I'm with Buttons, my loyal Westie. He's running beside me at full sprint, through the grass, his tongue wagging out of his mouth, his eyes blazing. We run between those trees and out to the other side, out of the darkness and into the light.
This is my vision of heaven, of passing out of this life and into the next one. Even if there is nothing after this life, I hope that this is the last thought, the last vision I have before I close my eyes forever. When Buttons passes on, I hope this is the last vision he has too.
On Tuesday, Buttons and I were running five miles in the rain together in a completely new scene, dirt and gravel and muddy water kicking up into his fresh and powdery white coat. He didn't seem to mind - dogs are like babies, they don't give a shit about being clean. They just wanna sniff each others' butts and chase squirrels. Buttons is locked up all day five days a week. He needs these runs. He needs them as much as I do. And he has taken well to it. Buttons and I can rock a 9 minute mile together pretty easily nowadays. So I take him in the cold, in the rain. I take him whenever I can, even though I can run faster and further without him.
Fixing Buttons comes first now. In a lot of ways, fixing Buttons will help me fix myself.
Because Buttons needs more than these runs, he always has. Buttons has social anxiety. He's protective, territorial, he's nipped a long list of innocent victims, and most of all, he's super attached to me. I can't make excuses for that side of him, although I probably tried to for a long time. Buttons is my lovable problem child. And like me, Buttons needs some normalcy in his life. He needs companionship and he needs love.
On Tuesday night, I sat Buttons on his Sandy-salvaged grooming table out on the 4th story terrace of our new post-Sandy pad, brushing out mud and silt from his belly and his paws as I looked out towards the clear Manhattan skyline, beyond the blinking Christmas lights my sweet mother insisted upon hanging out on the railing in the rain a few days earlier. It was brisk and windy as I powdered my dog up, got him looking sharp again. It's the holidays - even if you don't feel your best, you should at least try to look your best.
I brought the radio outside. The Who was on..."Love Reign O'er Me." One of my all-time favorite songs, about a man having a personal crisis. Not surprisingly, music has been my most constant companion in life these past two years. Music and my dog.
Buttons sat at my feet on the terrace, looking out at the stars as I grilled some tilapia on a new Weber charcoal grill my parents bought me. Christmas comes early for hurricane survivors. I drank some white wine and thought about things I was trying to push out of my mind. I had a good run, ate a nice healthy meal. My dog was clean, my new apartment finally was too. I watched Saturday Night Live and the Survivor finale, I watched my beloved Duke Blue Devils defeat Cornell.
All things considered......it was a good day.
Here, all the furniture is bought and built, I have cable and Internet again. Here, the mold is contained, the heat is on. I fixed the smoke alarm, I did laundry. Here, life is as normal as it's ever been since the waters came. Back on Staten Island, my house is still a hollow holiday afterthought - dark and barren. I haven't received any money from insurance yet. I haven't seen my neighbors in weeks, I haven't been back. I'm trying to forget. But you don't forget things that are important to you, even if the future is unknown. You don't just drop a life you've invested in, even if the investment got sucker punched by a tropical storm.
Buttons is a reminder of that. This would be a great time to get rid of him, the last connection to my ex-wife, to the failures, disappointments, and misgivings of the past few years. Someone would take him in a heartbeat. But there's no way. I can't give up on him. I can't give up on love anymore, even if it's coming from a needy little dog. Because my dog's love is unconditional, even if it's complicated.
Buttons turned 4 on November 30th. That was the day that volunteers from all over the country came to demolish my house, upstairs and down, a full month after Sandy had fairly well destroyed it. What can I say about these people? Strangers who showed up with crowbars and sledgehammers and went to work and didn't ask for a dime, not even a cup of coffee. How can you possible repay them? You can't, you shake their hands and say "I don't know how to thank you," because it's the truth - you don't. All Hands Volunteers. That's who helped save my ass, save my sanity, save me some significant money. Giving them props here is not nearly enough, I have to find a way to pay their generosity forward, and I plan to. 2013 will mean a lot of volunteering for me, a lot of returning favors, a lot of expressing my gratitude. A lot of giving back. And in a lot of ways, it no longer feels like an obligation, it feels like something to look forward to.
While the walls were coming down, the floors torn up, the debris dumped out, an Asian dude from London who I had never met before named Tags, my friend Sean and I packed up a Sprinter Van full of my surviving Sandy stuff. Of all the people in my world, these were the two dudes who helped me get it done. Life is strange.
Sean and I took it all out of the house, cleaned the mold off of my bed frame, my dresser - everything upstairs took a saltwater bath up to the knees. Anything electronic upstairs frizzle fried. Some random things survived - my piano, my wine refrigerator (win!), those Logitech speakers that I lamented in a previous blog post. They fixed themselves. They dried out, they sound brand new. Sometimes miracles happen. Even if they're only minor ones, they're still miracles. The speakers' restoration gives me hope that one day I'll be fully functional again, that my heart and my head will heal as well as the circuits and the wires. That it's possible, at least.
That was November 30th. They started tearing the house down at 9am and by 5pm, my surviving life was loaded into the new apartment. Just another day at the office in the post-Sandy Twilight Zone.
It was just supposed to be Buttons' Birthday, and instead it was Demolition Moving Day.
