Human Parts
Published in

Human Parts

LIVED THROUGH THIS

Two Terrible Losses Changed the Way I Live

On suddenly losing a pet, and slowly losing my husband

Photo: Alvan Nee/Unsplash

It had been a doozy of a week. First, Holden, my beloved Pomeranian, received a diagnosis of malignant and inoperable cancer. Second, my husband Paul (16 years my senior), was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The news about the dog was an utter surprise — he’d seemed like his happy, affectionate self, his copper coat thick and lush, his black eyes shiny. It was hard to believe he was mortally ill. Whereas with my husband, I had known. Or rather, I had been doing my level best not to know. But signs had been there for quite some time — I had just been hell-bent on ignoring them.

Certain things had been easy to overlook — at first. If he forgot to pick up a container of milk on his way home or blanked on that dental appointment, I could explain that within the framework of his artistic-and-easily-distracted personality. I was the Type A in the marriage; he was the dreamer. On the rare evening I left him with the kids while I went out, I’d come home to find them passed out in front of the television, still in their clothes. Dinner had been Cheez Doodles, chocolate chip cookies, and ice cream. Every board game in the house was out, homework went undone, teeth unbrushed. But they’d had a blast.

I couldn’t say for sure when it changed, or when I began to notice that he was now losing track of appointments and dates that, unlike the dentist, he wanted to keep. And that his once unerring sense of direction was off — first a little, then a lot. Okay, I thought. So his memory is a little fuzzy but wasn’t that a normal part of aging? And even if it were more than that, what good would it do to know?

Then there was the New Year’s Eve that our daughter Kate and her boyfriend Tom were about to depart for Paris. Paul called the taxi, schlepped their bags to the curb, pressed money in Kate’s palm, gave her a kiss and told her to send postcards from the Louvre. Then a few hours later, he turned and asked me where she was. The gig, as they say, was up.

The neurologist whom we consulted said that the only certain diagnosis of Alzheimer’s could be made post mortem, but that since Paul exhibited all of the markers for the disease, I could assume that’s what he had.

We left the office in a fugue state. Or rather I did, because Paul wasn’t aware of what the diagnosis meant or even, after a few minutes, that it had been made. In my despair, I didn’t realize was that there could possibly be a ray of light in any of this darkness.

The dog held his own for a few more months, months during which I loved and spoiled him every chance I could. And when it was clear his life was no longer pleasurable or even tolerable, I took him to the vet for the final time, and placed my face close to his snout, murmuring to him as the needle was inserted.

Now the dog was gone but my husband was very much alive. Apart from his failing cognition, his general health was excellent. Trim, energetic, and able to walk for miles without being winded, his body was at odds with his mind, as if fate was taunting us. Or was it? He couldn’t exchange the cruel hand he’d been dealt for another. But it was possible I hadn’t fully understood the game.

Until his diagnosis, I hadn’t realized how much emotional energy I’d been expending to keep the knowledge of his illness at bay. This was a largely unconscious process and its toll was revealed only when I’d stopped. It was as if I’d been pushing, futilely, at a boulder in my path and then all at once, I wasn’t. What a relief. And also — what an opportunity. Now I could direct that effort toward something else.

I began to think about our lives, and what they might look like in the next few years. What do you want? I asked myself. And then made a list. I decided to include only things I thought I had reasonable or even possible hope of getting. That villa in Tuscany? Not a chance. A pair of Verdura Cuffs like the ones I’d drooled over in vintage photos of Coco Chanel? Dream on.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t want to dream. There wasn’t time. My husband’s mind was crumbling like a sugar cookie, right before my eyes. I had to name a few realistic goals and then work like the devil to meet them.

The first thing I wanted was to finish a novel I’d started in 2010 and then put aside. Then I wanted to find a new agent to sell it, and a new editor to publish it. I also wanted to do a serious face lift on the parlor floor of our Brooklyn row house. And I wanted a puppy. No big deal, right? Piece of cake.

Not exactly. But I was propelled by a jet stream of motivation. The fact that I no longer had to deny the increasingly obvious signs of Paul’s decline left space for other things and that pitiless diagnosis was as galvanizing as a cattle prod. Forget about gathering those rosebuds; I was grabbing at them with both hands and yanking them off the bush.

The novel came first. I opened the long-dormant file that held the manuscript — although it was online, I could almost hear the thing creak and groan.

But I had a story I was burning to tell and besides, I’d been through this process before. The work was slow at the start and then less so as I gained momentum.

I finished the draft, found the agent who in turn found the publisher.

Once the book (titled NOT OUR KIND and written under the pen name of Kitty Zeldis) was on the road to publication, I moved down the list. Our present kitchen was in wretched shape; the downstairs bathroom even worse. I’d once gotten an estimate from a contractor I trusted and his price to complete everything on my wish list was about $110,000 — 15 years ago. With two kids soon on their way to college, that wasn’t a number I could even consider so I put that plan on pause.

Now college was a wrap and the kids were launched. I went over that wish list and began to whittle it down. What could I do without and what felt essential? I came up with a more modest proposal that would give us a new kitchen with a window that overlooked a magnificent magnolia tree in our neighbor’s yard. We could even manage a spiffy little powder room. Contractors were consulted, and bids compared. I found someone to do the job at a price I could afford, cashing in an IRA to add to the book advance.

“Don’t you think you should be saving your money?” asked my mother. She had a point. But this was our home, our life. Travel was becoming less viable. I wanted to invest — financially, emotionally, spiritually — in the house Paul and I had bought, lived in, and loved.

It took three dusty, noisy months of work during but finally it was done. Though I was the engine for the renovation, Paul was totally on board for the ride. An artist and photographer by profession, his eye was still keen and he weighed in on all the aesthetic choices — the glazed Mexican tiles in the kitchen, the pale blue we chose for the walls, the toile de jouy pattern in the front hallway, the crazy peacocks, and black-and-white marble of the powder room were all decisions we made together.

And once the dust was wiped clean and the construction grit vacuumed up, I found Dottie, the six-month-old Pomeranian that trotted right into my heart and never left. There is a lot of sadness living with a demented person, sadness that permeates all the days that you share. A puppy is a counterweight, and her joyful spirit pushed back against the sorrow.

None of this compensates for Paul’s terrible illness, or the way it’s inexorably stripping away the layers of self, leaving only a ravaged and at times unrecognizable core — nothing can. But I do know that facing the truth of it, leaning in rather than covering my eyes and shutting it out, was more liberating than I ever could have imagined. The truth did set me free, and even if it’s a freedom tinged with grief, I’m still grateful to have it at all.

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Yona Zeldis McDonough

Yona Zeldis McDonough

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