Death Loses, Love Wins

Embracing the spirit of man's best friend during hard times

§

in Features • Illustrated by Nina Pagano

Teddy died in my arms.

Teddy tipped his toy box over, pushing it back against the wall. Growling, he looked up for help as he scattered his toys. “Where is my bone? My bones are here, where are they?” Another scratch and growl. He tossed Catia’s turquoise turtle to the side, searching for his Old Mother Hubbard tiny bones. Insistent brown eyes sparkling.

Two black spots on my thumbnails tell me that Teddy could bite hard up to his last days. The head snapping back in fear, protective instinct, ever since Gunther almost killed him on the bog that Good Friday morning.

“John, where were you? You were supposed to be my protector, but you were standing with the morning dog walkers, gazing across the bog, counting the geese, talking as Gunther’s long hound teeth dug into my neck, and then he began to shake, ready to break my neck. I cried out.”

This is very serious. What? Very serious, dangerous, a complicated procedure.

Ann stopped the car in the Gleason Library parking lot to take the call from Dr. Butte, my emergency cardiologist. “Very serious, but we will try to break the blockage as best we can. Next week the specialists from Beth Israel Hospital will oversee the procedure. If not, a heart bypass will save him.”

Widow-makers. Internet searches tell me that one-hundred-percent LAD blockages — left artery descending — often result in widow-making heart attacks.

“But, John, we all die.”

“Yes, Ted, I know, but why? Why leave this world, when your warm body next to mine feels so good?” Your brown sparkling eyes delight, and feet digging hard and fast make my morning walks. The dawn walks are silent today, even as birds and geese usher in the spring. See that, Teddy, hear the woodpecker? He looks up, turning his neck toward me, no more. Teddy took his last breaths in my arms on January 19th at 1:33 p.m., quietly going, as I waited for my heart stent. The Left Artery Descending must be opened, or else.

I feel like shit, Doctor, I feel like shit, you didn’t tell me it would be this bad. I feel like shit, shit, shit!

“But you are alive,” I whisper. The man next to me screams again, “I feel like shit.” Maybe he does.

Alive, I lie in a hospital bed before the COVID-19 onslaught.

Monitors bleep every second, recording the rhythms of my repaired heart. My eyes close, tears well up, knowing that Teddy won’t greet me. Head up, a howl, with thrilled wiggles as I come through the garage door, kneel on the steps, and nibble his cheek — each one. Late at night as the garage doors opened, Teddy would hear my car, jump off the bed, tear down the stairs, and wait at the top of the basement stairs for me to open the door. Tears roll down my cheeks slowly.

When he was ten, 11, and 12, we would kiss and then go outside to pee and howl at the moon. Coming home from school, Teddy would tell me that I was number one, his favorite dog dad. When I worked in the basement — tapping the computer keys all day — Ted would stir as the afternoon light shifted, scratch the carpet again if I continued typing. “Enough, quitting time is 6:00 p.m., time to play.” Okay, Teddy, just a moment. He’d scratch again, no, enough; a whine with those brown eyes sparkling. “Now, save the document, let’s go outside and hear the birds. I must pee before dinner.”

We talked a lot, particularly in the morning, before the day began. Sometimes about the fox’s tracks, the coyotes’ late-night cries, or cloven deer hooves. The red-tailed hawk soaring up high, watching man and dog. The moon moved across the night sky — dark and light, depending. Teddy would look up with me, and then he’d be off. Enough of this people talk, time to chase the rabbit and see what’s happening.

Catch me if you can.

Running hard, before my heart sputtered, I could not catch those four little legs rushing across the bog to Hazel, Remy, or the big, soft morning dogs. Often, Teddy would keep going, disappearing into the thicket, I’d crash through the woods, unable to distinguish the pine needles from my wheaten terrier. Teddy, where are you — trying not to panic as I searched for him in the brush. Teddy was a ratter, so finally I would find him at a hole; squirrel, vole, even a beaver mound, or coyote cave. Teddy would be standing at attention, legs straight, looking down into the darkness. Totally happy, with absolutely no concerns about being lost.

