I am spending the last half of a Midwestern summer at home—the half when summer wilts and wastes toward fall, when corn is shoulder-tall and ready to be stripped, when gourds bulge and depress the dirt, when katydids die off and the wing-grinding sirens are quiet in the air, when the grass is thirsty, straw-white, and loud under your feet. The half when the fire danger is high. When Lake Huron feels like fever on the body. The half when my parents are painting and prepping my room for my mother's quilting space because this is the last half-summer I will spend in my hometown, in this several-block village cut out from farm fields around M-81, a lazy curl of concrete en route toward the water. The half of the summer when I am not yet just a guest in my parents' house, before I make my way to grad school over 2,000 miles west of Michigan to a different sort of water, tremendously salty, tremendously far from home. The half before the distance between me and my family becomes actual instead of conceptual. When I learn to understand what that distance might mean. And what it might not.
The half of summer when, one night, around 10 p.m., my sister, Erica, having finally put her four kids to bed, calls me to come over and help her clean.
Before this call, I hadn't seen much of Erica in the last month. She usually comes to my parents' house on her lunch break, but hadn't in a few weeks. But, a few days ago, Erica appeared during lunch time and stood in our mother's mustard-colored kitchen, forgetting to smoke the cigarette she had lit, and told us everything, for the first time—how she hadn't been to bed the last two nights and had slept little in the last three weeks; how the rotten smell of the dog kennel outside her back door was so bad it made her vomit; how the puppy that the kids had chosen to keep out of the litter had died while she was holding it, feeding it. How the vet said there was nothing she could do for the remaining puppies but wait. She can't just wait, she said. She needed to do something, but didn't know what.
We were stunned by what she was saying, but not surprised that she hadn't told us. We asked her if there was anything we could do.
No, she said. She was just tired and wanted to tell someone. If she needed help, she'd give us a call.
And now that she has called, I honestly don't want to go over to her infected, death-stinking home in the middle of the night to help her disinfect her house, but I go anyway. I go to give her help because she has asked for it and because she never asks for it—not from me; not from anyone. I go to help her because the veterinarian had told my sister: You'll know it's parvo if the dogs are vomiting blood and it smells like death. I go to help her because there is blood, and because it smells like death. I go because if she can't get the virus out of the puppies, maybe she can, at least, get it out of her house. So I go to help her clean—I'll clean half, she'll clean half—and we will bleach away the last three weeks of this last half of summer.
With pressing questions, what I will learn, while we clean, of the last two weeks:
Week 1: Lady, my sister's family dog, a black-lab mutt taken in as a plaything for Erica's kids, births five puppies. One plaything becomes six playthings. Erica's four kids, all under the age of ten, claim them, they name them, they coddle their palm-sized frames and sing puppy-appropriate tunes in squeal-soft tones. But, mostly, Lady is kenneled outside to care for them in her own way. But, soon, Erica finds that Lady isn't caring for them in any way. Everything in the kennel has lost its appetite, is slumped together in the dark humidity of the dog house.
Erica uses her lunch break from her job at the propane company to take the puppies to the vet. The vet tells her that it is normal for puppies to be weak, and that the strain of milking in the summer heat are to blame for Lady's condition. Erica suspects parvo. The vet tells her how she'll know it's parvo, and this isn't it. The dogs, with care, would come around.
So after her lunch-break-turned-vet visit, after work, after day-care pick-up, after girl's youth soccer practice, after middle-school football practice, after dinner, after dishes, after play time, after bath time, after bed time, after distance-learning class discussions, after the re-enforcement of bed time, after online paper research, Erica stays up with the dogs late into the following nights to do as the vet has directed: administer vitamins, Pedialyte, corn syrup, water. For lady, Erica palms bone-shaped treats under the dog's muzzle; Lady acknowledges the gesture by flickering her tail, digging a half-hearted hole, and burying the bones for later.
Week 2: The dogs do not come around; they don't do anything. But the bones now lie buried under bloody stools and vomit that muddy the floor of the kennel. The dogs are ruddy and slack in the dirt.
And though they wanted to help, the kids are directed by my sister not to touch a thing; she will take care of this. The dogs are quarantined, the problem contained to my sister's house, to my sister.
