Featured in Colorado Review
Dog YearsFeatured, Literary Journal, Nonfiction
Published Fall 2020
Photo by Ivan Radic
Dwadzieścia siedem, czterdzieści dwa, trzydzieści osiem.” Sibilant Polish numbers spill out of my dad’s mouth and echo in the cold, resonant staircase of our silent family home. His whispers reverberate with deep pain as they crescendo into groans, sometimes a shade of surprise, as if the numbers shock him, multiplying in his head.
I don’t remember how old I was when I first heard him count like that, and though I wish I could say I understood it back then, it would take me years.
Not long after Poland’s first free elections, my whole family sat in the living room downstairs and watched the Berlin Wall fall on television: ecstatic people in shabby, whitewashed jeans plucking away at bricks covered in graffiti. Even as a teen, I understood it to be a pivotal moment. The memory is stamped into my mind: my grandmother crocheting in her plush armchair, my dad drumming his fingers on the table by the windows, my mom, my brother, and I perched on the couch, petting our mutt, Żaba. Staring at the exhilaration of East Germans, we were wondering what this crumbling wall meant for us. My grandmother huffed into her crocheting, “That wall protected us too.”
Much later I’d find out that she joined a German minority organization around that time, worried that her Communist son-in-law and her Polish teacher daughter would be the first to be shot if the Germans intervened like they had only fifty years before. She hoped to protect us with her German ancestry, though she had denied it vehemently until then. Like everyone around her, my grandmother, at sixty-nine, had to redefine herself.
Restrukturyzacja, they call it in history books. You might have heard the Russian word, perestroika, “restructuring,” a term from economics applied to society. But structures cannot change if people don’t, and how do you restructure people? By letting them crumble and build themselves up again?
It must have been in the early nineties when I came across the scores of Communist Party ids stacked behind my dad’s philosophy books. I had never seen a Communist ID before, so I inspected them with curiosity. Communists in Poland didn’t carry cards but pocket-sized, red booklets of cheap, yellow paper. With their photographs ripped out—but the names and stamps that detailed monthly dues, dates, and addresses still inside—they gave a faceless record of the past: the party dissolved by 1990. Their mutilated pages thinning where the photo used to be reminded me of a scratched-off mural, of the pieces of Berlin Wall sold as bric-a-brac later.
By then my father must have been collecting them from his coworkers for over a decade. Ever since the wave of protests in 1980, the rise of Solidarity, and the Polish Pope, everyone knew, or at least hoped, Communism would end. But my father held on to his ideals because they were his dear life. He felt needed by his coworkers, who had repeatedly voted him into the post of the first secretary of his construction company’s Communist Party committee. The ideological post reassigned my dad from his previous responsibilities of procurement manager at the company, a job he was given—yes, jobs were given back then—when he graduated college with a master’s degree in Marxist economics.
In procurement, he was a buyer of sorts, responsible for setting up inventory, keeping track of materials, making sure numbers added up. But since nothing was easily available in the constant shortages of a planned economy, his was not an easy task. He traveled around the country to find bricks or cement or windows and confirm the supplier would produce enough and deliver it on time. I picture bottles of vodka involved as bribery or barter, because I remember half liters of Wyborowa used as payment for fixing a stove or washing machine. I understood my father’s job as mirroring my grandmother’s in the scarcities of martial law: as my grandmother scored food—with me in tow so we could double our rations in the rare event we found something to buy—my father, as procurement manager, scored construction materials.
But it was in his ideological work as the first secretary where my father found his whole sense of self. It was moral work, a stance he took to better the world. Since Communist companies provided for workers’ entire lives, including their summer holidays and weekend entertainment, my father’s position meant that he gave impassioned speeches at small committee meetings and large general assembly gatherings; he spoke of the joys of family life at weekend picnics; he stood as a sentinel of justice his coworkers trusted with workplace problems; he volunteered at the city’s party headquarters’ complaint hotline. He built a sense of community around his ideological work. When his coworkers began renouncing the party, placing those id booklets on his office desk in anger and disappointment or asking quietly for his understanding—their blushing faces, pale smiles, their eyes avoiding his—my father must have felt his whole life crumbling, every ID booklet another fallen brick.
Foreign capital came in with a swagger and a swarm of English-speaking experts who selected and hired people to occupy positions of power in the newly privatized businesses. Suddenly men just several years older than my brother managed my father’s construction company. They found the Communist old guard untrustworthy. My father was a relic of a bygone era, a dinosaur fossil. He possessed a set of skills and beliefs they didn’t understand or agree with. What his young managers feared and resented most was that he could still do his job: numbers always added up for him. He adapted quickly enough to the new system, reminding everyone what they hoped to forget: that ideologies never disappear without a trace, but linger in people and landscapes.
