Here is Chapter 28 of Dreaming Out Loud, the book about my mother's stroke.
Paula reluctantly agrees to allow the Chihuahua-mix to live downstairs with Hortense and mom. She realizes I have cast her in the role of the villain if she says no, but she also realizes my mother desperately wants to adopt what Paula calls the “chickenshit dog.” This label is a deliberate allusion to mom’s habit of calling me “nothing but a little chickenshit” when I was an adolescent and she was angry. If she was extremely angry, she would escalate the verbal attack and refer to me as “Mister Buster,” as in: “I don’t know who you think you are, Mister Buster, but I will not put up with this behavior!” When she was even angrier — enraged to the point of screaming with spittle flying from her mouth — the worst thing she would say was, “why, you’re nothing but a damn Republican!”
In homage to that long-ago epithet, Paula, mom, and I agree that the half-Chihuahua, half unknown breed should be named “Mister Buster.” We will call him “Mister.” It is either that name, or “Damn Republican.” “Mister Buster” has a nice symmetry since Shirley has decided to call her new puppy — Mister’s supposed litter mate — “Missy.” Shirley agrees to bring Missy with her when she comes to care for mom so Mister will have a part-time playmate.
Shelby is especially taken with Mister. She loves picking him and cuddling him. “He’s so cute! He’s just so cute!”
I shake my head. “He’s so ugly, he’s cute, I suppose.”
“No, he’s just plain cute.”
Mom agrees with Shelby. “He’s just plan cute, yes. Just plain cute.” She pauses and sticks out her chest. “Like me.”
I roll my eyes in mock horror. “Oh, brother. We have created a monster!”
“Monster, yes. Created a monster, yes.”
The little rat-dog grows livelier as he becomes accustomed to his new home, but he will never win awards for valor. Mister produces more urine, pound for pound, than any dog I have ever known. Whenever he is excited, which is often, he demonstrates his enthusiasm or fear or happiness by shooting a steady stream of liquid as though it were fired from a water pistol. We quickly learn that if Mister runs toward us, anxious to be picked up and petted, we must lift him facing away from us so the stream is aimed outward. Many a shirt or blouse has been soiled by failing to observe the iron law of Mister Buster. It never hurts to have a roll of paper towels and the pet stain remover nearby.
Once, early in our relationship, after Mister has stained my shirt, I hand him to mom in exasperation. “Maybe we should call him ‘Squirt.’ That would have been more appropriate.”
“Squirt, yes. That is his name. Mister Squirt!”
No matter what Mister does, and no matter how aggravated others get with the needy, greedy little monster, mom gazes at him with genuine affection plastered all over her face. Even Hortense, her faithful companion for almost a decade, has never received that kind of loving attention. Observing the little puppy as he laps up his food, mom smiles. “Hey, there, good looking! How you doin’?”
I pick up the wiggling, shaking, happy little creature and point him away from me. “So, mom, what’s your new puppy’s name?”
“This one is this one.”
“I know, but what’s his name?”
She frowns and looks up at the ceiling, lost in deep concentration.
“If you see your little dog and you want to greet him, you say: Hello there….”
“Fruit top and dill pickle?”
“No, let’s try it again. Hello there, Mister….”
“Nice try, but not quite. That’s what we should have named him, but we didn’t. Instead, we say, ‘hello, Mister….’”
“Mister Perfect? Or would it be, like Bobby says, Mister Near Perfect? Maybe we could say his name in 50 languages.”
Mom laughs. “Fifty languages.”
“Hello, there, Mister….”
“No. It’s not ‘Mister Perfect’ or “Mister Near Perfect.’ Hello, Mister….”
“No, not Mister Zero. Mister….”
Her eyes light up. She has the answer. “Mister Buster.”
“Yes. Very good, mom.”
“Mister Buster! His name is Mister Buster.”
I point to the stuffed giraffe Shelby gave to mom after she left the Parkwood Nursing Home. “Do you remember when we named your giraffe ‘Shorty’? We then asked you his name one time and you couldn’t remember ‘Shorty.’ Do you remember what you called him?”
Mom frowns. “No. What?”
“Geronimo?” She laughs. “His name is Geronimo?”
“No, his name is ‘Shorty.’ You called him ‘Geronimo.’”
