Tag Archives: Creative Nonfiction

The Difficult Miracle of Being Human

She knew she was pregnant before the stick said she was pregnant. It wasn’t fetal movement or anything like that, because no baby moves that early. It was more of a feeling, a sense of being together with someone, finally, in a way she had never been together with the husband.

She did not tell the husband. Not right away. She waited until it was “safe,” until there was “less chance to lose it,” and then she peed on a stick to confirm the beautiful thing she already knew so that she could take that stick and tap it against the doorframe of his office while waiting for him to notice her. He turned around, removed his all-encompassing soundman headphones, and flashed her a quick eye roll that he completely intended her to see. “What is it?” 

The husband did not like to be disturbed, but clearly he hadn’t seen the stick. She waved it a little closer, a little closer. Still nothing. The husband moved to turn his chair around. “I’m pregnant,” she blurted, just to get him to stop, pay attention. It wasn’t how she’d planned to tell him.

“Are we ready for that? A baby?” His words were fast, sharp. To the point. He wanted to get back to work. 

“Who’s ever ready for a baby?” The stick hung limply in her hand, unseen. Wasn’t he supposed to want to see it, to celebrate? At least, that’s what she had thought, hoped would happen. She shoved the stick into her pajama pants pocket, because what else was she supposed to do with it? 

“It won’t fix things. With you. Us.”

It was always her that had to change, never him. But she wouldn’t dare say that out loud. “Don’t call the baby an It; the baby can hear you.” 

The husband didn’t respond.

When the husband turned around to go back to work, she went back into the bathroom and cried. She didn’t need him. She had a baby now. Or she would, in several months.

She did what she thought she was supposed to in the months following. She went to the doctor, let him confirm what the stick had already confirmed. She took vitamins. She read websites: What size was the baby today? What was developing? Growing? Changing? Did they have fingernails yet? Or rather, would she feel them if they did? She thought about what weird things; she pictured the baby clawing her insides as they waited impatiently to come out and meet her. 

She wanted to start registering for baby things. She convinced the husband to let her find out the sex so that she could pick better items. It was a boy! She thought the husband would be more excited to have a boy, but the husband didn’t respond. She took the 3D ultrasound picture, with it’s grainy whites and browns, snapped a picture with her own phone, and sent it to everyone she had ever known. She showed the registries to the husband that night while they watched tv, the show on display was meaningless in comparison to the excitement of picking her child’s future. Bottles, pajamas, toys, diapers, a crib, a stroller, she registered for anything and everything that any site told her a baby would need while the husband sat next to her, supposedly helping but really somewhere else. “Winnie the Pooh,” he scoffed at one point, “isn’t that a little young?” 

She had always loved that cuddly yellow bear, and the husband certainly hadn’t helped her pick things out. “What would you rather ask for?”

The husband didn’t respond.

She worked hard, saving money for when the baby came and she would need to take off. The husband stayed home, or worked at the church, or did whatever sound career thing it was he did with his day. She came home after ten, twelve hour days and made him dinner, cleaned. He told her she didn’t do enough, so she threw a potholder at him and called him an asshole.

The husband didn’t respond. 

She pictured life after the birth of their son, and how she wished and hoped it would change, when she really knew that nothing would change at all. That she would work a 50-plus hour work week and then have to take care of a baby at the end of the day. She said nothing to the husband. It would do no good. She kept plugging along; she kept getting ready. She cleaned the backseat of her car to get ready for the carseat. 

It came time for the baby shower, a mixture of cakes and presents and balloons—cute green and blue-for-boy balloons that she loved but couldn’t bring home in case the cats decided to eat them and then died from choking on string. She asked the husband to help bring home gifts; they lived up a steep flight of stairs and she didn’t want to carry everything. 

The husband didn’t respond. 

So she did it herself. She carried each and every thing up the stairs, and then she took a nap with the cats on the couch while a Lifetime movie played on the tv. A few weeks, just a few weeks, she would meet him. And everything would change then, when her son was born.

And just a short time later, at 37 weeks, when she called the husband to tell him the baby’s heart was no longer beating, well, he didn’t respond then either. 

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The Dead are Cold (And Other True Facts)

My son is beautiful. He is seven, almost eight years old. Tall for his age, with a head full of brown hair that he refuses to let me cut because he likes it long. His eyes are greenish gray, and they stare right into me with an understanding much beyond his years. He is an avid piano student, but some days he hates playing. He reminds me of myself in that regard—when I was a kid, I told my organ teacher that my hamster had bit me in the finger so I couldn’t play, but then I went home and played what I wanted to play instead of what I was supposed to. 

My son is kind. His favorite toy is a giant stuffed brown bear. He still sleeps with it at night, but he will also share it with other children when they are sad. I worry for the day when he will decide he is too old for toys, that I will cry. His favorite color is blue, and his favorite clothing item is his tiny pair of blue overalls where the straps are so worn that they slip off of his shoulders. 

My son is smart. He’s already in third grade. He went from pre-K straight to first because he already had the fundamentals down cold. They said he was “smart,” and “needed to be challenged.” He brings home a new book almost every day, but he prefers to read it to me rather than the other way around. I only help him when he asks, and he rarely does—and all his books are far above grade level. He can’t draw though. He comes home from school with stick figure drawings that have graham cracker crumbs stuck to the edges, but I am proud of them.

My son is proud of me, and of my writing. Or, at least, I like to think so. 

My first major, national publication was for a parenting magazine called ‘Brain, Child: A Magazine for Working Mothers.’ I wasn’t horribly enthused about it, and I didn’t tell that many people. One I told, a professor in my graduate program, replied, “Oh, are you a parent?” I didn’t know how to answer that question. I never do. 

My son is dead.

