I haven't posted in a good long while. In fact, a weird sort of writer's block kept me from sustaining any piece. But this year's Christmas letter ended that--I hope. Regardless of circumstances or beliefs, I hope you use today to embrace your family in gratitude for what you have instead of remorse for what you don't.
December 19, 2011
Dear friends and family,
I miss that damn dog.
I’m reminded of that for the millionth time after watching a Kevin Spacey movie early this morning in which his character’s Jack Russell dies suddenly. Mary Allison arrived for the holiday last night after driving 12 hours from Charleston and wasn’t here 30 minutes before she said, “I wish Duke were here.”
We all do.
In May, Duke, a month from his 12th birthday, was diagnosed with cancer that had produced a tumor near his heart and lungs. Periodic treatments allowed him to hang on until we got back from a long overdue trip to the Outer Banks in late August when, two days after our return, he simply couldn’t get up on his own anymore. He looked up at me with exhausted eyes as if to apologize for the inconvenience. I managed to get him up and out into the front yard where I sat with him all morning, a perfectly beautiful, almost-fall morning, stroking his head and hoping he would just go to sleep for the last time. But we weren’t that lucky. Anne came home from school, and we drove the hour south to his specialist for the last time.
Intellectually I had made the decision months ago to let him go when it became obvious his quality of life was compromised. Still, feeling his heart beat stop under my hand after the injection induced a form of shock that made me feel as if I were watching events through a window, as if it were all happening to someone else’s dog, not mine. The vet cried; I could not.
I’ve cried many times since then, though, reminded daily of how subtly and thoroughly Duke had become intertwined with my routine. These past years off of Wall Street, working at home on various cabinetry projects, I had Duke in my line of vision most of the time out in the garage or on the driveway, conversing with him about the world’s troubles. Being the smart dog that he was, he never disagreed with me, instead pushing his head up under my hand for a scratch between the ears. Throughout the slow, sometimes painful process of developing my solo carpentry business, Duke had become a vital emotional shock absorber simply by basking in the sun in a pile of saw dust, calmly yawning occasionally as a sign that things were cool and everything would work out in the end. Four months after his death, the jingle of keys, sounding like the dog tags on his collar, still makes me involuntarily turn, expecting to see him, tail wagging, in a doorway.
Some of you may note that there was no Christmas letter last year. The short explanation is that a depression, brought on by the sale of our home of 17 years to clean up a balance sheet ravaged by recession and college tuition, had caused writer’s block. The sale of the place where we had lived longer than any other during our nearly 28 years of marriage had left us unmoored and uncertain of the future.
Staking out his territory
The transition was cushioned somewhat by the constant of Duke and his faithful cat Molly following us to a nice rental home only five blocks from our former address. For months Molly would trek back to her old chipmunk-hunting grounds, sometimes requiring us to drive over and retrieve her when she didn’t come home for a couple of days. Duke, on the other hand, instantly took to the new digs on a wooded cul de sac that features a creek in back, working diligently to pee on every new tree in a three-block radius to establish his territory.
Looking back, though, I should have written a 2010 letter. We had lots of good news to at least partially offset the gloom of the move. To wit:
Oldest son Noel’s move to Los Angeles in January of 2009 resulted in a job as personal assistant to a film director who landed a gig directing a Kate Hudson movie based on the best-selling novel Something Borrowed. Not only was it shot primarily in New York in the spring of 2010, allowing us to see Noel fairly often and sit in on the shooting of some scenes, but it marked Noel’s debut as a professional film actor. In one scene in the movie he is a law student who shushes the stars for talking too loud in the law library. In another he’s sitting in a law class in the background, slightly out of focus and expertly saying absolutely nothing. Total screen time? About 3.5 seconds but enough to make him eligible for future royalties should this movie defy all logic and become a cult classic on late-night cable.
When the movie came to Summit in May of this year, we rounded up a dozen or so friends to go see it. We hooted and hollered obnoxiously in the little theater when Noel’s face appeared and then again when he was listed twice in the closing credits as “law student” and assistant to the director.
After Anne’s musical in March, a rousing production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” we paid Noel a visit in Los Angeles in April just before the movie’s opening. By then he already had moved on to his current position with an internet marketing firm where he produces web commercials for big brands such as Kraft and Clorox. He recently got promoted to being in charge of all video production. At last we heard from him the words every parent longs for these days: “I finally got benefits.”
However, his dream of directing a full-length feature one day has not been shelved. Far from it. He now has a manager who is hawking his screenplay, written and rewritten over the past three years, to various studios. The latest word is Katherine Heigl’s production company is kicking its tires. More recently, he cajoled numerous professionals, including equity actors, to help him shoot a 10-minute film he wrote and hopes to enter into film festivals next year. L.A. is becoming his oyster.
At long last, done with tuition!
A couple of weeks after Noel’s cinematic debut, our youngest, Mary Allison, took the stage to accept her magna cum laude degree in elementary education at the College of Charleston, winning the top award in her department to boot. But, coming home to a train wreck of a teaching-job market in New Jersey, M.A. was beginning to wonder when her career would leave the launching pad. Then she got a call from a large county school district 30 minutes outside of Charleston. Would she be interested in teaching remedial English to fifth graders? With visions of returning to a waitress job in town and the urging of her parents, she said yes. And before we knew it, she and I were driving to Charleston to spend a frantic week finding an apartment and furnishing it from scratch before she began her job in early August.