She looks at her little dog. “C’mon here, Geronimo.”
Observing her gestures, he happily obliges.
Mom slaps her thigh. “Not Geronimo. Um, Geronimo.”
She gazes at me. “This one is the one who got me off the dill pickle and the pork chop. I mean, uh, the dill pickle and the right track.”
I laugh. “No. Mister Bus…what?”
“That’s right. Mister Buster!”
“Hello, Mister Buster!”
I lift him into her lap where Mister Buster greedily licks his mistress’ face and prances on her legs.
Whatever the expense, whatever the headaches, whatever the manipulation Shirley practiced in bringing the two puppies to our house, it has been worth it. My mother adores Mister Buster, and he feels the same about her.
As I get to know this little fellow, I realize how fortuitous it is that we adopted him. I cannot imagine another household warmly taking him into the fold. Aside from his propensity to spray urine whenever he is excited, he is a slow learner. It requires an inordinately long time for Mister to grasp the concept of a doggie door.
Even more difficult is the intricate process of climbing up and down stairs. He is fortunate when he roams through mom’s apartment because he does not have to navigate a staircase. Whenever we bring him upstairs to become acclimated to our house, however, he is frightened. Paula and Shelby stand at the top of the staircase and call his name. I place him halfway up the stairs and stand at the bottom. We then gauge the results of our experiment.
The results are disastrous. Mister simply does not understand what is expected. His body shakes uncontrollably and he drains his bladder on the carpeting. Once he has accomplished these initial chores, he is lost. He whimpers even as Paula and Shelby soothingly call his name. Eventually, when he can stand no more, he turns, looks down at me as I kneel at the bottom of the staircase, and leaps into the void. He escapes injury from tumbling down the stairs only because the area is layered with plush carpeting. If we had a hardwood staircase, he probably would break his legs.
Despite Mister’s mental and physical challenges, my mother finds him to be a loyal friend and great company. Hortense desperately loves Miss Laura, but the massive Beagle is a large, lumbering, lethargic Leviathan; she can scarcely be bothered to show enthusiasm for anything other than meals, and even then she has just enough energy to wolf down the Pedigree canned dog food before she heads back to her familiar post atop the air conditioning grate. By contrast, Mister throws himself onto the bed with mom or into her lap if she is seated in the wheelchair. After licking her face and hands for what seem to be hours, he settles into her lap for the duration.
Mister may not be the brightest animal under the Martinez roof, but he grows to understand and respond to mom’s moods. When she is frustrated or annoyed, he makes himself scarce. When she is lonely or desirous of company, he intuitively appears and provides her with exactly the level of attention she needs. He becomes inseparable from his mistress.
I realize how connected the two have become when I tell mom she is scheduled to join Leila Jordan for a week-long trip to the Santee River in South Carolina. An old friend living in Florence, South Carolina, Leila diligently sends mom greeting cards, and has done so since the stroke occurred. She frequently calls to chat even though a conversation with mom can be a surrealistic experience. When it became clear that mom would leave the nursing home and could travel, Leila invited us to bring Miss Laura to the Santee where the Jordans maintain a vacation home. Before we brought Mister to live with us, mom was looking forward to the trip. Now, she appears to have experienced a change of heart.
I see her face go blank when I remind her of the impending journey. Pointing at the partial Chihuahua, she shakes her head. “Golly, this one is this one.”
“Are you asking me if Mister can come with you?”
Her eyes brighten and she shakes her head. “Asking me if Mister can come with you, yes.”
“Mom, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
She looks surprised and crestfallen. “Why not?”
“Think about it. You’re going to visit your good friend and her husband. You haven’t seen her in a long time — not since before the stroke. Right?”
Mom shrugs. These days, she cannot remember much that happened after 1957, the year she was graduated from high school.
“If you take a brand new puppy with you, he’ll need a lot of attention, especially if he pees on their rug.”
She laughs. “Pees on their rug, yes.”
“I’m serious here, mom.”
“I serious here, too.”
“If you take Mister Buster with you, he’ll cause all kinds of problems. Leila and Wallace will have to take care of him as well as you. Plus, I think they have a dog of their own. What happens if their dog and Mister don’t get along?”
The unassailable force of my logic frustrates her budding plan. “But this one is with me!”
