by Erik Dolson
A month ago, Irish let slip that she’d been looking at puppies. Australian Shepherds. I cocked an eyebrow. That’s all. Loving a puppy is soul food, and after the last three weeks, Irish is close to starving. But the thought made me take a long, deep breath. Again.
Irish is afraid, and I don’t blame her. There are hundreds of what she calls “starlings,” aka “floaters,” in the field of vision in her remaining eye. There is also a cloudiness. Something is not right. Irish pushed up by a full month an appointment with her doctor in Portland because she was worried.
After an exam, her ophthalmologist said, “This is a much different situation than when you were here eight weeks ago.” Dr. Davis sent us directly up the hill, back to Casey Eye Institute. The news was not good. Her body is rejecting her good eye as a foreign invader. Sympathetic Ophthalmia.
“Half of all patients will have 20/40 or worse vision and one third of all patients will end up legally blind from Sympathetic Ophthalmia…” according to the literature.
Irish loves dogs. Me too. Dogs seek us out, as if they know there’s nothing we’d rather do than give a kind word and scratch around their ears. But I’ve avoided having a dog since my sweet Australian Shepherd ended up on the other side of the divorce ledger. Irish moved away from her dogs to move in with me.
There was less than one-tenth of one percent that Irish would suffer sympathetic ophthalmia. But she’s not had the best luck in life.
She lost a marriage she’d sacrificed to save, and then most of the money they didn’t really have. She lost a job she loved after a corporate take-over, and later, Parkinson’s took her ability to work because she gets scattered, and can read only minutes at a time.
Then she fell on the boat and crushed the right side of her face and lost her right eye.
Then her beloved father died. Then she lost a battle with Social Security for disability payments in a bizarre, soulless system. Now her left eye is threatened by Sympathetic Ophthalmia, a one-in-a-thousand condition where her body is rejecting her good eye because she spilled a few proteins when she fell and the other eye burst as the socket was crushed.
Australian Shepherds are wicked smart, intensely loyal, and become part of a family. They know. Dogs like that deserve the love and loyalty they are so ready to give. Traveling for months at a time, and now living half-time on a boat, doesn’t leave room for a dog.
Irish asks if I can love “an unemployed miscreant with only one eye – who has to take immunosuppressive drugs for the rest of her life?”
She needs my help to stand against this avalanche of … of … what? Bad Luck? That so diminishes what she’s been through. She doesn’t believe it’s right to ask “Why me?” so I will. What in hell did this woman do to deserve half of what she’s been through, just in the two years I’ve known her?
“I don’t really like giving dogs people’s names,” she said while showing me pictures of Sam, a black and white tricolor Australian from a breeder near our home on land. At first I turned away, wary of assault by cute.
“I know we can’t have a dog, it doesn’t fit right now.” So I looked as she scrolled through photographs of the breeders stock of pups. I thought Sam looked like a great dog, too.
“Can you love me?” she asks, sometimes wordlessly when she comes to sit in the chair across from where I’m reading, or aloud as I pass her on my way into the kitchen.
l could say yes, easily. I’m a wordsmith, and I could float her a “yes,” light as a birthday balloon colored bright pink or robin’s egg blue and just as festively happy-making. She would take it and marvel that it is just for her.
But I can’t. Because it’s true. I can love her. I do love her. She wakes up chatty and cheerful nearly every damn day. Who has the strength to do that? She works around the house and accepts life on the boat that nearly killed her, she keeps me warm at night. We laugh often, cry seldom, harp at each other almost never. Of course I love her, and that should be the easiest thing in the world to say.
But I’m afraid, afraid of many things, and this is a Russian doll question. Inside “Can you love me?” is the obvious “Do you love me?” And inside that is yet another question, “Are we forever?” and inside of that, “Will we be married?”
Even if the answer is “yes” to one and “I don’t know,” to another, that’s a no to her, and to answer one “no” is to answer them all no, so I pause, to think about all of it and to breathe. She takes the pause as rejection.
She may be blind in the next six months. That will change priorities, and sooner than Parkinson’s, which we both now face with denial. So I rescheduled the trip to New Orleans I’d promised her, shifted it from January to this November, because time is not our friend when there is so much to see.
