cyle talley

While We Weren’t Looking*

“Now that everyone is out of the room, will someone please tell me why that dog is still alive?” We, the adult children of the family, turn our eyes to the old dog on the carpet. He is licking a massive open bloody sore that has taken over the entirety of his right shoulder. We cannot decide if we are happy about this licking. It is disgusting, but not as disgusting as the oozing puss that would inevitably drip onto the floor if he did not.

The question is answered by our collective silence. We all know why the dog has not yet been put down. It is our father. Though initially, the dog was supposed to be for us, our father ended up taking care of the animal because of our lack of follow through and childishly shortsighted sense of responsibility. Everyone knew that it would go this way. That we, as children, would be unable to conceive of the time it takes to properly care for an animal- the training, walking, feeding, cleaning, bathing.

Our father knew, but he gave us the dog anyway.

It its prime, it was a magnificent creature. The shining example of canis familiarus, as our veterinarian grandfather likes to say. A mutt who, exerting only a slight amount of effort, could leap over the rural barbed wire fences we grew up around from a sitting position. A stocky, well built creature who would come barreling down the side of the hill behind the house at full tilt, leaping over the seven foot wide ditch embankment, landing on the other side in stride. An animal who fought off packs of coyotes, who once caught up with and then latched onto the hind leg of a deer. An animal who once launched himself into the air seemingly without provocation only to catch a low-flying mockingjay by its tail feathers.

Another hero brought low by the insidious creep of age.

The dog has always been a bit of an idiot. As is often the case with rare athletes, it relied on brute strength and agility rather than increasing its mental horsepower. Now that it is also nearly blind and increasingly deaf, there are those among us who feel as though a three strike policy ought to be enforced. Being dumb is one thing. Being dumb and deaf and blind is an evolutionary impossibility- not to mention, we feel, an irresponsibility. So, we are wondering how to broach the subject with our father.

As is ever the case in these sorts of situations, we will speak with our mother.

“I don’t know why the damned dog is still alive. I’ve told him again and again, but he just says, ‘He’ll go when he goes, sweetheart.'” She mocks our father’s deep, resonant voice. “I tell him that the sore is getting worse and that it’s getting on the floors and that it will make us sick, but he won’t hear any of it. He won’t do a thing about it.”

She is exasperated, as is her way. We do not know what to do.

“Have any of you spoken to your grandfather recently?” One of us has. The responsible one. The rest of us begrudge him for his sense of responsibility and duty. He makes the rest of us look bad. We would dislike him more, but he is an excellent conversationalist and gives each of our lives the same responsibility and sense of duty. We like the attention and so we only begrudge him a little as our mother looks upon him with a glow. The responsible one reports that our grandfather’s facilities are growing worse. That he is increasingly unable to hold a conversation for very long. That his speech is only more and more riddled with non sequiturs and that occasionally, he forgets who he is speaking to. Our heart’s break for our father’s father. The great champion of our young lives. The man who taught us how to hold a bat, throw a ball and which base to throw to. The man who regaled us with stories of his favorite team and player. The man who sat through each of our childhood events- plays, games, concerts, recitals- even if he did bring an AM radio and earbud that he ran along the length of his sleeve to listen to baseball games.

We knew that the results from his latest visit to the oncologist were clear. We did not know that the dementia that has plagued each generation of our family had taken further hold of his once fertile brain. Or rather, we knew, but did not want to know.

Our grandmother, saint that she is, sent each of us a copy of an old photograph of our grandfather recently. He is in full uniform for the Stanford Trees. His socks are pulled high, the wool trousers are loose around his narrow waist and his wool cap is pulled low. His gaze is steeled and set on something off camera as he stands in batting position. Though never a large man, we were surprised by how commanding his grip is in the photograph. The strength of his hands is palpable. The focus of his gaze and vision overwhelming. On the back of the photograph, our grandmother wrote in her full, looping and elegant script, “This was his last season before going to graduate school for animal sciences.”

Our dad joins us in the living room, gingerly stepping over the animal who whines softly with each breath. He collapses onto the couch, reaches for the remote and turns the television to the Sunday game.

“How old is that dog now, Dad?” one of us asks, raising our voice to be heard over the din of the television. Its light flickers across our father’s face. We did not realize that he was so gray. We did not realize that the lines on his face are deepening. In our minds, he is still the man who we used to race- we on our bicycles and he on foot. We still cannot fathom how he beat us every time. In our minds, he is still the man who can chase us through the house, leaping over couches and soaring over dining room tables in single bounds. He says little. He rarely ever has. He doesn’t much need to. He smiles, he listens, he nods and we know that he is paying attention. Occasionally, as he does now, he furrows his brow.

