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  • Writer's pictureMary Balistreri

The Anniversaries. The Dogs Know.

When it comes to anniversaries and grieving, I was not sure what to expect or how I would feel. I prepared myself mentally for having a hard day. I planned ahead to write this post and delve into my feelings in my journal. When the day came, none of my plans happened as expected.

On February 18, the anniversary of my sister Ann's death, I thought about the last time she visited my house. I sat on the couch sipping coffee and thinking about that day. The exact date does not stick in my mind, but it was one of those days when fall is getting ready to start. Maybe September or October. There was a chill in the air and the uncertainty of how the weather might behave. Her visit to my home was spontaneous and born from necessity. There had been a giant rainstorm and Ann's house lost electricity.

My husband, Steve, and I were getting ready for bed on this night when Ann called. It was close to 9 p.m., so the call immediately put me on edge. "Are you ok?" I answered the phone with this greeting before she even said hello. "Yes, but our electricity is out and they say it won't be back on until midnight. I don't have enough battery left in my portable oxygen machine to make it until then," she said.

"We'll be right there!" I said. Steve was already in the car before I hung up the phone. All of us concluded she must stay at our house although none of us said the words out loud.

Not having a working oxygen machine to use when you are dependent on oxygen 24/7 is an emergency. Not breathing often leads to death, in fact. I felt scared and worried. Would she get to the house in time?

Ann became dependent on oxygen in 2019. I remember the year, because she brought her machine, the first portable oxygen concentrator I had ever seen, to my son's high school graduation party. After a scary stay in the hospital, they also equipped her with the largest oxygen concentrator I had ever seen (ok, I had never seen any of these machines before) for use in her home. In the beginning, she used the portable machine outside the house when she needed to walk from one place to another. When she arrived at her destination and sat down, she took it off for awhile. She relied on the giant machine for the same purpose for walking from room to room at home. At first, she needed just a little boost of air to help her when she exerted effort moving around.

By the time we reached this stormy night in 2022, she was completely dependent on oxygen. She wore the tube in her nose every minute, and her breathing kept getting worse. During most of our phone calls, she told me how she kept increasing the level of air she was receiving. She asked what would happen when it gets to 10. There was no 11.

While I waited and readied the house for Ann, my brain generated pictures of the scene at her house. My nephew, Josh, Ann's primary caregiver, had packaged everything perfectly in the original boxes and carried them out to the car while explaining to Steve how to reassemble them. (Josh decided to stay home for an uncommon opportunity to be alone in the house.) Steve was nodding while trying to figure out how best to help Ann into the car without tangling up the oxygen cord. The cord for the giant machine reached all the way from the bedroom through the long hallway down the back stairs and halfway down the ramp outside.

After the most recent scary hospital stay, this one was earlier in 2022, the hospital/home health/care people - there were so many, I could not keep them straight - succeeded in placing a ramp down the outside steps at the rear entrance to the house. There was no fix for the few stairs inside the house that led to the back door. Ann had to pull all her strength and nerve together to walk down those three stairs. Steve was there - big, solid, reliable, steady Steve - to hold onto her and to hold her up when necessary during that progression.

And, in the midst of her lack of breathing, fluctuation of her sugar levels due to insulin-dependent diabetes, pain from chronic pancreatitis, and pain from chronic osteomyelitis, the demon obstacle of her swollen, arthritis-torn legs made walking excruciating and dangerous. She fondly called the infected bone OG for Original Gangsta and her messed-up other femur NG for New Gangsta.

Halfway down the ramp, OG and AG would raise a ruckus and Ann would stop and sit on her walker seat while Josh switched from the inside machine to the portable... Wait! The giant machine cannot run without electricity! My mind switched to making pictures of Ann accomplishing this whole maneuver with the portable machine alone. I could not see it. I started to panic. So, I called them. First, Steve's phone. Then, Ann's phone. Finally, Josh's phone. No one answered.

Ten minutes later, Ann called me. "We're in the car," she said. She told me they decided she should come into my house the front way using the old ramp we used for our son. I nodded silently. Our son Owen used a wheelchair. We bought the ramp years ago so he could bring the chair in the house, but he never wanted to do that. "I'll wait till they get here," I thought, "before telling them the incline on that ramp was too steep for her regardless of whether she was using a wheelchair or a walker. They should really just come in the back door like she used to."

It had been more than a year since Ann came over to visit. Most of the time these days, she felt too ill or was in too much pain. The times when she felt better, she did not want to navigate the steps. I totally understood, but I missed her so much. My little girl inside was jumping up and down with glee. "Ann is coming over! Ann is coming over!" My brain grabbed onto that little made-up-in-the-moment-song. I started singing it to my dogs and cats. The cats were indifferent, but the dogs KNEW. They did not know, they KNEW in capital letters that this thing happening at our house was important.

The transfer from the car to Ann's wheelchair to the ramp for the front stairs took an hour by itself. The angle of that ramp was too steep, too, and Ann screamed her Ann-scream the entire time while Steve pushed her up those few feet. It took about three minutes. By the time she reached the top, I was doubled over with laughter. I tend to laugh when I am nervous or anxious. Once she was safe at the top of the stairs, Ann laughed, too. The two of us laughed and laughed until Steve, who was not laughing, interjected a stiffly voiced, "Come on! It's cold out here. We have to get her into the house." Cold at the moment was around 40 degrees. Ann and I found the temperature quite pleasant.

Ann, a bit terrified at the thought of another improperly pitched ramp, decided against using the next one. She planned to walk up the next three stairs to the house using just her cane and Steve. But she needed to rest first. So, I ran inside to grab a shawl for her, and there we stayed; Ann sitting on a chair from the house that Steve brought out, me sitting on the porch, talking and laughing. We were so happy to see each other in person. We hugged and talked about the show we must be putting on for my neighbors.

