Tara and the Writing Life

I’ve always been a slow writer. Even these blog things take me at least two full days to complete despite knowing they should be composed quickly and posted every day if I really want traction.

There’s a couple of reasons for this–I’m dyslexic and rewrites are essential to untangling words and clarifying sentences. Twelve drafts for a short piece is not unusual, for longer–like my books–it’s countless. Then there’s being manic which blesses me with avalanches of ideas, too often unusable but with a few buried gems. To find those gems, though, I have to transition out of being manic and the drugs I take sometimes fall short, which then brings on my deeper fault line–depression. If I was sane I’d sit back and do anything but write until I straighten out. But I’m not very sane, so day after day, seven days a week, I gnaw on stone.

Lately, though, there’s another reason for my slow pace and that is Tara, our seventeen year old dog. Beyond the normal set of age-related conditions, she’s in pretty good shape. Except she has Alzheimer.

Tara not quite sure she’s in the garden

Alzheimer in dogs is the same as in humans. For anyone who has cared for or witnessed the singular tragedy of this disease, you’ll understand what that means. Over the last year and a half her frisky nature has transformed into anxious confusion. She’s increasingly disoriented, whining in distress. She stares into mirrors, has forgotten how a door opens, will neglect to eat unless her bowl is offered several times. Most recently, she’s become phobic about anything surrounding her bed–area rugs, her beloved blanket, laundry. She circles about clawing at them, whimpering until they’re gathered away. She’s close to being on more drugs than I am, including a human dosage of Xanax.

As the one who works from home, I’ve become her chief caregiver. I’m lucky to get two or three hours of work in. Its become nearly impossible to sustain anything more substantial than these posts or edit what I’ve already completed (that damn memoir!). Which means sometimes I think I could use a couple of her Xanax myself.

Right now, she has more good days than bad. The last two have been pretty good. Her morning walks are almost jaunty with lots of pleasurably sniffing about tree trunk and flower beds. Back home she’s alert and calm enough to throw off a shadow of her old self. She’s wrapped herself in her old blanket for about two minutes.

The one constant in our days is Tara’s insistence that I pay attention to something other than myself and, because she does, I think I’m becoming a better writer. It’s all I’ve ever been, frankly all I’m good at, a sitter in a solitary room, fixated on a blank piece of paper while outside my window the world unfurls. There’s always been a part of me that observes rather than participates, gathers instead of gives. Now Tara pulls me out of that room. She can’t tell me what she needs from me: I have to figure it out on my own. I never felt this alone when my parents were dying. There were always an army of doctors around, endless web searches to guide me. My parents, themselves, showed me the way. Tara’s vet is nearby but she can only give me her clinical knowledge. All through the day, often at night, I’m basically guessing how to sooth and support her. I run my hands down her body, caress her legs, cup my hands around her snout, lie down beside her, all to catch a sliver of what she’s trying to tell me.

She entreats me to be more present, more instinctual, more contemplative. Nursing Tara mostly involves lessening her agitation and maintaining a calm, quiet environment, an almost meditative state to harness her dementia. Just a year and a half ago I railed against this, frustrated and annoyed, angry at all the disruptions she caused. Maybe eight months in, I began to understand that by forcing me to stop work, she has taught me the great value in gaining perspective by stepping away. It provides the opportunity to thoughtfully mull over word choices, chart pacing and narrative arc, analyze structure, unravel notes, listen to what characters want. Certainly my output has slowed even more but the essence of truth every writer digs for is sharpening.

Clocks tick differently now, time seeps away. Tara and I are in this together.