Rubbing my neck, I take a deep breath. “I know you don’t want to leave him. I get that, mom. But you’ve made a commitment to Leila. You promised to come for a visit.”
“But this one is this one with me!”
“Remember when I was a kid and you told me over and over I had to honor my commitments? Remember you said if I made plans to do something with a friend it was rude to cancel those plans if a better offer came along?”
She sighs. Mom may be a stroke patient, but she is shrewd enough to realize I am using her own life lessons against her. Turnaround is fair play, I suppose, but it does not make the lesson more palatable.
“You’ve got to honor your commitment to Leila, and you shouldn’t show up with a new puppy. That would be rude.”
I have beaten her down with the force of the arguments she so long ago used on me. Throwing up her good arm, she sighs. “Okay, Michael, okay.”
“I don’t want to argue you down, mama. I want you to go on your trip and have a good time. You were looking forward to it before Mister came along, weren’t you?”
“Yes.” Her voice is reluctant, guarded.
“So what changed?”
She points at the quaking half-Chihuahua at our feet. He is chewing the aglet from the end of my shoelace.
“Hey!” I shake my foot and he backs away, quivering and peeing.
Observing the scene, mom laughs. “This one is a bad dog for this one!”
“You see? This is an example of what I’m talking about. He’s already peed on the floor again and chewed up my shoelace. Imagine if he did that at Leila’s lake house.”
“Okay, Michael, okay.” You have made your point; don’t belabor it.
“I promise you, mom. We’ll take good care of Mister Buster while you’re gone. Okay?”
She shrugs. “Okay?” Who the hell knows what happens around here when I’m gone? I just hope they don’t send the love of my life back to the Athens puppy mill in my absence.
So I win the argument. I am pleased that I do. It is a trip of a lifetime for mom, a trip to savor and remember with her good friend from the good old days.
Paula and Shelby have scheduled other activities the following day, so I am alone when I drive mom, sans Mister, to the Washington Road exit off I-20 in Augusta, Georgia. Leila and I plan to meet at the Krispy Kreme doughnut shop to exchange custody of my mother.
Mom and I arrive a few minutes ahead of schedule. I unload her wheelchair and we roll inside for coffee and a doughnut while we wait. I park her chair next to a seat and place our orders —two jelly-filled doughnuts and two cups of coffee. Afterward, I park myself on a swivel chair next to mom.
I have forgotten to bring her bib inside, so I tuck a few napkins into the collar of her blouse. We eat in silence until she points at me. “This is a good doughnut, Michael.”
Laughing, I grab a napkin and wipe the white powdered sugar from her mouth. “Glad you like it.”
“Krispy Kreme is just my style.”
“Very good, mom. Very good. That could be a commercial for the company. They could show children eating their doughnuts, adults eating them, and then in the last shot they could show you. And then you could say…what?”
“Hello, Mister Buster!”
“Well, okay, you could say that. But I was thinking in the TV commercial, we would take the focus off of Mister Buster. You could say, ‘Krispy Kreme is just my style.’ How about that?”
She laughs. “Yes. Krispy Kreme is just my style, yes. How about that?”
Suddenly, mom looks past my shoulder to the parking lot. I swivel on the stool to see Leila’s Lincoln Town Car pull into a space and come to a stop.
“This one is this one!” Mom frantically waves her arm and, in the excitement, spills her coffee.
I am accustomed to this reaction, so I instantly leap to my feet. Leaning over mom with a handful of napkins lest the steaming hot coffee pour into her lap, I push her place mat to one side and wipe up the spill. The waitress, spotting our predicament, jumps to our service. Together, she and I mop up the boiling liquid before it reaches mom. If there were an Olympics team sport in mopping up spills, this waitress and I would be competitive.
“Thank you so much for your help. Sorry for the mess.”
“No problem, boss.”
Watching Leila step from the car, remove her sunglasses, and scan the interior of the Krispy Kreme shop, mom is oblivious to the chaos that travels in her wake. She is desperately trying to unlock her wheelchair brakes to meet Leila at the door.
“Hang on a second, mom. Just hang on.”
Still pointing, her eyes fixed on her friend, she babbles incoherently. The waitress shoots me a quick, almost imperceptible look of confusion mixed with pity before she retreats to her station to wait on other, slightly less bizarre, customers. I remind myself to leave her a large tip before I exit the doughnut shop.
