Friday, December 30, 2011

The Holidays Can Be Rough

At this time, 14 years ago, I was busy helping my Christmas gift adjust to life in his new household. I was 15 years old, and I'd wanted a dog for years. My parents struck me a bargain: if I helped build a new backyard fence, I could get a dog for Christmas. I duly bought all the books you could imagine on dog breeds, and eventually settled on a labrador retriever.

On Dec. 23, 1997, I found the dog who would become Major Tom Shadowmaker amongst a rambunctious pile of puppies just outside of Henrietta, Texas. He was purebred from a line of champion hunters, and his breeder was visibly upset when he learned that my dog - as yet unnamed - would not be raised to hunt. He saw how much I adored the dog, however, and so I took him home with me.

I felt incredibly guilty as I held the puppy in my lap for the two hour drive back home. I didn't feel guilty because my puppy wouldn't be raised a hunter, though, but because none of the names I'd previously thought of for him seemed to suit. I had thought of Asta (after Nick and Nora's dog), and Tree (I hoped to condition him to bark when called). Neither of the names fit the bundle of black fur in my lap, however, and I felt awful.

My father, who had taken me on the trek to find my Christmas gift, kindly allowed me to control the radio, and while we listened, the Peter Schilling song "Starship to Major Tom" came on. I looked at the puppy, and decided that he looked like a Major Tom. And thus World War I's noblest flying ace was born.

The name Shadowmaker came from his parents: Blackshadow and Widowmaker.

I spent the first three nights sleeping on the floor with Major Tom (known around the house simply as Major, or when in trouble, Young Man). After a while, he became accustomed to sleeping on his bed in the corner of my bedroom, and there he stayed for the next three years.

When I was 17, I was diagnosed with leukemia, and was thereafter home-schooled because my immune system was too weak to allow me to go to school. Major Tom was at home with me every day. As soon as I got sick, he seemed to sense that something was wrong, and his boisterous puppy days ended. He calmed down, and followed me around the house or, when I was in bed recovering from chemotherapy, sat alertly by my bed, watching to make sure I was okay.

I left for college at the age of 18, but Major stayed behind with my parents. I visited every weekend, and played with him and loved him as much as I could. He never failed to wag his tail when I came home, to leap into the air to show his happiness at my return, and it stung my heart every time he realized I was leaving again.

When I moved into an apartment complex that allowed large dogs, I tried to take Major with me. After a few fraught hours, during which he marked practically everything I owned and never ceased hyperventilating, despite sedation, I took him home to my parents, where he calmed down. Apparently, labs don't like change in their environment (which we rediscovered every time my parents rearranged their living room furniture).

Until Major was about 12 years old, he constantly amazed people with how youthful and energetic he was (I chalk this up to our allowing him to lick our ice cream bowls, but I could be wrong). When I took him to a new vet for the first time and informed the vet tech that Major was 12 years old, the tech looked at me and asked, "Are you sure?" A quick glance at Major's medical history reassured him, at which point he announced that Major was the healthiest, most energetic 12 year old dog he'd ever seen.

After that visit, however, Major began to go downhill, healthwise. He developed a series of fatty tumors, one of which couldn't be surgically removed because of its location, and that eventually grew to impede his movement in the last months of his life. He developed arthritis in his back hips from all of that jumping as a puppy, and he sounded, my mother said, like an obscene phone caller when he got excited, breathing heavily, raspily for several minutes after a new person arrived.

I came home for Christmas, this year, knowing that Major Tom wasn't long for this world. He could hardly walk, and he'd lost a lot of weight. Too much weight. I could see his ribs for the first time since his youthful days as a lean, mean, leaping machine. He had also lost control of himself, and we could no longer control him, either: deaf and blind, he would run off if we let him into the front yard, something he hadn't done for years.

He was constantly in pain, and it showed. So, after 14 years of companionship from the gentlest dog I've ever encountered, from the most loving animal I've ever met, I had to put him down.

I spent a long time, the evening before it happened, telling him how much I loved him, how much I would miss him, and what a wonderful dog he was. I told him about where he was going: a place where he could have whole bowls of ice cream, instead of just the dregs, and could run and swim, and wouldn't hurt any more.

My parents and I took him to the vet on December 21, 2011, and we stayed with him while the fatal dose of anesthesia was administered; I didn't want him to be alone, with people he didn't know, when he died.

Prior to that, while he lay sedated on the floor next to the examination table, I crouched next to him and told him I loved him, and what a good dog he'd been. I told him how special he was to me, and that he was the best dog there ever was. It was 13 years and 363 days since he'd first entered my life as a muddy, face-licking puppy.

Now, I catch myself doing things I did for years for Major Tom's benefit: leaving the door to my bedroom open so he can come in during the night time if he wants to, or feeling guilty about leaving the house for the afternoon, because he'll be alone. And then I remember that he's not here. I still expect to see him, lying in his observationally advantageous position in the corner of the living room - where the carpet is stained from his constant habitation.

But I'll never see him again. And it hurts.

I miss you, Major Tom Shadowmaker.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

"The Marriage Plot" by Jeffrey Eugenides

"The Marriage Plot": that timeless literary tale, most often related by Elizabeth Gaskell, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Brontes, in which a young woman needs/wants to be married in order to be happy, but is prevented for one reason or another.

The premise of The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (Pulitzer winner for Middlesex), revolves around the seemingly antiquated plotline so idolized by women.

The story takes place at Brown University, where the heroine, Madeleine, is pursued (to no avail) by a frowsily dapper religious scholar while she pursues a relationship with a one-time collegiate playboy, Leonard. The playboy also has bipolar disorder, aka manic depression.

Whereas in Austen or Gaskell, social class or financial abilities kept lovers apart, in this case, it is Leonard's mental illness that prevents their happiness.

The Marriage Plot explores ground most often covered in hot-pink chick-lit books with smarmy-looking skeletons in Manolos on the cover. Obviously, as the understated white and black cover attests, Eugenides' treatment is vastly superior. The ground covered, to spell it out, is the creation of "the friend zone" by modern females - characterizing male friends as asexual or non-romantic, and suffered by uber-religious Mitchell - and the relationship conflicts created by living with a person of the opposite sex to whom you are not married.

As with Middlesex, Eugenides places the reader into the mind of a character who has a disorder with which we are (most likely) not personally acquainted. Calliope, the main character in Middlesex, had a rare genetic mutation that meant she/he was a male without external sex organs, and the story covers how she/he came to be born with the mutation, how it was discovered, and how Calliope eventually chose to cope with it.

In the case of The Marriage Plot, the reader experiences Leonard's manic swings, his all-consuming depression, and his battle with mood-altering/stabilizing drugs, in this case lithium. As with the characters in the book, each crescendoing burst of energy on Leonard's part leaves us wondering how it will affect his life, and the lives of those around him.

The Marriage Plot wasn't what I would call an "easy read," but then Middlesex wasn't particularly easy, in many parts. This latest offering from Eugenides is less fantastical than his two previous offerings, but he seems to be mellowing as his writing progresses.

That being said, I have to confess that I prefer Middlesex - one of my all-time favorite reads - over The Marriage Plot. Get ready for the over-used word, again. The Marriage Plot just wasn't as compelling as the other books I've read lately (I'm in the midst of The English Patient, as we speak - er - type).