Monday, January 15, 2007
His Life As A Dog
A woman was hit by a car at the end of our street earlier this month, on what turned out to be the last night of my father's life.
My sister and I had left our dad in the hospital after being told he was "critical but stable" and we were taking car service home when the driver told us there was a report of an accident on Senator Street.
When we got there, we could see the lights of the various police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks, at the end of the block.
My sister held back a little, while I walked down to the corner and saw an elderly Asian woman on the ground being attended to by the EMT's. A younger woman was standing nearby sobbing while two people held on to each of her arms.
"Don't worry," one of them said, "she's going to be all right."
I had a flashback to my old police reporting days when I went out to accident scenes. There were the cops and emergency people, the victim, the family members, and all the on-lookers, their faces lit up by the spinning red lights. It was like going back in time.
I asked one guy who was holding a little girl in his arms what had happened, but he shrugged and said he didn't know. I thought he was lying and that felt pretty familiar, too.
My father died the next morning and I forgot all about the old Chinese lady until my dad's funeral, when I came home with my siblings and found a flyer in our mail box.
"There was an accident on around 9 p.m., Saturday, January 6th," the flyer said, "at the intersection of 6th Ave. and Senator Street, which resulted in a fatality. If anyone witnessed the accident or have any information, please call..."
So another family lost a loved one in our neighborhood. Whoever they are, I hope their getting through this difficult time. I can tell you from first hand experience that it isn't easy.
My brother Jim from California was staying with me in our parents' house for the last week and for a few days after the funeral my sister, Jim, my aunt and I did things together as a family--going to museums, a Broadway play, or out to dinner--we were like tourists in our hometown.
Jim left for the airport a little while ago, and my sister went to her apartment, so I'm here in the old house by myself. It's hard to believe my father won't be coming home from the hospital or the doctor or the nursing home--he won't be coming home ever again.
While thinking about my dad yesterday, I started remembering our old family dog, Schnapps. We got him when I was in grade school and he died, I believe, when I was a sophomore in high school.
Schnapps was very handsome, mixed breed, who had a hard life. He suffered from distemper when he was very young and the experience warped his mind. We all knew that Schnapps loved us, that he would literally lay down for his life for us.
But we also knew that he was a little nuts and that he could lash out and bite us at any time. It may sound strange to actually have a pet like that, but we loved him.
My dad and Schnapps had a lot in common. We knew my father loved us, would die for us, but we also knew he was a little nuts, that his explosive temper could turn on us at any time.
I still have the shadow of a scar on the back of my right hand where Schnapps once bit me. My hand swelled up something fierce and I had to take a few days off from school. I can't say about any scars that my father might have left.
Schnapps bit all of us and we still kept him. I remember one night he bit my mother and my dad took her to the doctor. My brother and I were in bed crying because we thought this was it for Schnapps, that he would be exterminated for one too many bites. But we let him slide again.
When I was very young, I crawled under a table to play with Schnapps. He didn't want to play, however, and bit me on the face.
I was screaming and crying when my father came into the room and I thought my dad was going to punish the dog.
Instead, he picked me up, put me over his knee, yanked down my pants and wailed on my butt. I remember thinking as I sailed into the air, "Daddy, what are you doing...?" And then he started hitting me.
My father had decided that it was my fault for disturbing Schnapps while he was under the table, and later, when his rage had subsided, he told me the old adage about letting sleeping dogs lie. I wish he could have passed this lesson on without spanking me.
Whenever people came over, we had to lock Schnapps in my parents' bedroom for fear he'd attack our guests. He did bite a kid in the neighborhood but I don't recall how that worked out. This was in the days before serial lawsuits, so I don't think we got served with any papers.
When we went to Montreal in 1967, we had to tie up his muzzle so the vet could give him the necessary shots. My father was wrestling with Schnapps in the porch and I was saying something soothing to the dog.
"Shut up!" my father snapped at me. "Get out of here!"
I couldn't believe he was yelling at me like that and I was so angry I wanted to hit him something.
I didn't do anything wrong, but my father was nervous, worried about being bitten, and I guess he thought I was a threat of some kind. So he attacked. Kind of like a dog.
We had a hard time in Montreal because Schnapps was so handsome and the French Canadian people didn't seem to understand us when we said "he bites!"
One time while walking through a park in the city, a young man bent down, went nose-to-nose with Schnapps and started barking like a dog. Schnapps was so stunned by this behavior he didn't have a chance to rip the guy's head off.
My mother and Schnapps had a special bond; she called him "Schnappi" and "Nap-a-Loni" in an Italian variation of his name.
She used to read her newspapers in her bedroom and Schnapps would climb in there with her. Sometimes to make room, she would gently push him with her foot and Schnapps would playfully gnaw on it. I always thought this was a dangerous habit, but she got away with it.
While we were in the Poconos, my mother took Schnapps out in the woods late one afternoon and promptly got lost. It was getting dark and my siblings and I were sitting in our country house wondering what to do.
My sister wanted to call for help, but the three boys didn't want to do that. Maybe we were afraid to admit that something was wrong.
Finally, my mother and Schnapps staggered in the house, looking worn out and ragged. My mother said she became disoriented somewhere on the trail.
Schnapps just wanted to go home so he put his head down and walked straight through the woods toward the cabin while my mother held onto his leash for dear life. She told that story for years afterward.
Schnapps got old and sick. We saw him slowing down and, as with any loved one, we pretended not to notice, tried not to do the math that invariably told us that he would only be with us for so many years.
One winter afternoon while I was at the old Carnegie Hall Cinema, back when I hid from the world by going to the movies, Schnapps died in my parents' bedroom.
We were all upset, but my mother was heartbroken and she would starting crying without any warning from a long time after Schnapps died.
My mother always said Schnapps was in Doggie Heaven, that he would be forgiven for his sins against us.
"He always felt bad after biting us," she'd say in a serious voice.
So now they're all gone and I'm by myself. The hard part is just beginning, now that the wake and funeral have passed and everyone has left. I see my father's baseball cap on the nightstand and I found his cane on the bedroom bureau.
This afternoon I threw out all his medicines, emptying bottle after bottle into the trash. I was responsible for giving him that stuff and I don't want to look at it for another second.
One time when my mother was scolding us she declared that life only lasts for a second. It may seem like a long time, she said, but it's only a second.
I was a child and I didn't begin to understand what she was talking about then, but after watching her, my father, and yes, even Schnapps all die, I know all too well.
As with Schnapps, we tried not to notice that my parents were slowing down, tried not to do that harsh math. But death doesn't wait and doesn't ask for your permission to go to work.
So my dad and that old dog had a lot in common. They struggled with their demons and did the best they could. I guess we can't ask for much more than that.