Read Dog Stays in the Picture Online

Authors: Susan; Morse

Dog Stays in the Picture (22 page)

—Hello?

—Cracklecracklecrack. Please dis-regard message shooter. CrackleIt was sent in err-or. CrackleThere is no shooting event on cam-pus. Crackle.

—Click.

Technology is such a marvel.

I've been meaning to visit the boys anyway. One of the perks of the empty nest is you can go see them in their new element, meet their friends, take everyone out for a nice meal, and generally spoil them. If I get right on it, I can spend a night each in Texas and Louisiana and be home before anyone realizes I'm gone. There's not really any work to do this week, so I book my hotels, arrange a stay for Lilly with the O'Briens (David, Eliza, and Gaillard will be gone most days), cancel all bridge games, and head to the airport.

Settled in my seat waiting for takeoff to Austin, I have a sinking realization I've forgotten something crucial: my flight-anxiety pills. My crutch. Ever since that hysterical trip fifteen years ago when I panicked in turbulence worrying about how the family would cope if I died, blubbering my rosary on the in-flight phone with my mother, I have never once dared fly without them.

And of course it's a bumpy one. I could have ordered a drink, something strong, but the flight's too short; I'm picking up a rental car in Texas and I don't want to drive under the influence. I really mustn't make a scene on this plane—there's a woman sitting next to me, and her two small, impressionable children are right across the aisle. They do not need to see some strange lady have a conniption. Nothing to do but sit here quietly, and, as Mother Brigid advises, say my prayers.

It really is pretty bumpy. With each lurch the children across the aisle yelp and giggle. I actually manage to smile at them, or at least flash gritted teeth in their general direction (alternately muttering prayers under my breath, trying to distract myself with a Sudoku book I picked up at the airport kiosk), thinking back to 1998, a flight to L.A. to visit David on
The Green Mile:
pint-sized Sam, Ben, and Eliza in a row, absorbed in their Gameboys, oblivious to the danger, to the orphaned future I wanted so desperately to spare them. When we finally land in Texas I'm pathetically proud of myself for keeping it together.

It's lovely seeing Ben. He's in a studio apartment off campus, living alone this year, and I'm pleased to see how tidy he keeps it. We have a fun day visiting gardens and the LBJ presidential library. Austin's surprisingly progressive for a Texas capital—they're having a Gay Pride parade, of all things, outside my hotel after dinner­. So I'm happy, ready for my next challenge: the flight to New Orleans, cold turkey again.

This time my neighbor is a fellow who wants to chat. There's no turbulence, so I decide to tell him about the breakthrough I'm having, partly because I'm so impressed with myself and partly to warn him in case I go unexpectedly bonkers midflight.
Not to worry,
he says. He's a music manager visiting a client in New Orleans, a singer, and he flies all the time, so he's seen everything. In fact, on his last flight this man started to freak out while they were taxiing—claustrophobia, he thinks—and they had to stop the plane on the tarmac and let the poor guy off.

I can't explain why I find this conversation comforting. I guess I'm in a sort of celebratory mood—I can fly without meds! Praise the Lord!

David has kept the house in New Orleans between seasons of
Tremé
. This is handy because Eliza can stay there, saving some money while she establishes herself, and Sam is still on the waiting list for a dorm room. He's been sleeping downstairs on the sofa, getting over a cold, and the place is in a bit of disarray after the annual end-of-summer Gulf Coast hurricane. Sam and Eliza evacuated together to friends in Atlanta, and the power was still out when they returned, so there are candles and battery-operated lanterns all over the place, and the porch is filthy with dried mud washed up in the storm. Sam seems glad to see me but behind in work, juggling school and a screenplay he's writing with a friend, with no time for more than a quick bite at the neighborhood deli. We discuss plans to send him for a concert weekend with Ben in Austin next month when the boys turn twenty-one, and I make myself useful picking the house up a little for David's eventual return.

Like I said, things are good. There is something amazing and wonderful about visiting your children out in their worlds, watching them find their sea legs as adults.

