Baxter

She dropped them off at the shelter; Baxter, the five-year-old Shih-Tzu, and the puppy. It was a difficult decision—they were her family—but she couldn’t care for them anymore. She was going into hospice and her time was drawing near.

Peg, and I had been looking for another dog ever since we’d lost Goldie, our petulant Pekingese. We’d gotten her and Gus, a 13-year-old Shih-Tzu with several health problems, from a foster family for the same shelter. They were life-long companions and the shelter didn’t want them separated. Gus was with us for two years; Goldie died five years later at the ripe old age of 18. We mourned their passing but eventually decided it was time to welcome another shelter dog into our home.

Peg periodically browsed the shelter’s website for dogs and found Boo-Boo, a mischievous-looking little dog. We thought this was a sign because Boo-Boo was our favorite nickname for Goldie, but we discovered he’d already been promised to someone. So, one afternoon we went to the shelter and spent time with several dogs. It was almost heartbreaking; they were all eager to find someone to love them. Most were bigger dogs or came as a set of two or three, more than we could handle.

We left and returned a week or so later. Peg went with one of the staff to check out another dog she’d found on the website. The woman at the desk said to me, “We have a pair that just came in. The woman who cared for them just entered hospice. Why don’t I introduce you?”

I met Baxter and his puppy companion in the enclosure—a jail cell with two diminutive convicts. The shelter people were more concerned about Baxter’s chances of adoption. “Everyone wants a puppy. Few people want an old dog.”  Old? He was only five! That’s middle age in dog years and he had far more energy than I did.

She suggested I take him for a walk, so I put a leash on his collar and we went outside. Baxter wandered along the sidewalk in front of the shelter, an inmate on parole. He sniffed at the shrubs, surveyed the parking lot and turned back.  By that time Peg had joined us. I knelt down and looked into his eyes. He appeared confused, wondering why he’d been left here with strangers.  I imagined him saying, “Please take me home with you.”

I looked at her and said, without hesitation, “He’s the one.”

In retrospect, I think he said, “What took you so long? Let’s get out of here.”

Baxter’s biography said he was “active,” “crate-trained” and “loves to play with balls,” so we went shopping. Peg insisted on buying a crate, which I thought was silly since neither Gus nor Goldie stayed in one. We also got a nice pad, a few soft blankets, food and water bowls, three miniature tennis balls and a couple of squeaky toys.

A few days later we signed all the paperwork, made a generous donation to the shelter, and walked Baxter out to the car. On the way home he sat very silently in Peg’s lap, leading us to surmise his bio had been embellished. Well, that was the LAST time he would sit quietly in a car, let alone on someone’s lap. Now he bounces around like a Superball when we’re on the road.

Baxter wandered about the house after we arrived. He ignored the crate in the family room, sniffed around the kitchen, then made his way upstairs to the bedrooms. He devoured his dinner right away; the shelter feeds the dogs twice a day and takes it away after 30 minutes, so you snooze, you lose. We went for a walk and then sat on the couch until bedtime, getting to know our new family member.

Peg insisted on having him sleep in the crate in our room, so we hauled it upstairs. I still thought this idiotic since our other dogs always slept with us. Baxter walked into the crate, turned around and then stared at me, imploring.

“He’s fine. He’s used to being crated,” Peg said.

“Yeah, well how would you like to sleep in one?”

She relented and open the crate door. Baxter immediately ran out, jumped the 30 inches to the top of our bed, curled up and went to sleep. The crate now houses his toys when he’s not flinging them around the family room.

He is my faithful companion and my muse, and we have our routines. I tried to have morning coffee and then take him for a walk, but he has trained me. Walk first; coffee later. You know how this works! He then stands guard on the bed in our guest room, staring out the window and barking at trespassers on the sidewalk: other dogs; people walking; kids riding their bicycles, delivery people and the mail carriers.

