A Mazey Grace
It would be either a cold jail cell or six feet under for me now if Mazey hadn't dropped into my life. Coincidence? Divine Intervention? Serendipity? You decide, after you hear my story...
Joe and I were high school sweethearts. We laid eyes on each other in chemistry class, and flew at each other like cooing pigeons. Stuck together forever. We didn't give up college and we didn't give up each other. We had a small wedding in our little community church at home during Christmas vacation of our senior year at OSU, because I was three and one-half months pregnant. Julie was born right after I finished my Managerial Accounting II final on June 15th the following year. Sadly, she only lived three days. Sadder still, she was our only child.
Losing a child can drive a wedge in a couple's relationship, but not ours. We just became even closer. We started our own CPA firm, Joseph and Elizabeth Powers, CPAs, and were together 24/7 for the next forty years until I decided on early retirement. Joe would continue on for another year or two and then we'd sell the business and travel. We were successful, healthy, happy and totally unprepared for what happened.
It was a sunny Tuesday in late March, with spring as vivid and invasive as any season I remember. The azaleas were early, slamming their little buds up against the daffodils that were late. All the flowers were singing in glorious color as I kissed Joe goodbye that morning. I was off to my Master Gardener class at the County extension office right after he left, and planning the raised vegetable beds inside our garden fence as I drove.
At the coffee break, I turned my cell phone back on and found five messages. Very unusual and a bit disturbing. All from the same number—Sunnyside Hospital. I don't remember the trip, but I do remember sitting in a little cubicle in the ER with the soft beige walls closing off the air around me, and listening to a doctor tell me Joe had been hit by a semi-truck filled with black pipe on his way to work. They needed the Jaws-of-Life to extract him from his pickup, but he was still alive. At that moment, nothing mattered except he was alive. How merciful it would have been if he had died instantly. That would have been incredibly painful, but a clean break, instead of the insidious gnawing away at the life that followed.
Those first weeks passed in a blur of friends and business associates, members of our community church and our few remaining relatives, all pressing in upon me. Joe was a little better, Joe was worse, Joe had an infection, the antibiotics were working, Joe opened his eyes, his temperature was up, it was down...and on and on. I slept in a chair beside his bed, I held his hand, I talked to him, I soaked his bedclothes with my tears. But the worst was when he finally came awake with a fully functioning mind, a non-functioning body, and pain as his constant companion. And there was very little I could do, but witness the shrunken creature in the bed and know that my loving ministrations were helpless to really change anything.
After a month in the hospital and two weeks in an intermediate care facility, Joe came home. "Home" was now the living room with a hospital bed as its central focus. At first, folks dropped in and brought food or a book or a bouquet of flowers. My normally sweet Joe was totally withdrawn, and company just faded away like a nightmare in the light of day. But my nightmare continued. It's human nature, and probably the reason nursing homes don't have a lot of visitors: we want people to get well or die. Get well so they can get on with their lives and we can stop worrying about them; or die so we can grieve and get on with our lives. Limbo life is the worst.
The nice, but no-nonsense, home health nurse came three times a week. She was always in contact with Joe's doctor and tried to control his medications so he would be comfortable, but nothing seemed to work. I was beginning to not recognize the man I had vowed to love forever. He was lost somewhere in that shell of his, and I was lost looking for him. When he started begging me, in his raspy, unrecognizable voice, to help him die, I started imagining ways to do just that. Smother him with a pillow? Give him one bottle of pills and then take another one myself? Don't judge another person until you've walked in their shoes. I pray you'll never have to walk in mine.
August 15th. I had cared for all of Joe's bodily needs. I'd fed him his morning pureed breakfast, given him a bed bath, changed his sheets, pajamas and diapers, while he moaned softly and tears ran down his cheeks, and given him his pills.
"I'm going out for just a little while, Joe," I said softly, touching his hand. He stiffened, as always.
Then he looked up at me with his dark eyes, and said, "But, you're coming back?" I could have wept anew at the fear, the hopelessness, the raw emotion I saw there.
"Of course, I am." And I would. But I really wanted to run away.
The car had a mind of its own that morning, and I found myself—first time ever—in the parking lot of the County Animal Shelter. Looking back, my subconscious had risen through the mire, grabbed my conscious by the throat and said, "Time for a game change."
Cassie Carson looked at me with her oversized spectacles that made her eyes look equally huge. "What kind of dog are you looking for?"