*

The first dead body I remember seeing was when I was eighteen years old. I was a new youth leader for a local teen coffee house. It was New Year’s, and Renee and Stephanie were riding home in the back of a station wagon with one of their families—Stephanie’s, I think. A drunk driver came down Highway 120 and plowed right into the driver’s side of their car; everyone inside was killed instantly. I attended Renee’s funeral as both a representative of the coffee house and a friend; we were not that far apart in age. Because she had been on the passenger side of the vehicle, Renee was, for lack of a better term, more intact than Stephanie and thus had an open casket. I waited to see her for over an hour, listening to the people around me cry. By the time I got up to the casket, the line behind me wrapped around the funeral home. I stared down at Renee, her eyes closed, her skin the pasty white of overdone makeup, her hands with fingernails still lacquered in solid black gently folded across her stomach. Her dress was white, and I remember thinking that Renee would not have worn a white dress. I remember reaching out gently, to touch her cheek that was completely devoid of the normal pink color. I remember how cold she was. I remember nothing else until I sat in the driver’s seat of my cherry red Camaro, smacking the steering wheel over and over with my fists and bawling my eyes out because this “little” girl was dead and there was nothing I could do about it. 

And she was cold.

My entire life, I’ve been afraid of dead things. When I came home from work one night to find my goldfish Herman floating in a u-shape above the pretty purple castle inside of his glass bowl that I kept on top of my television cabinet, I called B, my then-boyfriend, to come and scoop it out for me. When my cat Tigger died, I couldn’t look at the body and had to go in another room while someone else took it away. When my grandma’s dog Max died, I had to cover it in three different blankets so that I wouldn’t feel the body as I helped her put it in the car to take it to be cremated. I couldn’t touch them or be involved with any of it, because I couldn’t accept that they were dead. My son was different though. His tiny body was still somewhat warm from being inside of me. Stiff though from being dead for many hours, at least 22, but as many as 30; we would never know exactly. When I held him, it was amazing to me how light he was. I don’t know what I had expected; at four pounds, he was substantially lighter than my jumbo-sized 22 pound cat, and he felt like he was floating in my arms. At the same time, I felt like I was floating above him, like it wasn’t real, and I took in every detail—the tiny bit of hair scattered across his head, the way his fists were clenched and how hard it was for me to wrap his dead fingers around mine, fingers that were long and just perfect for playing an instrument. It didn’t seem right that my son could be there, that he could be whole and still be dead. It didn’t seem right at all. 

The one thing I didn’t look at when I held my son was his eyes; I don’t know the color of his eyes. I never will. It seems important somehow, like a fact that I should know, and it kills me that I don’t. A mother should know what color her son’s eyes are. Were.

I’ve begun to forget his face. It’s harder every day to remember what he looked like. I never heard his voice, his laugh; I won’t ever know these things. He was burned, his remains put into a little box the shape of a heart that fit into my palm and later scattered somewhere unknown to me. His things are gone; he is gone. I have no part of him left, nothing physical of him to hold, to see. I have no proof of his existence; he only exists in my head now. When I miss him, it feels like I’m being gutted. There is no way to make it okay. There is no part of him that remains. 

*

The first time I saw my son, he was nothing more than an image on a screen. A strange mix of brown, sepia, that produced a recognizable image—a nose, eyes, even tiny fingers. A human. A baby. It was hard for me to reconcile the image on the screen with me, to believe that I was really growing a baby inside of me. When the technician asked if we wanted a copy of the ultrasound, I eagerly took the picture. I scanned it in with my new iPhone and sent it to essentially everyone I had ever known. It was the first time B, the husband, was at all excited.

The ultrasound spurred me to clean out my junk-mobile of a car. I had the messiest car ever, and I had for years. It started when my commute time to work doubled; I would eat food driving both to and from work and then throw the wrappers into the backseat. The more I traveled for work, the more things appeared—an extra coat, random shoes, pants, shirts, books. For all I knew, there was something alive back there. The pile was so high that it surpassed the center console in height and threatened to spill over into the front. It got to the point where it was just too overwhelming to even consider cleaning. Of course, this meant that now that I needed to install a carseat back there, there was a lot of work to be done. I didn’t dare ask the husband to help me. It was my fault, my mess, and he never even rode in my car anyway. 

I pictured my son while I was cleaning. I imagined that he would grow, grow up, grow out of the carseat. Sit in the front with me after he turned twelve. Starting driving at fifteen and a half. Many times during the cleaning ordeal, I had to wander away. Out of the garage, down the block, getting air. I wasn’t sure how I had driven so long with the car in that condition; I suddenly understood my need to drive with the windows down as at least five bags of trash made their way to the dumpster, with several more bags awaiting their end destination of Goodwill. Exhausted, I never bothered to clean out the trunk. I worked hard enough during my day job that I didn’t want to do anything more than I had to.

I was a merchandising manager for Party City while I was pregnant. Halloween pack-up was well underway, which involved a great deal of ladder climbing and frequent sitting on top of rolling ladders when I got tired—which happened all the time. People worried that I was working too hard, but my doctor supported me. The level of work I was doing was in the same league as what I had been doing pre-pregnancy. Since it wasn’t a new routine, it wasn’t a problem. I almost wished it would be. Ten hours on my feet while pregnant made an extremely long day.

By the time I got home most nights, I was too tired after an entire day of work to do anything else. B had a specific list of daily chores for me: dishes, cooking, cleaning, vacuuming, anything pet related, and anything the husband didn’t want to do. I never got to the dishes or the cleaning or the vacuuming. The cats were like my children, so I took care of them. I cooked meals because I was hungry, but frequently grumbled in my head that the husband should cook for me once in a while. When he bitched that things around the apartment weren’t done, I chucked a pillow at him and called him an asshole. He wasn’t the one working fifty hours a week while growing a human being inside his body. He wasn’t working at all. 

“Do you want to quit your job then? Is that what you’re saying?” He leaned on our breakfast bar.

“I didn’t say that. I just said that I’m tired and need a little rest every now and then. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.” I bit my lip. I was crying, again. Damn hormones. 

“I do everything around here,” he replied snidely. “I pay the bills.”

That was all he did. He didn’t have a real job. I was the breadwinner, but I couldn’t quit—I held the medical insurance policy. The husband was wrong, I was sure, but I nodded slowly and got up to make him dinner; I imagined that someday soon I would be cooking for both me and my son, and it didn’t seem weird to me at all that B wasn’t in that picture. 

*

B and I didn’t name our son until we held him. I had just finished The Mortal Instruments, and I was absolutely in love with the name Jace. The husband was in love with naming him after his grandfather and the slew of men on his side of the family who carried the name Erich. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the name Erich; it was just so old fashioned. We argued back and forth about it, electing to waiting until the baby came to decide. Somehow then, February 26th, 2010, I looked into my son’s eyes and held my finger in his tiny fist, and I knew his name was Carter. I conceded to Erich as a middle name, because I didn’t have the energy to fight. It didn’t seem to matter anyway.

