On April 2, 2006, two years ago now, my big dog Wally, who was thirteen (a magnificent mutt made of Border collie, Springer spaniel, and Bassett hound), collapsed in the kitchen with a huff, but never a squeak or cry. He'd been failing slowly since our first dog died, Desi, aged fifteen (half Border collie, half Boston terrier), back that November, always barking at the back door nights: Desi wasn't in!
Because it was a Sunday and none of our local vets do emergencies anymore (understandably, with a week of long days behind them), I drove him down to the animal emergency clinic in Lewiston, stopping twice to check on him. He looked at me with the same loyal eyes as ever, pure preternatural trust. At the vet I hefted him inside. Two attendants took him from me. That dog was heavy. A sick ferret came in, a cat gone blind, several other dogs. Soon the vet came out and took me in a side room where Wally waited, now unconscious. An incredibly empathetic woman in white scrubs, she gave Wally a shot, and after a moment or two he just relaxed. I held him tight with my hand on his heart and felt it slow and then stop, felt him go, let him go, cut a lock of his very long hair, left him there for cremation (I picked up his ashes a few weeks later, and they're still on top of my fridge).
The next Sunday I talked on the phone with my mom, who hadn't been doing well either, slowly languishing in home hospice under the valiant care of my dad. I told her that the reason I hadn't called the weekend previous was that Wally had died. She was unusually clear that afternoon, someone who'd been in and out of the fog, said something about how much our pets teach us about death, since they don't live long, and we see their whole life spans.
The next Sunday, April 16, was Easter, and I took Elysia out for breakfast while her mommy got some space and hid eggs at home, lots of fun for Dad and daughter at the Homestead Bakery, big brunch crowd, all the French toast my little girl could eat, plenty of crayons to color with, a perfect date. Home again there was a message from my dad on the answering machine, something vague about morphine and comfort. I called him right back, and he wasn't much clearer-these are hard things to say directly. But the hospice nurse had been there Good Friday and then again Saturday, and… No need to come down, he said.
So I got in the car. Never has a six-hour trip seemed so brief. I remember Sunday organ music on the radio. My older brother Randy lived near my folks and was already there. Somewhere near Hartford he called to say Mom had died. I felt furious, mad at the world. I asked pretty firmly that he not let the funeral home take her away till I'd gotten there. And they did not. I got to sit with her an hour, and that hour has become very important to me, not that I could explain why very easily. And the hour has gotten tied up in my head somehow with Wally. Somehow having been with him at the last made it tolerable that I hadn't been with Mom.
The writer Richard Russo
called me that next fall with an idea. Hospice Volunteers of Waterville were a bunch of saints, brought surcease to people in pain, and needed funding. He'd met with them and rejected the idea of what he calls a literary bake sale, came up with a bigger, better idea, something simple: get a few Maine writers together, make a little volume of stories from the hospice organization. One thing the hospice volunteers were very, very, rich in was stories. I immediately said yes: I was in the depths of my private mourning and, always selfish, thought the project would have benefits of its own kind for me in my pain.
Rick also called Monica Wood, Susan Sterling, Gerry Boyle, and Wes McNair, all of whom said yes-couple of hours of interviews, couple of nights of writing, no big deal-and planned to write one of the stories himself. We each interviewed three or four hospice volunteers, and I think all found the project was going to be much more difficult than we'd thought. How to choose among the stories? How to bring such personal material to the page, do honor to the living and the dead? We'd also worried that the book would come off maudlin, too sad to even open.
But that has not turned out to be true. Not at all. Hospice, as it turns out, is as much (maybe more) for the living than for the dying (then again, we're all dying, aren't we). And A Healing Touch, the prettiest little book (with woodcuts by Siri Beckman), turns out to be full of life, joy of the most poignant kind.
Rick connected with Down East, and they will donate a portion of their profits to the Hospice Volunteers of Waterville Area
. We writers have donated all our royalties. There will be various events and a lot of media attention (watch for us on "207" on Channel 6, April 7, 7 p.m., for one example, and listen for Rick Russo on Maine Public Radio). All of my readers and anyone else interested are invited to the book launch party at the Hospice Community Center, 304 Upper Maine Street in Waterville, on Friday, April 11, from 4-6. There is no cost for the reception, but you might want to buy a book and get it signed by all six of us. The Hospice Volunteers would appreciate an RSVP, thought it's not required: 873-3615, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
. And for Farmington types, Wes McNair and I (and possibly others) will be doing a reading at Devanney, Doak, and Garrett Booksellers on Broadway in Farmington, 7:00 p.m., Thursday, May 1.
It's a wonderful book to benefit a wonderful organization. Please help us get the word out!Editor's Note: Signed copies of A Healing Touch are available at Down East.com . Bill Roorbach is correct: The book is full of poignant, life-affirming stories.