My father returned to accounting, but even as the company’s bookkeeper, for a while in the nineties he was not being paid; neither was my mother—he because he worked for a state-owned company transitioning into private ownership, she because she worked at a public school. I am not sure who was paid in Poland then, but since most people worked for the government or in companies previously owned by the government, perhaps nobody?
I am not even sure if my grandmother received her pension, because she started selling her crocheted creations at an antique shop in Katowice, the neighboring big city. The store owners proudly advertised her crafts to foreign visitors as “handmade in Poland” and placed them craftily on the unusually affordable antique furniture, which sold swiftly, despite high shipping charges. They encouraged my grandma to bring more, so she crocheted with double the dedication: doilies of white cotton or silk, spiderwebs of tablecloths delicate in design. Soon the store owners suggested she bring some of what they called her “old stuff.” Far from naive, my grandmother knew they meant heirlooms, but still she sold her bedside lamp, inherited from her parents, and the ceiling lamp that matched her bedroom furniture—heavy mahogany with hand-blown glass plates. My mom wrung her hands. “Don’t sell off our patrimony,” she pleaded, but my grandmother was stubborn. “What will we do with mahogany when we have to eat?”
We ate food we grew ourselves. My mother and I spent hours planting the delicate tomato seedlings in neat rows of raised beds. We spaced out the seeds of green beans, carrots and cucumbers, celery and sorrel, zucchini and dill. We tried potatoes one year. Our orchard produced fruit in waves of plenty: cherries first, then plums, then some varieties of apples, then others, then pears, and finally walnuts and hazelnuts. My mom even planted a peach tree, but it always struggled against the too-cold climate, against the too-short summers. While most trees bore more fruit than we could eat, more than my grandmother could make into preserves, our orchard never produced a peach.
Here is where my account begins to disintegrate, memories fail to line up with dates, and time between the events I am describing seems condensed, every year worth seven, like they say about dog years. My father’s quiet counting must have begun around that time, but I paid little attention. In high school by then, I attended evening esl classes, volunteered at a refuge for children from the families hardest hit by the restructuring, befriended and dated idealistic young people I met there.
Like in a stop-motion video, my father shrank. As a bookkeeper of empty books with no money to pay out to his coworkers, he no longer walked tall. After months of increased workload, daily nastiness at the office, jeering and disappointments—which my mom hinted at because he shared none of it with us—he started falling apart. He developed polyps in his bladder, which had to be regularly removed with an invasive surgical procedure that necessitated frequent visits to the hospital. He stopped quietly singing to himself like he used to so often when we were children. He no longer exclaimed, “You only live once!” like he did when he bought us some souvenir during a party-sponsored family vacation or encouraged us to indulge in another ice-cream cone. Instead, his shoulders permanently hunched forward, his eyes fixed on the ground or moving pictures on the television screen, he sighed often, breathing out numbers: “Trzydzieści dwa, piętnaście, sto trzy.”
When he came back from work, he ate the food my grandmother served him without much interest, focused on the newspaper propped against the glass of homemade fruit compote, complaining about foreign investors grabbing Polish industrial wealth for less than nothing. What was happening in our home on a small scale, with each antique my grandmother smuggled out of the house, was happening in the country at large. “Inhumane, cruel changes,” he muttered, “Workers have no protections. They have become numbers.”
That is why the day my dad announced loudly and cheerfully as he entered the house, “Look what I found!” stands out so vividly: I was so surprised at the joy in his voice. A neighbor left a dog wrapped in a blanket and nestled in a cardboard box in front of our gate, like an orphan in a nineteenth-century novel, a child abandoned in medieval Spain. Dad placed the package on the kitchen floor, unwrapped the blanket and lifted out the shaggy, charcoal-black pup. In his arms, the dog opened its mouth in an impatient yawn that doubled as a quiet yelp. I extended my hands to pet it and asked, excited, if we were going to keep it.
“It’s a she,” Dad said as he turned her belly up. We stood for a moment caressing the dog’s soft pink underside before he passed her into my arms. “Ask Mom.”
I cuddled the puppy while he took off his jacket, opened up his briefcase to pull out the newspaper, and settled at the kitchen table waiting for dinner. The whole time, she followed him with her beady eyes, so as soon as he was seated, I placed her back on the floor and she struggled toward him on her weak, spindly legs. He smiled and lifted her onto his lap.
When my mother walked in, I rushed to explain the situation and ask if we could keep the dog. I proposed to name her Żaba, after our last dog, who had died not a whole year prior. She too was black and scruffy. Mom pointed with her eyes at my dad, who dropped his newspaper and his news-incurred melancholia for a moment as he cradled the puppy. Relieved to see him present, not absently staring into the void of collapsing Polish economy and counting out numbers, my mom said that he should name the dog since he found her—finders keepers. He agreed to Żaba.
