I carry within me those I have loved. They come out at unexpected times. My grandmother, the gutsy librarian, checks up on me in my dreams. She has an apartment of crystal and bright antique wood, accessible from a special door that I remember only when she visits. While I know I am in a dwelling of the dead, it does not bother me. The air is crisp, but my grandmother's voice is warm. There, I can tell her the things I know would make her proud: like the fact that I've published a book, and the fact that she has a grandson who shares the shape of our faces.
My other grandmother only appeared in my dreams for a short time. Since she was the first to die, I was frightened when I saw her. I kept running away, until once, she appeared to me on a boat in the middle of a lake. Before I could contemplate diving, she told me gently, "Don't worry, butt. It's just me, Nana." She wanted me to tell my mother that she was fine. I did so, and I have not seen her since. But she is with me in the song she used to sing to us: "I love you a bushel and a peck. A bushel and a peck and a kiss upon the neck." I sing it and kiss my toddler, who giggles and squirms.
When she was alive, my dog, Una, always appeared in my dreams as a little blonde girl. As she aged, the girl got taller, until she was nearly my height. She used to be at my elbow for many dream adventures. Two days after she died, Una ran into my dreams in her real dog body. Young and full of energy, she gobbled down the cat food in the bedroom. She reappears now in the dreamworld on occasion, but more and more, she is coming into my waking world.
Someone has taught my son to fear vacuum cleaners. As an infant, he was soothed by their sound, but now he cries and stomps his feet, wanting to come close for a hug but terrified to do so. Has Una shared with him her lifelong fear of that unholy device?
Someone brought the squeaky squirrel upstairs from the box in the basement marked "Una." Inside, I placed the items with which I cannot part, such as her dog collar, decorated with silly cows. I gave most of the toys in good shape to charity, but I kept the squirrel and a couple favorites. I could swear the squirrel, like the others, was washed and boxed, and yet, it has found its way into my son's toy box. Did Una deliver it as a token of her affection?
Lately, at 19 months, my little Kung Fu Panda has discovered his independence. He has told me, "I no baby" and looked me straight in the eye on Christmas morning to deliver the news, "I boy." And yet, ironically, he needs me more than ever: following me around the house, sitting on the couch next to me while I write. He is always underfoot. And forgive me, but sometimes I forget which little blonde child he is.
Until I met Una, I had no idea I had such capacity for nurturing. In the nearly 11 years we lived together (she died one week short of her birthday), Una was my doggie shadow. And though we did not know that she was already dying of cancer, she helped me tend to the baby in his early months. She awoke with a sigh and followed me for every nighttime nursing or diaper change. For weeks, she waited patiently until we allowed her the delightful tribute she craved: to lick his wide pink baby feet. From her expression, I could tell they were delicious.
Those who are not dog lovers will scoff at how similar it was to raise my dog-child. I carried her down the stairs when she was a puppy until, at last, with trembling limbs and with me following to spot her, she followed her sister up a three-floor fire escape. Today, I spot my toddler up and down the stairs, but lately, he often turns to me, lifts his arms, and demands, "Up."
I have often joked that taking care of dogs teaches you to deal with poop. And certainly, that is an important part of baby care. You get used to the routine of it, but more than that, you learn to read the poop leaves (a funny color, or a suspicious consistency can be a precursor of illness). A solid poop day is a joyous one for all.
You cannot leave a toddler alone at home while you attend a party like you can a dog. But when Una was alive, I left many parties early, declaring, "I have to get home to my dog." She would greet me at the door with a stuffed toy in her mouth, wiggling and whining. This prepared me for these days, when we must leave because KFP is growing tired, or because we had promised the babysitter we'd be back by 11.
Until I gave birth to my son, I never knew I had such capacity for love. My love for him is deeper and more complex than romantic love. He captivates and amazes me; and yes, he also makes me want to pull out my hair ("You want me to read the 'Train Stories' book again?") But this love, I know, will outlast even life itself.
I kiss my squirming boy (not baby) and whisper in his ear. "I will always love you. I will always be with you."
My doggie, Una, kissing KFP