Again, Erica uses her lunch break to take the dogs to the vet, which she would do a half-dozen more times in the next couple of weeks. Erica needs the vet because how the parvo virus made its way to her back door, my sister doesn't know. The vet tells her that perhaps a bird or an unfortunate footstep brought it into the yard. Maybe her kids carried it home after a weekend at their dad's, she thinks. Maybe one of the neighborhood dogs. Maybe anything. The vet tells her that the virus is small, but powerful. Under a microscope, parvo looks fuzzy and scattered—it is as uncommitted and harmless as a gray constellation. But from afar, parvo is hardy and organized, so small and numerous that 5,000 virus particles can rest together across the width of a single strand of human hair, though it takes only one particle to infect one dog; one infected things easily becomes six infected things. And like so many viruses, it is clever and patient. Needing a body to replicate, it waits up to six months—through the last half of winter, through both halves of spring, through summer until now. It has been carried, has waited, emerging once one host became six. There is no cure, the vet tells my sister, but the virus can run its course and, with care, the dogs would come around.
One puppy doesn't come around, but dies. And another. Erica returns to the vet, who pries open Lady's muzzle, exposing the dog's teeth and sticky gums. He tries to explain why the dogs aren't improving. It has nothing to do with her care, he urges, but that the virus is aggressive and often stronger than the treatment. Her treatment. Once in the mouth, he tells her, the virus embeds in the tonsils, overrunning the cells, replicating. Once the cells are unbearably full of parvo, they burst. In severe cases, in this severe case, the virus raids the intestines of the dog. It is methodical: creating and destroying cells, these tiny excavators strip the landscape of the organs, the infected cells releasing a toxic biproduct into the bloodstream. The tissues are poisoned and die, and the remaining intestinal wall cannot absorb nutrients or water. Anything an infected dog eats churns through the intestines, dragging out dead lining and blood, and the dog stops eating, becoming weaker until it dies. Most adult dogs have a chance of living, the vet explains, but the virus is especially hard on young dogs because parvo mocks everything about puppies: their rapidly dividing cells that allow the puppies to grow quickly; their expanding intestinal walls that accommodate their growing appetites. It mocks their delicate immune systems; their new, cell-pumping, rapid-beating hearts. And there is no cure, just the hope that the dogs can live until the virus tires of its host.
The vet tells Erica that he can't cure Lady; at this point, she only has a thirty-percent chance of living. It would probably be best to put her down. Erica considers that maybe she could wait, should wait to see if Lady's health improves. If she could improve her health. For the puppies. For the kids. (For her.) And, for a moment, she considers if she can even afford the $75 it will cost to put Lady down—$75 added to the $400 dollars in bills. She wants to think about it more and mentions the cost to the vet; he tells her that he will do it for free if it will help. The gesture is kind, and though the cost is greater than money, and though Erica is too tired to confidently make the decision to put Lady down, she knows, as she stands there, that Lady's cells are bursting and her organs are pushing themselves out of her body.
And now, in the last half of Week 3, the half when six playthings have become three, when it is possible that the virus is nearing the end of its course, Erica calls me because she is tired and if she didn't have to work in the morning, she'd clean the house alone.
The last three weeks have disrupted her daily rhythms with a new sequence paced in constant increments of sleepless care, vet visits, depleted pay checks, blood-sullied cardboard boxes, disappointed kids, ruddy kitchen-sink baths, discarded towels, helpless mothers, back-yard burials. Yet, the only beat of her usual routine she's missed in all of this is sleep.
When I arrive at her house, the air is corrosive and clean. Erica greets me with a hug, a rag, and a bucket. I can't imagine how tired she is at this point, but I can see exhaustion purpling away from the corners of her eyes. I ask her how she is doing; she doesn't respond to my question, only saying: I just need the puppies to live.
When I think of how my sister lives, she seems big and I seem small. And not just because she is the eldest sibling in our five-child family, whereas I am the youngest. I seem small because, in my mind, I seem selfish and incapable of caring for anything other than myself. I want to say that this isn't true, but I wouldn't know because I've never had to care for anything other than myself. I have chosen a self-concerned life of academia. I have spent the last half of summer lazing, "working" through books I wanted to finish before I started graduate studies. And when fall starts, I will take a train, then a plane West. And it will be easy because I have stayed childless, marriage-less, and relatively commitment-less, owning little more than clothes, books, and a laptop. The move alone to a state I've never been, the move that feels like a rejection, a severance of this small-town life and my family who lives it, this move will be hard for me in a quiet way, in a real way, but difficult in a way incomparable to this. I am the first person in my family to graduate from a four-year university or go on to grad school, but, still, I am a stupid girl in many ways and I would like to know how my sister lives.
