My life is animals now. An orca dragging a seal to its waiting baby. Dolphins and sharks. Gills and lungs. I’m teaching ESL, level 1, and the common denominator, the thing that we can all lower down to connect on, is animals. Do animals matter? Do my students need to know what an elephant is? Definitely not. We start there anyway.
I have brought two stuffed animals to my classroom, a black and white chihuahua and a fox. They were both supposed to be just decoration, but I realized quickly that making them characters would be a great help. So when I needed to demonstrate how to talk about a book you had read, I spoke quietly and seriously about my book, and then it was chihuahua’s turn. He spoke in his own language first (barks), and then in English. This gag was helpful.
I always begin ESL class with asking how everyone is doing, partly because they are all refugees and have each and every one been through some kind of capital-T trauma, and because a couple of years ago, the world burned down, and now every human is experienced in fear.
They sit in a horseshoe, and we always begin at the same end. “How are you?” I say. “One to ten?”
If someone says “one,” or “zero,” I take Chihuahua to that person’s desk and set him down.
If another person says “one,” or “zero,” I take Fox and put him on that person’s desk.
If a third person says this, I’m shit out of luck.
They are optimists, though, new Americans. They have either survived or won a lottery. They think things will improve.
My aunt died last week. She had dementia for about five years. She sang, she slept, she smiled when a dog visited and jumped in her lap, and she drank chocolate milkshakes. She survived covid. She did not get bed sores. Her brain got so clogged up, swallowing was too hard.
I was the last one to give her nourishment, I think. A venti Starbucks chocolate frappucino with no coffee. Really an absurd order. I sat on her bed and guided the straw to her mouth. This reflex, to root out the straw, and then to suck something sweet and calorie rich, this reflex remained almost to the end.
I got the call she had died at 6 AM Sunday morning. I was discombobulated and couldn’t figure out what to wear, or if I should stop and get food for the people I would meet.
We sat with her body for a couple of hours.
Her husband was there. Everyone wished he wasn’t. He has only a few topics of conversation: animals he has shot, the stolen election, and cooking. Sometimes you get really lucky and he will talk about his black eyed peas.
He stopped visiting his wife years ago. He was not involved in her care. But then, I don’t think he’s been involved in anyone’s care. Maybe he was raised wrong, in a big dysfunctional family in Florida. Maybe he was raised a 20th century white guy, who was not raised to constantly wrack his brain to think, is everyone okay? What should I do? How can I make them okay? Maybe he was let down by a society where joining up to endure violent trauma was much easier than getting an advanced education. Maybe he and my aunt had come together in a sort of secret pact to never discuss their traumas, and bicker.
I sit next to him and take his hand.
He starts to talk about memories, of funny times with his wife, and of her illness.
I can’t remember any time the two of them did something together that they both liked. I’ve spent my entire life wondering why they were married to each other.
That night we all have dinner and he says, “Did you hear they are closing down all the Walgreens in San Francisco because of the looters?”
I mean, if only they would close half of the Walgreens in big cities!
“And they’re on the Plaza, too!” he says, referencing a shopping area nearby that did get a bit roughed up during Black Lives Matter activism.
I thought to myself, “Not today, Satan,” and even though I was on the wrong side of a long, long table, I stood up, prepared to push furniture to get out.
Many of us at the table drive by the Plaza regularly. Some of us were at the Black Lives Matter protest.
I remember when a distant relative insisted to me that the protesters in New York were paid. I was there, I said. I wasn’t paid. I was there.
I touch my aunt’s hand before the funeral home people take her away.
I touch her hand when she lays in the casket. Still cold, but now heavy, too, like she is made of blocks of wet clay.
I didn’t tell my students any of this. For one thing, we have limited vocabulary to communicate. For another, I was at work to not think about my aunt dying.
There was so much hand-holding. My brother holding mine, my sister holding mine. We are regular huggers, sure, but at the funeral I am constantly holding someone, or holding a hand, or snuggled up next to someone.
When my aunt first moved into the nursing home, her face was dry and chapped. Someone else brought some face cream, and I would put it on her forehead. “There, that’s good,” I said, the way you say things to encourage a human vibe.
I wasn’t really angry about her illness until she died. Maybe because though she was sick, there was something I could do for her. And something I could do for myself, when I was out of hope, or out of patience. I could visit her, and sing a song, and hold her hand.
Once she died, there wasn’t shit I could do for her.
I know, I could love on those she left behind. And I did.
Death makes me so angry.
Today two of my students were sniffling and putting their heads down, and both of them returned to class with notes that said they had called their parents to pick them up.
I had intended to take Chihuahua and Fox home to wash them.
Two sick students made me remember.
My laundry room is down two flights of stairs, so I thought, wait, I could give them a bath, like real animals.
I ran the water, and drizzled Chihuahua and Fox with shampoo. It’s kind of nice shampoo, color-treated hair shampoo. That’s just because my stepmom buys it for me. If it were up to me, I’d probably try to wash my hair with ivory soap.
Shampoo strips oils, cleans deeper than body wash or soap. So I chose shampoo.
I scrubbed each animal. Chihuahua’s eyes were suddenly clear of fur, and he stared me down. When I dunked Fox, I realized it looked like I was drowning him, and I flipped him over so he could float on his back, snout up.
The animals are soaking. I guess I will towel dry them and blow dry them.
Next week we learn elephants, cheetahs, and wolves.