Leila has spotted us. She marches inside and throws up her arms in an exaggerated greeting. “There you are! Hello, Laura!”
Mom shouts across the expanse of the café. “Hello, Laura, you, too. I mean, uh, Hello, Mister Buster!”
Leila charges for mom, leans down, and they embrace. “Hello to you, too, Buster!”
I look around the restaurant. All eyes are fixed on the reunion. If this were a movie, one person would begin to applaud slowly, followed by a few more people, until everyone was clapping at a normal rhythm, matched by cheers. The director would then have the opening notes of “Love Lift Us Up Where We Belong” cue the credits, which would roll as the patrons stood to wolf whistle and swing their fists high over their heads. Maybe Leila would even lift mom from the wheelchair and carry her to the Lincoln Town Car.
Alas, it is not a movie. After this dramatic greeting, Leila hugs me and sits on a swivel chair to enjoy her own coffee and doughnut. The other customers go back to their normal conversations and business.
Leila seems every bit as excited as mom, although she does not knock over her coffee cup. In a voice choked with emotion and happiness, she outlines for mom the things they will do this week. Wallace will not be at the Santee for the first few days, so Leila has arranged to have mom’s friends Sally and Glenda spend a few days at the house.
It is almost too much. Mom’s eyes grow wide in giddy anticipation of the fun she will have this week. Mister Buster, the love of her life, is momentarily forgotten.
Minutes later, after I have loaded mom’s clothes, walker, wheelchair, and medication into the Town Car, Leila drives away. I wave to mom from the parking lot, but she is so busy conversing with Leila I doubt she sees me. I thought I would feel relief when she was gone, but I do not. I already miss her.
She enjoys her leisurely days at the Santee. Each morning, she and Leila arise between nine and ten. Except for the days when Sally and Glenda visit, the routine does not vary much. Leila and mom sit on the back porch in their robes, each holding a coffee cup, and watch the sun as it moves higher in the sky. Flocks of geese stream overhead, all the while erupting into a familiar high-pitched honking that alerts everyone in the neighborhood to their presence. A gentle breeze whips through the high grass that rings the shoreline, waving to passersby and inviting them to sail the cool, calm waters of the Santee River. Leila’s dog, Wyatt, cavorts on the lawn while the women plan their day.
One afternoon they stroll through an antique market, casually admiring the linens and finely-woven fabrics, the intricate, Old World craftsmanship of Grandfather clocks and real-wood armoires, the dusty, ancient lamps left on high shelves through consignment. Mom smiles when she spots old issues of Life magazine encased in protective plastic covering; they feature movie stars and long-forgotten politicos from the Eisenhower era when she was still a high-school beauty serving on the yearbook and school newspaper staffs.
On another day, Leila’s husband, Wallace, takes them out on his boat. The wind whips through their hair as they race through the waves past the palatial lake houses owned by doctors, lawyers, and other South Carolina elites from across the state.
Mom visits with Leila and Wallace Jordan, 2006. She is holding their dog, Wyatt.
On yet another day they rest under the shade of a large beach umbrella on the dock with fishing poles, an ice chest, a knapsack full of magazines and paperback books, and a small, portable television. Mercifully, they do not catch any fish, so nothing has to be gutted, cleaned, and eaten.
They have been friends for a long time, and little needs to be said. They simply revel in each other’s company. Nothing is expected of mom — she does not have to undergo physical therapy; she is not fighting with Shirley over what to cook for dinner; she need not fret over my management of her apartment, her finances, or her little dog — so it must be a time of no small relief.
As the trip nears its end, Leila touches mom on the arm. They are enjoying corn fritters on the back porch of Leila’s lake house. “Next year is your fiftieth high school reunion, Laura. The old crowd is gonna throw a big shindig at the Circle Fountain. We can drive up to Florence for the party and still come back here to spend the night. That will be fun, won’t it?”
Mom nods. “That will be fun, yes.”
“Good. We should plan on it. What do you say, Laura?”
Mom shrugs. “We should plan on it, yes.” She pauses. “We’ll see, Leila. We’ll see.”
Both women choke down their corn fritters in silence as they mull over the coming year.