Party Animal: Lulu-Belle living it up at Club Med shortly before I took her to a 24-hour veterinary clinic in Port St. Lucie.
I woke up seated in a room I didn’t recognize, slumped low in a gray hard plastic chair. The lights overhead were interrogation bright. For a few seconds, I couldn’t figure out where I was. Had I been arrested? This room had a precinct feel.
The presence of Lulu-Belle, all tail wag and happiness at my feet, provided an instant clue. It all came back: I was in an examination room at the Veterinary Medical Center of Port St. Lucie County. Lulu-Belle was still her sparky self but the patches of raw flesh around her eyes were more disturbing than ever. It was late—well into the wee hours of the night; at this point, maybe it was closer to morning. I was missing an informal late-night party in Rick Springfield’s room back at Club Med. Or had missed it. The party was probably over by now.
The Veterinary Medical Center of Port St. Lucie a little past 3:00 am.
Putting us in this exam room had given me false hope that Lulu-Belle would be seen by a veterinarian in a matter of minutes. This proved not to be the case. We were kept waiting even longer than we’d been made to wait in reception—long enough for me to fall so deeply asleep that when I woke I didn’t know where I was. Long enough to forget that I even had Lulu-Belle.
Eventually a young veterinarian—a tall guy I guessed to be in his thirties—entered the room and introduced himself. As he took Lulu-Belle’s history he made me realize something I hadn’t appreciated before. All the other vets who had treated her had maintained poker faces; this vet didn’t. He tried to suppress his surprise but it was evident in his wide-eyed reaction to first seeing her, in the way he stared at her a little too long before looking back at me, and in the nervous way he couldn’t quite look me in the eye.
The skin around Lulu-Belle’s eyes was looking pretty raw. That’s what prompted me to take her to a 24-hour veterinary clinic in the middle of the night.
Clearly Port St. Lucie County didn’t see much in the way of Zombie Dogs—more properly, canines suffering from lepto-vaccine-triggered vasculitis.
The vet couldn’t offer much in the way of advice and was confident enough to admit that Lulu-Belle’s condition was beyond his expertise. His only solace: if Lulu-Belle was going to die soon anytime soon, it wouldn’t be today. And it probably wouldn’t be tomorrow.
That alone was worth the trip and even missing the party.
By the time we left the Veterinary Medical Center of Port St. Lucie County the heat outside felt more cozy than oppressive. Or maybe it was as hot as it had been. The difference was my attitude; relief was influencing the way I perceived temperature. I had done the right thing by Lulu-Belle even though it had turned out that there was no urgent cause for alarm.
Club Med Port St. Lucie was quiet by the time I returned a little after 3:30 am. I tiptoed straight to my room directly above Rick and Barbie’s, pre-emptively shushing Lulu-Belle every time I telepathically sensed that she was about to bark.
I’d promised to let Rick know when I was back but it was so late; I didn’t want to risk waking up him or Barbie.
I’d been home about ten minutes when my cell phone pinged: I’d gotten a text. It was Rick.
Crusty is Rick’s main nickname for Lulu-Belle. Crusty. Crustaceous. Crustaceous Impossibilis. Crustus Imbecillous. I’m sure there will be more to come. He’s never referred to her as Lulu-Belle but sometimes he’ll call her LB.
“She’s okay. Better than I’d thought.”
“Are you back?”
“Can you hear us?”
Before this I had never thought to ask.
It was a relief, but also faintly annoying. I’d been maniacally shushing Lulu-Belle for three solid days for no reason.
“Glad you’re back safe, SC. Kiss Crusty for me. Get some sleep.”
“Thanks, RS. See you in the morning.”
I tried to get some shut-eye but irrepressible Lulu-Belle was already ready for a new day.
I came down with pneumonia in the spring of my 8th grade year. I stayed home in my flannel nightgown for weeks.
It was our second year in Harrisburg but I already knew that we would be heading back to Philadelphia before summer’s end. My father had successfully battled the Mafia in the western half of Pennsylvania and then in the eastern half. He’d had the electric chair dismantled, ending capital punishment in Pennsylvania. But when he tackled Philadelphia police corruption he kicked a hornet’s nest that proved to be his undoing. So he was finally leaving public service and was heading for private practice—joining a prestigious white shoe firm that meant a lot more money. But professionally he’d never be as happy again.