We sometimes go for a cappuccino around 2 o’clock. I swear he can tell time; he becomes impatient if I’m not ready. I switch to mocha in the winter, sharing the whipped cream with him. On Sunday mornings we go to McDonald’s for breakfast. (Walk first, remember??? Damn, it’s so hard to find good help.) At bedtime he reminds me I need a protein snack to stabilize my blood sugar. And, of course, he’s available for quality control.

Baxter is just as persistent when he’s in the mood for dessert. He’ll jump on the couch, paw my leg and grumble under his breath if I don’t respond.  His ears pick up and that little puppy smile crosses his face if I suggest going to Culver’s for a sundae.

Baxter is like a perpetual toddler. He delights in little things like car rides, treats, dinner and naps. His occasional snits blow over in a few minutes. Best of all, he doesn’t ask for car keys or money.

I travel a lot for my job and I usually leave a T-shirt on the couch while I’m gone. One day he dropped one of his toys in my suitcase while I was packing and now it’s a ritual. Bat, Spider, Crab, Taz and Mouse have all spent time on hotel nightstands. I take pictures with my phone and send them to Peg, but he isn’t at all interested. He is ecstatic when I return home. He does his little happy dance while looking at Peg. He’s back, he’s back! Let the rejoicing begin!  Lately he’s been bringing one of his minions to the airport to greet my arrival.

I had a dog when I was nine, but no one taught me how to care for him. My mother didn’t like dogs and my stepfather saw dogs as just part of the all-American home. In retrospect, I/we neglected that dog. Baxter’s entry into my life allowed me to atone.

At this Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for our time together. We’re both getting older and slowing down – well, I’m slowing down. I try not to think about the inevitable parting, but who knows? At my age, we might just both ride into the sunset together.

Paradise Lost

Obstetrics isn’t always the happy specialty. Tragedy is Death claiming one life during pregnancy. Unspeakable devastation is when both mother and baby are lost.

Linda was one of the receptionists in our OB/GYN office, and a single mother with a young daughter. She had known bad relationships and even worse situations but she rarely let them cloud her demeanor. She would smile even when she was angry, fuming over the latest frustrating phone conversation with a patient who had been unreasonable, irritated or just plain stupid. Being around her would make the worst day of work just a little better.

Linda met and later married Danny, a hard-working shop rat at GM who looked like Chuck Norris and worshiped the ground she walked on. No one had ever treated her so well and her face lit up whenever she talked about him. Maybe “happily ever after” was more than just a fairy tale.

Linda was ecstatic when she became pregnant and we were thrilled. Her ultrasound revealed her six-year-old daughter was going to have a baby brother. All of the providers took care of her during her pregnancy and we were looking forward to the new arrival. Someone arranged a baby shower; it’s what you do for family.

One cold, rainy night in October, two weeks before her due date, Linda dropped off her daughter at a Brownie meeting and headed home. On her way back, a man ran a stop sign at an intersection, slamming into her car and sending it down an embankment. The impact threw Linda out of the car which then rolled over her and her unborn baby.

When the ambulance arrived, the paramedics could feel the baby moving inside Linda’s uterus, even as she lay unconscious, but there was nothing they could do. The hospital was at least twenty minutes away and a baby deprived of oxygen has only a few minutes to live. Even if someone had delivered the baby with a scalpel, a rainy country road is no place to resuscitate a critically ill baby. They could only watch on in horror as the movement slowed and stopped.

The hospital’s obstetrics residents were waiting in the Emergency Department when the ambulance arrived. The paramedics quickly wheeled their gurney into a room which had been set up for an emergency delivery. Tthe chief resident dutifully performed a procedure he knew was futile.

I was at home that night when the resident called.

“I’m in the ER. There is a patient of yours, here. She was in an auto accident about an hour ago. We delivered the baby down here but… I’m sorry. Neither one of them made it.”