I didn't know I was looking, but I managed to say, "An adult dog, I think. Mellow, but one that needs to be walked every day. We have a fenced back yard, and I'm home all day." Was I ever! Part of me wanted a companion that would be glad to see me when I entered a room, who would force me out into some air other than the stifling stuff congesting my home, and would offer a warm body to cuddle. All the things I was missing.
"Why haven't you had a dog before this?" Cassie asked. Fair enough question, but I didn't want to be too honest.
"My husband was in an accident and is disabled. We've worked hard in our business all these years..." Tears started to form, and I dug my fingernails into my hands to stop them. "We were going to travel, but now we're not." Perhaps I wasn't worthy to have one of Cassie's dogs. Perhaps I wasn't worthy of anything.
She smiled as she rose. "Let's go for a walk," she said.
The barking started as we entered the dog area and walked down the center aisle. As close as I was to losing it anyway, all I could see were a hundred little creatures as needy as Joe, just wanting someone to love them, take care of them, hold them. But they were willing and able to love back, I thought.
She wasn't barking, but her eyes bored into my soul. "Who's that?" I asked Cassie.
"We call her Mazey. She was rescued from a locked garage. The renters drove off in the middle of the night, leaving her and five puppies. She'd been kicked around; probably when her owners found out she'd gone and got herself pregnant. She was nursing the pups, even though she was near death with internal bleeding, when a neighbor broke into the garage and brought them all to us."
I heard Cassie, of course, but my eyes remained locked with Mazey's.
"If you save me, I'll save you."
"What did you say?" I turned, and asked Cassie.
Cassie repeated the end of her story about the neighbor bringing Mazey and her puppies to the shelter.
"No, I mean after that," I said.
Cassie Carson was looking at me strangely, and then she looked at Mazey. "She's talking to you, isn't she?"
Mazey was mine. I was going to take her home. Cassie told me that she was about three years old, mostly Golden Retriever, but had at least some shepherd mix in her, too. The adorable puppies—they appeared to be fathered by either a Labrador or a German Shorthair—had been adopted. She alone remained. Childless, like me. She'd been spayed, as soon as she was rescued, to save her life, and I agreed to pay for the operation.
"We weren't going to be able to keep her much longer," Cassie said. "Everyone who works here loves her and they'll be so glad she's going home. Incidentally, Tim, who works nights, is the one who named her. Mazey is short for "A Mazey Grace."
Even fingernails in my palms couldn't stop the tears then.
I didn't have buyer's remorse on the way home. I wasn't sorry, but I was petrified. What was Joe going to say? I found out soon enough.
At first, his eyes showed relief when I walked through the door. Then he saw the big golden brown fluff that accompanied me, and he croaked out, "What were you thinking? You don't need someone else to take care of! Are you crazy?"
Mazey backed away a bit at the venom in his voice. Then she seemed to reconsider, and put her wet nose against my clenched fist.
"We'll make it. I'll help."
Relief flooded me. Mazey understood.
If anything, Joe was more withdrawn that afternoon and evening. I did everything I could physically for him, and held my battered spirit tightly in check. I was afraid if I released any small fraction of it, I would implode into a useless pile of rubble.
Mazey followed my every step, afraid I might disappear. Unlike Joe, however, she emanated appreciation for her rescue. She gulped the kibble and broth I'd purchased, and licked my hand in thanks. After I prepared Joe for the night, and he lay there moaning, I knelt down and buried my face in the dog's golden fur, my sobs muffled against her warm body.
I slipped quietly into the bedroom I'd shared with my dear Joe for the last twenty-five years since we built our dream house. Mazey didn't ask; she just jumped up on his side of the bed, circled three times and settled down with her head near my pillow. I'd returned to our bed several weeks before when exhaustion drove me away from the recliner next to his hospital bed. His night moans were unbearable. And my guilt at not bearing them well had kept me in the aging chair until I simply could not stay any longer. It was either go to my bed, or resort to the smothering pillow, which would end life as we knew it for both of us.
I snuggled into Mazey and she put her paw on my arm. For the first time in months, I slept, really slept.
Struggling for air, my first thought was that Joe was trying to smother me with a pillow. He had struggled out of bed, and was pushing hard on my face and calling my name.
"Beth! Beth!" he rasped.