Then money got tight. Trip postponed. She is so understanding, but I feel guilt and sadness.
Maybe a puppy is not such a bad idea. Maybe if I loved her enough, the boat would be gone and a puppy would be sleeping right now in the crook of her elbow as she naps on the couch.
She is tired. Fatigue is another enemy. We went dancing last weekend, and she pretended to have a good time long after she was exhausted and ready to go home.
“Can you love me?” So simple. Of course I can, of course I do. I could pretend certainty of the future, float a pink balloon to her and say yes, to all the hidden questions, yes. YES! But love is liquid, it is energy, it is a scent of the divine, and the more tightly we grasp at vaporous love, the faster it squeezes from our fingers.
I should tell her that I will be here for her, care for her forever, whatever the sacrifice, that I signed on for Parkinson’s and unemployment and blindness and I want to disengage from all future plans I’d made for this time, before we met. YES! I’ll do this for her and happily, with a glad heart! Because she wants nothing not given with a glad heart.
That is, finally, the only “yes” that would count. Maybe a puppy would not be a bad idea. So I pause to ask myself if I am willing to do that, or if I’m just being overly dramatic. Maybe we stay here, where she’d rather be anyway, adopt a puppy and see what happens. But that wasn’t the dream so I pause, to breathe and to ask myself if I could live so without resentment.
I question myself and see her brightness, her smile, her laughter recede, leaving behind the cruel irony that these things I love and cherish in her most are taken away by her need to ask the question and my inability to answer.
As if she needed one more cruel irony in life. What did she do to deserve any of this? Good smart cute Catholic girl who worked hard and tried to do right. The diseases that cause migraines and cramps in her toes and arms and legs, and take her balance, and muffle words that she works to find, now, that used to spill out of her like bright and brassy multisyllabic music. The fall and fractured face, and now her eyesight? Are you fucking kidding me?
After all this, she won’t ask the question asked often in the Bible, “why me?” God replied, “You won’t understand.” We don’t understand. There are no mortal answers, no moral answers either.
So, she leans on me, and I wobble. I ask for a moment, and she feels rejected. I am distracted, she feels alone. I am exhausted, she feels I’m disinterested. I ask for air, she thinks I want her to leave. I ask her to dial back the reactions, that sometimes I am just distracted, exhausted, unbalanced, and in need of a breath. This makes her heart hurt, and she’s afraid.
When she asks me about the future, I ask if she wants me to rid us of boat and racing and adventure so we can be here, where it’s safe, where I can be here for her, maybe with a puppy, she says no, of course not.
She means it, but she’s wrong. She has the curse of the romantic. A cynic gives up hope’s warmth to avoid freezing disappointment, while the romantic lives in hope that sometimes requires cognitive dissonance.
She wants me to want to give up these frivolities. If I love her, I will want to give them up, because she would do the same for me without a second thought. These are not who I am, as I always thought, they are just what I do, which will inevitably become what I did at some point, why not now? But love, love is forever.
She doesn’t want anything not given with a glad heart, and if I fear the transaction then I am not the man she thought I was, because he wouldn’t hesitate.
The kennel is not that far away, and she’d like to see if it’s clean and safe and full of safe love, not to adopt a puppy now, of course, but so she can know whether or not this is where she should look three years from now, whenever.
I finally ask her to stop taking me down this slippery slope, because it hurts every time I have to tell her now is not the time for a puppy, that I feel guilty that I am keeping her from puppy happiness, that I’d like to feel that small bundle of furry frolic and raise a puppy too, but now is not a good time, so please, stop, please stop. She says she will.
She is made vulnerable by the twisted ironies of her life, and now by me. I’m vulnerable because she is. I’ve always craved adventure, but maybe adventure is just a way of forgetting, of running away.
All this inside the question, “Can you love me?” Maybe I just need to say “of course I love you” in a way that gives her exactly what she needs in this moment. In this moment, it’s true. Perhaps it will always be true, but still might not be enough to keep me from mourning past dreams.
She sits at her desk writing, as I sit in this chair, writing. She writes of sadness and loss. The 50 milligrams of prednisone added to her tiny body each day, and the anti-rejection chemotherapy she injects into her belly skin once a week, no doubt heighten her anxieties.
I have no excuses.