October 31st was supposed to be Halloween, instead it was my first of 30 nights in a Bensonhurst refugee camp. November 6th, I was supposed to run the NYC Marathon. The following weekend I was planning to go away for a relaxing island getaway with a woman to celebrate 26.2 miles completed - the end of long journeys and the beginning of new ones. I was cruising into the holidays with confidence and conviction. I had a plan. They say God laughs when we make plans. He must have been having quite a chuckle at my expense this year. Good one, Lord.
On Buttons' 3rd birthday, a year earlier, we were in the house alone. My ex-wife had been gone for eight months, expelled from the trio we once were, and now it was just Buttons and I. I was cooking in my nice modern kitchen, the kitchen I had built with my ex in mind, the kitchen with the nice fridge my ex-mother-in-law bought us and the nice black tile that I argued with the contractor about. The kitchen that is now an empty shell in a dark, empty house.
I gave Buttons a huge marrow bone that night, made him give me his paw and play dead. Buttons is very good at tricks, he's very smart even if he's very stubborn. Like most dogs, instead of devouring the bone, he just carried it around for awhile, protecting it, hiding it. He laid under the piano bench in the living room, as he often liked to, and gnawed at it as I worked on music and drank some red wine. It was a regular Wednesday night in my post-divorce world, and it was okay.
All things considered......it was a good day.
Sometimes life was okay in the nine months after my separation, even if there was no woman in my life. And mainly that was because of Buttons. We were surviving together, we were learning to be a duo until we could be a trio again. He was getting better, he could be better trusted around family and friends. He was learning - struggling sometimes - to share me with others once again. It wasn't perfect, but it had potential.
A year later, Buttons and I are surviving together again. We're still learning.
Buttons may have already been broken when my ex and I got him from a breeder in Sarasota, Florida - I'll never know for sure. We picked him up at the airport and for those first few months, it was really nice. It distracted us from our own problems. But eventually the bad fights resurfaced and this time Buttons was in the middle of them, this little white puppy cowering on the couch while we screamed at each other and got in each others face. Buttons saw the worst of us when he wasn't bringing out the best in us.
After the hurricane, I asked my ex if she wanted Buttons back in her life. Not so much for me, or even for her, but for him. I've always felt bad for taking him away from her, and vice versa, but it was the collateral damage of a failed marriage. My ex loved Buttons very much, she was a good mother to him. Her love of animals was one thing that always made her shine as brightly as I could ever see her.
She declined my offer, gracefully. She's afraid, and I totally get that. Sometimes when it's over, it's over. There's no going back. But I had to offer, something inside me told me that I had to. I wound up having some nice conversations with my ex as a result. It was nice to know we could be civil, that whatever hard feelings between us had softened. Maybe it was because of the hurricane, maybe it was because enough time had passed, maybe we both learned some things after all those fights and all that turmoil, after I decided I couldn't take anymore.
When I met my ex, she had a black cat. Nilly was antisocial, she had bad dandruff and she shed like crazy. She took to me quickly, as most animals tend to, and she soon became my cat, too. When we brought Buttons home, Nilly had to make some adjustments, but they got along fine. A year later, she got sick very quickly and we had to put her down. I'd point to that moment, that night at the vet's with my ex, as one of the watershed moments of our short, troubled marriage - where we bonded over the loss of this poor creature together. I will never forget it, and even recounting it now brings a few tears to my eyes.
Pet owners understand this bond, this non-human love that in many ways transcends our more problematic human connections. Pet owners understand each other.
My dog lost his house, the woman who took care of him. He lost everything too. He's had a hard life. When I found this new apartment, I took Buttons with me. I take Buttons everywhere I can. We walked around the neighborhood, around a dog park a few blocks away. At least four different people came up to say hello to him and he was a gentleman every time. It was a good feeling. It felt right.
Part of me thinks this is what will turn Buttons into a gentle soul full-time - apartment life, city life. But another part is frazzled. I worry about him all the time. Every morning, when I leave the apartment for work, he barks. If I lock him up to go out at night, he barks. He stops after a minute or two, but he's sending a message. Don't go. Don't go, Ron. But I have to have a life. I found a neighborhood bar that allows dogs, I found him a boarder and I'm trying to get used to feeling at ease when he's out of my sight. He needs socializing, he needs quality time with other people besides me.
When we were in Bensonhurst for a month, my friend Jason took us in. Buttons has nipped him twice. On one of the last days at refugee camp, I took Buttons to the park and Jason saw a different side of him. He chased the ball and played with other dogs off the leash. Some young kids in the schoolyard watched him run around, in awe. They asked to pet him and I allowed it. He was good, well-behaved. Buttons is always good under my supervision. Jason warmed up to Buttons a little more after that and it made me feel good about the future. He may never be perfect, but he's fixable.
In that sense, Buttons is not unlike his master. More than anything, he needs love. He's nothing without it. But he also needs to stand on his own two feet. I came back from another underwhelming date last week, kept him locked up after hours so I could meet up with this girl, and he shoved his head into the crease of my elbow and closed his eyes. He sighed heavily as I rubbed his belly. I held him in my arms, cried over what I've lost these past few years, cried over what I've lost recently, what we've both lost. It has been a bumpy ride. But we're riding, still on this post-Sandy roller coaster, waiting for the next twist and turn, the next drop, the next adventure.
Whatever comes next, we'll keep surviving, keep learning. We'll keep on running until we get to the finish line. Until we find heaven.