Mushroom at Sunset
What is "Life Worthy of Life"? Is Love Supposed to be Easy?
Mushroom is a sixteen-pound creature with fluffy formerly black-and-white — now grey-and-white — fur, who joined our household long ago, as what I called, ruefully at the time, “the divorce dog.”
Mushroom arrived when all was in flux, and his lively puppyhood provided a welcome distraction as our household was changing from having been a family of four — a mom, a dad, two small kids — to three; me, a single mother, with two little ones.
From the very start, Mushroom was by far the largest personality in the family.
A small dog of vast opinions, Mushroom was selective in how he bestowed his attention. He might condescend to curl up against you — more often than not, facing away.
Mushroom is not a Nana-type dog, selflessly protecting the children. And he is not a Lassie-type dog, nobly putting himself in danger for the sake of others.
Mushroom is more like the Sarah Jessica Parker’s best male friend in Sex and the City type dog. Urbane, bitchy, judgmental.
It was common for people both in and outside of our family to fall down the black hole of Mushroom’s silent demands. When we had anyone new staying in our house, anxious phone calls would arrive if we were out doing errands, always with the same plaintive cry: “What does Mushroom want?” We knew that Mushroom was likely fixing his limpid dark-brown eyes relentlessly on the new person, and that he would not yield the emotional pressure until something unarticulated was provided: a piece of bacon, perhaps? A scratch behind the ears? To throw the fish toy, not the lamb toy? We were all under the spell of that tiny diva.
I had mourned, of course, the change in our home from four to three.
But a year or two into the household’s new configuration, I slowly realized that I could be a single mother — that hardest thing in the world to be, in some ways — and that it wasn’t in fact the end of the world.
It was a beginning, rather, of a new world; and our family was as precious as it had ever been; and though it was indeed changed, it was not destroyed; it was not “broken.”
It was probably on one of the evenings when we were all snuggled up on the big, ugly, but very comfortable russet couch in the living room, watching “Parks and Rec,” with a snowy New York evening blowing outside our warm windows — Mushroom trying as usual to block our view by stepping onto the computer keyboard, since he liked being in the middle of everything — that I realized: we weren’t a cliche’d, sad, single-parent household of the dreaded mythology.
We were a happy household.
And that the demanding little creature who was always stepping all over our keyboard, was inextricable from our happiness.
We were still four.
Every morning, my son would appear in the living room in his striped pajamas, and wave at Mushroom with his hand. And, with his tail, Mushroom would, every morning, wave back.
Mushroom was our friend and ally for seventeen years, and my helper in the task of being a single mother. He was with us as the children grew up, and with us when and after they went away.
The former little boy in striped pyjamas is now a man. The former young girl who had named our then-puppy the most enchanting name she could conceive, is now a woman.
Mushroom now silently sits on the laps of the adult children when they return, with an air of holding a grudge in that they had left, but seemingly too with a deep sense of peace. Does he remember the children that they were?
Mushroom has accepted the new husband who eventually moved in, and he now sits protectively at the feet of the new boy that the husband periodically brings with him.
Mushroom is older now than anyone would have ever imagined a dog could be. His breed’s life span is about fourteen to sixteen years. Mushroom is, miraculously, seventeen.
He is not in good shape. Mushroom’s fur is mostly grey now, as I mentioned. His skin has rough patches, and he has, the vet told us, a heart murmur.
He has a “bump,” as the vet has put it for years, on his side. Only recently has the vet started to refer to it as Mushroom’s “tumor.”
He cannot see very well. He has cataracts. We leave the lights on so he can see at all. His eyes are so dimmed with cataracts that the vet tells me not to move the furniture.
But whenever the new boy enters the living room in the morning, Mushroom waves his tail.
For a while, Mushroom’s eyes were so troubling him that he seemed to be suffering. He lay on his little bed, on his side, barely responsive. We took him to the vet with heavy hearts.
The vet’s assistant explained that “we would know” when it was time to put him to sleep. She explained that at a certain point it is not a kindness to keep a dog so old alive. I struggled with this; I could not bear to imagine ending Mushroom’s life, but I did not want to be selfish in keeping him in a state of pain.
We took Mushroom home, and gave him his eyedrops. We pressed warm compresses against his poor eyes. We did all we could to make him comfortable.