He’d disappear in a flash if I looked up at the soaring hawk or wondered about the swan dipping its long white neck into the bog pond muck. Teddy was faster than me, even when I ran ten-second hundred-yard dashes, way back when. Little three-inch legs pushed hard, fast, excited to greet, explore, and dig deep into the day. I talked with morning dog walkers, the politics of the day — the town’s indecision about preserving the cranberry bog, Trump’s impossible ways, or the ups and downs of oil prices, as the climate fires raged in other lands. Ted let us talk; he found much to smell and dogs to sniff.

How do you feel? Everything worked out.

“Better than we could possibly guess, a surprise — we pushed through the blocked artery and inserted the stent in less than an hour.”

“Like a Roto-Rooter,” I say.

The doctor in a blue coat with red blood splatters nods, surprised to be associated with a plumber. “There was a gusher in one of your arteries, you sprayed blood all over the operating room — on me and the nurses — it happens once every 20 patients. You’ll be black-and-blue around the groin for weeks. Blood everywhere.” The whys of my war wounds.

Ann is no LAD widow; as they wheel out an empty bed and put the plastic bag of another man’s clothes against the wall — they lose one or two a week. The man who felt like shit is shifted to the far corner of the cardiac ward. Bad karma. Someone coughs, nurses walk too quickly, another patient is wheeled into the operating theater, and then all is quiet, except the beeping monitors. I pull out my iPhone and look at Ted’s last minute, head next to his favorite toys, brown eyes looking up at me.

Yes, Ted, we all die — better you than me, I guess. Tears well up as I doze off.

Ann cannot find a parking space close to the hospital. I walk slowly like an old man; the doctors went through each leg artery to fix my heart. At seventy, I might be considered an old man according to various medical checklists; heart stent and prostate cancer. How many lives have I used? Four — stranded in the desert, cancer, heart disease, and biking into the dark shadows of Aspen’s Maroon Bells; no, five, insists Ann as we walk through all four or five of my past lives. Dead 50 years ago without medicine, surgeries, and Boston hospitals. Today, I am another heart survivor, ready for cardiac rehab.

No room for you in the pandemic war zone.

One month later, the studied routine of the cardiac surgery room is gone. Everyone who can wears a mask, even if there are not enough for orderlies or patients; nurses run quickly, no smiles. The daily rhythm is gone. No time for how-do-you-feel today, as I walk past closed doors to the ICU units. Patients feel like shit and too many die — bodies pile up in refrigerated trailers outside the hospitals, while some are tossed into the city holding holes, like too many war zones. The chasm of death fills in quickly.

I was lucky to lie two nights in a quiet hospital room looking out the window, wondering, How did I become a cardiac patient at seventy?

Normal anxieties have evaporated. All of us could carry the virus, or be exposed when we say “Hello, how are you?” Hospitals are death traps for doctors, nurses, patients, and workers. No one visits; you die alone in some tent, or nursing home, without family holding your hand. Cardiac rehab and lifesaving stent procedures are a luxury when bodies are tossed into dirt holes, waiting for tomorrow’s caskets and empty ceremonies. Exponential graphs explain why we must flatten the coronavirus curve. No one knows how bad it will get — curves and more curves sloping up, and then down.

There are no reassuring hands touching patients’ arms, or quiet conversations about hearts, recovery, or tomorrow’s procedures. No more smiling questions, “What is your birthday?” Hospitals are war zones and medical workers are our saviors. Normal was yesterday.

Teddy makes me cry.

My morning walks are silent. Me with coffee cup and Teddy digging, looking around. Tears roll down my cheeks; I am never ready to let go, to give up my dog soul. All my dogs from Lee when I was 11, followed by Michel — one of our fierce, slim boxers — to Feta, Peanut, and Teddy. Our three Norfolk terriers filled my dog soul. But Teddy and I walked, peed, ran, explored, and escaped in the morning light. Sometimes he would disappear into the wild, blending in with the pine needles. A wheaten terrier, lost in the muck, to his delight. I frantically searched, running back and forth, shouting, trying to calm myself. Teddy, where are you, Teddy?