*

When you are expecting a baby, especially your first, people find it helpful to fill you in on all the little facets of pregnancy and birth. The first thing they tell you is that childbirth will hurt. A lot. They aren’t lying. I’ve heard it referred to as taking your lower lip and stretching it over your head, and though I haven’t tried this particular activity, I can’t imagine it even comes close. I don’t know of anything that does. The pain will go away though, they tell you, once you hold your baby in your arms. Now this is a lie, as it does not take into consideration those who do not get a living, breathing baby; for us, the pain does not vanish. The next thing people tell you is that stretch marks will eventually go away—another lie. Sure, they fade and turn a freaky white color, but they never disappear, not completely. Yet another thing I remember learning is that you burn a lot of calories when you breastfeed, and that many women lose baby weight in this manner. I’m fairly certain this is true, based on research I did pre-pregnancy. For me, however, this was yet another lie. 

Some things people just don’t talk about. For instance, they don’t tell you that one percent of pregnancies end in stillbirth, which is defined as death after twenty-four weeks. They don’t tell you that things won’t always go the way they’re supposed to, because they only prepare people for the best possible outcomes. No one tells you that babies can die. They don’t tell you that your body postpartum will be irrevocably changed. 

A stillbirth baby, especially at full-term, is such an unexpected and sudden loss that people often forget you have gone through the birthing process and need to recover just like any other woman. You might receive pain killers, but no one tells you what they are for. They don’t tell you that you’re going to hurt like hell as your womb shrinks back to its normal size and shape; they don’t tell you that you might need help with simple physical tasks; they don’t tell you that you will bleed for weeks after and that you cycle will change forever. They are more concerned with handling your grief than with handling your body, since the baby is dead. All of the little details go by the wayside in favor of making sure that you are “okay” and that you are not going to leave the hospital and promptly throw yourself in front of a bus. 

The biggest thing that no one told me when my baby died was that my breasts would still produce milk. It wasn’t really anything I thought about once he was gone, not until it happened. My body didn’t understand that there was no baby anymore; it’s not like I could explain it to myself and make the natural process stop. I called my OB right away, and they had me wear a sports bra two sizes too small that I stuffed with cabbage leaves. They apologized for neglecting to inform me, but it meant nothing. To add insult to injury, not only did I not have a baby, I stank like cabbage. My body had betrayed my mind. As a society, we are largely concerned with how we look, and here I was with the body that comes post-baby and no baby to show for it—a ring of pudginess around my middle that had never been there before and a plethora of stretch marks. No amount of exercise would make those things go away, not completely. I was shaped differently, inside and outside. I was different, and this went unacknowledged.

March 2010 was the time that they took the population census. I did not fill out the form when it came in the mail the first time, and I didn’t fill it out when it came in the mail the second time. I never filled it out, instead choosing to rip it into pieces and stuff it in the kitchen garbage like it had never come at all. When May rolled around, the census workers started coming to people’s houses. One rang my doorbell. I went down the stairs into the entry hall and pulled it open. 

“Hi.” It was an older woman with hair like my grandmas and a bright red vest that identified her as a census worker. “I’m here because you didn’t fill out your census form. I just need to collect your information.”

I tried to shut the door, but she stuck her foot in it. “It will only take a few minutes.” She was very persistent, and I left the door open just enough to see her face as she asked, “How many people live in your household?”

“Two,” I said to my feet.

“And they are?”

“Me and my husband.” I tried to push the door closed then, but she wouldn’t move her foot.

She was scribbling on her clipboard. “And how many children?” She didn’t even look up as she asked. 

“None,” I snapped. “None. My son is dead.”

I slammed the door in her face.

*

I constructed a world in the months after Carter died. A world inside my head where the imagined was real and the real was imagined. In that world, my 37 week OB appointment never happened. I was not an hour early. I did not stop at the store for apple juice. I did not leave my coat in the car even though it was the middle of February. The nurse never hooked up the heart monitor; I never heard her say the baby’s heart wasn’t beating. I didn’t watch an ultrasound screen where the baby didn’t move. This world where the nurses asked about what I did for a living and shoved Kleenex in my face and distracted me while we waited for the doctor and the husband; this world where the doctor told us he was “so, so sorry,” where he gave me the option of going home and waiting for labor to happen naturally or going into labor artificially; this world where I laid in a hospital bed in labor for 22 hours to give birth to a dead baby. This world is not the real world, and I know that. 

If I think too hard, what I’ve constructed completely unravels. 

My son is beautiful.

My son is kind.

My son is smart. 

My son is dead. And cold.

Two years after Carter’s death, I purchased a memorial brick by the lakefront. The city planted a tree as a memorial to “all the dead children,” and it sits twenty feet from the shoreline; it’s small, with spindly branches, and the leaves are few and far in between. It didn’t seem to grow much, and I was struck by the idea that a memorial for children that will never grow up would never grow—the stunted tree surrounded by bricks surrounded by flowers was the perfect tribute; clumps of purple and red and pink that took away from the fact that each brick was all that was left of a life.

Every year, tiny growths appear between the bricks. Weeds, or perhaps flowers. Signs of life that will be gone come winter, because everything dies. Winter brings snow and ice, coating the ground and making it impossible to remember him. I visit the tree on the anniversary of his death every year I am in the state, to place my hand on his brick and be able to touch him. A simple reminder. If it’s winter, I can never make headway in the frozen-over snow. I can get down on my knees and claw with my fingers, but I only ever break through to ice. Carter is sealed away behind a wall I can’t break through, an event I cannot penetrate. Death.  

On the anniversary of his death, I will never locate the brick. I will never be able to break through. I will never find him.

It’s too cold. I am cold. 

The dead are cold.

