“The kind of heat that August brings eclipses hot in an odd way; the atmosphere radiates with such intensity that you know fall is on its way.”
This week’s episode of The Dog Days is going to be shift from the norm. My wonderful husband, Kyle, has written a guest post about summer heat, vacation, and thoughts on life and death. It’s a refreshing break from the stories about dogs and it gives us a little more to ponder as summer comes to a close.
If you have been following this blog lately, then you already know that Jamie has been writing about the dog days of summer. Since she has been so courteous as to extend an invitation for me to write something this week, I will keep to that theme—though I will approach it a bit differently. Bear with me.
In our master’s program, Jamie and I had a professor who taught us the power, process, and dynamics of group therapy. In our process recordings we were forced to reflect on as many of the exchanges we could remember from each group session. Our professor asked us if we noticed a trend. No one spoke up with an answer and, as she was a pretty thorough Freudian, she informed us that the topic that kept coming up was death. Like a gyre, the conversation spiraled from humdrum talk of classes and grades to the profundities of life. You could set your watch by it; every session, the group would end up ending up with talk of the end. What does that have to do with the dog days of summer though?
In the deep south, the August heat chases dogs to the coolness of shades, preferably ones under the porch or, better yet, IN the house. The kind of heat that August brings eclipses hot in an odd way; the atmosphere radiates with such intensity that you know fall is on its way. The burning gusts of August will eventually give way to a milder fall—continuing a cycle that began before us and will continue long after us.
The dog days of summer are my favorite days of the year, weather wise. The heat signals something in my unconscious and creates a longing to return to places of my youth—places where happy memories and moments were shared with my family. Just about every year of my life, we loaded up in a vehicle and traveled to the same vacation spot. I am sitting there now, which, of course, makes it here-now. I am here now, again. This here is the last place I ever saw my grandfather draw a breath. I am sitting a few feet away from the same spot that I perched upon so many years ago, as I strained to catch a few glimpses of my papa.
Papa was our term of endearment for my maternal grandfather. The space is too short to tell you what kind of person he was and how he impacted my family so profoundly. I can tell you that he was the kind of guy that you loved being around if, for no other reason, you simply felt better around him than not. He was the kind of guy that a kid would risk getting into trouble on vacation just to be closer to. Let me explain.
Papa had not been feeling too well. He was injured rather severely in an accident, while working on a skyscraper. The entire time I knew the man, he battled the demons that accompany an injury of that magnitude. Like many others of his generation, he never complained about it. I never heard him say it wasn’t fair. I’ll speak on his behalf and say that I don’t think it was fair to suffer like that. My mother knew something must be seriously wrong with him if, after all of the years of dealing with the pain, he suddenly began mentioning how bad it was bothering him. So, when he and my grandmother (affectionately known as nanny) arrived here, which was there (then), my brothers and I were told to leave him alone and let him rest. Leave him alone? Fat chance! I spent most summers of my life living with he and my nanny. He was the only adult that I knew who stayed up later than me. He introduced me to Baseball Tonight and Sports Center reruns. If I couldn’t hang with papa, who would watch bowling with me at 1a.m.? This talk of not disturbing him was utter nonsense, so I waited for my chance and snuck into his room. He was sleeping with ESPN flickering in the background. My wife is now doing the same thing in that (this) same room. Of course, it wasn’t by her choice, but the continuity remains. That evening that I slithered into papa’s room, I didn’t say anything. I don’t even know if I breathed above a whisper. I remember climbing up on the edge of a table for viewing purposes. The height of the table offered me a vantage point where I could easily keep my eye on my grandfather, the flickering TV and the door—just in case my mom came to check on him. She soon made her rounds and caught me there beside him. She shooed me out of the room and, again, explained that he needed his rest.
I still have this image of him leaving. Strangely, I don’t remember the exchange I had with my nanny, but I can, even now, go back in time and see him saying goodbye to me. He used to take the scratchy stubble that had grown on his face during the night and tickle us with prickly embraces. He burrowed his chin deep into my neck until I burst into laughter and an awkward “I can’t help but dance around to stop the tickling” dance. That was it. So routine. So mundane. So hot outside.
A few days later, at the height of the dog days of summer, he died. That was the initial blow that brought the protective confines of childhood to a screeching halt. As I think back over his death, it seems so strange to me. He was only a year older than my father is now. How did I not know he was still so young when he died? I suppose seeing my parents become grandparents themselves shifted my perception dramatically. I mean I always thought of papa and nanny as old, simply because they were my grandparents. I had no actual knowledge of ages. I only knew old and young. I figured I was young and my parents were older than me so their parents must be way older than me and, therefore, old. My logic was working pretty well, until I made a faulty assumption. That is still the case. My logic works pretty well until the assumptions creep in. So, I try not to assume as much. A few things I now take as givens though: there’s no such thing as routine; living is not so mundane after all, because if you do it long enough, it will kill you; death, like the sun’s rays on a dog’s back can drive you to a dark, shadowy place—even if you’re the one who remains. Like the paradox of August (the hottest days bespeak the coming cold), perhaps death is the same kind of thing. Perhaps the cycle that has been going on before us and continues long after us will introduce us to something new? Maybe death ushers us to a new kind of life? All I know is that when it’s this hot, my mind inevitably conjures the moving image of my dying grandfather.
Kyle McNease is a doctoral student in Communications and Bioethics at the Florida State University. He enjoys writing, researching, and reading and, in his free time, spending quality time with his wife and puppy. You can learn more about Kyle, his research, and his life at his website: http://www.theforefront.net/