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nonfiction

by Laura Jeannerette



The Wolf at My Door



It happened every year as July approached, but this year was exceptional in its intensity and magnitude. Late in May, the hissing, whistling, bangs, and pops like gunshots materialized earlier than usual. A sudden intrusion of sound amid lawn mowers and the shrieks of children with no responsibilities, no supervision, no restraint. It consumed my awareness and left me unsteadily on edge. Our area of western Pennsylvania bordered the home of a major fireworks manufacturer, where they are both legal and beloved. By late June the vendors arrived, makeshift tents were erected in the parking lots of bars, on street corners, and the people showed up in droves. But these products were no longer confined to the Fourth of July, or New Year’s Eve; comparable to the way Halloween had drifted into August and Christmas into July, fireworks were fair game any day, any hour, anywhere. There was always supply, always demand.


I had once worked with a veteran of Afghanistan who described returning home to sleepless nights of neighborhood firecrackers. He was never able to fully relax, and it was overwhelming for me to imagine. I felt his exhaustion from a safe, insulated distance. My own battle with these objects presented itself in the form of a sturdy and willful rescue dog named Sofie. She seemed fearless in the face of almost everything but was paralyzed by the unpredictable explosions. They reduced her to a state of primitive terror. Sofie could not be comforted nor consoled, and the best I could do was to hold her quivering body tightly against my own, whispering messages of solace and support. Trembling, immobilized, she seemed as if she could physically shake herself apart. On walks, stranded in mid-stroll with traffic approaching, we’d need to physically move her out of the road using the handle on her harness. We called her Sofie Samsonite, our “carry-on” dog, as she transformed into this terrified, intractable forty-five pounds of dead weight. We would have to pick up the pieces of her brindled wreckage and do our best to cobble them back together, always weaker at the seams.


That year, a series of overwhelming events aligned, culminating with the death of my father. There was a frisson of fear in the air, a murk of ever-expanding tension that hung heavily and mimicked the atmospheric dew point, the thick humidity that characterized our summer months in Pittsburgh. For me, there was an accompanying inner friction, an emotional humidity that made it difficult to breathe.


A sense of impending violence existed everywhere I went—in grocery stores and on walks. Science, human nature, and the comfort of hard-earned lessons learned were unraveling around me. Everything felt like science fiction and held a touch of darkness. People whom my husband and I had known casually for years, from the park and around the neighborhood, started to seem strange and dangerous, embodying the potential to bring harm. We slowly retreated from the company of others. It wasn’t a circling of the wagons; it was the building of a bomb shelter.


Firecrackers popped like gunshots, in a country where gunshots had become a regular aspect of life. They were everywhere, amplified by mass shooters, along with pleas to withhold their names for fear of assigning celebrity, as if this weren’t already the gruesome content captivating so much of our viewing lives. There was an added incredulousness of witnesses on the local news, seemingly shocked by something “so evil” happening in their neighborhood. Stunned, these citizens would stammer, “If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.” We were slowly succumbing to a senselessness and randomness that spread like a deliberately set wildfire.


Throughout my adult life, I had been attempting to let go of adolescent coping strategies—those protective, defensive behaviors which no longer served me—and replace them with more mature and effective ways of dealing with stress. These behaviors had been discussed and inventoried over years of counseling, like the reluctant cleaning out and letting go of clothes that no longer fit. As events accumulated and anxiety expanded, I began grasping again for those old familiar coping mechanisms. It felt like failure, a giant regression, like I was navigating the adult world on little-kid legs with complete vulnerability. After so much work to become a healthier, more confident woman, I winced at being reduced to such a puny well of isolation, eddying in anxiety and sleeplessness. My perception of powerlessness and purposelessness infected every aspect of my life, intensified by an inability to share this with my father. He resided six hundred miles away, and his imminent descent into hospice had been foreshadowed weeks earlier. More a coach than a comforter, he was amassing problems much weightier than a decompensating daughter with an anxiety-riddled dog.