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We All Make Mistakes

I can still remember when Corey and Topanga broke up. I’m guessing many from my generation can. Boy Meets World; TGIF; quality thank goodness it’s Friday television programming. Topanga was crying; her family was moving to Pittsburgh, away from her childhood sweetheart, and what was the point in continuing a relationship when they couldn’t be together?
I had middle school play practice the next morning. Eighth grade, so it was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. So and so had kissed so and so. So and so had gone to the movie with a bunch of so and sos, all of whom shall remain nameless I remember so vividly though because it was the start of something for me–my friends were talking about real boys, and I was talking about Corey and Topanga breaking up as if they were real people, because, in a way, they were. 
I’ve written stories in my head for as long as I can remember, intending to inscribe them for the masses but never being motivated enough to publicize my fiction. Samantha and Rebeckah were (are; let’s be real, I still write them in my head as I fall asleep) my favorites. Both had terrible lives marked by notable happy endings, followed by more terrible, followed by more happy. Every bad is met with its match in good. And in my stories, they always met a boy, and that boy was what saved them. Somewhere along the way, I convinced myself that meeting a boy would save me too. 
*
How to make a mistake:
Step one: Evaluate all possible choices. 

Step two: Evaluate all possible outcomes. 
*
It was hot in the church on the afternoon of June 2nd, a few years after I graduated high school. I sat in a pew, my annoyance marked with my traditional silent eyeroll that I hid from B with my then-long bangs. Just a few more things, they kept telling us. Just a few more, then we could go. It turned out wedding rehearsals were harder than they looked. It was a bunch of go here, do this thing, do that thing, go there, sit. Move. Wait. 
We were poor, so our after-rehearsal dinner consisted of a bunch of meat thrown on the grill on the backyard deck by B’s dad, who had left the rehearsal early to commence the cooking festivities. So far as we knew, everything was fine. Until the phone call: “So everything is fine.” Nothing is fine that starts with that phrase. “There’s just been a small fire on the deck.”
It was another event in a string of events that shaped a loud and clear broadcast stating it was wrong to marry B. We lost our church, our free catering, our pastor, our wedding counselor, all in the weeks before the wedding. But we kept plunging ahead. Or rather, I kept plunging ahead, because I wanted the happy ending I knew existed. I thought. I knew it was a mistake. I made it anyway. This one mistake set in motion many other events, many other mistakes, much more unhappiness. I kept thinking that I had done the thing I was supposed to–I had gotten married–and that this would be the thing to save me because it was always the boy that would save the girl.
That night, after the dinner, I sat on my bed, my last time without B in my apartment, and I painted my toenails with sparkly silver nail polish while my good friend sat across from me and told me not to do it. Not to go through with it. Not to marry B. But I did it anyway because I thought I was supposed to. Girl meets boy; girl marries boy; girl produces many children and stays home to take care of the family for all eternity. I wanted to do the right thing. 
But I made a mistake; my life was none of these things. When everything disintegrated, despite looking for someone else to save me, I had to be the one to save myself. 
*
How to make a mistake:
Step three: Choose what you think is the expected outcome, the one that everyone else wants. 
*
I know this great dog who shall remain nameless, since that’s how the rescue game is played. She came to the rescue with her mother and two sisters from a backyard breeder in New Jersey that saw what was amazing inside the mommy dog and used it to make himself money (it’s no wonder I wanted to adopt the mommy dog then…). This puppy was my first real placement of a dog I loved. I drove her to the house, I dropped her there. I celebrated when she stayed, and I lived for the picture and video updates and the times I got to visit in an era of my life when I wasn’t seeing many rescues doing well. When so many dogs would act out or bite or never leave and sit Saturday after Saturday not finding a home, it was nice to be reminded that good homes did exist, that all dogs have good inside somewhere, and that they all have a place, like we all have a place. But then this dog made one mistake, and she came back to the rescue. Her return was the right thing for everyone, but right or not didn’t make it suck any less for any of us. The mistake was too colossal, too all-encompassing, to come back from, a permanent black mark on an otherwise impeccable record, and a black mark of the biggest sort. 
*
How to make a mistake:
Step four: Do that thing that everyone else wants. 

Step five: Watch the results and know that you’re screwed. 
*
I think it was pack instinct that drove this dog to do the thing she did. “I must protect the pack, because the pack protects me/because the pack loves me/because the pack has brought me my happy and I must return the favor.” It’s impossible to know for sure though. But what I do know, both from my own life and the lives of those around me, is that we make the biggest mistakes trying to live up to the expectations of those around us. We make the biggest mistakes when we’re genuinely trying to be the best we can be. It doesn’t make us bad; it doesn’t make us unworthy; it just means that we have not found our place yet because we haven’t learned to define ourselves outside of other people’s expectations. 
Doesn’t this make us all just like dogs? We want to please so badly sometimes without a thought to the consequences that we plunge headlong into situations we can’t come back from. If you stick to the norms, follow the expected commands to their given outcomes, and don’t step out of line, everything will be fine. Right?
*
How to make a mistake:
Step six: Do not repeat; learn from the thing you’ve done. 
*
Queue the after-hiatus Boy Meets World Cory-without-Topanga episode that ended with Topanga outside the door in the rain, her hand pressed to the glass and her long brown hair slicked against her skin as she declared she was moving back to live with her aunt and would be together with Corey forever. I wish all decisions ended so happily. I am too old, have wasted too much time, to make the wrong ones. Writing stories, living with and in characters, does nothing when they always have a happy ending, because those endings do not exist through others–and it’s a mistake to believe they do. We write our own stories. We make mistakes we can’t take back. We live. We learn. 

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Death

Our marriage began with a death.

Sunday night, a lot of years ago. October, maybe? I was on my way back to Wisconsin from Indiana, where I had been helping chaperone a herd of teenagers at a Christian youth event in the Thunderdome, when his mother told me he had a surprise waiting at my apartment. My apartment where he was not allowed to be.

“Did you give him my key?” I couldn’t keep the scorn out of my voice. “I don’t want him in my house.” There was a lot I didn’t say. Were there blankets on the couch. I’m pretty sure I left blankets on the couch. You know he’s going to want to do things, right? That he won’t want to hear no? You know there’s a reason I took his key away? I blinked without continuing out loud.

Her reply seemed strange at the time. “You seem ungrateful. You should be grateful. You will be.”

I arrived home to baked chicken, handmade potatoes, and cheese covered broccoli, one of the only veggies I actually enjoyed eating. He had cooked me all of my favorite things, covered my cheap gray card table in a fancy red table cloth adorned with two silver candle holders with pine green candles. We watched Amityville Horror on the couch, under the blanket of course even though the apartment was easily in the 70s, and then he proposed to me with very little fanfare. I said yes with equally little fanfare. The proposal was nothing like the movies. After he left, I went to feed my betta fish, Bob, and found him belly up in his tank. Dead.