The new Żaba grew to be an ugly dog: disproportional, with long, thin legs and big, elongated paws that contrasted with an average-sized body. Her pelt—perpetually unkempt, black but even as a puppy already peppered with gray—made her look old before she aged. She had a high-pitched bark and a neurotic, jittery character. She barked often, at any noise outside, at anyone opening the door, as if she absorbed the anxiety of her whole surroundings: the splinters of my and my brother’s teenage moods, my grandmother’s fears of another war, my parents’ uncertainty about feeding us as their savings melted in the age of rampant inflation. And yet we loved her. And though my grandmother fed her and we played with her more than Dad, who spent longer and longer hours at the office and came home exhausted, she loved him the most.
She recognized the time of the day when he normally came home and waited for him at the front gate in the summer and in the entryway in the cooler months. In the winter, we could hear the ritual of his arrival echo in the house. She whimpered when she heard the front gate screech open and scratched at the door on the inside with such abandon that in the years we had her she wore it down to raw wood. She moaned and mewled as his key turned in the lock. When he at last opened the door, she stretched up to dig her long, skinny paws with long, skinny claws into his chest.
“Stop it, Żaba, stop it,” my dad said weakly as he hugged her close.
The day my dad finally lost his accounting job at the construction company, I came home to him taking a bath, splashing water and counting out loud in the upstairs bathroom. Żaba waited in the hallway outside, hunched, her muzzle tucked into the space where the green-and-white chessboard of the linoleum met the bathroom door. She looked plaintively up at me when I approached, her eyes sad and frightened, like she wanted to convey to me the pain of her master’s loss. I petted her, but she only put her snout in the doorframe again. I should have said something through that locked door, told my father I was there and worried. I could have at least asked him to let the dog in, but I didn’t say anything, just crouched with Żaba for a moment, then got up quietly, aching at the numbers my dad moaned.
Instead, I entered my brother’s room across the hallway. He turned to me from the thick pathology books spread over his desk and mumbled, sibilants hissing, “Trzydzieści siedem, siedemdziesiąt dwa, setki tysięcy,” as a greeting. He exaggerated the numbers, multiplying them into thousands. We laughed at this mockery, accomplices. We were both college students by then, and though we lived with our family as most students do in Poland, we saw our own future unfurl beyond the house and the history that choked our parents’ lives. My brother immersed himself in the rigors of med school; I studied English because it allowed me to leave for extended periods—first to work in London in the summer months, then to study abroad, later to travel the States with my American boyfriend.
My brother and I belonged to the generation that shared the euphoria of those East Germans as they scaled the collapsed Berlin Wall and danced on the rubble of an unjust system. We were eager to shrug off the weight of our father’s investment in its construction. In the cruelty of our youth, the only way we knew how to deal with his crumbling was to laugh it off.
My father could not find work for a long, tense while. He took to taking long baths. He let Żaba join him, and I imagined her placing her snout on the rim of the bathtub, vigilant not to let water cover him entirely and forever. Unlike the dog, the rest of us could not enter the bathroom and make sure it didn’t. His counting, though ominous, assured us he kept his head above water, so only when the silence stretched unbearably long did my mom knock on the bathroom door and ask, “Żyjesz? Are you alive?” with anxious hope in her voice.
Miraculously, as I now see it, and unlike so many men of his demographic in the Eastern Bloc, my father did not commit suicide. Neither did he start drinking; he had never drunk before or after or during the restructuring. He made himself useful in the ways available to him: mowing the grass in the orchard, walking Żaba, searching for jobs. His sibilant counting, sometimes bitter and angry, at other times agonizingly sad, erupted whenever he fell into the furrows of his thoughts: in the bathtub, when he climbed the cold faux-marble staircase in our two-story home, when his eyes rested on the television screen and he forgot anyone else sat on the couch beside him. Once I patted his arm when that happened. “Tata?” I asked, as if making sure he was there. He blinked and looked at me like I’d brought him back from a matrix of crisscrossing rows and columns of numbers. He looked lost still. He didn’t say a word.
I like to think he was constructing in his mind an abstract model for a new self, measuring out how the post-Communist transition had affected his foundation: counting the years he’d wasted on Communist ideals, on studying Marxist economics, on supporting ideas that had died. But I never asked what he was counting, not then, not now.
After many months, through a friend of a former coworker, my father found an accounting job in a company that produced parachutes. His commute on public transportation took three hours there and back, but it reinvigorated him too as he ran into old friends, people he’d studied with or worked with at the construction company. At the new office, he counted numbers that added up, lingered after hours with his new colleagues, talked the dream of an independent business, then caught his buses: first, second, third. When he arrived home, impatient Żaba greeted him at the door, and when he released her from his embrace, she pranced around him lightly, a bounding ball, writhing her whole body while wagging her tail.