There were only two people with whom my father could speak beyond three minutes on the telephone: Richie, his childhood best friend of more than seventy years, and me. Topics ranged from films to sports to politics, often incorporating many personal allusions to past stories that I had already heard—about his working life, the military, people who had passed on—and, more recently, to the status of his growing list of medical conditions over the past eight years. He shared descriptions of the whack-a-mole nature of treating one ailment, then another, the confusing contraindications of medications, and their humiliating and debilitating side effects. I held those moments dear, feeling privileged to receive such sensitive information. Our commentary on the divisiveness of the United States elicited his brilliant quote: “The only thing that will unite this country is if we are attacked from outer space.” He added, “I want to stay alive, just to see what happens next.” I loved those moments most of all.


Meanwhile, Sofie grew more terror-stricken within her shrinking world, now compounded by the arrival of hammering summer thunderstorms nearly every afternoon. Lightning struck and thunder cracked with such intensity that I had to mask moments of discomposure with superficial reassurances that she wasn’t buying. She fed on my energy completely. Sofie ceased going on walks, even on calm and beautiful days, the world menacing regardless of my physical presence.


Shortly thereafter, she stopped eating altogether. We tried to intuit the mind of a frightened dog, to outsmart her, reason with her, bargain with her, assuage her; I tried to fix her. I added a variety of things to dry food to entice her to eat—from mixed vegetables to dabs of coconut oil—and I developed an alien dread of mealtimes. She had once greeted meals with an unbridled excitement that we referred to as “food o’clock!” Lately, in exasperation, I picked up small handfuls of her food, nauseated by the smell and oily, grainy texture, to feed her bits and pieces—as if her life depended on it—as if my life depended on it. What used to be mere minutes of eating turned into long stretches of time. I recognized this troubling codependency and my role in making it worse, but I could not stop myself from participating. My husband sympathized, improvised, empathized, and finally walked away in frustration. The energy that I required to navigate this roiling anxiety, while soberly aware of my compulsive behavior, was demoralizing. There was no point in reasoning with fear and anxiety; logic would not penetrate them. I grew angry and teary and defiant and, all the while, more pathetic in my powerlessness to make this dog eat. My anger only fed her terror. This was how my father parented when faced with emotion, drama, or a child’s immaturity. A corrective rage took hold of him that I had never understood until this realization penetrated me. Feeling at a loss, without a way to “fix” the problem, he lashed out, even becoming cruel at times. I chastised Sofie’s stubbornness and refusal to eat, refusal to even go outside. It was a moment of clarity and deep compassion for my father. Amid successive personal losses and professional problems at work, I was progressively deteriorating myself. An unexpected shoulder surgery in early May—and subsequent rehabilitation—sidelined me from running and yoga, the sanity-sustaining tools I most regularly depended upon. This was a perfect storm of forced inertia meeting amassing chaos. And this dog. . . . The decision was made to begin hospice care for my father. We had been coaxing Sofie out to the backyard a few times a day when we spotted something on our rooftop, a burnt-out bottle rocket. It landed there on our shingles, and it wasn’t until days later that I realized it could have ignited a fire. It could have destroyed our home. It had to be a nearby neighbor. Was someone willfully aiming at our house? My husband didn’t think so, but I saw no innocence in this situation. For me, this was only confirmation of danger, maliciousness, and destruction.


I googled insanely, gathering intel on this enemy who was attacking our safety and sanity. Bottle rockets were uniquely hazardous in their ability to fly great distances. There were also Roman Candles, missiles, and spinners, from $60 to $1600 for assorted bundles. Black Cat bottle rockets were apparently the loudest ones a person could purchase. Many of the products advertised “family-centered” fun—these weapons that were torturing and tormenting our newly fragile rescue dog, transforming her into an anorexic, immobile insomniac.