Like if I could study her under a microscope, I know she'd look busy, beautiful, and hardy—not so unlike this virus. My sister is strong and thrives in a host of situations: she split from my parents' home at 18, entered the local community college but was soon absorbed by the life of many small-town girls: she dropped out of school and merged with her high-school boyfriend—a boy who might've played baseball on scholarship somewhere if he hadn't been a farmer-in-training. Their marriage was unstable, and after producing a boy and a girl, they divided, divorced. Soon, Erica coupled with a man she'd met at the local tavern and took him in; he is a quiet man, but, like many men in our small town, is unable to find work even with a high school diploma. Together, they've had two kids. In this life, this life that aligns with our family tradition of marrying young and living a working-class life, she flourishes. She flourishes with little help and little complaint. She is persistent in finding a way to survive—there is nothing I haven't seen her do that she wanted to do (except what she is trying to do now). She is silent in her struggle. She is complex, capable, and vital.
But unlike this virus, with her wild exigence, she betters what she touches.
She has broken down and re-created any conception I have had about what it would mean to stay in this town, a town from which I am running, 2,000 miles in the other direction, from my family's question of Why do you have to go to school so far away?—maybe because I simply don't want this kind of life or maybe (probably) I don't think I would be clever enough to thrive as my sister has. And even though I have distanced myself from all of this, when I am away at college, struggling to make ends meet and just barely caring for myself, my sister finds a way to enter my life, somehow sparing some of her only source of income for six people (and, now, three dying dogs) and her mortgage and her car payments to send me a little money and a pre-paid cell phone so that I can call home. And when I am too busy with schoolwork to remember to call home, my sister is patient and she waits, sometimes months, for me to let her back into my life.
And, right now, she has let me, and only me, into this vulnerable space in her life. Her home is over-run with millions of impalpable threats that she can't quell. But she is trying because she knows no other way.
The next five hours are soaked with bleach. We fill buckets buckets. We drench floors and floor boards. Erica takes a break to give the puppies baby formula. One of the puppies is encrusted with blood and stools, so I give him a bath in the kitchen. When I finish bathing the puppy, I put it in a clean cardboard box with the two others. I disinfect the sink.
Erica and I inch our way up walls, turn rags around door handles. I stop to refill buckets. We clean carpets with color-safe bleach. We throw away rugs. We throw away shoes. We move the kids' toys out of the yard and into the garage so that Erica can bleach-spray the lawn. The concrete on the patio is patterned with bloody smears; we spray it down with a hose. We dig up the bones that Lady buried in her kennel.
To escape the bleach searing in the air and our tiring slash-and-burn efforts in the house, we stand outside and breath. It really is a beautiful night, cricket-soft and harvest-moon ready.
We chat for a few minutes about the kids and fall sports. She says all this cleaning makes her want Taco Bell. She points to my bleach-stripped pants and tells me she'll get me another pair. I tell her not to worry, but know she will anyhow.
Restless after a few minutes, Erica begins to spray down the side of the house that doubled as a wall to the kennel. She is quiet again. I've been trying to think of the right thing to say to her all night. But the only thing I've thought up is a terrible pun about how this parvo thing is just a fluke and it will pass.
What I would say to her if I knew how: I've been studying you, and I see how helpless you feel, that you consider parvo a personal failure. As if some inadequacy within you left some void in your yard or pets' bodies, where an unfathomably small virus moved in without warning. Sometimes, I would tell her, you might mistakenly take something into your life, and it might infect you, and you won't even know its effects until your waste is under your feet. Sometimes a thing you can't fix might mock you by hiding in the crevices of your children's shoes, by waiting for an out-stretched hand to open a door, by hiding dormantly just long enough for you to forget about it. That, sometimes, no matter how strongly you believe in possibility and relief, in the end, you may have to let someone help you dig up the bones you have buried.
But, instead, I ask her how she manages to do everything she does, and she says without pause, You do it because you have to.
I do what I do because I want to. But if I could study her—and study is what I do well—I might learn a different way. And, right now, I am helping my sister clean half her house in this last half of this third week, not because I have to, but because, more than anything, I want to.
So I help her clean everything. Then we clean it again. And when we are done, our hands are painfully new: raw, eaten with bleach.
-Manda Frederick (from White Whale Review)