It's not till my third and final drug-free flight heading home that I figure it out. I know why I don't need those meds anymore—my job is basically done. My children are perfectly capable of moving forward without me at this point, Mother Brigid is squared away, and David will definitely survive whatever happens. It is finally safe for me to relax. Anything from this moment forth is purely for my own enjoyment.

And the powerful, intangible empathy I've felt for Lilly comes into focus. It's no accident I've been so distracted by a dog with anxiety issues—we're one and the same, Lilly and me. As with me, the most demanding part of Lilly's life is past. We've both left the treadmill behind us, and now here we are, two strong females keeping it together in our own ways, temporarily hampered, weakened—justifiably, perhaps—by an Achilles' heel–type tendency to fret excessively about the future.

Maybe Ma's right. Maybe it's all about prayer. Who knows? Maybe we'll find out someday. But what I do know is that with time and persistence, you can weather the storm, emerge, set goals, and maybe, if you're lucky, as Betty Friedan has assured us, you'll enjoy whatever comes next.

You might even win at bridge.

We're seated around Courtney's hall table in the final throes of a death match. It's been particularly rowdy this morning. The serious­ bridge veterans we've seen (there's a whole gang of hard-core­ dragons ruling the country club) are deadly quiet when they play—banter is completely taboo, not just because someone might illegally signal their partner (
ahem
, Courtney). Extraneous noise is extremely distracting in bridge because you win by remembering what cards have been played. Our group would be banned immediately from any grown-up tournament—we can't ever seem to shut up. Right now everyone's screaming at once. Ellen has pulled a last-minute surprise, trumping an ace Courtney was secretly hoarding, and nobody can agree on who actually won because we've forgotten which of us took the previous trick.

Ruthie likes to keep us moving:

—Susan, it's your deal. Courtney, get hold of yourself. We are now going to beat them until they cry.

I deal. Ellen, who's been having terrible hot flashes all summer, peels off her fleece.

—Why does it still feel like August? I can't believe I have to go in today. There's no AC in my office. It's
miserable
.

I look up, surprised.

—Ellen, I thought you quit! When's your official last day?

Ominous silence. Ellen doesn't respond, and I could swear she's sending me urgent psychic danger signals. I stop dealing, alarmed. Courtney has nothing to say for once, her eyes like saucers. Ruthie is staring straight ahead, erect and poker-faced. My heart sinks.

—Oh no! Was I not supposed to say anything?

Nervous, tension-breaking laughter erupts from everywhere. Apparently I've gotten it wrong. Ellen's been a huge asset as the school's alumni fund-raiser; they'll have a hard time filling her shoes when she goes, and besides, she's not retiring, she's just cutting back her hours so she can travel more with her busy husband. I've been so out of the loop in our tiny school community since the kids graduated, I've lost my sensitivity to how swiftly combustible news like this can fly out of control. These women are fast friends, they're deeply protective of one another, but the bottom line is that Courtney, with her notoriously uncontrollable mouth, is not meant to know Ellen's news yet.

Everyone swears secrecy and we go back to our screaming death match, arguing over the conventions, accidentally skipping people's turns, fumbling cards, Ellen calling Ruthie
a female dog
when Ruthie deftly snags a crucial trick, Courtney accusing Lilly of farting, me accusing Courtney of blaming her own digestive troubles on my innocent, perfect dog. All the while I'm openly kicking myself for blowing Ellen's cover. I cannot for the life of me remember being told her news was a secret.

Ellen kindly reassures me.

—Don't worry, it's fine. Now we all know we'll be playing more bridge!

This is a game that sharpens one's mind, but the trick is you need to have a mind capable of being sharpened in the first place. Menopause is a slippery slope, and it's highly likely all four of us may have lost our chance to keep things properly oiled in the memory department.

Walking the dogs later, Courtney tells me I didn't actually spill the beans. She and Ruthie have known for weeks—Ellen has forgotten she gave them both the news herself, it seems, and, loving Ellen, sensing her vulnerability during a big life transition, Courtney doesn't want to rub Ellen's nose in her own faulty recollection of what she's told whom. Courtney's bigmouth reputation doesn't bother her in the slightest anyway, and she commiserates with me generously.

