This has been a rough year for my mother. Her husband of 55 years, my father, died last October. She thought she had already grieved, but soon realized the grief she experienced before his death wasn't about his death. It was the grieving of who he was - the vibrant, energetic, incredibly capable man. It was the grief of acceptance that her best friend was going away and there wasn't anything she could do about it.
After my dad's death, grief took the form of a compromised immune system that left her ripe for stubborn and recurrent staph infection in her finger. She's withstood three surgical procedures and almost a solid year of heavy duty antiobiotics to knock this infection out of her body. Finally, the infection seems to be gone and she is ready to begin her life again. Her courage in re-imagining her life without my father, without her lover and best friend, is inspiring and keeps me going on those dark days when my dad's absence becomes too much.
Last Sunday, my mom adopted a dog. We grew up with dogs and she's always had a very special bond with them. Dogs love my mother. In a room full of people, most dogs will immediately be drawn to her. When she called and told me about the two-year old black and white poodle mix she had chosen, my brothers and I sighed a sigh of relief. She's back! She's ready to step back into life! A dog would give her someone to care for, someone to look after.
But around Tuesday, I could hear the tension and exhaustion in my mother's voice. Her arthritic knees hurt from the multiple walks this energetic little guy needed. Her scoliosis-ridden hip hurt from walking up and down three flights of stairs. Her wrist hurt from his aggressive barking and pulling toward other dogs.
She also talked about how much she realized my dad had done in taking care of the dogs. He was the one who did the night time walks, the first pee of the day walks. And when both my dad's health and their second dog Zelda's health was waning, it was a comfort to my mom that they could look after each other when she went out.
By Friday, she was in tears. It was like another wave of grief had been unleashed with the presence of this dog, who by this time had chewed up a hearing aid and whose initial stellar housetraining skills were slipping away.
We talked about training and how much improvement dogs can make. She said she'd call the dog trainer and see if they could get started the next week. She told me of outrageous prices (it is LA after all) and of an oddball conversation with a trainer who told her dogs needed to be treated the same as teenagers with a drug addiction. Tough love. Ignore them. Gates and crates and weeks and weeks of training.
You have to understand. This may be self-stereotyping, but Jewish families are not really known for their dog training acumen. Dogs were walked, fed and allowed on the furniture. My father used to remind me to save a portion of my meal for the dog, despite knowing it was not good for their health to have human food. I can't even count the number of times my parents called me by the dog's name before remembering I was the daughter with two, not four legs.
Saturday night, she called me, again in tears, to tell me she just couldn't handle it, that it was too soon and too much. And you know? She was right. And I told her so.
This afternoon she called me and told me she brought the dog back. She wrote a letter to the foster dog center explaining he needed training and that she had underestimated just how much work a dog would be for her. She chuckled as she said the dog was so engaged in barking at the other dogs that he didn't even notice when she left.
And then she said the most wonderful thing to me. "Lisa, I've come to the realization that I have to stop trying to please everyone else. I have to know my limits and this is the time for me to figure out what I want in my life." After raising three children, running an incredibly efficient and clean home, dedicating herself to her marriage and to keeping my dad on this planet for almost 97 years, she's ready to accept the limitation of just being herself. She's ready to accept and embrace that the only being she needs to take care of, look after, is herself. At 78 years old, she has come up against an incredible challenge. After a lifetime of taking care of everyone else, she's facing up to the difficulty of learning what she wants, not what others who love her with all our being and with good intentions, want for her.
The dog will find the perfect family to take on his training and love him. The dog will be fine.
And so will my mom. Here's to reaching our limits and learning from them, whether we're 9, or 50 or 78 years old.
Thanks, Mom, for showing me that the best way to yourself is to walk right into the wall. The next time, and I know there will always be a next time, my nose is about to bonk into that all too familiar wall, I will think of your bravery in saying yes to saying no.