I felt sick and more than a little helpless. At first, I didn’t know what to do. I’m used to driving like a bat out of hell to the hospital to deliver a baby that’s coming quickly, but there wasn’t anything I could do that would bring them back. After the initial shock, I called Jenny, one of the nurse practitioners who had cared for Linda throughout her pregnancy. She called Hope, one of the other receptionists and a friend of Danny’s, who in turned called the factory.

An eerie silence met me when I walked into the room. The residents had gone back to the Labor unit and the nurses had moved on to other patients. The gurney was bloody; a scalpel and the placenta lay in a stainless-steel basin. Linda and son lay side by side, as if they were sleeping peacefully after a long labor. Her abdominal incision was still open but the bleeding one would expect from a fresh Cesarean was lacking. I covered her with a clean gown and a sheet. Jenny and Hope appeared a few minutes later, their faces pale and grim.

“Someone found Danny; he was working on the line. It will take him about half an hour to get here.”

When Danny arrived someone from the front desk escorted him to the room. I excused myself to make room for him and as I left, I heard the most anguished cry ever to come from a man whose heart had been shattered. The woman he cherished and her baby would never come home.

A few days later, I drove Jenny, Hope and Sarah, another receptionist, out to the funeral in a little town about half an hour away. Linda and Zach—she’d picked out the name a few months before—were in the same casket. I don’t remember anything about the service; how much can one remember after nearly twenty-five years?

After the ceremony we joined the procession out of town to a state highway, then onto one of the many rural back roads, to a small cemetery a several miles north. The cemetery drive was unpaved and rutted; we pulled off into the grass near the fresh gravesite. The afternoon was cool and sunny, not cold and rainy like the night they died. A breeze stirred the few leaves that had fallen; in a few weeks all the trees would be bare.

The minister spoke a few words before we gathered around the casket to say our goodbyes. We drove back to the office in silence, sharing a grief that needed no words.
I sometimes look back and wonder “What if?” Linda would be fifty-two now. Maybe she’d have been a grandmother by now as her daughter is now in her thirties. Perhaps she and Danny would have had more kids.

Zach would be twenty-four. He might have been a good kid, then morphed into a sullen teenager, giving his parents many a tale with which to embarrass him when he finally matured. Maybe he would have done a stint in the military and made his parents proud.

Cherish what you have, because you never know when it may be lost forever.

Eclipse

It’s been a few weeks since the moon’s shadow raced across the continental United States at 1400 miles an hour, providing many with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view a total eclipse. The next one in the continental United States will be April 8, 2024. I’d like to pass on a few things we learned traveling to this one.

Plan ahead…WAY ahead. In January, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign organized a bus trip to Goreville, IL, the epicenter for Illinois, that sold out early. Hotels around the area sold out early as well; closest place I could find a room a couple of months before the eclipse was in Mattoon, about 150 miles north of Carbondale. Southern Illinois University was offering last minute lodging in dormitory rooms, or a 10’ x 10’ space in the Student Recreation Center, for hefty prices. The 2024 eclipse will also pass through Carbondale; you can watch the university’s countdown clock. Only 2400 more days give or take.

Get eclipse glasses early because they sold out quickly and make sure they are certified for eclipse viewing.  Amazon had to recall glasses which lacked certification, prompting at least one lawsuit for permanent eye damage.. Chicago’s Adler Planetarium distributed more than 250,000 pairs in the few weeks prior to the event and had 30,000 available that day. Plastic glasses that go over corrective lenses are likely to be less awkward than the mass produced cardboard and film ones. And no, putting sunscreen in your eyes isn’t a substitute.

Take the road less traveled. Interstate 57, the direct route to Carbondale from the Chicago suburbs, was slow going from Kankakee on Sunday, August 20. We left it just south of Kankakee at US 52 and drove the back roads through the heartland, passing through obscure towns (to suburban dwellers like me, anyway) like L’Erable, Crescent City, Woodworth, Cissna Park, and Rankin.

