Aussie walks fearlessly on the surface of the icy pond. She can’t seem to resist any frozen surface of water. I wasn’t concerned yesterday, given how cold it’s been, but earlier this winter the ice was soft and melting and she went on unconcerned.
When I had Stanley, he did the same thing. Once the ice cracked under him and he went under. I rushed forward, unzipping my jacket, planning to die with him in the frigid water, only he clambered back up on the ice. First his front paws scrabbled up, then he got his entire black body out, including hind legs, and hurried towards land.
That was the last time he ever walked on the icy surface of a pond or lake. He could have tried again another winter (he lived till he was almost 15!), but he didn’t, leaving me with that one image of his paws scratching and scrabbling onto the ice, hoisting himself up, cold and wet, onto the surface.
When do I fight? When do I stop fighting?
Fighting for life is probably the most basic imperative of all, doesn’t even require thinking. Up to what age? Up to what point?
“You fight too much,” Aussie tells me. “You’re always up against something.”
“It’s called challenges, Aussie.”
“Something that calls you into battle, into an encounter with some dark place. Something that pushes you into uncertainty. Maybe like walking on top of a frozen pond.”
“I ain’t afraid!”
It’s odd how many of us are pulled towards an unknown land, an puzzling relationship, projects that may have a result and may not, or else they’ll result in something unexpected and unwanted. The blank white page that could remain blank even after hours of effort, or worse, that fills up with nonsense.
Bernie used to say: “Nine out of ten things I do either never take off, never go anywhere.” He didn’t seem to mind those odds; he was even proud of them. Something would fail, and the next morning he’d be up and around, ready for the nex.
My brother tells me: “Every morning I get a phone call from Ima (our mother): ‘Okay, I had breakfast, I’m dressed, what’s the plan?’”
He laughs, we both do, because it’s a measure of her dementia. It’s cold, it’s winter, she hasn’t left the house in a long time, Israel is in its strictest shut-down since the start of the virus (its third, at least), with airports shut and police checkpoints on the roads to fine you heavily and send you back home.
But here’s my mother, going on 93, who needs help putting on her skirt and pretty blouse, earrings and a necklace, shoes that will take her safely down the two flights of stairs to the ground floor, calling up my brother with the morning mantra: “I had breakfast, I’m dressed, what’s the plan?”
That’s not just her dementia, I think to myself, it’s her. Like the birds peeping through the snow that came down all night, she peeps through the dementia: Another venture out, another hill to climb, another new person to meet, another way she can serve and be of value. Maybe she’ll have fun, maybe she won’t. Maybe she’ll eat out, probably she won’t.
It doesn’t matter that her legs are weak, that her body is thin and frail, that there’s a wheelchair waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs. Somewhere inside that mental vagueness and physical decrepitude, her vow lives on: Frontiers are endless, I vow to cross every single one.
I don’t have quite that spirit. Or rather, it feels differently for me. Everything in life stretches out to connect: Birds that need feeding, dogs that play, the cold entering my body, a ghost from the past, a voice on the phone, the warm oak desk, appointments in Samarra. Endless arms stretch out everywhere I look, seeking not so much care as connection.
And I vow to connect with them all. I can’t take care of all, but I want to connect, if only for the briefest moment.
“If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.”
I don’t walk on icy surfaces like Aussie—don’t have her paws and long, sharp claws that hold her up instead of slipping and sliding like me. Not smart or strong enough to get to any finish line, but when something stretches towards me, I want to at least stretch back.
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