded an app to my phone that five times a day reminds me I’m going to die. It does this through randomly timed quotes from thoughtful people. This one came up during our game: “The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.” I did some quick research on this. Ursula K. Le Guin wrote it fifty years ago in a book called The Left Hand of Darkness. It comes from a scene in which two characters–Faxe and Genry–contemplate the one certainty about mankind’s future: we shall die. Karen, who has a very sunny disposition, thinks the app is morbid. “You need to get rid of your death app,” she said. She has taken to rolling her eyes when I get a notification, like this one, which came from Emily Dickinson: “I am nobody! Who are you? Are you a nobody, too?” I did some research on this, too. The poem in which it appears is apparently a satire of the public sphere and, as far I as can determine, has nothing at all to do with dying.
“Emily Dickinson,” Karen said, “was a whack-a-doodle.”
Since both of her parents are still alive, and both of mine have departed for the Great Hereafter, I am more acutely aware of my mortality than Karen is of hers. Add to that, I am an only child, which places me at the tippy-top of my family tree. If our lives unfurl without tragedy, that means I am next. Karen and our children will have to figure out what to do with me. So, yes, I think about Death a lot.
The point of the app, amusingly called WeCroak, is not to thrust users into sustained melancholy, but in the wrong hands, that could be the case. “It’s more about appreciating the time I have left,” I tell Karen. “It’s more about living in the moment.” I have checked out WeCroak’s philosophy and this is indeed the case. Its mission comes from a Bhutanese folk saying, which goes something like this: to be happy, a person must contemplate death five times daily.
The five daily reminders can come at any moment, by the way, like Death itself, which is a handy metaphor. However, notifications only arrive between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., because this works much better with our modern lives; it’s inconvenient and creepy to reckon with mortality in the middle of the night. Nobody should do that, ever, not even in the quiet dark of one’s own bedroom. Maybe especially not there.
In my case, I don’t need WeCroak to nudge me in the middle of the night and remind me that Death is coming. That’s because Perry, who at random times between midnight and six a.m., suffers violent coughing spells that sound very much like he is bringing up a chain. Wet, metallic, and raspy, these fits persist for thirty seconds to a minute at a time, long enough for me to think about dying–Perry’s dying, in particular–thoughts I must endure without WeCroak’s comforting, meditative passages.
It’s eerie. Like, dark-and-stormy-night eerie.
Karen, because she isn’t given to worry or an unruly bladder, can usually sleep through these bouts. Not me. I lie there and wait for them to end. When they do, I sigh, then I listen into the darkness for some kind of movement from the floor, something that tells me I haven’t just heard Perry’s last, awful breath, which our son has described as follows: “Dumpster. Fish. Throw-up.” It’s true. Perry’s gum decay is frightful, and his breath smells like old, warm meat.
One night Karen and I met two other couples on the patio of a wine bar and the topic of our deteriorating, middle-aged bodies came up. The wine plied us into a loose, unabashed openness. It helped that we have known these friends for a long time, our relationships pre-dating our acquisition of Perry. At just the right moment, Karen placed her hand on my shoulder and told the story of the time I passed a kidney stone, which didn’t embarrass me, since at some point after my first–and to date, only–prostate exam, I realized that small compromises to one’s dignity come with the narrative on aging. It was funny how she told it, about how I writhed on the emergency room floor begging for morphine as the stone worked its way from my kidney to my bladder, then about how when I finally passed the little bugger into a strainer and dropped it in a specimen jar, my first comment was that it looked like a goat head, one of those treacherous little puncturevine burrs that you pick up in a bike tire. Everyone loved the story and how Karen told it, the way I ordered her to run red lights at two in the morning as I puked out the window against the side of our car, then squirmed in circles on the ER’s white tiles gone grimy with shoe scuffs and infection.
One of our old friends, a firefighter, drank some wine. “Classic,” he said.
“It was so disgusting,” Karen said.
“That just goes to show you how much it hurt,” I said, and we all had a good laugh until someone picked up the loose ball and told of a small melanoma on the scalp, which was followed by the tale of an ovarian mass the size of a grapefruit. Our firefighter friend then told of a Sunday morning in the station when a kind older woman knocked on the door and presented him with her severed index finger, wrapped in a towel. She pinched it off while simultaneously opening and attempting to sit in a metal folding chair. We are not the types of people to laugh at another’s misfortune, but for some reason (perhaps it was the wine), this poor woman’s suffering had us doubled-over, laughing until we cried. We decided then and there that as we aged, we had to look out for one another, and we would do so in a place where there were no metal folding chairs. It would have to be somewhere coastal, with hired healthcare, so that our children could mainline compressed whipped cream without ever having to worry.
I thought of this, too: so much of middle age is attesting publicly to our ability to survive, which we often must do by laughing at ourselves and, in no small measure, understanding how very lucky we are that we have such tales to tell.
At night, when I can’t sleep and Perry is coughing, I have very strange thoughts. Last night was no different. Last night I thought about how much nicer it would be for all three of us–for Karen, for me, for Perry, especially–if instead of retching at 2:31 a.m. he could simply climb into bed with us, quietly, and caress my cheek with his paw while whispering something profound from Christina Rossetti or Marcus Aurelius. I might prefer this, even though Perry’s breath is paralyzing, even though in their wake, my old dog’s comforting words would leave an invisible, meaty fog to wash over my face.
Yes, I would prefer this. Here is what I would want Perry to say, five times every night: “When it’s time to die, let us not discover that we have never lived.” That one’s from Thoreau, and it appeared on my phone just moments ago. It is a wonderful thought that makes me smile. It is like laughter, the kind that makes your stomach hurt and fills up a space. The kind that makes you, in a single moment, feel so very glad to be alive.