With heavy hearts we showed him love every way we could. My husband made delicious dishes to tempt him: sauteed chicken livers with melted butter for flavor. Mushroom has no teeth at this point; but Brian would whip the food in blender and leave a bit of texture, “so he thinks he has teeth.” I would hold him on my lap and stroke his ears, and he would, yes, having always been an odd dog, quietly purr.
Miraculously, he seemed a bit to improve.
Since the day that the vet discussed “putting him to sleep,” about three months ago, we have been blessed with a series of special days. Every day is special. Every day is a gift.
I’ve started walking with Mushroom every afternoon, in the snow. He is so old that he does not need a leash. He can’t outrun me. He is finally, at the end of his life, able to wander at will. I walk beside him. Ironically it is his age and frailty that let us walk like this, freely, companionably, side by side.
Now, unhampered, he seems to be reveling in unguided exploration, in following his own inclination. Though he can barely see it, his curiosity about the world is intense.
He explores, in the snowy backyard. He goes where he wills, at last. He heads toward the base of a tree; he sniffs it. He walks over a bramble that he can’t see. Startled, he backs away. He might head in ever-smaller circles in the snow, with me patiently walking in circles alongside him. What is he doing? Who knows, but he is intent. At times, he will straggle laboriously around the entire house. I go with him. Sometimes he falls a bit into the snow, but he shakes himself off, but with the air of someone questing, mastering his world.
Our backyard encompasses a kind of meadow and dense woods. A small bridge separates the human space, the house and the garage and the yard, from a wild, wild forest. Across the bridge, the world changes altogether: in the forest are bobcats and bears, deer and vultures and coyotes, rabbits and wild turkeys. My husband captures the wildlife on his game cameras.
I had lived in that house intermittently for years, and while I’d always felt an uncanny, charmed feeling when I stepped into the forest — you feel as if there are presences all around you — I’d had no idea the forest was so thick with these wild things of all kinds, and no idea that there was any possible danger. Now, though, on the game camera, you can see Brian or me head into the woods, and two hours later, a bobcat or a deer will cross the same path. We once saw a mother bear scolding her two cubs, who had been curiously batting at the game camera. Sometimes the coyotes howl, from very far away.
It is magical and humbling, living across the way from all of these archetypal beings.
These days, Mushroom also wants very much to go into the forest.
I sometimes pick him up and hold him against me, and wrap him in the warmth of my winter coat. I step across the bridge and take him to his favorite places.
He likes to go to the river. I hold him still, standing on the little bluff overlooking the icy, rushing river. He looks out over it, perfectly quiet, perfectly intent. His heart, his imperfect heart, beats under my hand. Sometimes he’ll sigh, and his heart will give a little shudder.
Sometimes I turn to the left and let him walk a few paces up the snowy path in the woods, toward the bears and coyotes. I watch him carefully. I pick him up then and, holding him safe, let him look into the trees. Again he’ll be intent, smelling, watching, seemingly awestruck: so much is happening for him, a lifelong lapdog, that I cannot see.
Once recently, I put Mushroom down, briefly, on the bridge. He could walk toward the pleasantly open yard and the warm house, where his bed and his food and his bowl were.
Or he could turn and head into the wild woods.
He paused for a moment. Then, nearing the end of his life, almost blind, toothless, vulnerable, but absolutely determined, Mushroom started heading — before I scooped him up again — into the magical woods.
Are these bad days? Onerous days? Or are they, with Mushroom, the sweetest days of our journey together, of all?
What is a life worth living?
Mushroom is almost blind, almost immobile. Should he no longer be taken to see the icy river? And if you or I lose our faculties, can others decide the value of our days?
Every day we clean up after Mushroom. We have to carry him. He sometimes looks rough. We put medicine in his eyes. He does not smell great. He needs us.
But is all that a hassle?
What makes our own lives valuable? Just the fun parts? Just the easy parts?
When we care for someone helpless, a newborn baby or an elderly man or woman — or an animal with a lifetime of strong opinions, who now needs our help — maybe it’s that requirement which they have, of our unstinting assistance to them, in which love is flexed and strengthened.
Maybe that’s their best treasure after all— not their charm and health and perfection, but their imperfection, their need.
Maybe love perfects itself in us not just when we are having a fabulous time, but even more, when we are willing selflessly to serve.
Maybe that’s the actual secret.
Maybe that’s Mushroom’s last gift, after all, to lucky, lucky us.