Try not to think about the dog, Jack, the ten-pound mutt that won’t sit still in the back. He’s nervous, jitterbugging from window to window. Feels like trip to the vet. He pauses to bother with a flea. First teeth. Then raking with a hind leg. Then bounding over the gear shifter to check out the view from the passenger seat. You’re driving. You want to elbow him out of there. But this is your mom’s car, and Jack is your mom’s dog. If this is his last ride, it ought to be shotgun.

Try not to think about the lies you told her this morning. Lies she asked you to repeat. And explain. And explain again. About the vet. About the vaccinations. About how Jack will be joining her in a few days, after she has settled into the assisted living facility.

“You mean the old folks’ home,” she said.

Today is moving day. You’ve flown in to help. Right now, while you’re dealing with Jack, your sister is lugging suitcases and a nightstand up to your mom’s room. She doesn’t want to do this, trade independence for assistance. Who would? Sunrise, the place is called. You and your sister appreciate the irony.

The doctor has diagnosed dementia, probably Alzheimer’s. For years your mom has laughed it off, saying she’s “just getting diddly.” She’s eighty. Long divorced. An ex-nun. Ex-ESL teacher who worked in refugee settlement for Catholic Social Services. Ph.D. in Adult Education. Opera lover. Well read, with stacks of Victorian novels and Agatha Christie mysteries and all fifty-four volumes of the Great Books of the Western World series. Writer of sharp, concise letters to the editor. And so proud of the books you’ve written.

Now she forgets to bathe. She forgets to eat the groceries your sister buys for her. And because she can’t remember what she read yesterday, she’ll read the same passages again today. And tomorrow. That’s the silver lining. When your memory’s shot, every sentence is a first sentence. Cracking open a book—even one you’ve read ten times—is a small sunrise. Every page new and clean.

Maybe this move will be equally sunny, a daybreak, unironically. If so, it’s got to happen without Jack, even though he’s been a singular source of joy. Your mom can no longer remember your kids’ names, what your wife does for a living, or which state you live in. But she remembers to feed Jack every day and walk him every night. And she’s never gotten lost on the way home. Her room at Sunrise is just too small. She can’t manage the fleas. She has scratched her calves bloody.

You can’t take Jack because you live six hundred miles away, and you’re busy with two kids and a teaching job, trying to squeeze in some writing when you can. Your sister lives walking distance, but she already has a dog and a cat and a career and travel-team soccer twins. Still, she feels guilty.

You feel guilty because she’s done nearly all the work. She selected the facility, broke the news to your mom, found buyers for the house and the car. Plus the medical appointments. Plus the banking and bill paying. Plus going to Cat Welfare to pick out a pet that can live comfortably in an old folks’ home. But your mom doesn’t want a cat; she wants Jack.

Your sister recruited you to do one job. Just one. And when that job is done, after you’ve driven alone back to Sunrise and the three of you are sitting down for coffee and cake in the cafeteria, it will be sad if your mom forgets to ask about Jack.

It will be sadder if she remembers.

Because there’s no vet. No vaccinations. There’s just this drive to the animal shelter. You’re hoping for adoption, but when you look over at Jack—ten-plus years old and flea-bitten—you know better.

So try not to think about the dog. Or the lies. Instead consider a different betrayal: What happens if your mom ever finds a printout of this essay sitting on her nightstand? Hey, what’s this? she’ll think. Something my son wrote. She’ll be so excited to read it. And when she does, Jack and so much else will come back. For a moment. But the pain of what’s lost won’t cut once and be done. Every day it will cut new and clean.


Joe Oestreich is the author of four books of creative nonfiction: Waiting to Derail (with Thomas O’Keefe), PartisansLines of Scrimmage (with Scott Pleasant), and Hitless Wonder. He teaches creative writing at Coastal Carolina University, where he chairs the Department of English.

Artwork by John Gallaher