Heat stream hiss from the radiator. There is this pretentious pressure surrounding me. I don’t write from a deep place. I write from the air just above my skin, not my bones. The air is thin and odious. It smells of nervous sweat.
The other day I was driving home and the kids and I got talking about the body, its cells, and a memory came to me, of drawing muscle cells for biology class. Thin, orange, tube-like structures, each with a single eye. I thought about the texture of meat, and how it all made sense. I thought of mitochondria, the powerhouse, and Mrs. White who had perfectly sculpted blond hair and a nearly round nose. She had a soft-spoken manner and was generally likable, the kind of teacher the kids didn’t want to irritate because it would be too awkward. I wanted her to like me, but I went virtually unnoticed in her class. The classroom windows looked out upon the playing fields where we ran free at the base of Bowling Green Mountain.
As a child, I used to like holding up a small mirror against a larger mirror and watching the image repeat itself to a vanishing point. Mirror upon mirror, image upon image, if you moved one, they all shifted in unison, like the sweeping of a dragon’s tail.
Josie’s walking around downstairs. Now she’s slurping water. I hear her struggling to breathe. We no longer can do our long walks in the woods, because she can’t handle the hills, and her breathing becomes too labored. This labored breathing mirrors the labored breathing of the people with the virus; thousands of them extend outward to a vanishing point. Around the world, machines breathe for these people, because their lungs are turning to glass. A big red glob of a lung cell reaches a tiny, hopeful hand out, and the virus plunges a thorn into its palm. The hopeful hand has no choice but to take it in where the virus feasts on proteins and multiplies.
Breathing. To take a breath is to “inspire.” Every moment we become new with new oxygen, the same way ideas reach us and stimulate us, making our minds new.
But things are different now. When I listen to some of these experts speak, I get a lump in my throat, like I used to when anxiety once overwhelmed me. I now know the difference between the lump and struggling for breath, though. I hear Josie and I know the difference.
She won’t heal on her own, my girl. She’ll just get worse and worse until her throat closes. So I have a decision to make: have her go through the ordeal of an operation at the age of twelve or let nature take its course. The disease is called laryngeal paralysis, and it’s common in Labradors. I walk around, go about my day, knowing this, like I knew about my father’s cancer and Ralphie’s tumor, a ticking time bomb lodged in his heart. I go through my daily duties wondering if I will in the future be hooked up to a machine, or, if there will be one available, should I need it. There is all this devastating knowledge I carry around with me.
I walk in the woods alone now, and try to be marveled by the sky, by the frogs resurrecting themselves from the mud, singing. The Cooper’s Hawk perches in the Japanese maple, its soft, maple-colored breast an irregularity in the landscape, something the eye can detect. She swoops across the yard with silver wings, rapid fire. The doves around the birdseed have disappeared. They don’t hang out by the safflower like they used to, stuffing themselves under the soothing green limbs of the hemlocks, too fat to fly. The saddest thing is finding a dead dove with its breast torn open, its soft down, scattered. Eyes shut. There’s something angelic and innocent about the shut eyes. I place a shovel under it and its head lolls this way and that. I bury it with soft earth, and guard the mound, watch if creatures come to claim it, dig it up, like they did the swift I buried last fall.
The last walk in the woods with Josie was on a cold, March morning. We were coming down the sidewalk, and she was moving with the kind of grace known only to momentum. I looked up and saw it there, its striking edges prominent on the fence. It was a perfect cross, a shadow in the sunlight coming off the fence. There was no “is that a cross, or oh, there is a cross” it was more like: Cross. And I didn’t take it to mean “here is a cross, and I am protected by God.” Its edges were too sharp for that. I took it to mean: suffering. An acknowledgement, more or less, of my suffering and the suffering that is to come.