It had taken me a full year to work my way into my middle school’s premier clique. Now I would have to start all over again. We weren’t going back to our old Overbrook stomping ground. My parents had found a stately almost-mansion in Chestnut Hill, a much tonier part of the city. Our home-to-be had been built in the 1850’s.
I felt so defeated. I couldn’t believe I’d have to start all over at a new school where social acceptability would take months to achieve; popularity would take even longer, if it was even within reach. So even once my lungs had cleared I just stayed home. Why go back to school for the last week or two? It would only make parting harder.
For some reason, no one called me on this. I was entirely healthy but remained home day after day, forever in my nightgown. I’d watch the kids on my street get on the school bus, see it depart for our middle school: Good Hope Intermediate. I didn’t feel sad so much as numb. It was as if a part of me had already moved away.
This should have been my first opportunity to watch daytime drama. Soaps were the rage even then. But no sooner had I taken ill than all soap operas were kicked off the air—by something called the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities. In a word: Watergate.
The Senate Watergate hearings pre-empted programming on all three major networks and on PBS. I couldn’t believe my bad luck. I was sick enough to miss school for weeks only to have nothing viable to watch on television. I watched anyway. I wound up taking in gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Senate hearings. Soon I was hooked—mesmerized by the way Tennessee’s Senator Howard Baker gnawed thoughtfully on the stem of his thick-black-framed eyeglasses and by self-proclaimed “country lawyer” Senator Sam Ervin’s bushy, Muppet-like eyebrows which rose incredulously before he’d pose a stinging follow-up question. Their slow Southern drawls belied such wit and intelligence.
When John Dean announced that there was “a cancer on the presidency” I almost couldn’t breathe.
At one point a microphone caught Hawaii’s Senator Daniel Inouye saying What a liar under his breathe. He was speaking of Nixon henchman John Erlichman. Grown-ups could lie? Under oath? Before Congress? And before all the Americans watching at home like me? Until that moment I hadn’t thought that this was even a remote possibility.
I was so drawn to the proceedings; I kept watching them even after the major networks began rotating coverage. So any given day there were soaps on two channels but I stuck with the Select Committee.
When I was first diagnosed with pneumonia and it became clear that I would be missing school, probably for quite a while, my mother felt sorry for me. On our way back from the doctor she took me to my first needlepoint shop, figuring that I might find stitching consoling.
Needlepoint was extremely popular in the 1970’s. Even ex-football player Rosey Grier was an enthusiast. He wrote a book about it and so did Depression-era movie star Sylvia Sydney and Broadway musical darling Mary Martin (better known to me as the mother of I Dream of Jeannie’s Larry Hagman). Turns out she stitched rugs by the dozens whenever she had an idle moment backstage.
My mother and I each got kits offered by a company called Mazeltov. Only years later did I learned that “mazel tov” was Yiddish for “good luck.” My kit was of a patchwork in bright primary and secondary colors. My mother’s was of a tree filled with tiny colorful birds. Also in the kits: all the wool necessary and two easy-to-thread tapestry needles. We had everything we needed. We were all set.
I took to stitching right away. I’d never done anything like it but fell in love immediately. There was something deeply calming about the process and it was so satisfying to witness the progression: blank holes filling with thread until the whole piece was vividly complete.
So gavel-to-gavel I stitched and stitched. I stitched in the evening during the nightly news recap of the hearings I’d watched all day. I stitched through evening television: Nanny and the Professor, The Partridge Family, the ABC Movie of the Week.
After we moved back to Philadelphia I got a job at Stitch Fantasy, a needlepoint shop on Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill. Needlepoint was so popular then; there were actually two needlepoint shops within two blocks of each other on the Avenue. I ran Stitch Fantasy all by myself on Saturdays and took most of my pay home in canvas and wool.
I was fourteen.
The day after I took possession of my Philly house—Mother’s Day 2005—my parents’ house burned to the ground. Evidently a squirrel had gnawed on an electrical wire and a spark caught. It was a windy day. Eleven houses in their development were lost. Fortunately, no one was hurt let alone killed. Even all the dogs made it out safely.