I did not fail to notice the irony in the names: Wolf Pack, Man’s Best Friend, Alpha Male,

Howling Wolf, Wolf Warrior, and Big Bad Wolf—the coincidental branding of these products to represent the wolf and the domestic dog. I recalled the term lone wolf being associated with mass shooters. Disparate components became interrelated and connected in my disordered mind. The dissonance grew.


My father began home hospice care when he could no longer eat. Loss of appetite was the telltale sign of decline, above all else, on his side of the family. I’m not sure that anything brought them more pure joy than food, especially in conversation with one another around a kitchen table.


His younger brother, Paul, had passed away the previous November, and their mother, Matilda, years earlier. He could neither travel safely from the bed to the bathroom, nor steadily support himself while standing, and this level of weakness was unprecedented. He told me how much it hurt to move from the bed to his recliner in the living room, where he binged on the streaming shows we discussed and watched more able men play golf. He suffered many indignities before he started the hospice process—and many more in the brief time that followed. Within two weeks, I heard about and then witnessed his decline, faster than I could ever have imagined a larger-than-life character to disappear. He shrunk in size, over six feet of muscle and girth lost to atrophy, his body withering to sagging skin on skeleton. Where would all the stories go now? How would he know if aliens attacked and the country reunited? And when would I see him again?


I flew south to spend time with him in those final days, with the knowledge that I was, myself, in a state of reduced resilience—physically, mentally, and emotionally. In past years, when he had medical setbacks, I assisted him in finding glimpses of gratitude, things to look forward to, however small, and when it felt more honest, I would openly commiserate with the dismal details of his current circumstances. No matter how low he was feeling, he would eventually take the actions to improve, despite side effects, mounting diagnoses, and the deep fatigue which arose from seemingly endless appointments.


My father and I knew that, in past circumstances, there had always been an idea that he would improve—or at least that he could improve—with time, treatment, and willingness. We shared a hereditary willfulness that often surfaced as fierce independence. The realization that improvement was no longer on the table, the finality of his situation, was a shared heartbreak. But there was also a strange freedom that neither of us had ever experienced. At his bedside, I told him that I was writing again, and he joked that I’d better hurry up if I expected him to read anything. I hand-fed him ice chips, his mouth reaching and seeking relief from an unquenchable thirst. Side effects of medications and experimental treatments, his body starved and dehydrated, left to deteriorate. Formerly able to choke down a protein shake and, once, pieces of ripe summer watermelon—these brought small joys, until they didn’t.

Moans.


“Does it hurt, Dad?”


His eyes met mine, and he nodded. His face tightened as he pointed to his head. To his mind. He mouthed the words right here, and I felt a wave of years wash over us. I whispered back “I love you” and he held my gaze. And then we were quiet.


And so it goes, as everything does. Within two days he was gone from this earth, beyond my physical senses, and I would continue to forget, then remember, forget, then remember, in waves that held no shape nor pattern. All the thoughts that I would have shared solely with my dad landed in the ears of my husband. Sometimes they were written into notebooks but, most commonly, they dissipated in the air, unable to be retrieved upon command. The timeworn narrative of seasons changing—the oppressive solidity of summer weather yielding to the campfire coolness of autumn—pressed on in hours then weeks. Sofie slowly softened to the world around her, relaxing into longer walks through the neighborhood on paths of pine needles and crackly leaves. The fireworks quieted, and the silence offered the steady hum of crickets outside of windows that would soon be levered shut against winter wind and blowing snow. Her appetite returned, and she resumed the role of rapt onlooker at every meal. And I smiled at the thought that, though I couldn’t share in the experience of seeing or hearing his reaction, my father had gifted me with the inspiration to create the truest words I’ve ever written—a gift that surpassed both time and space.


 

Laura Jeannerette is an emerging writer living in Pittsburgh and working as a counselor and advisor in medical education. Her writing has been published in Gone Lawn and Otoliths. She describes herself as a dog in a woman's body and credits humor, books, and her fellow dogs as the recipe for a happy life.



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