IL-49 becomes North 2nd Street as it cuts through the heart of Cissna Park. There’s a small public park on the west side facing the Cissna Park State Bank, The Ivy Arbor and the True Value Hardware Store on the east. We stopped on a side street across from the Post Office for a preemptive bathroom break.  It was warm, even under the shade of the trees, and quiet. Very quiet. None of the traffic noise to which I’ve tried to become immune. No barking dogs or shrieking children. A faint breeze rustled the leaves but the town appeared all but deserted.

Silence like that should be welcomed, not feared. It allows one to think, to become more aware of how small our existence can be. I am jealous of those people, but I imagine the few younger people living there can’t wait to head out to “civilization.” Be careful what you wish for; there will come a time, decades ahead, when you’ll wonder why you were so eager to leave.

Traffic was much worse on Monday the 21st. We took IL-16 west out of Mattoon then US-51 south to Vandalia, where we stopped at McDonald’s for another potty break and drinks. My wife overheard a woman saying the part of her family that decided to take I-57 was just sitting in traffic.  We drove west on I-70 to Greenville, IL, then south on IL-127 to Nashville, where traffic from the I-64 exit slowed us to a crawl. So, we turned off at the first country road and hightailed it down the back roads along with a few other savvy travelers to Sparta, a good fifty miles from Carbondale, but still in the sweet spot for viewing.

Google Maps was working overtime and finally gave up the ghost about 11am. It wouldn’t be functional until well after totality.

Plan liquid intake and disposal very carefully if you are an old guy with BPH and a nagging wife.  Peg takes a dim view of the time-honored guy tradition of pulling off to the side of a country road and whipping it out. We stopped at one gas station where ten people were waiting for one bathroom; I ended up going in an empty iced tea bottle. Either stop for breaks often or wear adult diapers and avoid the “why didn’t you stop sooner” lecture.

Look for rural viewing sites. Sparta’s City Park was full, but we found a small park south of town with parking for about 20 cars. There was a nice breeze, and plenty of room to watch the moon slowly overtaking the sun.  Thousands of miles of county roads form a grid around the cornfields in Southern Illinois and the population density is very low. Arrive early and bring something to eat and drink. We stopped at Sparta’s Wal-Mart before looking for a spot.

Take something to sit on. I’d forgotten the folding chairs I’d planned to take, so we sat on the landscaping stones surrounding the park’s sign.  One old guy sat in his car with his wife, with the engine and air conditioning running for over an hour. Yeah, gas was $2.09/gallon, but it’s still a waste.

Go a few days early and stay a day or so after.  If you have the time, plan on getting to your destination a few days before the eclipse and stay a day or two after.  We’d planned on driving to Springfield immediately after the eclipse as I had to work a hospitalist shift two days later. Sparta has a nice Holiday Inn Express and it would have been nice to avoid the mass exodus

Most people left right after totality, caravaning up country roads with stop signs or a blinking red light at major highway intersections. We alternated between several mile backups and racing to the next backup. It never occurred to the local cops or county sheriffs to direct traffic for a few hours; I would not have thought of it, either. A normally 2-hour drive turned into four. Luckily our exit into Springfield avoided the sluggish merge of I-72 and I-55.

If you want pictures of the sun before totality, get a filter.  Remember burning leaves with a magnifying glass when you were a kid? A telescope is just a more expensive and powerful version. Our local news station showed what happens to a camera attached to an unfiltered telescope: the mechanism was smoking when it was detached.

Taking a picture through eclipse glasses was awkward and futile. If you want to try this, bring along tape to secure the glasses to the lens.

Turn off your camera’s auto-correct. I tried to get shots of the fading light but the camera on my phone compensated enough to make my pictures useless for comparison. Here’s a side-by-side, using computer wizardry to uncorrect my shot.

The eclipsed sun is actually very small. Those magnificent pictures you see are taken through telescopes with high-end cameras and filters. The moon was smaller than I anticipated and one cannot see much of the corona with the naked eye. A pair of binoculars would have been handy.