My parents lost everything except for their kitchen. For some reason, only that room remained intact although now it offered a clear view of the sky. It’s ceiling and their entire second floor had burned away. But my grandmother’s engagement ring was safe in the sugar jar on the counter by the sink. And the coffee pot was still set to perk on its timer at 7:15 am. The fire had swept through the place just before 7:00.
Every piece of needlepoint I’d ever stitched burned. The country girl with the big bonnet holding a handful of flowers. Toulouse Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge. That inaugural Mazeltov patchwork that my mother had had made into a pillow. A sampler I’d designed as an homage to my high school choir’s trip to France. I’d painstakingly drawn and then stitched the French flag, the Eiffel Tower, the Arch of Triumph, the Luxor Obelisk at Place de La Concorde, Notre Dame de Paris, the silhouette of Mont-Saint Michel, and a Napoleon pastry. It was the most creative thing I’d ever done.
My parents never shed a tear about their losses so neither did I.
But several months after the fire I began to think about all my needlepoint that was gone. It was as if my passion had never existed. Those millions of stitches all for naught. It felt so wrong—like a preview of my own death when most of what I’d accomplished in life would no longer matter.
I hadn’t stitched any needlepoint in over twenty years. I’d gotten sidetracked once I left home for college. So I decided to give it a try again. I went to the remaining needlepoint shop on the Avenue—Barbara Russell Needlepoint, Stitch Fantasy’s old rival—and got a canvas: a patchwork again, only one much more sophisticated than my original Mazeltov.
My passion was right there waiting for me. It ignited even faster than that fire that had taken out my parents’ house. By now I have stitched more than five times as many canvases as I had back in the day. In true hoarder fashion I’ve accumulated enough needlepoint canvases to last me several lifetimes. Even if I dropped everything—my job, running, triathlons, pet care—and did nothing but stitch from morning to night for the rest of my days I’d never complete what I’ve come to think of as my retirement trousseau. But there is still something irresistible about acquiring a new canvas, choosing the threads and colors, and even just thinking about stitching it one day. What stitches might I choose? Which textures? Oh, the possibilities! The hours of pleasure.
Driving Miss Lulu-Belle–on our way to Sandpiper Needlework.
So every time I go out of town I make it a point to hit the local needlepoint shop and check out the offerings. Invariably I head home with a canvas or two. It was this habit that led me to Sandpiper Needlework in Tequesta, Florida, about a forty-five minute’s drive from Club Med Port St. Lucie.
It wasn’t completely the right thing to do but I took Lulu-Belle with me. I couldn’t take her into the shop and it was far too hot to leave her in the car. But I didn’t want to leave her behind in her crate in my Club Med room. I might be gone for hours. Leaving her there seemed cruel—crueler than leaving her in the car for very limited periods. My plan was to roll the car windows down as far as I could without giving her the chance to escape and provide her with a full bowl of water. Every ten minutes I’d come back to check on her: take her for a quick walk and refill her water bowl if needed. I would set the timer on my iPhone so I’d be sure to keep to schedule. When I arrived at the Sandpiper Needlework parking lot I was relieved to find a spot in the shade.
A canvas that I purchased at Sandpiper Needlework. The little dog in the lower left corner reminded me of Lulu-Belle before her vasculitis.
Sandpiper Needlework was every bit the needlepoint oasis I was hoping for. Colorful canvases lined the walls—there was quite a selection—and there were threads of every variety and shade. Even better: there were canvases on sale—fifty and seventy-five percent off—in the back room. I started there. A bargain could make for an even happier acquisition. I quickly found one that was a definite: a design in the tradition of the Unicorn Tapestries featuring a woman and a dog. The dog looked like Lulu-Belle before the vasculitis.
There was a dog in the shop. I’d made friends with her on the way in. I think she was some sort of mix. Maybe Pekingese with a bit of Pomeranian. Maybe she was purebred. The dog had slipped my mind until I hear the shop clerk call out, “Lulu! Lulu!”
I ran out to the main room. “Your dog’s name is Lulu?”
The other Lulu-Belle.
Either my tone—unintentionally desperate—or the fact that I’d come a little too close for comfort—my face was inches from hers—triggered panic in the poor woman’s eyes. She looked as though depending on her answer I might pull out a gun and start shooting up the place, starting with her. Very slowly, very carefully she nodded her head. “Lulu-Belle,” she qualified.
