Last Friday night, as I brushed my teeth, I heard loud music playing from a neighbor’s apartment and lifted open the bathroom window to put my face to the night air, my ears to the music. I couldn’t make out the song, but the sound was so close to the old normal I could hardly pull myself away.
When everything changes, we become myopically drawn to what we previously failed to notice.
Haven’t all of us, during this quarantine, been converted to a devout belief that normalcy is fragile? Or maybe that belief developed earlier—in the wake of 9/11, Trump’s election, perhaps a more personal calamity.
The unforeseen is likely. Pandemics, betrayals, bad diagnoses—all likely. And yet, so much of what’s right in our lives is also utterly unexpected: love and friendship and our very existence.
Joan Didion’s essay collection “The White Album” opens with the line, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” My Advanced Placement students and I recently read and discussed this because so much of what Didion is writing about has to do with what happens when the premises of the stories we tell ourselves fail—as they are, for so many of us now, failing.
At the beginning of April, my wife and I bought a dachshund puppy. Our late dog, Bernie, had made us fond of the breed and we figured, after the shocks of the past few months, we could use some puppy energy.
We named the puppy Abe. He was eight weeks old. The pandemic was already in full swing, and I wore a homemade face mask when we visited the breeder’s place in Prescott. We brought him home—he chewed cords, socks, chased the cats. He barked for our attention, liked belly rubs. A week later, he got sick: parvo. At the vet’s, I cried my way through my cloth mask as the doctor gently explained that, given his young age, it was difficult to say whether he’d live or die.
Abe’s condition worsened. This did not fit with the story I had told myself, the one about getting cancer again, the one about my dog dying, the one about “given the fact that this year has been so unforgiving, the puppy must live.”
Two days after admitting him to the veterinary hospital, my wife received a call saying we might want to come and say goodbye. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t think, in a year of such loss, my heart could take saying goodbye to a puppy.
Abe was in isolation with other parvo-infected dogs. Sarah and I were asked to put on gowns and gloves, and I held his limp body, told him, “I respect your decision, but I’d really like it if you decided to stay with us.” Meaning: I’d really like it if this story ended the way I want it to end, the way I’ve told myself it’s supposed to end. We need to believe in “supposed to.”
But of course I know, through experience, that my “supposed tos” are often illusions. I’ve become adept at adjusting my expectations. Frankly, I’ve come to expect what “isn’t supposed to” happen. Perhaps this is the well from which my anxiety springs, or perhaps this makes me a realist.
After leaving Abe, I came home, listened to the most maudlin music I could find in my collection—Sineade O’Connor, The Smiths, The Cure—cried myself through a box of Kleenex, and presumed that tragedy was imminent.
Sarah and I waited for the call until we fell asleep that night, waited for news of his passing, but in the morning Sarah awoke to a video from one of the nurses: Abe barking, standing, wagging his tail, licking at a spoon of wet food.
“Baby,” Sarah exclaimed. “He’s eating.”
That he would live was antithetical to my belief that nothing ordinary could happen this year.
“And he’s barking,” she added, turning up the volume on her phone so I could hear his high pitched puppy barks.
In my disbelief, all I could manage was a hoarse, “He’s really alive?”
Later that day, we went to see our resurrected puppy. His eyes were alight. He licked at our faces, chewed our hands, snuggled in our laps. In this story, the puppy unexpectedly lives. The tension rises and rises and finally, mercifully, the tension subsides into a simple, albeit unforeseen, happy ending. This does sometimes happen.
On Sunday, teenagers played in a yard—a group of more than 10 who had set up a half pipe for their skateboards. I went from the kitchen window to various rooms in the house, telling my wife, “There’s definitely more than 10 kids gathered there.” As I made my reports, our “miracle dog” chased my feet, chewed on book spines, squeaked his toys, begged for food. How easy it was, watching the teenagers, to forget that only a week ago I was saying goodbye to the very dog who was hopping across our wood floors in pursuit of the cats.
Given the pandemic, the social distancing rules, perhaps I should have intervened to somehow disburse the group of teens, but I felt joy hearing them laugh and swear and shout as young people do. Even though they were breaking rules, I felt relief. Relief in Abe’s puppy antics, in the radiation burn on my back that no longer hurts, in the noise of teenagers skateboarding on a beautiful spring afternoon. Even if the story I was telling myself was false, I wanted to stay in it for that moment when, however fleetingly, it felt like the world was restored to normal, like everything was as it was supposed to be, like nothing ever changed, like nothing ever would.
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