I know I’m a little late with my post this week, but I’ve had a stressful couple of days.
On Sunday night, one of my dogs got very sick, to the point where I was on the phone with the emergency vet at about 1 a.m. And then at 7 a.m., I got the call that my 96-year-old great aunt, Jean Schipper, had finally passed away in her sleep in the wee hours of Monday morning after years of steady decline.
I've written about how I am abnormally attached to my dogs, so you know that when one of them doesn’t feel well, it’s extremely upsetting to me.
After we were snuggled into bed for the night, around midnight on Sunday, my sweet little dog, Sammi Sue, launched herself off my bed and began licking the carpet. Furiously. Like it was her mission to put her tongue on every square inch of the bedroom floor as quickly as possible. Her manic urgency totally freaked me out.
No amount of coaxing would make Sam stop. I even picked her up at one point, but her tongue was still going. I started to feel sick to my stomach wondering what the hell was wrong with her, so I looked up the behavior online. I found several references to it being a symptom of OCD, and others to possible nausea or a bowel obstruction.
Lovely. Since she usually eats grass to cure an upset stomach, and that seemed patently healthier to me than ingesting carpet fibers, I took her outside. Where she proceeded to furiously lick and eat grass. For 30 minutes.
She finally yakked, which I thought would be the end of it, but she went right back to licking and eating for another 10 minutes. During this last round, I called the emergency vet and asked them what to do.
They said I was only to bring her to the ER if she threw up uncontrollably. Otherwise, keep an eye on her and take her to my vet the next morning if she was still acting sick. So I snatched her up, cleaned her up and put her to bed with me. She passed out immediately, poor thing.
Fortunately, the next morning she was fine. Better than fine. She was energetic, hungry and thirsty. No more carpet-licking nausea.
A week or so before, she had gotten sick a few hours after eating a Smart Bones treat, which is touted as a “digestible alternative to rawhide.” At the time, I didn’t think it had anything to do with the bone because my other dog, Charlie, had no problems with it. He is usually the one with the weak stomach.
I had given Sam another Smart Bone on Sunday, and – not to get too gross – that was the sum total of what she expelled out in the yard. I’m convinced that’s what made her sick. Turns out those Smart Bones ain’t so smart after all.
This experience with Sam was one of the few oh-my-God-I-will-be-a-basket-case-if-something-happens-to-my-furry-baby moments I’ve had since I got either of my dogs as gifts from my ex-husband.
When I got a shuddering Charlie for Christmas in 2009, that was the first time I’d felt puppy love since 1991, the year my childhood dog died from kidney failure. I was devastated by her death and vowed I’d never get that attached to another dog again.
Ha! Enter Charlie and Sam. Love for my pups is my Achilles heel. I am so screwed.
All that said, one thing I have learned about myself in the past 48 hours is that my empathy for animals borders on the extreme, but my well of compassion isn’t nearly as deep for humans. I have to consciously and deliberately tap into my sympathy reserves when it comes to anyone outside my inner circle.
So … I was still bleary and groggy at 7 a.m. on Monday after being up late worrying over Sammi Sue. My cell phone danced on my bedside table on an incoming call from my brother, who had just heard from my mom that my great aunt passed away at the assisted living facility where she’d lived for the past few years.
Born in 1917 in Chickasaw County, Miss., by the end, Aunt Jean had lost most of her hearing, sight and physical mobility. She had also struggled with dementia these past few years, which only amplified her already cantankerous demeanor.
Jean had been married twice, though no children had resulted from either union. Her second husband died in 1987, and she had lived alone in a four-plex apartment building she owned in Crescent Hill until she could no longer take care of herself.
My ex-husband, infant son and I lived across the hall from her in that building for about a year in the mid-1990s, which was a nightmare for a number of reasons. The details don’t matter anymore, but it was during this experience that I learned Jean was, at her core, NOT a nice person. After we moved out, I was reluctant to be in the same ZIP code with her, let alone spend any quality time with the woman.
For a split second, when I heard the news on Monday, I harbored the malicious thought: “Well, the old bitch finally died.” Yeah, I was not her biggest fan.
But then I thought about my mom and how my negative opinion of Jean would hurt HER feelings. My mom had a bond with Jean that I did not understand.
See, Jean was the youngest of six siblings, one of whom was my maternal grandmother. My grandmother, Alma, was a sweet, loving woman, and I adored her. She died far too young after a series of strokes when I was only 9 years old. I don’t remember it, but Mom says that Jean stepped in to help with my grandmother’s care, at a time when my mom desperately needed the support.
As repayment, my mother has spent the better part of the past 10 years caring for Jean’s health and financial affairs with a kindness I don’t think I could have mustered if I were in her shoes.
All I saw was how mean and nasty Jean could be to my mom, and how that ire affected her. What I didn’t see was the years of affection and support that came before. For most of my adult life, I've had to work hard not to let my resentments against Jean trump my compassion for an old woman who basically lived the past 30 years in a self-imposed isolation. (Turns out that, if you are not very nice, you don't have a lot of friends.)
I had softened to Jean in the past two years, visiting her a few times at Atria Stony Brook, where she lived. I had even come to enjoy hearing her stories about the bustle of downtown Louisville in the 1930s and 1940s, and the family history she would sometimes share. But she still made my teeth hurt more often than she made me smile. She definitely got her digs in on me in between stories.
But the bottom line is, my mom loved Jean, and I love her, so I am willing to do just about anything to help make Jean’s death easier on her. From planning the service to dealing with the details of Jean’s estate, I’ll be by my mom’s side.
Jean’s death has also shown me that I want to spend the rest of my years on this planet trying to be a better person. When I get to the end of my days, I don’t want anyone to think of me as “that old bitch.” I’ve got to work on my actions right now to make sure that doesn’t happen.
And, as much as a it pisses me off, I know the first step is showing some compassion toward my aunt. She died peacefully after a long life, and in her own way tried to make the world a better place. She definitely taught me a few things, even if they were simply what not to do.
My fervent hope is that, if I am fortunate enough to grow old and infirm like Jean, I have someone as loving, diligent and kind as my mother to care for me during my final days.
Momma, you are that “better person” whom I aspire to be. And I am so sorry for your loss.
About Amy Higgs
A former newspaper columnist, Amy takes her random, slice-of-life stories to the web. After 10 years, she's still just saying.