Five years later, I was in my OBs office for my 37 week pregnancy appointment, without him, making small talk with a nervous handed nurse with hints of lemon on her breath about a mission trip I’d been on at seventeen to build houses in Jamaica. Her hands shook because of the things they wouldn’t show me on the backward facing monitors, the test results that told them my son was dead, the results that, once confirmed, I could trace back to near precisely the minute it had happened–me sitting at my desk on my last day of work as a merchandising manager, eating cheese poppers from Pizza Hut and entering theft numbers into the computer while giving zero fucks about accuracy because I knew I would never return.

Our marriage ended with a death. But had it ever been living?

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The Beginning

 

We met when I was nineteen or so. His fingers stretched over the strings of his guitar like no musician I had ever seen; his tongue glanced across his lips as he concentrated on the beat. I didn’t notice him, not at first. A bit of a diva, I was more interested in holding a microphone and singing with the church band than I was in looking for a relationship. He gave the appearance of caring more about his music than the people around him, just like his mother who played piano beside him. I’m not sure he ever looked my way. I only looked his way because his mother was our leader.

Actually, it was his sister who noticed me first. She was desperate for a best friend, and I was just lonely because I never really hung out with people. One night after rehearsal I went over to her house for dinner with her and her family. He was there, of course, with his mother and father and brother. His mother suggested that we rent a movie, and he drove us to the video store on the corner between the Shell gas station and the liquor store. I wandered the aisles as he laughed and horsed around with his siblings. They wanted me to pick something to watch, but my only real knowledge of them was that they were deeply religious. We rented something silly, something from the line of Beethoven movies with the giant St. Bernard.

It was more fun to hang out at his house than mine; I was renting a small room from a coworker at that point with a closet and a computer desk and a murphy bed that folded up into the wall during the day. It was so much fun, in fact, that when his sister invited me to move in with them while we saved to get our own apartment together, I said yes. I don’t remember how it happened, whether it was before or after I moved in, but he asked his sister for permission to take me out on a date. It was very important, he told me later, to ask for her permission, because she had claimed me first. I remember thinking that was an odd choice of phrase–“Claimed me”–but it made sense. She and I were friends before he even knew me, and if things didn’t work out between us, she would lose a friend. I remember that she was like me. Different. A little off the beaten path. A little lacking in friends. But at the time when he asked me to dinner just the two of us, she didn’t matter. I said yes. I wanted more than anything to be a part of their idyllic Christian family.

Our after dinner first date activity was going to see “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” He didn’t tell me then, but he had never read the books or seen the previous movies and picked it for our date because he knew I would like it. I, who had never had a real dating relationship or any kind, automatically assumed that meant he loved me. One more dinner and a movie, and I agreed to go steady. At nineteen, I’m not sure I knew what that meant, the level of commitment I was making. I was certain no other boy would ever love me, and I knew that I was supposed to get married, so I made a commitment for the first boy who asked.

No normal boy my age had ever looked at me. The only date I ever went on was during high school, to the junior prom, and it was the worst night I’d ever had in school. When he looked at me at dinner that night, long strands of spaghetti twirling around his fork and a smudge of marinara sauce on his right cheek, it was like I was being seen, really, seen, for the first time. His gaze was flooded with the possibility of a future that as a young child I had never imagined I would have–a boyfriend, marriage, babies, true love. It is hard now to remember the good times, much easier to remember the bad; the bad is what sticks the most, what hurts the most. I think I thought that because he paid attention to me and wanted to spend time with me that he loved me. I must have believed he was the only one who would ever want to be with me; I must have stayed because I was certain there was no other man who would love me.

His sister got engaged and married shortly after, so it was natural for us to get married too. It all seemed so ordinary, a natural progression of events. At J.C. Penney’s, where we had our wedding registry, there were scanner guns for couples to tour the store and capture the barcodes of merchandise for their lists. He wanted expensive things–the best couch, the biggest television, the softest bed. I was more interested in the smaller things–a matching set of dishes, a blender, towels for the bathroom. Big, loud, and perfect, versus small, quiet, and necessary were our personalities in a nutshell. We were nothing alike.

He was not quite six feet tall, the perfect height for my five and a half foot self to rest my head on his shoulder. He didn’t have an ounce of fat on him, and his lanky body was capped off with a spiky head of hair two shades lighter than mine in its natural state. He was always a pretty boy; he spent more time in the bathroom each day getting ready than I spent in front of the mirror all week and was always encouraging me to do more for my looks–curl my hair, put on makeup. I did what he wanted because I wanted him to love me back as much as I thought I loved him.

The thing is, I never knew what love was.

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There is No Normal

I’m not a huge believer in attending social functions. People frequently get annoyed with me because I don’t go out when there are large groups; often I SAY I will go and then find a reason to back out at the last minute. Large groups make me focus on all of the ways that I’m different rather than the ways I fit in or the things I have in common with the people around me. I don’t know how to be a person when I don’t have a predesignated topic of conversation. As a shining example, any time I do anything that has to do with dogs, I am confident. I know dogs. I know their behaviors and their motivations. I’m learning their fears. I know how to discuss them in a way that people can understand, though, quite frankly, I would rather spend time just me and the dog. I can also play well as a teacher, a manager, a friend. But groups are hard. I don’t know how to be a person sometimes; it’s a skill that was taken from me that I’ve never quite gotten back, the ability to not be judged. There’s this wall between me and the world that I’m not sure how to negotiate in a crowd; I don’t think I can be more than one thing at once. I don’t think I can let go. Not completely.

*

Pedro is such a handsome boy. He’s gorgeous—tall and black with little specks of white—but spends most of his time with his tail tucked, his majestic head stiff and his eyes alert. Watching. Pedro is one of the few dogs I’m not completely comfortable walking. Not because I can’t control him; I can. More because I understand too well what other people refer to as his unpredictable nature. I don’t find him to be unpredictable at all. Pedro just doesn’t know he’s a dog. To Pedro, dogs on the street are all big and scary, while, to most other dogs, dogs on the street are all potential friends. Each week, Pedro finds a new things to be scared of. Man in a white van? RUN!!! Woman with a rolling grocery cart? BARK!!! A LOT!!! Tiny chihuahua off leash? BE FEROCIOUS WITH ALL SIXTY POUNDS OF MIGHT!!! Pedro’s mission is to scare the world away before it can scare him.