Then, some 20 minutes later, smiling, full of dark-brown mud, he would appear, panting, happy, and not ready for a bath. He’d smelled of the bog and molding leaves. Maybe a growl as I put him under the hose. Teddy, the water is not that cold; remember, you swam in the muck on your own.

No baths unless it was warm with suds and I slipped in first. Only then would Teddy bathe and paddle in the water, splashing front feet until he smelled like lavender soap. The musky smell of wet bog dog gone.

I talked with Teddy. He obliged my morning meditations, even if he preferred the hole he dug last night, or where to escape. He was always a dog, digging down deep, waiting for the voles, chasing the rabbits. We walked each morning, early, he obliging my talk, and our separate thoughts. I am not a dog, Ted, yet I hear you. You gesture with chin, imploring eyes, and make sounds like a three-year-old — Another bone, and Why, you say, do we have to go in? I bend down to the cool nose of love, next to mine.

Crossing the pond in a canoe in the morning sun, Teddy would stand proud on the prow, so he could see the waterfowl — ducks, geese, and swan. Then he would leap as the canoe slid ashore, running across the bog. I far behind.

You are lucky, all looks good.

The nurses in masks and plastic gloves stand back. Dr. Butte looks at the monitor, six feet away — the heart beats a bit faster as the treadmill slopes up. The speed increases; I pick up my pace. 90 beats per minute, blood pressure 140/90; eight minutes into the stress test, my heart pumps up to 131 and BP at 150/101. Good. The heart works, no angina. I am out of shape after the emergency procedures.

“John, two months ago, you could not go three minutes. We saw the LAD blockage and the syncopated beats. A real widow-maker; today the heart is almost normal, a skip here and there. Nothing serious.”

Healthy on March 25th, as the coronavirus cuts through Italy, France, Spain, Iran, and New York City, then the COVID-19 creeps cell by passed-on cell into Massachusetts, Louisiana, and Florida — across the USA. Deaths, tests, and confirmed cases fill the headlines. Heart stents are embarrassingly commonplace, prostate cancer too. Today, I am a happy survivor.

Coronavirus was the big killer in 2020. Six feet apart we walk, makeshift masks cover faces, and most sneezing is blocked by bent elbows. We Zoom, catching images of friends, family, and students scattered across the country. “How are you?” is no longer a passing greeting. Ventilators might be needed in the Bronx and Boston; while nurses’ tired stares look at the waiting room, wondering, him or her . . . pointing to her.

The death statistics reported each day represent progress. We knew it would get worse, a peak in May–June. A little less social distancing, maybe even a meal outside, six feet apart; and then another uptick in cases. This is 2020 and 2021. Not the Black Death of 1348, cutting down one third, maybe half, of Europe, or the Influenza of 1918 with makeshift tent hospitals and 650,000 dead after the Great War. Comedians play to empty halls and we sit in our basements, reaching out through video images.

“You are lucky, John. See you after the COVID-19 turns down.” No coughs or smiles behind the masks. Cardiac rehab is closed. “Do this on your own, John, become a healthy man — run, walk, stretch, and eat right — heartbeat up to 130 for 5 minutes, then 10. Keep a diary. Fewer starches, less coffee, and take all those pills. They will save your life. Do not see anyone or say hello to a soul within 6 feet. Quarantine for the living.”

I breathe in the spring air. The COVID-19 dead pile up in city after city. Hardly anyone strolls on the sidewalk; the streets are empty. The numbers get worse each day — 40,000, 65,000, maybe half a million dead until we bend the curve. Someone I know will die of the virus.

Pills, more orange, yellow, and white pills. After sixty-nine years, I took eight, no, nine pills to kill the cancer, and now three to keep the arteries clean and push down the bad HDL cholesterol. Others die of coronavirus in 177 countries around the world, except Antarctica. This is our hell.

