Prologue: The Menagerie

by Cathy Arden on October 25, 2012

Dog lovers know me well.  I’m part of the pack. We’re from the same litter.  I look at my new one-year-old rescue all goofy-eyed, even as he pees.  When he lifted his leg for the first time, graduating from a squatting position, I cheered.   He had become a man.  Let’s have a Bar Mitzvah.

I rescued my dog, and the cliché is that he also rescued me.  Except that he didn’t.  Yes, I’m in love with him.  But he overwhelmed my life, took it right over, and gave me amnesia as to what transpired every day in my life before he plopped himself down in the middle of it.  He’s my first.  Did he rescue me?  Not really.  But he transformed my life instantly into….well, that’s what I’m still figuring out.

Here’s the deal  — my mother is dying of Alzheimer’s and I decided to get a dog.  I thought I was getting the dog for her.  She and her caregivers live in my guest house, a few steps from where I live in the main house.  My mother has been sick for 8 years now, but in the past couple of weeks a doctor told me 1-6 months more tops.   Why am I stunned?  I have always said about my mother over the past 8 years, there is no happy ending. I hate when my friends ask me how my mother is doing.  They’ve been asking me this for all these years.  Which is why I thought of that line – “There is no happy ending here.”  How is she doing?  She’s not okay.  She’s not fine.  She has no idea where she is, how she is, what she feels, what’s coming next, or what came before.  And now, as of a few weeks ago, my only authentic answer to this question is, “She’s dying.”  That’s it.  She’s been on the downswing for 8 years now, declining and declining and declining, with various and numerous medical emergencies, open heart surgeries, a stroke, hospitalizations and ICU’s thrown into the mix.  She’s been living with me for 5 of those 8 years.  I’ve been watching her get more and more crippled, both mentally and physically, for so long that I have taken this to be the norm.   Who are those women I see walking around in their 80’s and 90’s, with all their wits about them and living independently?  I’m secretly envious of my friends who still have their mothers intact.  Why couldn’t mine be the same?  Why was she robbed of this?  Why was I?  You see, I even ask myself the stupid unanswerable questions.   I don’t even know the right question to ask myself.

Back to Husband Didion.  My dog.  My first.   Scruffy, scrappy, one blue eye, one brown eye Didion whom I spotted in an adoption circle off Montana Avenue in Santa Monica.   Before I moved from New York to California two years ago, I informed my grown children that when I “settled in” or “settled down,” I was going to adopt a dog and name him Husband.  A good joke.  We all laughed.  But I loved the idea.   “What’s his name?”  “Husband.”  “Husband, leave it!”  “Husband, come back here!”  “Husband, let’s go to the park.”  “Husband!”  All heads would turn. They’d wonder who my husband was.   And, undoubtedly, they’d look at me like I was crazy when they asked the name of my dog.  That, I think, is what my kids were afraid of.  Better not have people thinking their Mom is nuts.  Let’s keep that opinion amongst ourselves.

Oh – and there are also the cats.  Vinnie (Vincent Van Gogh) and Gareth.   They are 11 years old.  So let me add – I am caring for my sick mother and I’m also managing a menagerie.    And I’ve jump-started an acting career at a time in my life when, one of my friends pointed out, many people slow down.  Honestly, I know no one who is slowing down, not my age, not any age.  I was acting in my earlier years, then wrote a book or two or three, published one of them, published some poems, articles, free-lanced in many capacities, and discovered, when the empty nest was looming large, that what I missed the most in my life was acting.   I jumped in on all fours (pun intended) and devoted all my time and energy to getting acting work.  Which I did.  And then, 3 days after taking my son, my youngest, to college (U Penn – I have to brag), I moved to L.A.  My eldest, my daughter, had graduated from Sarah Lawrence (still bragging – proud, Jewish Mom), and was living and working in New York.  I couldn’t focus on my children’s lives anymore.  It was time to focus on my own.

And just to fill in the short of it in this first lengthy blog post (my daughter advises me to keep blog posts short) – I was a single Mom from early on.   Married a man who was 9 years my junior.  And, unbeknownst to us both, was gay.  But that’s another blog post.  And probably not a short one.

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