What were the chances? This sweet, immaculately groomed lap dog had the same name as my puppy—my puppy with the seemingly melting face.
I took a step back to give the woman some space and explained that my dog was also named Lulu-Belle and that she was out in my car.
“Oh, bring her in,” said the woman. “Please.”
I told her a little about Lulu-Belle’s condition, instantly regretting that I’d mentioned having her with me. “She looks pretty bad,” I warned.
But the kind woman—Eloise—would take no excuses. She smiled and said, “We’re a pet-friendly shop. Please go get her.”
And so I did.
The two Lulu-Belles getting to know each other.
I’ve come to think that the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who can look at Lulu-Belle and those who can’t. I’m not judging. Just observing. People can’t help being who they are.
Many are more drawn to her than they’d be if she looked perfect, if her face were unspoiled by this aberrant, little understood auto-immune disease and she was still the adorable puppy she’d started out to be.
Others are repulsed. Perhaps understandably they may fear for their health or their dog’s. Maybe they don’t want to consider a universe that allows for such unfortunates. They’d rather squeeze their eyes shut and turn away.
I’d like to think that if Lulu-Belle weren’t my dog I would fall into the can-look-at-her camp. Eloise definitely did. She welcomed my Lulu-Belle into Sandpiper Needlework as if she were the cutest puppy ever. She didn’t flinch or hesitate upon first seeing her and didn’t seem a bit concerned that her Lulu-Belle was in any way at risk. In fact, she insisted that they play together. And she insisted that my Lulu-Belle remain in the shop while I looked at canvases.
I came away with three.
The next day it was time to leave Club Med. Rick Springfield’s fan getaway had come to an end. It was back to reality. Actually, Lulu-Belle always kept me pretty grounded but my days would no longer be filled with twice-daily concerts, a choice of three swimming pools, and regular massages. It would be back to my cubicle at work.
Rick, Barbie, and Rick’s band were on an early flight home. I took Lulu-Belle to see them off.
Rick seemed down. A little more down than usual. A couple of times during the getaway he’d invoked Lulu-Belle—to the effect that how can any of us be depressed when she stays so cheerful despite being blind and then getting this horrible face-destroying disease on top of it? He had a point, sort of, but for one thing she’s a dog with limited self-awareness. Does she understand how bad off she is? And the fact that there are always others who are worse off than we are doesn’t mitigate our own unhappiness. But it can afford us perspective.
Back in my room with Lulu-Belle after they’d gone I began to feel a little glum myself. I had to leave in another hour. Our flight was out of Miami—a two-hour drive away. The prospect of traveling with Lulu-Belle was not appealing. There was always a lot of mopping up involved, sometimes at the least convenient moments. And there were the unavoidable questions from just about every passerby. I’m sure no one intended to make me feel bad—maybe I let myself feel bad—but in every question I detected a little bit of blame directed my way.
I thought of the other Lulu-Belle. The lucky Lulu-Belle. Why couldn’t my Lulu-Belle be more like her? Not that I wanted a Pekingese. I wanted my Lulu-Belle but without the potentially lethal, many-meds-demanding, face-destroying disease. I wondered if in some alternate universe our paths were identical to what they have been in this one up to the point at which I brought her to my vet for that routine vaccine. If only I had been a little off my game—not type-A hell bent to get everything on my agenda accomplished ASAP. If only I’d waited, or not gone at all. Then maybe I’d have the healthy—if blind—puppy I’d started out with. What might Lulu-Belle look like today if she weren’t so maimed? Could we please move to that universe that is like ours in every way except this: she doesn’t suffer; she doesn’t die while she’s still only a puppy?
You can drive yourself crazy with if only’s.
And I’m sure there are many if only’s more hauntingly soul destroying than mine.
Whenever I start feeling sorry for myself I try to do something for someone else. The concept isn’t original to me but it’s become my habit. It gets me out of me. So I thought of Rick and decided to text him a short video featuring Lulu-Belle in hopes of cheering him up. A link to the result is below. After five days of shushing her I was encouraging her to bark. If you watch carefully toward the end you’ll see Lulu-Belle tilt her head in her signature way as if to say, “Whaddaya kidding me?”
LB goodbye to RS