Teddy took pills too.

Wrapped in food or with his crunchies, the pain pills worked. He wobbled a bit but could drag his neuropathy-weakened legs behind him. Walking was hard for the last six months. Still, we’d go out with the morning light. I would carry him down the stairs, balancing the coffee, and put him on the pine needles. A bone as a morning treat, then some slight movement as I walked off to clear the downed limbs off the driveway. He would poop and wait for me.

Next stop, the lawn, where it was easier to dig and pull his legs forward, making a path to the bench looking over the bog pond. Another bone, a scratch, and maybe even a snuggle in my lap. A kiss on the cheek as we both surveyed the bog and yellow rays spreading out with the emerging sun. Twenty minutes sipping coffee and watching the day. No news, no coronavirus, no pandemic. Just man and dog.

An owl might hoot, a swallow swoops down to one of the birdhouses. A bluebird resting in the other. Teddy and I would watch the day unfold — me making mental lists, he wondering whether the leftover salmon was his lunch. We would wait for the sun to rise, halfway up the horizon.

I don’t know how to take death.

Mine, Teddy’s, those I see on TV, in the paper. The graphs of each country every day is unreal, as we celebrate Passover, Easter, Memorial Day, and move on. Why did the blood of the lamb save? And the body of Jesus, a symbol with a wafer and wine — his blood — at the Seder supper save us? Why the wars to keep on ending wars? Why such violent deaths, repeated again and again over centuries, as plagues and pandemics return like a scourge that we can never erase? Why these stories to soothe wandering souls? How do we escape death?

How do I, we, accept death? No friendly chess match, certainly. Or some visitation from beyond with soothing smiles. And the corpses piling up like some Bruegel triptych do not make the day easier. Bodies in open caskets look like mannequins — some figure snatched from a Fifth Avenue window — not the person I loved. I do not know death, or accept it, yet it is everywhere I turn.

Teddy, you are the better part of me.

I don’t want to lose you. The house is empty. “John, breathe in and let go slowly.”

I don’t want you to die, to leave me. Your spirit and fierceness fill my heart. Those eyes always sparkling, greeting me at the stairs at night as we nibbled and talked. How was your day? — Good, but better now. For you a bone, a walk, some holes to dig, a nose out the car window, and a place in the yard to escape. For me, the call of birds and a reminder every day that this is our world. Not the books, the impending doom of the virus, but the dog’s morning routine, a time to walk. I held you when the legs failed; I saw the delight, the pain, and the birds that still astonished. Your chin up, your teeth ready to bite hard, and your nose to the ground, finding morsels to nibble after our poetry potlucks.

I walked each day with Teddy, my Norfolk terrier — eight inches off the ground and me six feet up. Neither of us felt small. We saw something each morning. Sun, rain, snow, clouds . . . and the birds swooping, the squirrels jumping, running . . . faster than you or me, to the next tree.

I am better because of Ted — all my terriers, but Teddy held my heart. When I walk with coffee each morning, I whisper, “Good morning.” Maybe a tear, a sigh, but no news just yet, no deaths to report. I walk out, not for the sun, but for the love that completes each heartbeat.

My dog spirit beats hard. The spring breeze is touched with the memory of each day, each walk, and Teddy in my arms taking his last breath with bright brown eyes sparkling.

Our love is stronger than the chasm of death. •

John Ballantine is an economics professor at Brandeis University. He received his bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard University, then earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago and NYU Stern, respectively. His economic commentary has appeared in Salon and The Boston Globe, among others. His writing is a longstanding avocation and reflection of being in the world of family, economic models, books, and films. He has been participating in a writing workshop for ten years with Barbara O’Neil, following the “Writing Down The Bones” Natalie Goldberg approach. His non-fiction essays have been published in many publications / online journals over the past six years. He loves learning about the world through teaching and writing.

§