Dogs, death and denial

As a gift for my birthday yesterday, I chose a new desk chair, one described as a saddle. Backless, armless and perched on top of a metal post (instead of a horse’s back) it forces me to sit in a way that uses my pelvic muscles as if in Pilates, and helps prevent a bad back.

It’s an odd sensation to sit this way, though not entirely new to me.

In the past, I’ve used one of those backless kneeling chairs, but the man in the chair shop recommended I go for this variety and stop my kneeling as he reckons the kneelers are meant for short term only, rather like kneeling in church. You do it for a time, otherwise you risk cutting off circulation and you can develop trouble in your knees.

What a birthday it was. My daughter and I spent several hours in the afternoon in a vet clinic waiting to have our dog diagnosed.

He’d been vomiting and had become dehydrated to the point where he needed an overnight stay in the emergency department. They speculated he might have had pancreatitis or simply that he ate something toxic.

‘Dogs are scavengers,’ the vet said.

‘A bird will fly over and poop on the ground. The dog will see the poop, think what a tasty morsel and swallow it in one gulp. It could be the size of a pin prick but it can make him very sick.’

Two hours after rehydration, the vet told us Ralph was already much better, but they kept him overnight to be sure and given he was not in his usual bed, he barked all night long, kept the other animals agitated, and barely slept.

I dreamed last night that I rang the vet to ask if Ralph was okay.

‘No,’ the vet nurse said and my dream morphed into something else. I woke relieved to imagine it wasn’t true. Relieved on two counts, for the sake of the dog and for the sake of our budget.
We picked Ralph up early this morning bright and bouncy. A happy dog, tail wagging and ready to go back to his usual life. Only he’s now on a diet of boiled chicken mixed with rice for a few days and I can see he’ll soon tire of that.

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This blow-by-blow account of the antics of our dog reminds me of a recent lunch I shared with a group of lovely women.

For the first hour at least we talked of nothing but the state of our internal organs, our digestive systems, our bowels, what we can eat, can’t eat, and our general health.

The lunch was at a café attached to an organic farm of sorts, Ceres, where people offer classes to teach the next generation about things like permaculture and biodiversity and all that stuff.

Ceres caters for those of us who care about the future of the planet and the menu appeals to all manner of discerning guts. There’s soy and almond milk and kombuchas made of ginger and beetroot juice. There’s also this new favourite thing on the trendy drinkers’ market called a Turmeric chai latte with coconut.

So much fuss. I detect an unspoken etiquette around these things.

At Ceres you can quote specifications, milks or substitutes, with a sprinkle of whatever herb or otherwise your stomach demands, and you can be as nit-picky as you like.

It’s all about healthy living and individual requirements more than taste because some of these drinks – I tried the ginger beetroot Kombucha – were awful. Like medicine.

So we women emulated this recent preoccupation with of the state of our dog’s gut and our conversation took on that endless quality of bodily introspection which bores me even as I write about it.

We even joked about the fact that three of our party were about to have colonoscopies.

And then the news came, two days ago, that my ninety-year-old uncle, a Fransciscan died in Brazil. There he had spent the last several decades of his life dedicated to his parish in an impoverished community called Alcobaca.

From all accounts, this uncle, whom I met only a few times when he visited Australia, was a good man. He was a man who cared about his calling, who cared about his parishioners and did not reflect the image of Catholic priests today as paedophiles and hypocrites.

There have been many Facebook tributes to my uncle floating through cyberspace and most of them in Portuguese.

My mother had five brothers, only one of whom still lives. Her sib ship of seven is nearly over and it saddens me to think of my mother’s family, her great anchor in the world, as coming adrift, as no more.

My mother loved her siblings in a way that sometimes left me feeling as if she cared more about her brothers and sister than she cared about her own children.

Something of her childhood stayed with her. The greatest childhood imaginable she told me, but then again my mother was prone to look on the bright side and I suspect there were many times when it was not so wonderful.

Certainly, it was not so wonderful for the ones below my mother, or so my aunt would tell me when she too visited Australia or when I visited her in Holland.

When I pored over the photograph albums in childhood there were pages devoted to the ordination of two of my mother’s brothers, both ordained Franciscans, both dedicated to the life of the priesthood, though one became a missionary and the other’s life seemed more troubled.

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The older of the two went blind several years before he died. He suffered the same macular degeneration my grandfather suffered. My grandfather also spent something like the last decade of his life in blindness.

It becomes one of my pet horrors this blindness, which seems to be a genetic attribute from my mother’s side.

The irony does not escape me. My mother who was adept at turning a blind eye at times when she should have had her eyes wide open, came from a family with an affliction that could cause blindness.

When things get tough, don’t look. Don’t see. It works for the blind person up to a point, but if a bus is hurtling towards you, even though you turn your back on it, the bus will bowl you over if you don’t get out of the way and you’re more likely to get out of the way if you can see what’s coming towards you.

Or so runs my understanding of denial.

‘We do as if nothing is wrong’ my mother said more than once.

Let’s just carry on as though the dreadful things around us, a drunken father walking naked through the house is not there, not to see, not to worry if we just close our eyes and minds.

It drove my father even madder than he might have been. Not that paying attention to him helped either.

I imagine, my mother would have much preferred the life of a missionary in the villages of Brazil with her beloved brother visiting the sick and needy, helping with Mass on Sundays, but instead she landed in Australia with nine kids and a heathen drunken husband.