—I can keep a secret. Ruthie always says it's the people I
tell
who can't.

And with a wink, she's off after Milo and Maggie, trespassing down our friend Rose's driveway toward the henhouse.

—Hey, DOGS! I have TREATS! Get away from those chickens!

I watch Courtney go. She can really move when she wants to—you'd never know the doctors took both pairs of ovaries and breasts and pumped her with poison for months.

Lilly and I wait in the quiet street, admiring fall colors. This is middle age. I have the feeling if we ABBA ladies can keep cutting ourselves a little slack, all will be well. In fact, it's looking like it might turn out to be a blast.

Just lie here. If you don't move, they'll stop so you can go back to sleep.

She says,
“I'm spritzing, I'm spritzing!”
And he says,
“ELLLLLLLLLL”
and she says,
“S^&#. Okay, David I'm going to try something new. Get ready. Are you ready? Here goes,”
and she says,
“YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!”

And it hurts your ears, so you jump up and he jumps up and she jumps up and says,
“Sorry. The spray bottle didn't work, and I had to surprise you. Are you okay?”

“Thank you,”
he says.

“I'm so sorry,”
she says. “
I couldn't think what to do. I was desperate, so I screamed. Are you all right?”

“I'm okay,”
he says.
“Except that my ears are ringing a bit.”

“I love you,”
she says.

“I love you too,”
he says.

He lies back down. She lies back down.

It's dark.

“He's all right now, Lilly,”
she whispers.
“We can go back to sleep.”

You lie back down.

It's quiet now. Maybe it's breakfast time soon.

You love them too.

A Note on Greyhound Adoption

No question: I'd adopt another greyhound in a heartbeat. Not just because these gifted dogs have been exploited too long by a multimillion-dollar industry. Not just because the three-hundred­plus volunteer groups in the United States and Canada are working around the clock to find homes for tens of thousands of dogs coming­ off the track every year. Not just because too many of these beautiful animals have not made it to rescue, dying in miserable obscurity.

I'll adopt again because I can't help myself. Greyhounds are simply so heart-stoppingly wonderful: loyal, gentle, smart, graceful, clean, quiet, funny, and, of course—
fast
. (Come to think of it, maybe that's what this has been about for me all along: my personal solution to the classic midlife craving for a sports car? I don't have to
drive
fast, I can just watch Lilly run mad, goofy forty-mile-an-hour figure eights around my yard.)

The Greyhound Project (
adopt-a-greyhound.org
) will direct prospective greyhound lovers to their local adoption groups, and many more resources are out there. Join in!

Acknowledgments

Thanks to the dog people: my personal mainstay Linda O'Brien and her boys Richard, Dylan, and King; training experts Deb Lipartito and Ruth Anne Cionca; and to the saints in the trenches—Claudia Presto of Greyhound Gang, Cynthia Branigan of Make Peace With Animals, John Pastor at Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society, and Lisa Fontalbert and Marilyn Varnberg of Greyhound Adoptions of Florida.

To generous friends who answered many questions: Susan Burch; Robin and Lucien Calhoun; Francesca Dalglish; Pamela Dunlap; Ruthie Ferraro; Diane Fleming; Ellen Gray; Ellen Hass; Courtney Kapp; Anne, Jim, and Ben McCormick; Lisa K. Miller; Tricia Nalle; and Barbara Ziv. And to thoughtful readers Virginia Ingr, Peter Riva, Diane Golden, and my two-for-two title man, Michael Bamberger.

To the Open Road wizards: Jane Friedman, Jeff Sharp, Rachel Chou, Nicole Passage, Chris Davis, Mary McAveney, Allison Underwood, Rachel Krupitsky, Andrea Worthington, and fellow dog-lover Tina Pohlman, who divined exactly what this book should be, and made it happen.

To brilliant editor and friend Marjorie Braman—it's been a delight to work with you again.

And to my family: David, Eliza, Ben, and Sam, who live our story and mercifully tolerate the liberties I take; to Lilly, Joey, Arrow, Marbles, and Aya for being perfect; to Mother Brigid for always allowing my jokes with grace; and to Colette—for the rabbit.

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