The all-around sunset is spectacular. No, it does not get pitch black; it’s more like dusk. It’s dark enough to trigger street lamps and the cicadas started chirping but it’s still a thrilling experience. WGN’s chief meteorologist, Tom Skilling, sobbed when it finally happened.

Bonnie Tyler sang “Total Eclipse of the Heart” on a boat somewhere off the coast of South Carolina. I thought Pink Floyd’s “Eclipse” was more appropriate, so enjoy.

Life in Customer Service Hell

Well, that was forty-five minutes of my life wasted.

I was online signing up for a retirement plan with a financial behemoth which shall remained unnamed. They have $219 billion in assets but the right and left hands don’t communicate and they apparently don’t have enough money to adequately staff their customer service department.

My first problem – (actually, it was Peg’s problem because her recent “retirement” allows her more time to do these things and I don’t have the patience for this shit) – was trying to set up the account. The brochure said I needed my Social Security number, date of birth and my temporary PIN: my height, weight and shoe size (not really). After several failed attempts, Peg called customer service…several times. The average wait was 20 minutes and when she’d run out of patience she’d hang up and try later. When she finally connected, the rep said, “Oh, yeah, that was the old way. We don’t do that anymore. We send you a PIN in the mail.”

“We haven’t received a PIN yet.”

“We send it within 30 days of enrollment.”

“It’s been almost 30 days.”

“Well, you have to wait 30 days and then, if you haven’t received it, please call us back.  Is there anything else we can help you with today?”

How about just giving me the damn PIN?

Two weeks later … three weeks later … no PIN.

So she called again, this time while I was home.

“We need your husband’s Social Security number, confirmation of his address and his date of birth.”

She gave him the information but the rep said, “No, he needs to tell us.”

“Honey, get on the phone so you can give this idiot the same information I just gave him.”

I did but wondered how he knew I was really me and not some random guy pulled off the street, or Peg just using a deep voice.

“I’ll get back to you in a day.”  Yeah, right. Another week wasted and still no PIN.

Then a different customer service rep called when I was busy and left a voice mail message. I called back. The phone didn’t ring; it just went to some cheesy, overly cheery music and the usual robot instructions.

“To continue in English, press 1.”

Done. I don’t have time to go through your menu.

“Please enter your nine-digit Social Security number.”

OK.

“Please enter your PIN.”

I don’t have a PIN, you idiots! That’s why I’m calling.

I hung up and called back.

“If you’d listened to the rest of the menu in the first place, you wouldn’t be stuck in this queue again, now would you? So, to continue in English, press 1. Para continuar en español, presione el número dos.  To speak to a real person, press 0 and cross your fingers.”

I did and the music changed to a two-chord electric guitar riff endlessly repeating.

“All of our agents are serving other customers. Please stay on the line and your call will be answered in the order it was received.”

I put the call on speakerphone and waited… and waited…and waited. For the next forty-five soul-sucking minutes the queue cycled through these messages, slightly edited for accuracy.

“All of our agents are serving other customers. Please stay on the line and your call will be answered in the order it was received.”

Music.

“Did you know you could access your account balance and make transactions on our website? Go to www.goodluckwiththatshit.com for more information – like it will do you any good. In the meantime, listen to this irritating two-chord riff played in an endless loop until your ears bleed.”

Music

“All of our agents are serving other customers. Please stay on the line and your call will be answered in the order it was received. You can continue to wait or press 1 to be transferred to voicemail where you can leave a message that will go into an infinite void never to be answered. We’ll laugh our asses off because you’re so gullible.”

Music. Please, dear God, make it stop!

“All our agents are serving other customers. Please stay on the line and your call will be answered if we feel like it, which we don’t. We don’t have enough staff. John is boning Marsha in the broom closet and the rest of the staff is playing Solitaire.”

Music. I’m going to scream if I have to keep listening to this!

“All of our agents are “servicing” other customers – you get my drift – and you’re still on the line? Are you stupid or just desperate?”

