Four funerals and a wedding. That’s how this wedding season is shaping up so far, and the second half of the year is yet to be mined. Is 2021 the pandemic’s hangover? It feels that way, but no, it’s just my time in life. In my twenties, everyone married in a single heat. We climbed the starting block, staring down the lane, and dove head first into the pool when the whistle blew. Some had kids, some didn’t. The thirties were shards of smashed glass. Couples collected their belongings, parting ways, their edges frayed and a little crispy. Forty brought big changes sometimes coined existential crises. Now, in my late forties, our final rite of passage, death, and the years leading up to it, blanches the diary.
This past weekend, strangers queued in a circle, beers in hand after the funeral, introducing themselves to one another at a bar in the middle of West Virginia. No one mentioned kids (so it’s not just horse folk), but everyone talked about the challenges of caring for ageing parents. And according to an old neighbor, I have the second round of divorces to look forward to in my fifties. Sitting on a stool in her kitchen sipping wine several years ago, she let out a long sigh as she hung up the phone. Turning around to face me, she said, “All of my friends are getting divorced. After twenty-five years.” I was surprised. “Why?” I asked. Shrugging, she said, “The last kid just graduated from high school, so they’re all splitting up.”
What should I prepare for at sixty?
The past four weeks have been a blur. I recognised the challenges I enlisted—the writing class, TA’ing the Brand Sprint again—but failed to factor in unforeseen developments like work returning to pre-pandemic levels and a dog who couldn’t be left alone. All of those pieces resembled a Jenga puzzle shaking with more fervor than the Tacoma Bridge. The inability to leave the dog alone proved the most difficult. One Friday, I took him for a long walk (thirty minutes was all his obesity would tolerate), turned the TV on loudly, and fed him treats away from the door, slipping out undetected. I waited in the hallway, listening to him whine before it erupted into full-fledged yelps, his siren a well-rehearsed metronome. I gave it ten minutes more before retreating back indoors. I did this three times. Eventually, I had to get to my office. It was already 3 pm by then, and I had spent most of my day walking a fat, old dog. I deployed the same tactics before leaving, mindful Russ was running late, but would be home shortly.
The dog was alone for twenty minutes, but he still peed on the mat. (Pissed, but still a gentleman.) This was the third time he flagged his opinion to be sure we had no doubts. My nerves exploded into shrapnel that day, and I felt sincere compassion for parents of toddlers everywhere who did this for years. Likely more than once. Even though toddlers do nap fairly regularly, allowing their parents to leave the room, let alone their sights. For three weeks I was tethered to a dog. Twenty-four, seven. The last Saturday he lived with us, I woke early to use the bathroom, and the dog followed me, whining outside the door. I just wanted to be alone for five fucking seconds. Pretty soon, Russ yelled my name from the bed. “JENN! …JEEENNN!!!! Get the dog!!! …JENNNN!!”
I sat on the toilet, listening to the roll of the dog’s whine, like an ocean swell crashing the door panel, while Russ barked my name, snippy and clipped, from the bed where he lay cocooned in a swath of blankets. Annoyed, I flushed the toilet and marched back to the bedroom, hot dog breath spraying my heels, and smashed a pillow over Russ’ face. “Can’t I have five minutes to take a fucking shit in peace? You’re such an asshole! What did you think I was doing?”
Luckily, before I drove to West Virginia, the foster dog scored his forever home. I met his godmother in the parking lot of the Safeway in Georgetown where I handed him off to her. She had looked after him while Russ and I were at a wedding and volunteered to transport him to his new home. I continued from there to a friend’s house to participate in a fundraiser. We each bought a ticket to an Iranian cooking class taught by her good friend. The weeks leading up to it were so scattered, I had somehow concocted a vision of the chef cooking while we watched and learned. We would hold cool glasses of sweet wine in one hand, while tasting rich, aromatic samples in the other.
My first hint I was wrong came earlier in the day. My friend texted asking if I wanted her to pick up ingredients for the both of us. Huh? I swung for the fences. I chirped, “Sure! That would be great! Thank you!” That sounded plausible, I thought to myself, and not like I had no idea what was going on. I arrived to discover class would be held over zoom. Strangling my bottle of wine like a chicken’s neck, I surveyed the pile of ingredients sitting counterside and asked for the corkscrew. I signed up for more work? That I paid money to do? Completely jaded I know, but like I said, my nerves were shot.
My friend did most of the heavy lifting, but together we cooked saffron steamed rice, saffroned chicken with barberry braise, and served it with an onion, cucumber and coriander quick pickle. I had never tasted a barberry before. Who am I kidding? I had never heard of them. Barberries resemble rubies the size of two carats. They are small, but their flavour is strong and punchy. I thought they tasted somewhat like scented soap. It was strangely alluring the same way some people find cilantro. I actually left before dinner finished cooking. I was on fumes, and I still had a funeral to go, with a long drive there and back.
Having a foster dog was a good reminder: If the dog has to be perfect in order to “fit in,” you shouldn’t have one. As much as I would love a dog, now is not the time. It was also a good reminder how expensive it can be to have a pet. One “free” dog cost hours of time in the car, crossing the toll road and the interstate, and roughly $700 in incidentals pertaining to the dog. This was time I didn’t have to give (and didn’t realize would be necessary) and money I didn’t necessarily want to spend in this way. Was it worth it? Yes. Would I do it again? Probably not.
We helped a dog out. That was the point. But there are some real costs and constraints involved in doing so, ones that can have a huge impact on your life. My nerves were shot, but I still loved the dog. How can you not when the dog adores you so unconditionally? By the end of his stay, he lost enough weight we could see the start of his hips. He walked faster and further with a little spring in his step. And he started licking his ass incessantly. Why? Because he could finally reach it. It must have been a very long time. Russ and I high-fived each other the day before he left. For the first time in three and a half weeks, the dog lifted his leg to pee, steady as a rock, instead of squatting. If that doesn’t signal success, I don’t know what does.