During that week I spent more continuous time with my daughter than I had in the previous four years. While it was a challenge to get her past the college-student mentality of wanting to furnish her spiffy two-bedroom pad with roadside cast-offs, when I finally got her into shopping mode we were off to the races. Took care of her Christmas presents for the next 30 or 40 years.
A couple of weeks later Anne and I ventured down to our old stomping grounds, the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a beach we had taken the kids to for a good 10 years or so but hadn’t visited since M.A. started college. The trip coincided with Anne’s 39th (ahem) birthday; and we were in a bit of a wistful mood with none of the kids around, something I was determined to shake with a nice bottle of red and giant T-bones on the grill of the beach house we had rented.As we sat down to relive our Texas heritage of rapaciously ravaging red meat, we heard a noise on the nearby staircase. Just before I thought I was going to have to defend m’lady from an intruder, our second son Nick jumps up over the stair rail and yells “Surprise!” with his girlfriend Jenn close behind. Seems he had gotten the address of the beach house from his sister, who had gotten it from me under the ruse that she wanted to send her mom a birthday present.
Nick took four days off—a lifetime to him—from the coolest job on the planet to make his mom very, very happy. For more than a year now, he has worked at The Specialists, a company in New York City, putting his sculpting skills to use fabricating props including all sorts of weapons for movies and television shows. His machine-gun ammo belts appear every night in the hottest musical on Broadway, “The Book of Mormon.” He’s also developed a free-lance business that has included doing makeup for music videos and bizarre busts for Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball Tour.
When you get a chance check out his company’s website at http://thespecialistsltd.com/services .
And you can see his macabre heads in the clip of the HBO Lady Gaga special about three minutes in where she plays a pipe organ with the heads arranged around her at:
Dodging a hurricane
We were evacuated from the Outer Banks a day earlier than planned because of Hurricane Irene. Rather than go home, however, we stuck to our plan of driving the minivan on down to Charleston to spend the weekend with the newbie English teacher, even though at first it seemed we would be driving straight into the storm. I had to deliver a three-section home-entertainment cabinet I had designed and built to round out M.A.’s furnishings. Fortunately, the storm juked further east, sparing Charleston.
While back in this historical capital of the South, we had a chance to visit Mary Allison’s relatively new school in the rural town of Moncks Corner and meet some of her fellow teachers and principal, a burly ex-football coach who sang her praises effusively but warned that “she needs to go home earlier than 6 p.m. or she’ll be dead by Christmas.”
Still alive and well, she already has demonstrated her mother’s dedication to the field, trying to find new ways in her two two-and-a-half-hour classes to improve the reading and writing skills of her 30 students, most of whom are at least two grade levels below where they should be. Many of the kids are from impoverished homes; some, she has discovered, are from abusive homes. Mary Allison is learning quickly that a teacher can do only so much to turn such situations around, but it doesn’t keep her from trying. Early on she gave them an assignment to write about their heroes. One boy wrote that she was his hero because “you’re the nicest teacher I’ve ever had.” Her dearly departed grandmother, an elementary-music teacher for more than 30 years, would have been proud.
When we returned home, grateful that all three of our children had found work in their fields in a still-crappy economy, we had only two days left with Duke. We had gotten him as a puppy in 1999 off of a North Carolina farm owned by friends’ relatives. While visiting M.A. at her nearby summer camp on the Neuse River that year, we stopped by the farm and learned that a stray Labrador mix had dropped a shockingly diverse litter in the farmer’s garage. We went out to the backyard to a pen corralling all of the puppies, all adorable as puppies always are, and noted in particular the chocolate Labramutt with the big brown eyes. When we turned to walk back to the house, Duke managed to squeeze past the pen’s gate and follow us. I picked him up and stared into those soulful eyes…and that was that. As Anne always said, Duke chose us.
With Noel flying in with Maria, his girlfriend of nearly two years and also a Summit High graduate, and Nick hopping a train from Brooklyn, we’ll have them all back at once for a few days. And I’m sure we’ll all sit around Anne’s extravagantly lit tree by the fireplace with a little ache in our hearts that a family member is no longer with us. As the new year starts, though, we hope to find another “rescue” puppy after we close the deal we have in the works to buy a house similar to the one on Joanna Way 15 mnutes or so further north in West Orange.
As the song says, “time wounds all heels,” or something like that. Here’s hoping that 2012 is a good year for you and yours. And make some good memories, for in the end that’s all we really have.
Duke was a happy goin' farm dog who lived for the simple things in life: walks, playing, food (mainly people food) and family. Always waiting with a destructively wagging tail to greet us at the door when we came home. I have never known any other dog to sprain his tail from being so happy or jump in a lake to swim to his family on a boat or eat an entire Easter cake. Duke cared for all of us and we all cared for him deeply. He was a great dog, friend, and Poyner. There will never be another companion like him. He will be missed, but we all know that it is a scientifically proven fact that all dogs go to Heaven, where the floor is littered with leftover plates for them to lick.
Nick Poyner, Sept. 2, 2011