Joe was calling me. Mazey was lying on top of me and whining. It was 8:00 a.m. and I was usually up by 6:30 a.m. at the latest.
Once again, I saw relief in Joe's eyes as I ran into the room, but it was quickly replaced by anger when he saw Mazey at my heels.
"That dog! You care more about that dog than you do about me." Mazey wasn't the only one whining now.
I released her to the back yard and started my morning routine with Joe. He was snarly, but I didn't seem to react as strongly as usual. Sleep had refreshed me, and I had my walk with Mazey to brighten the morning ahead. I could feel the "game change" beginning.
The next few days passed in hazy warmth. August was hot and humid, and even the roses by the back porch seemed to be perspiring. The air conditioning in the house kept us cool, and I found myself with renewed strength to tackle some of the tasks I had postponed during my utterly listless phase of the last months. I took a few pains with my appearance—was this the wife Joe was looking at every day? That lank, straight hair and those sunken blue eyes would have scared anyone. My closet revealed several flowery tops pushed back in the corner just begging to be worn. My spirit eased, and I no longer felt utterly hopeless. When I relaxed, Joe seemed to be a bit more comfortable too, because his moans were softer.
Mazey and I took our morning walk early to avoid the heat of the day, and the exercise gave me a few roses in my cheeks. After about a week, Joe almost smiled at me when we returned, but he did not acknowledge the dog. She, however, started lying in the living room when we returned. First of all, as far from Joe as she could manage. As the days turned into weeks, she settled closer to his bed, though he did not seem to notice.
"He seems to be more accepting, more at peace, doesn't he?" asked Ginny, our home health nurse, as I followed her out to her car in late September. "You are certainly looking better, Beth," she also observed.
"It's Mazey's influence on both of us," I said, "although Joe won't admit it. He still won't talk to her."
"People are all different," Ginny replied. "Keep doing whatever you're doing. I admire your courageous decision to be happy in spite of your circumstances."
I thought about that as I looked at the leaves in the maple tree beginning their changeling process, and looked forward to walks with Mazey as autumn progressed. Mazey gave me joy.
Rain and wind pelted my bedroom window at 7:00 a.m. on a morning in mid-October. I was cold. Had the furnace gone out? Turning over, I found the spot where Mazey always slept empty, and my heart froze. What had happened?
The tableau that greeted me in the living room is etched deeply in my mind forever. Mazey lay stretched out on the hospital bed with Joe, one paw across his chest, and her nose against his neck. His face looked almost as peaceful as that day back in March when he kissed me goodbye.
Perhaps, you're expecting me to say, "Joe died peacefully in his sleep with Mazey beside him." I understand. It all goes back to our need for wanting people to get well or die. But that's not how it happened. Joe was breathing easily—a miracle in itself—and Mazey was snuffling softly against his skin. When I reflect upon the few weeks prior to that morning, I remember that she had been inching ever closer to him without seeming to invade his space.
That was fifteen months ago, and we are still in "limbo life." Joe has not died nor has he "picked up his bed and walked" as the man in the Bible story did. But we have had small miracles that add up to some pretty dramatic changes. I've added another comforter to my bed because Mazey sleeps with Joe. We've had several near catastrophes, but Mazey woke me in the middle of the night when Joe started choking or his catheter came loose.
We've hired some respite care for me several times a week, and I have returned to my Master Gardener classes along with doing some actual gardening. I followed a plan and built my own raised vegetable beds.
Mazey and I took the classes to get her Therapy Dog Certification—for her, a piece of cake—and we visit the nursing home, where Joe's great aunt Gloria resides, once a week with Joe's blessing. Since Mazey loves everybody, and they sense it, even the most disabled of the seniors seem to recognize a true heart.
Joe's doctor tells me that he could die tonight or two years from now. Limbo life is hard, and I have had days when I am Atlas and I cannot find the strength to shrug. Since Joe accepted Mazey, he has found a way to accept his fate, get in the boat and let the river carry him downstream without trying to row against the current, and he is at peace. His voice is barely audible now, but I do see the love once again in his eyes, and I return it. We have found our way back to each other.
The January rain is peppered with sleet this morning as Mazey and I look out the living room window. Snowbirds are eating from the birdfeeder positioned outside so Joe can watch them. A simple pleasure. It's a funny old life, this, and one I would never in a million years have chosen. But, for this moment in time, I am content, Joe is at peace and Mazey is an amazing friend. A Mazey grace.