Music. My ears are now bleeding.

When I finally got to talk to a real person she said, “Oh, your temporary PIN is blah blah blah.” Three quarters of an hour for a 15-second conversation.

Three days later I got a letter from them with a “new” temporary PIN: the original “temporary PIN” provided in the initial instructions.

I’m glad we cleared that up.

Memorial Day

1969 was the next-to-last time Memorial Day would be observed on May 30th.  It was also the first time I participated in a small-town parade. This was before a day dedicated to the people who gave their lives in war became a three-day federal holiday and an excuse to sell mattresses and cars. (I must admit, however, that I got a great deal on a new laptop on Monday.)

I’d enrolled in band my freshman year at Streator High School and took up the flute, largely out of guilt. My sister had started flute lessons two years before but I complained about listening to her practice so much that she quit. This was one of many attempts to atone for my transgressions that I’d make in the coming decades. It turned out not to be a bad decision; hey, it worked for Herbie Mann and Ian Anderson. But don’t ask me to play for you.

I wouldn’t play with the band until the following school year but our director thought everyone in band should participate in the Memorial Day parade and assigned me to the color guard. We would hoist heavy hardwood flagpoles into sturdy leather carriers that draped around our shoulders and ended in a pouch that looked like a codpiece (prompting the inevitable dick jokes) and lead the band in the annual remembrance.

The parade route from the War Memorial at the City Park to Riverview Cemetery was about a mile, so we made a practice run a few days ahead to make sure we could march in formation and not embarrass ourselves. Four of us lined up in the middle of Morrill Street on a warm, overcast afternoon, with our flags and poles, and marched towards the football field a few blocks away. Gary, one of the two trumpet players who would do “Taps” at the cemetery, told me to count as we marched.

“One, two, three, four. One, two…”

“No, that’s not it. Count like your marching in the Army!”

“I never been in the Army. Whaddya mean?”

Gary took over.

“Left, right, left, right…no, your other right foot! C’mon, pay attention.”

We got in sync and then Gary switched to an old Army cadence:

Sergeant Brown is turning green
Hut, two, three, four
Someone pissed in his canteen
Hut, two, three, four

I snorted but that flagpole was a lot heavier than I anticipated, so I kept marching. We made it to the football field and back without incident and figured we were ready.

Our band uniforms were at least twenty or thirty years old. They were a muted navy blue, god-awful heavy, and smelled like musty basements and sweat. We also wore spats – those white shoe covers worn by gangsters in the 1920s.  We dressed in the band room and then walked the five blocks to the park, gathering around the memorial before lining up in the street.

I don’t remember what music we played as we made our way down Main Street; it’s not that important. But the music stopped when we got to the bridge over the Vermilion River, a block away from the American Legion. The drummers continued to tap out a rhythm on the edges of their drums as we walked silently, past Westgate Plaza, past the public swimming pool, and into the cemetery.

Gary and I walked to the far end of the cemetery and stopped behind a cluster of evergreens. We waited as the rest of the procession assembled inside the gates. Someone may have said a prayer or given a small speech, but we were too far away to hear.

Then Fred, the first chair trumpet player, started “Taps,” pausing after each phrase. Gary, from our position in the trees, responded with the same phrase, as a distant echo. Back and forth they played, reverently. It was more poignant because everyone knew someone who had died in Vietnam and dreaded the deaths still to come.

A quarter of a century later I tried relating this ritual to my kids but had to stop as the tears rolled down my face. Our country was at peace then, but it was only temporary. Another conflict would follow, then another, and another. The Gulf War. Somalia. Bosnia. Kosovo. Afghanistan. Iraq. ISIL. We became numb and didn’t want to think about the devastation, the broken bodies and broken lives. Maybe we just got tired.

So, on this May 31st, the day after what we recalled as Memorial Day, ponder this passage from the Gettysburg Address:

“…It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…”

Peace be with you.