"Say goodbye to Heidi," my mom says fatalistically the night before I fly back to New York, "It might be the last time you see her." And so I run my hands over my Heidi dog, who at 16 and a half I still call "puppy". Underneath that deceptively spry fur, Heidi's spine rises knife-sharp, her skin tight against her ribs. She drinks water constantly - a sign, said the vet, that her kidneys fail. She can't hear us anymore, will stand with her back to us in a room to look for us, oblivious to our calling her name. "I brought her back from the dead," says mom, recalling days of feeding Pedialyte and chicken, "So she could live until you came back home."
She also runs into the bedrooms to nab kleenex from the trashcan, shredding it furtively when we're not looking. We'll turn to find her on two legs in front of the kitchen table, searching for a meal to steal. And in the morning she climbs up on me like a cat, two paws on my chest, imperiously staring down: Take me outside, human.
I wake in darkness on the morning before my flight, Heidi's body a breathing, furry comma tucked into the blankets, and she lifts her head to look at me muzzily. Why are we getting up? I cannot mourn for her now, nor bid her good-bye. She has no sense of her own mortality, no more than I do when I see myself in the mirror every morning. She lives, and while she does, she lives - and my parents sustain her.
Yesterday my mom, dad and I visited my grandparents. Chatting with my grandmother, I cracked jokes, and my grandfather sat in his chair and chuckled. At night, says my grandmother, he looks up at her and giggles. When she asks him why, he says, "I'm just so happy to see your face."
Too many decisions seem to depend, it seems, on what I will and won't be able to do later in life. Do this now, while I'm young; do that later, when I can't do this anymore. And I wonder: how much value is there in a life dictated by regret-avoidance? In the ski movies we watched, some of the people who were hurling themselves off of mountaintops had faces lined with wrinkles - injured, they returned again and again. Regret-avoidance to the extreme? Or something more pure - leaping for the sake of the feeling of the leap.
So many of my past decisions were driven by my desire to avoid the regrets of staying - I ran away from relationships, from boring jobs, from places that depressed me, from the mundane or too-familiar. My move to New York was perhaps the first in which I ran toward something, where I feel every day that I am plunging off the mountain.
I wonder sometimes if living so far from family or loved ones is the right thing to do. We derive so much mutual enjoyment from each other's company; we reflect each other. Yet, (and recognizing that "right" and "wrong" are value judgments that arise from a set of experiences that may not be common to anyone else), I think that staying just to stay might also be wrong, like saying good-bye to a small creature who will never recognize her own departure.
I arrive back in New York now, the flat expanse of amber lights blazing up at me. And as I drift downward, I feel I am coming home to myself.