Ann was a screamer. She screamed with delight, outrage, pain, sorrow, and, sometimes, just for fun. She started screaming as a little girl in the high-pitched way little girls love to scream. Her screams were never feigned or timid. They resonated through the air ripping huge holes in the atmosphere and tearing at the ears of anyone and anything within a three-mile radius. Where were my neighbors? To my surprise, no one came out to inquire about the ruckus. No one even cracked the curtain to their window. It was a Sunday night. Maybe they all were sleeping. Maybe the moment lived in some protected locked, magical space just for us; free from the world's troubles and judgement.

While we reminisced, Steve ran back and forth between the car and the house. After what seemed to be a half hour, I stopped him. "Is there still more in the car?" I asked. I could not imagine why he kept running around like that. What had she packed?

"I have a lot of baggage," Ann said with a head toss, eye roll, and a laugh.

"Steve, let me help you," I said.

He was breathless and horse when he replied, "Ok. You can hold the door open. I have to bring in the giant machine now. It's heavy." He said it all with no inflection in a very Steve-like tone that I know means "I am completely freaked out by all of this and need it to be over as soon as possible." I helped him wordlessly. After much crashing, banging, and muttered swears from both of us, the giant had landed. The monster was in my house.

Did I mention the dogs barking constantly during this entire scene? The rest of the neighborhood dogs remained absolutely silent. More evidence of the miracle moment or dome or whatever we were hidden in, I guess. I found it quite eerie. My dogs, Storm and Snow, both stood at the window barking and, occasionally, mewing, desperate for us to come inside.

Next, Ann made the valiant ascent up the three stairs to enter my house. Steve stood behind her offering stability and she used her cane to steady herself. I stood at the top of the steps, ready to whisk the walker to her side in case she need to rest on the seat immediately. A few full-throated screams from Ann, a cry of "be careful, you're pulling her oxygen cord" from me, and some grunts and quiet swearing-under-the-breath from Steve, and she stood atop the porch. It was done! Everest had been bested! She quickly plopped onto the walker as I held it tightly and steadily. Not done yet!

"Look!" she said breathlessly, pointing at the portable oxygen concentrator. The dial, already in the red, danger zone, tipped further down. Down to what? What comes after the red? Total blackness.

"We have to get you into the house so you can plug in!" I cried. We helped her in, and she fell onto the couch in the Florida room, our little sunroom. Steve ran forward with the never-ending tubing from the giant machine which, previously plugged in by him, already filled the room with noisy vibrations announcing "Oxygen is ready! hssssss. Oxygen is ready!" Ann quickly shoved the prongs up her nose and sighed, breathing heavily, open-mouthed, as she tried to recover.

Now, Storm and Snow, the same beasts barking and mumbling at the window for the last two hours, uttered not a sound. They surrounded Ann making a protective shield around her from the very moment she entered the house. Storm, our medium-sized herding dog, sat at attention at her side pressing her furry body up against her Grandma Ann and lifting her face to accept the pats given to her by this beloved person. Snowy made the strangest face I ever saw on a dog. She made her face ultra thin and small so it looked longer than normal. She pushed her nose forward making her neck longer than possible for a dog her size, She pulled her ears straight back accentuating the bulging eyes of the chihuahua part of her breed. It was the face of deep concern for a loved one. Grief painted on her little pup face.

Thinking about it all makes me shiver even while I smile at the spectacle we made. And, I saw clearly now that the dogs knew it was the last time they would see her.

After getting Ann water to drink and a piece of cheese to refuel her, I glanced at my watch and was stunned. "It's 12:45! You must be exhausted!" I said. She pointed to the other box, the other machine to assemble. The c-pap machine. Steve had put it in the bedroom next to the bed, but completely drained from all this commotion, he had gone off to bed. I had to put this machine together.

Ann and I shared several moments of sisterly chatter while I hooked up this extra bit of life-saving business for her. The dogs remained at her side as she walked through the kitchen leaning heavily on her walker and used the bathroom. They both stayed in the bathroom with her, too. Snowy made soft comforting cries while sitting with her. Storm, ever responsible for her pack, proudly led Ann back to the bedroom. Before she laid back on the mattress, both pets had positioned themselves in the bed to guard, comfort, and warm her. I helped by picking up her legs and moving them onto the bed for her. We kissed each other and said our "I love you's" before I left the room.

I slept on the couch so I could be near her in case she needed anything in the night. I cannot really call it sleep. It was more like drifting into a world filled with strange sounds, darkness, and fear; and, then, opening your eyes to find the world was your living room.

The next morning is a blur of commotion with most of the night's activities happening in reverse. Except, Ann decided to leave down the back steps, a relief to all of us. What I remember most about that morning is the fuss the dogs made in trying to make her stay. Storm kept grumbling what sounded like, "oh, no, oh no" while she pushed her body against Ann's keeping her from standing up. Snowy sat next to Ann in silence burrowing her little head and body into Ann's leg and side.

When the time came, and it came too quickly, Ann's exit took no more than ten minutes. All the fuss the night before seemed like a movie I had watched but could not quite remember the beginning or the end. I only saw the middle.

"Why do you have to go?" I said starting to cry.

"Because I do," she said. "I love you." And, with a hug, she was gone.

Remembering this on the anniversary of Ann's death, I was struck with the actions of the dogs. I wondered what they had been saying when they were barking at us for those two hours. Maybe, "Hey, you guys, come in the back way!" or "Why are you withholding my Grandma Ann from me?" or "Time is limited! Do not waste it!" Whatever it was, they understood. Time is a gift. Love is a gift.

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