*

The first time I went out, after, and I went to a bar with some friends. Two friends? Manageable. All of the other people in the bar who wanted to touch and talk to me? Less so. I wanted to be the little woman hiding in a box as we came in. She had a reason to be there, a cash box in her lap, a special hand stamp in one hand and a light in the other. I identified more with her than the friends I was with in that moment. I wanted nothing more than to hide in that little black room. Give me the cash box, give me a job, give me anything but having to be the person that I was. Anything to keep from thinking those words. Instead I kept quiet, observed the room around me. The people dancing in gray metal cages, the multicolored lights that crisscrossed the stage and bled up the curtains. If it hadn’t happened, I thought, that could be me out there. Taking shots. Dancing. I leaned against the counter. But it happened. He raped me. He took everything. I spent the night holding up the counter.

*

I’m a fan of redirection commands for dogs over negative reinforcement. Pedro is not the type of dog who will ever find the world to be not scary. However, he can learn to associate the scary with food. “Pedro, look!” TREAT! “Pedro, let’s walk!” MORE TREATS!!! Dog walks down the sidewalk? ALL THE TREATS EVER!!! The scary things are still scary, but there are good things that come with them that make the scary easier to deal with.

*

I let my friends get my drinks for me so I wouldn’t have to converse with the bartender. I didn’t want to answer any questions about myself. I wanted to be anonymous. People were dancing, flamboyantly waving their arms in the air as they shoved themselves against each other, an act which had never been my thing. I was never free enough to dance before. I was certainly not free enough after. Two men circled the edges of the crowd, and I named them Green Shirt and Gray Shirt. Green Shirt was a grinder; he kept coming up behind women and rubbing himself against them, but none of them seemed to mind. Gray Shirt was different. He hopped over the counter and wandered behind me, towards the DJ booth. My friends were off, dancing, as his hand found my back and slid down, down, down…I elbowed him and fled to the bathroom, far away. My friends didn’t notice I had left. I sat in the stall and I wondered if I had imagined him, if he had touched me at all, or if I was remembering the hands of someone else. Of Him.

*

If I could be inside Pedro’s head, I imagine it would be something like this: “Another day. More time spent in the shelter. At least I have my bed. Oh, wait. I hear something. Keys?!? It’s my friend! My friend is here! She’ll play with me. Oh, wait…I have to go outside. I don’t want to go outside. Don’t make me go outside. But, wait…I have to go to the bathroom. I have to go outside. I can do it! Here we go! IS THAT A DOG?!? Wait, she said look! I should look at her! I’m looking at her! I’m doing it, I’m doing it, I’m doing it! Dog? What dog? My friend is smiling. I’m doing this right! I’m gonna do it again!” And he does. His new training program is working amazingly well. Two minute walks became ten minute walks became thirty minute walks. Storming the shelter window barking when a dog walks by is now grabbing a squeaky toy and running to get in bed. Baby steps for Pedro. Small doses. Being in the world to learn how to be in the world.

*

I don’t often admit the real reason why more than one on one or two on one is hard for me. It’s that I don’t know who I am yet, that I might never know, that I don’t always know how not to be afraid. How many people are there? Can I see the exit? Can I get to it? Do I need to? Who is that person behind me? Has he had too much to drink? Have I?

Does it matter?

Sometimes, I’m lost. More often than not lately, though, I’m not lost at all. I’ve been going out more, in small doses. One on ones. Two on ones. Building relationships for group situations. Giving myself “rewards” for milestones. Working up to staying 45 minutes. An hour. Two. Being in the world to learn about being in the world. I may never be “normal,” but there is no normal, really. And if I don’t work with what I have, I will never have anything more. It’s not enough to simply survive, to say “I survived,” if I’m not any better for it. 

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An Exposition of Death (Revised)

His name is Graham, and he smells of death. Not the “rotting in the ground” type of death, but rather the “impending cloak of doom” type of death. What happened wasn’t his fault. You can tell he doesn’t understand as he stares off into the yard through his sealed doggy door with a slap-happy smile on his face, a single stream of drool leaking from the corner of his mouth. The eyes that stare at you only project love: love for people, and love for you specifically.  This is why you love dogs; the way they look at you as if they see only you and nothing else.

His tail swishes back and forth almost silently behind him. He desires to be a part of the real world again.

You know that won’t happen, because this is it for him.

Death row–there is no going back.

*

“People think that pitbulls are bad. And they’re really not. It’s all in how they’re raised. A lot of people just make awful assumptions.” Laurie fingers the silver wire of one of the many dog cages lining the animal shelter hallway, her hands traversing up and down the triangles but not really seeming to feel anything. I watch while looking down, unsure of where my eyes should actually be. On him? On her? On nothing at all? Her gaze shifts sideways, drifts over the beige red nosed beauty of a pitbull within the cage before focusing on something over my shoulder. “You don’t hear about all of the good dogs, the good pits, that are out there,” she tells the wall, not looking at me. “You only hear about the bad ones, the ones that fight, the ones that get into trouble. Pits are such devoted dogs. And they’re so smart. They’ll do anything for you, if you just ask. But they need to be trained right. I wish the shelter could find people to do that.”

I nod quietly, unsure of what to say.

“So, you know the Great Lakes Pet Expo? We brought some dogs there last weekend.”

I’m not sure that I do. But I quickly realize that she’s going to take me there.

*

You look around the room. The Great Lakes Pet Expo is busy; lots of people, lots of pets. You realize this shouldn’t surprise you. It’s a pet expo, so it’s expected that pets will be there.

Graham is ready. Sitting. His tail swishes back and forth almost silently behind him, sweeping the ground and showing that he is ready to spring to action at a moment’s notice. The first person who comes to them will be greeted and licked into happy oblivion.

The dog next to him is ready too, but in a different way. You remember Nosey, from previous outings. He strains against his leash, stretching his handler’s arm out like that character from The Fantastic Four movies. Where Graham is waiting for people to come to him, Nosey is out and about in everybody’s business.