“Oh, probably 15 or so. Old for a dog his size,” he stoops over and rubs the dog’s ear. “Aren’t you, old timer? Pretty damned old, yeah? Too stupid to die!” The dog, for its part, barely moves.

There is a loud crack of the bat and the televised crowd roars.

“It’s not going out,” our father says, talking to no one in particular and without raising his head. As kids, we used to wonder how he could say such things so definitively- more importantly, how he could be so infuriatingly right each time. He would take us to baseball games and we would fly out of our seats with each hard hit, hoping, in our youthful exuberance, for a home run. He was so accurate with these predictions that we learned to temper our enthusiasm and wait to react. We began to ask questions about how he knew every time. If we’re being honest, we did not merely ask- we pestered and besieged him with questions. We wanted to know, too.

To his credit, he tried to answer us. However, our dad specializes in the monosyllabic and we were never satisfied with his answers. It was our grandfather who finally clarified things for us.

“Your dad was the greatest catcher I ever saw,” he told us. “He moved better, framed the ball better and could throw like you wouldn’t believe. It was effortless, easy. What really set him apart though, were his eyes and ears. He’d see everything happening on the field. And I mean to tell you everything.” We would let our imaginations wander with our grandfather’s at this story, even though we couldn’t begin to imagine what our dad looked like at our age. “When they sent him out to the outfield- which was a damned shame, by the way- he’d move with the crack of the bat. He’d seen and heard so many baseballs hit that he knew by the sound where they were going and how far. Incredible. Absolutely incredible. Never could figure out why he didn’t go further. His choice, though. It just goes to show you how much you can learn by looking.” We only heard this story once, but we will never forget the pregnant pause our grandfather gave. His gaze steeled and his eyes far away, seeing something that we could not yet see. He sighed audibly before saying, “Greatest catcher I ever saw.”

The camera follows the tiny white speck into the ether and hangs with it for a moment before it begins its tailing arc into the fielder’s mitt just in front of the outfield fence. The televised crowd falls mute, disappointed. Their exuberance tempered by the third out. The sides switch. The announcer says something about the wind keeping everything in the ball park tonight.

We are not surprised.

We lean back on the couches and chairs of our childhood home, surrounding our father on another Sunday evening as he watches a baseball game between two teams he cares nothing about. He has never followed a team. He simply loves the game of baseball. Its lines, its strategy, its familiar form. We watch him as he watches the television screen. We are still amazed at the man- by both our memories of him and the familiar form in front of us. We cannot believe that he is suddenly so gray, so middle aged.

We look at each other. Is this happening to us, too? Is that a wrinkle on her face? Is his hairline receding? Did we really talk about investment portfolios at dinner this evening? About 401k’s? We think about the bands we listen to. Have we even set foot in a record store recently? Are we really wearing leather sandals? Loafers? White tennis shoes? Are those really our sedans in the driveway?

The dog sits up, breathing heavily. Age weighs him down like an anchor and raising himself from the ground is a gargantuan effort. He can no longer breathe through his nose and instead pants all of the time. His breath is stymied, labored- noisy. Our father reaches for the remote and turns the television up. We watch the digital dial go from 31 to 37. The volume, already intrusive, now overwhelms the living room as he tosses the remote back to the table. Even the dog, nearly deaf, is surprised by the now incredible volume and looks toward the screen before returning his attention to our dad. Some of us reach for our ears.

“Dad,” we raise our voices. “That’s really loud.”

He furrows his brow and reaches for the remote. The television goes back down to 31. He leans in toward the television. The dog sits beside him, breathing forcefully into his ear.

“Pipe down, would ya? You rascal. You’re making it hard to hear.” He wraps his hands around the dog’s ear and scratches it with steel force. The strength of the man’s grip is palpable to us as we watch. The dog groans with pleasure. “Oh, you like that do you, old man? Eh, old timer?” The dog moans in reply. Our dad grits his teeth, pretending to wretch the animal’s ear from its head. He grabs the dog by the muzzle and gives it a light shake. This disorients the dog and it flops back onto the ground. It moans and, after several attempts, manages to turn itself on to its back, exposing its belly. Our dad sighs and obliges. With his head down, the television screen flickers across an entire head of gray.

We, the adult children of the family, sit back and wonder what else has happened while we weren’t looking.

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