When Żaba first started throwing up almost as soon as she ate anything, we assumed it was food poisoning. She looked at whoever caught her vomiting with her guilty eyes, brown and large, shaded by gray tufts of eyebrows. She moved away from the pile of her vomit stealthily, with her tail between her legs, looking at us with a plea not to punish her, even if no one ever did. However weak she became, she never gave up on the celebration of my dad’s arrival, or on leaning against his legs when he ate or slept in front of the television. She rolled into a ball at his feet when he fitfully slept at night. But she kept losing weight—a skeleton of a dog, just bone and wiring with a shaggy, rough pelt.
My mom took her to the vet since Dad always worked during the vet’s office hours. My brother went along because they knew how unruly Żaba became on the bus. She went willingly enough at first, thinking it a walk, a treat, but when she noticed that they didn’t move beyond the bus stop, she remembered the times she was taken in for vaccinations and pulled at the leash, her eyes filled with terror, desperately pleading to be taken back home. The vet inspected her, did some X-rays, and told them he would call with the results, which he did later that day.
My mother narrated this to me on the phone during our weekly Sunday conversation. I had already started graduate school in the States by then, and this was before she learned to use Skype, when I still paid for every minute and when I could only imagine the tears in her eyes as I heard her rasp through the words.
“Nothing he can do—her cancer has metastasized everywhere. We can just let her die on her own or put her to sleep.”
“How long does she have?”
“He was surprised she was still alive. It’s been going on for a while. No symptoms at first, quite normal, he said. Weeks rather than months.”
“How will you tell Dad?”
My mom’s “don’t know” barely reached me across the static.
The first thing Dad did when he returned from work, late as usual, was to pet Żaba and ask her how she was doing. Mom told him. He lifted the feather-light dog and carried her with him into the kitchen. He sat down in his usual dinner chair, placed her on his lap and hugged her, though she tried to wriggle and lick his face. He hugged and hugged her until she whimpered. He loosened his grip, and soon she was licking his eyes, his ears, his bald head. Mom stood on the threshold for a long while, wondering which way to go, in or out, but finally she left without saying another word. When Dad joined her in the living room, the dog, with her head hung low, followed in his footsteps.
“I will ask for a couple days off,” he said.
He came home unusually early the next day. He petted Żaba, who spent the day sleeping on the couch in the living room. She didn’t even have the strength to greet him at the door, but followed him into the kitchen. My grandmother had passed by then, in my first year living in the States, so I don’t know who was there to see the cloud of darkness that entered with him. Perhaps no one, because Mom would have been at work, my brother at the hospital. Only when they arrived home could he tell them that he was let go when he had asked for a few days off. He had not taken even an afternoon off since he started working there three years prior—not a sick day, nothing. “Bereavement for a dog!” the young parachute entrepreneur laughed in his face.
I imagine my mother put a plate of food on the table. “Sit down, eat.” Like her mother, she knew no other way to comfort.
He didn’t move. “Workers have no rights in this country! Just because I didn’t want to cover up their misconduct, because I would not accept their bribes or pretend everything was fine with their failing business. I mean, who buys parachutes in Poland? Even the army does not have the money for that. What an idiotic business idea!”
He sat down, looked at the food as if he were trying to remember something. “I am not hungry. Why did you serve me food without asking if I wanted any? Why is this house so cloying?”
He got back up, went to the hallway and jiggled the leash and collar, asking the dog with exaggerated excitement, “Do you want to go for a walk, Żaba? A walk to the park?” She obediently followed him and wagged her tail. But when he was putting the collar on her neck, she lay down and exposed her bony, pink belly in surrender.
The next day he took Żaba to be put down. He didn’t need help, she was so feeble, but I prefer to think my brother drove him to the vet’s office in his dark-green Škoda Felicia, because my imagination fails when I try to picture my dad returning on the bus with Żaba’s body in a duffel bag.
This is how I see it: At the back of the orchard, by the failing peach tree, my dad digs a shallow grave for Żaba. At his feet, the lifeless body of his beloved pet lies wrapped in the same blanket that swaddled her when he found her on our doorstep; around them soil and grass pile up in uneven mounds. First, he carefully lowers the bundle of her into the pit. Then he picks up a plastic bag and empties its contents onto her body. As they fall, the red party ID booklets flutter their yellowed pages like a host of dead butterflies.
Slowly, methodically, my dad shovels the mounds of soil back into the grave.
Ania Spyra is a multilingual, multi-genre writer living in Indianapolis. Iowan by immigration, she grew up in a German, Silesian, and Polish–speaking home in Upper Silesia during the post-communist transition of the 1980s and 1990s. An associate professor at Butler University, she teaches transnational literature and creative writing.