Graham hates this, you can tell. He wants attention, and he’s trying to be patient. His people say be good, so Graham is good. He just wants to make people happy, but no one will come close to him because they don’t want to come by Nosey. Patience is not Nosey’s strong suit; he’s too pushy. They will never find a forever home this way.

Nosey is ruining everything.

*

“We send a lot of these dogs to foster homes for whatever reason. Like, if we want them get more social with people or dogs, or just get some love or whatever.” Laurie sticks her fingers through the holes of the cage, despite the big red sign that says she shouldn’t. I watch as Graham’s tail action increases, swishing back and forth behind him. I can almost hear the words coming out of his mouth: Love, love, love, love, LOVE!

“We do a lot of handling on the Pit Crew. I’ve worked a lot with this dog a lot. Sweetest dog ever.” She points into the cage. “This one handler named Tim took another dog, Nosey, home with him. They had this dog for a while, but nobody checked on exactly what they were doing with the dog. He had a lot of problems.”

*

You watch as the man on the other end of the leash yanks Nosey back on his prong collar. You should never choke a dog that way; it only makes them pull more as they try to escape the pain on their throat that they don’t understand. You want to free Nosey, but you don’t. You stay back. Graham’s handler takes him a few steps away and makes him sit again. Graham follows every command like a champ, and his tail swishes back and forth in anticipation of what’s to come. The more Graham’s handler smiles, the happier Graham becomes.

Nosey growls at a passing dog. Someone yells at the man to take him home, he doesn’t belong there. Not when he’s aggressing towards other dogs. You imagine that Graham is laughing. If Nosey goes away, Graham will be adopted—of this, you are sure. The man says no, he can handle it, he can handle it. You watch. You aren’t sure that he can handle it.

It looks bad on the shelter, someone tells him once no one is watching. Nosey obviously doesn’t want to be here. You agree. But your two cents don’t belong in this situation, so you remain silent. The handler insists on staying, insists the dog is fine.

Both dogs stare into the crowd of people, or, rather, the sea of legs and knees and scary shoes that come a little too close. No one stops; no one bends down to introduce themselves. Everyone moves very quickly past Nosey’s growls, so quickly that Graham worries he might be kicked. He stands up on all fours, as still and majestic as the lion statue you passed in the entryway; the white stripe in the middle of his beige back prickles with static as his nerves overtake him. Graham tries to keep a smile on his face, his big, fat, red tongue dangling out as he looks for a human to match his smile. But there are no faces at all. Only legs. Graham shifts backwards, his butt slowly lowering to the ground and his mouth closing, the orange pattern above his eyes that passes for human eyebrows knitting together in concentration.

Graham eyes Nosey as he strains again against the handler. You can see the wheels turning in Graham’s head. Why can’t Nosey just sit down already? Why can’t he be nice? Didn’t his mother ever tell him that you get more flies with honey than you do with vinegar? Doesn’t he want to be petted? ‘Cause Graham wants to be petted. Very much.

His tail swishes back and forth, back and forth.

He waits.

You wait.

*

“Nosey had a lot of problems. Like, he would act aggressively towards other dogs. Not biting aggressively. But aggressive. Growling. Personal space. Very reactive.” Laurie looks at Graham. He waits for her to open the cage door, to come inside, but she can’t. It’s apparent that he doesn’t understand this as he shoves his snout into the wire again and again, his tail swishing back and forth behind him as her fingers graze his nose.

“Nosey jumps up, and gets over aggressive and just….not good with people or dogs. But he was getting better….”

Laurie loves Graham, and Graham loves her. I can tell.

*

Nosey’s bark is booming, and echoes over the sounds and excitement of the Expo Center. You watch and you see the moment when Graham can’t take it anymore. He’s still sitting, his tail is still going back and forth, but he lets out one single bark.

As you watch, Nosey turns and hauls his handler right back over to Graham. Nosey is barking. Graham barks again and turns his head to the side as Nosey comes too close, a clear cut off to Nosey that he should stop. Nosey doesn’t listen. Graham’s ears press so low to his head that the blush inside is no longer visible; he’s mad; he doesn’t understand Nosey, and he wants no part of him. This is as plain to you as day. You wonder why the handler doesn’t see it.

Nosey barks. Repeatedly.

Graham barks.

And suddenly Nosey latches on to Graham and they are rolling back and forth on the floor of the expo center. They are latched on each other, growling and snapping and biting. The sound of jaws snapping and spittle flying fills the air. You can see that Nosey has Graham by the neck and that he has absolutely no intention of letting him go. You are frozen, but other people are scrambling. What to do, what to do? When a pitbull locks its jaw, it doesn’t let go until it wants to let go. There is nothing TO do. The handler sticks his hand right in between the dogs. You want to smack your forehead with your hand; you know to never stick your hand in the middle of two fighting dogs. It’s all completely asinine. Everything freezes.

*

“Tim, in his infinite wisdom, decided to stick his hand in between the dogs to try and break them up. What kind of moron sticks their hand in between two fighting dogs?”

I would really like to know the answer to that question, but I say nothing.

Graham’s tail swishes back and forth as I reach out and pet his nose, even though I’m not supposed to either. It seems that he would like to know the answer to this question too.

*

Unfreeze. The handler is missing his thumb. From the tip to the first knuckle. It’s just….gone. You watch in horror as the blood seems to go everywhere. The dogs are separated. Nosey is in a cage, Graham is in a cage. How did they get there?

Panic.

The handler is bleeding.

God. That’s a lot of blood.

Graham’s tail swishes back and forth, back and forth, but it’s different now. His head is down; his eyes aren’t looking out. He didn’t do anything wrong, but he’s afraid. You can see he wants reassurance. He wants someone to pet him. To love him.

Nobody but you is paying him any attention.

The handler screams, over and over. He’s sitting on the floor, holding his hand. People are swarming everywhere like bees on a hive. Someone wraps his hand in a towel.

God. That’s a lot of blood.

*

Laurie is an excellent storyteller. I shake my head, trying to clear the images out of my mind.

“When a dog bites someone, it gets placed in this sort of quarantine.” Laurie trails her hand along the big red sign that hangs from the cage, the sign that states the bite quarantine restrictions. She still doesn’t seem to really see it. “It gets a permanent black mark on its doggy record. Now it’s an animal that bites. Nosey had bit before, but Graham had never bit anyone. He was so sweet.” 

