The process of writing through grief

Although on the surface this post doesn’t have anything to do with the novel, I wanted to share a poem that I wrote about our family dog, Rex, whom we said goodbye to this past Friday evening, November 20th. I will be the first to admit that I am not a poet, though every once in a while I secretly write the scraps of poems. I have a folder hidden beneath other folders on my shelf of a cycle of poems I have been wanting to finish about my mother, which I started when she passed away days after New Year’s 2012 after a very difficult illness and death. I seem to gravitate toward the poem to try to capture the immediacy of the situation, the time, my raw feelings in as few words as possible, a sort of Morse Code – mostly because I don’t have the endurance for a longer narrative.

The cycle of poems is called “Pain Management,” which was explained to us by one of the doctors at the long-term, acute-care facility where my mother was transferred to after her two weeks in the ICU, following a bout of pneumonia days before Thanksgiving in 2011. Before her illness, she had been on a cocktail of drugs to ease her physical pains to the tune of tens of pills a day. She was in a coma most of her time in the ICU and when she was transferred to the acute-care facility, she’d been off of her pain meds for another several weeks. She was put back on some of her pills, but since she had a tracheostomy, she could only be given pills through her feeding tube when crushed and diluted with water. When we saw her in physical pain weeks after her admittance, we asked for more pain meds. This doctor then told us that there was a delicate balance between giving her pain meds and needing her to be able to breathe on her own, which was the goal that would allow her to be released. Never mind that we were later told by another doctor, when we were looking for guidance for her permanent relief of pain, that she would never leave this facility, which she had instructed was one of the conditions that she would not accept in her healthcare directive. This first doctor called it pain management, which struck me as ironic at the time. Later, the term applied to writing poems about my mother and me.

Rex last fall in our backyard.
Rex last fall in our backyard.

It seems that for me writing poetry is pain management. I have digressed somewhat with my story about my mother, although I realize it is days before Thanksgiving and somewhere in my grieving self I am making these connections between losing my mother and losing our 15-year-old family dog and am clumsily trying to return to the present situation. As you can see by this post, I’m all over the place, which is why I gravitate to writing, or attempting to write, poetry. It’s a way of pouring all these discordant thoughts that are burying me because of their intensity and volume into a compact form. They are records in small doses of my state of mind.

So consider this post about the process of writing. At times I tried to distance myself from what was happening the last couple of weeks, which is a normal state for most people when confronted with inevitability. When I used to walk Rex in the mornings, I used the quiet time to organize what I had to do that particular day at work or with the novel, or to sort out things that needed my attention. Rex’s hind legs and hips had been weakening in the last several months, which is common in big dogs and German Shepherds and labs in particular; Rex was a mix of the two breeds. In the last couple of weeks, Rex’s health issues included blood in his urine and then a mix of incontinence and inability to pee. We faced vet appointments and recommendations for blood panels and ultrasounds and other tests. All these decisions and implications overcame me during these last walks.

One of my favorite photos of Rex - waiting for the rain to stop so we can go on a walk.
One of my favorite photos of Rex – waiting for the rain to stop so we can go on a walk.

I was capturing little things that were happening either during our walks or in the ritual of taking him to the backyard to pee and poop so he wouldn’t do it on the walk. And I realized these little things meant something to me in a symbolic way. And as a writer, I welcomed them, which is also another way of both distancing myself from what was happening and wanting to capture what was happening. I allowed myself to rejoice in these moments – did this mean I was maturing as a writer for noticing these seemingly simple acts such as dogs barking or making connections out of them?

I wanted something out of my grief. Perhaps that was what was at the heart of the matter. I wanted to write and record. I wanted to pay tribute to a dog whom we rescued from the Berkeley Animal Shelter, who was such a difficult puppy and adult because he couldn’t get along with other dogs and was strong-willed, who was wonderful with people, who became my office mate when our older dog, Bailey, passed away, who was really my dog through all the good and difficult times. I wanted to sort out my feelings in a coherent way, which I feel I am not doing in this post! I write for all these reasons.

I have an urge to delete everything but the first paragraph and just simply present the poem and leave it at that. But whether it’s a good decision or not, especially since I’m not going to reread what I wrote, I’m going to leave it as is to record this moment in time. This is, after all, a blog post. All this to say, I miss Rex terribly, the grief is unbearable, but writing has been healing and I have this poem that captures the moment. It is why I write.

Last month with Rex.
Last month with Rex.

To the Ranch

For Rex (2001-2015)

Just last week, you raced around our cramped backyard,
leapt over the brick borders like a hurdler,
like you used to do when you were younger, invincible, incorrigible.

Back then, years ago, as I watched you streak across the dirt garden,
Whipping past the overgrown Bird of Paradise, and slaloming
in and out of the ancient magnolia trees and fence, you were letting us know
you were meant to live on a ranch, not the suburbs.

But you are dashing now, turning back to look at me, pointedly,
this time as if to say, I know what you are thinking,
I know what your silences, your eyes are saying.
I still chase after squirrels until they scurry up the telephone poles.
And did you take note that I did not back down,
just as I did when I was much younger,
when that cat lunged after me on our walk last week?

Yes, I saw. I see now.

When we walked late this afternoon, I looked around
the neighborhood in wonder. You heard them, too –
the German Shepherd making its way to the front of the two-story house,
the French bulldog in the picture window, the terrier crashing the fence,
the trio of pugs and their clockmaker owner on the street corner –
all barking at you, urgent, insistent.
A chorus, a symphony, on every block.
What were they telling you? That you have a good life?
That you are having a good walk, a good journey,
And soon, very soon, you will have all the spaces you need to roam?

You didn’t even look up at them. You charged forward,
stumbling, then untangling your hind legs,
pulling on the leash, pulling us home.


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