I’m lucky. I have so much less to complain of, an ageing body and a nine year old dog with gut problems. Plus, I have a great chair in which to sit pain free, however many hours I write. But I must beware of my PollyAnna impulses and my mother’s blind eye.

What’s going on?

My husband has a slight tremor in his hands. The first time I noticed it over ten years ago he was at the airport handing over his passport for inspection before boarding a plane for Berlin where he planned to meet our daughter and her partner for a four week holiday. At the time I put it down to anxiety and it surprised me.

Like my daughters I’ve tended to put my husband on a pedestal, one inspired by his intellect and extraordinary ability to tackle so many different things. I’ve listed these before.

My husband turns wood, he bakes bread, makes Kimchi, smokes bacon and salami, preserves olives, he makes sauces and relishes, he silversmiths, blows glass, is a photography buff, a gardener, an inspired cook who prefers to experiment with foods from yesteryear such as tripe, all things offal, mixed grains, duck and goose fat. My husband experiments in paper making and bookbinding.

As a source of relaxation, my husband sharpens knives for friends and family on a revolving stone in his workshop.  He makes jewellery, knife and chisel handles, spoons and designs solutions to the problems of broken doors, window sashes and all manner of handy man stuff throughout the house.

By day he works as a lawyer. All these other activities happen on weekends and holidays and in his spare time. Perhaps this accounts for the anxiety.

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A necklace carved out of silver as an example of his artistry.

My husband goes through phases. At the moment he’s back into making Kimchi, which he eats with every meal. He read somewhere it’s good for your gut. He plans to tackle sauerkraut next, which he imagines will please me given my Dutch origins.

Not that the Dutch invented sauerkraut. I think it belongs to the Germans and Eastern Europeans, but my parents ate it from time to time with rookwurst and tongue.

I’m not so keen on Kimchi myself, nor sauerkraut despite their health giving properties. I prefer to have Tarama with my meals, the salty rather than the sour.

My husband moves from one activity to the next and it troubles me because with each passing experience he begins to look out for a new one, and his skills pile up too fast. He complains because they do not develop beyond that first flush of fun.

It must be hard to be a man of many talents, always looking to settle on something specific, something that might engage him in an ongoing way so that he will persevere beyond the first successful batches into the unsuccessful ones and from then on to even better ones.

Creativity involves the making of a mess.

One of my brothers who had begun what I thought of as a promising career in writing, along side his day job in computers – he had two or three short stories published in literary magazines – told me that he had given up when it became clear it was hard to get published, too hard for him it seemed. He could not stand the disappointment.

When we were children, this brother was the family genius, another man who seemed able to tackle anything, anything intellectual that is. I’m not sure about what he could do with his hands, apart from win at Chess. Unlike my husband, who is both intellectually able, an avid reader of history and all things political, as well as someone who enjoys thrillers, and is also at home in those physical pursuits I listed earlier. My brother, on the other hand, at least when we were young when he was dux of St Patricks College in East Melbourne, was brilliant at Physics, Chemistry and Maths, at languages, French and Latin, at English and virtually any other subject the school offered.

I admired such capacities.

To me skills as these are far more appealing than athletic abilities or looks, not that looks are a skill, though maintaining them might be. Not for me the glamorous people, the ones who look as though they might live forever with the aid of Botox and the like, nor the footballers, cricketers or swimmers. I get very little pleasure out of spending hours watching Olympians strut their stuff, not that I can’t acknowledge the fortitude and perseverance that go into these activities.

My husband hurt his back last week. He felt like a ‘crock’, to use his words as he hobbled outside to the tram stop to get to work. He visited a physiotherapist who used her elbows to dig into painful places and begin to set things right. She was concerned though at his tremble.

Could there be something else going on? He thought not, though behind the scenes he was worried, he told me.

But my husband is a frequent visitor to doctors over the years and not one of them, as far as I know, has remarked upon this tremor. Though doctors often seem to deal with different bits and pieces of his body. The one attends his heart, which seems to be in fine shape following a heart attack over ten years ago. Another attends to his ‘plumbing’.

When he was a small boy my husband had an accident of which he has no recall where he must have smashed his penis against the bar in the middle of his bike. It was only a slight injury but it caused scarring and nearly twenty years ago he observed that he was not peeing well, and that he was prone to urinary tract infections.

An observant urologist detected the scarring problem and once a year my husband visits him for a ‘re-bore’, whereby the doctor shoves a metal probe into my husband’s urethra – I can see you all squeeze your legs together – and this helps tidy up the pathway so that he can pee freely.

And then there’s my husband’s back, which break down periodically. In fact, if I think of it, his ailments match his skills. Not one for one. He has many more skills than he has ailments.

My husband’s tremor settles when he is not anxious or stressed, and when he is not concentrating on a task involving fine motor skills. It settles as he sleeps and reads and relaxes.

Why has it taken so long for him to tell me about this tremor and why has it taken me so long to acknowledge something I first noticed over ten years ago?

Wilful blindness, denial, a fear of persecuting him or a fear of worse things to cone.

And then of course there’s my own heart which races from time to time in a flutter that feels adrenalin fuelled as if I have out of nowhere had a great shock at times when there is nothing shocking around, other than the general stress of life.

It was worse before Christmas and has settled down of late.

These bodily ailments we choose to ignore, perhaps as signs of things to come, our inevitable mortality, our slide towards ill health, old age and death.

A grim thought, and one we might prefer to ignore, and focus instead on the creation of something new.