As the worst year ever finally rolls to an end, I am reminded of another New Year’s Eve two years ago when I ended the year alone for the first time ever, or at least since my marriage. My husband of 44 years had passed away seven months earlier.
I experienced many “firsts” in the year after his passing in May. He had been declining progressively since 2013, but had held it pretty much together while my father endured 18 months in hospitals and nursing centers with me helming the ship of his medical journey.
In what seemed like a seamless transition, my husband took a definitive turn for the worse shortly after my father’s death in 2016. My passing acquaintances with dementia, diabetes, and heart failure evolved into close and personal relationships. Each of his maladies came with its appropriate doctor, who, one by one, joined the circle of my new best friends.
As many care givers can confirm, overseeing someone with these conditions compounded by memory loss requires constant observation and vigilance. Many nights I went to bed, mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted, experiencing a fitful sleep and wondering whether the man next to me would still be breathing in the morning.
One morning, he wasn’t. In fact, I found him on the floor, his heart having stopped suddenly when he was walking to the bathroom. I didn’t even hear him drop. He left this world as most of us would prefer, quickly and painlessly, leaving me to record the ending in my mind’s eye.
In the aftermath, I had much to do. Preparing a memorial, notifying friends and family, getting financial affairs in order, and probating the will kept me occupied. Within months, most everything was done. Adrift in a sea where no one needed me to do anything, be in any particular place, perform any particular task, I’d lost my moorings. What do I do now?
One doesn’t make plans for their widowhood. First of all, you don’t know when that time will come. Second, it smacks of wishful thinking, which feels a bit unseemly. Then, there’s the difficulty of imagining a single life. Even more difficult was imagining that I might need help.
That was proven in September that year when I hurt my back and couldn’t leave my bed for several days. No one was around to notice that I had to crawl to the bathroom. Asking for help didn’t occur to me. I was, after all, the one who helped others!
A few weeks after that episode, my son in Los Angeles asked me to temporarily shelter his ex-girlfriend who was moving back to Austin and needed a place to stay until she could get on her feet. I liked her very much and welcomed her to my too-quiet house. I figured she might even bring me food if I landed in bed again! But the real bonus to this arrangement was her ownership of two darling little dogs, Pascal – a Maltese – and Einstein, a mix of Maltese and Chihuahua. Since they didn’t have to go to work during the day like their owner, we became devoted companions.
Of the two, Pascal was the Alpha dog – very bossy. An on-line search of Maltese characteristics revealed that this was a common trait of the breed. In fact, one site said that a Maltese can take over a household if you aren’t careful from the beginning. I learned this too late. He kept me on a tight schedule.
Specifically, aside from the periodic calls of nature, there were the morning and evening meal times, not to mention my own meal times when I was expected to set aside a few scraps for him. When it came time to walk, Pascal would position himself close to the door with eyes steadily locked on me, demanding action. In the late evenings, he’d leave his sofa perch and I’d find him laying in the hallway, pointedly waiting for me to announce it was crate time (bedtime). And yet, he’d lose all control and run around in happy circles when he saw me bringing his food or reaching for the leash. I always smiled to see such joy in motion!
Einstein was more easy-going, often just following Pascal’s lead. That said, he had one nasty habit stemming, I think, from his Chihuahua genes. Specifically, he was a bit over-protective, barking at people he saw from street side windows or the delivery people on the other side of the front door. Worse, though, was how that trait manifested when my friends, who were just trying to get on his good side, made the mistake of letting their hands get too close to his teeth. Yikes!
In short, my roost was ruled by my little boarders. But I was okay with that. Having lived under the rule of a relentless and cruel medical regime, I appreciated the lively reign of these shaggy beings and their wagging tails.
So, I wasn’t actually “alone” on New Year’s Eve 2018. The dogs and I spent it together while their owner went out with friends. I decided to watch the movie “Roma,” which was lengthy and required my attention to read the subtitles. I thought I’d simply watch the movie, put the dogs in their crates, and go to bed early. No countdown, no clinking of glasses, no saying “Happy New Year” to another human being. I’d just power through the night.
But then, fireworks rang out in the neighborhood, way before midnight, and the two little dogs clamored to my side, whimpering, shaking, and shivering. Flat-out terrified! With one hand, I caressed Pascal who had firmly planted himself on my lap; with the other arm, I closely embraced Einstein whose little body was just one big shiver.
We stayed like that, glued together, a threesome of beings in reassuring contact, until midnight passed and the fireworks stopped. The movie was good, I think, and whatever I watched afterwards, I’ve long since forgotten. All I wanted was to help these scared little animals cope with the terror of the night.
They didn’t know it, of course, but they were helping me, too. I was finding my own kind of comfort from patting their furry bodies and keeping them close. It was a strange little miracle of caretaking in my household that night.
In the last few months, both of my sweet canine friends passed over that rainbow bridge, succumbing to health problems that weren’t apparent that year. It’s a sadder world without them, but I’ll long remember that night when three disconcerted souls found comfort with each other in that year’s waning hours. May they rest in peace and live on in the hearts of all of us who loved them.
This year couldn’t be more different than 2018. I consider myself a lucky woman to be ringing in the new year with a wonderful human being who will take care of me if I begin to shiver. And, he may even take me for a walk on New Year’s Day! Life can be sweet with the right companion! Like running-in-circles sweet with tail a-wagging.
Here’s to a better 2021 as we say good riddance to 2020! We deserve better. Take care, be safe, and stay healthy, my friends!