I am struck by her use of the past tense as I watch her, at a loss again as to what to say. “What happens to them?”

“Well, they could get put down. It depends on whether they have bitten before, how reactive they are in the quarantine area, if there’s any available no-dog homes for them to go to. ‘Cause once they’ve bitten, they can’t really be adopted to a home with other dogs in good conscience. You know what I mean?”

Graham’s tail swishes back and forth as he sits otherwise perfectly still in the middle of the cage. His nose grazes the bars and his head tilts to the side as he studies us, still not understanding why we don’t open the door. I wish that I could explain it to him.

“Graham bit back. So now he has the black mark. They both might end up being put to sleep. And it’s hard to see. It makes me really sad. I hate to think about a good dog being put down just because it got in a bad situation.”

After a moment of silence, she turns to go. Graham stands up, his tail cutting the air as it swishes side to side. I can almost hear his voice: You’re leaving? You didn’t come in! You didn’t play! Come onnnnnn, I wanna play!”

“Thanks for letting me vent.”

As she walks away, I stay for a moment and watch. Graham sinks to the floor of the cage and lies with his head between his two front paws. He desires to be a part of the real world again, but maybe he is beginning to realize that this probably won’t happen for him.

He thinks she doesn’t love him anymore. There’s no way to explain it to him. He didn’t do anything wrong, but he’s probably going to die. And he has no idea why.

I wish it wouldn’t happen, but I accept that it probably will. I wish that I could just let him out, just let him run away. But I can’t.

This is it for him.

Death row.

There is no going back.

His tail stops wagging back and forth.

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Pedro (On Wrestling With Our Ghosts)

As part of the more boring managerial aspect of my job, I commute in to the doggy daycare a few days a week with my laptop to do my staffing work in the presence of fluffy canines and people who don’t really give a crap what I do as long as things get done. I bought a laptop bag solely for this purpose, a sixty dollar messenger bag laptop carrying wonder that rests across my body and tucks under my armpit for safety. As an added bonus, it has a small zipper pocket on the outside of the front panel that’s just the right size for my transit card. I made an offhanded joke to my roommates when we started working out of the daycare that I needed this close-fit messenger bag so my laptop wouldn’t get stolen.

I didn’t actually think it would.

Fast forward less than two months to a Monday on the F train. (It’s always the F train. Don’t ride the F train). I was sitting in my seat and NOT playing on my phone for once, which is unusual for me, when the man came up and stood in front of me. I didn’t look up. I assumed he was looking at the subway map on the wall behind me. He wasn’t. He told me to give him the bag.

*

I have a new dog friend, Pedro. He’s five or so, a pit/lab mix with a secret passion for brightly colored toys that squeak and sticks he can destroy, but also with an intense burning hatred for dogs. He doesn’t just bark when dogs pass—he squats and lunges, jumps up in the air and spins around as if the passing dog means the end of the world as he knows it. When we pass a place where he saw a dog before, he reacts as if the dog is still there, reacts to the ghost of the dog.

Do dogs get PTSD? Certainly seems that way. I wish I could reach back into the past and see what he’s seen, be where he’s been. I wish I could bend down and tell him that I have PTSD too and that it’s cool because we can figure it out together. But I can’t, because those words aren’t words that a dog would understand. I don’t even understand myself the way my brain works, the way a single stupid moment can take me back to another stupid moment and another and another until they all blend together.

I lead Pedro away from his ghosts.

*

Give me the bag.

I hold on to words more than I hold on to anything else. But I also hold on to places, actions. My brain works in such a way that a thing happens and I latch on to the smallest of details. It’s not a thing I’m proud of. It’s an unpleasant aftereffect of being assaulted, of being abused, of life. Once a thing is marked for me, I don’t do it anymore. Headphones. Seatbelts. Shopping carts. Brooms. Knives. A purple stain in fabric. Backseats. The smell of garlic. The words I love you.

I love you.

iloveyougivemethebagiloveyouifyoutellanyoneillkillyou

newcarsmellandtheseatbeltinmybackandthesmellofgarlicandthepurplestainontheseatasidiginmyfingersandihateyouandfuckyouandgivemethebaggivemethebag

Give me the bag.

*

I am good at what I do because I see the inside of the dog’s brain inside my head, because I feel the pain that they feel from their pasts even when I don’t know what those pasts are. Pedro didn’t really care about me at first. He had a lot of dog sad—he was rescued four years ago by the great organization that I volunteer for. Sick, confused, and scared, his skin was mottled with malnutrition and scars from whatever had happened to him before his rescue. His diet and nutrition were easily fixed, but his spirits weren’t. Then, somehow, a special woman came along and adopted him. Three years later, she got very sick and he was returned to the organization. And now here we were, Pedro and I. Me in the hallway of the cat shelter where he has to live because even the sight of another dog sends him into hysterics, him inside the closet where he lives now because he has no home. Eye to eye. He challenged me to understand him before laying back in his bed in defeat. You don’t understand my sad, he told me. No one does.

I laid down on the floor of the cat shelter where everything smelled deeply of cats. I waited for him to come back out, to circle me and sniff me and get all up in my business. I waited there, completely still, until he laid down next to me and shoved his face into my armpit. You might understand, he said, so you can pet me. And I did.

*

My entire life is on my laptop. This is not to say I don’t back it up. Of course I back it up. But that’s beside the point. My left hand tightened on the strap; my right hand crawled its way into my pocket. There is no electronic device in the world worth dying for, but my laptop is the closest I’d come to it. His hand grazed my chest as he latched on to the strap; I sprayed him in the face with my pepper spray. I got lucky. He ran away crying like a starving baby and I was pretty damn proud of my accomplishment.

I’ve already forgotten what he looked like, which is unusual for me. This happened three days ago, and I didn’t write it down, so he’s gone. He was white, dirty. That’s all I know. And it doesn’t matter, because he’s just a small insignificant thing in the grand scheme of my life and I’m already past it. But I won’t sit in that spot on the train again. I will stay away from the doors.

*

Week two with Pedro, I had some extra time and took him to the small backyard of the cat shelter a volunteer had cleaned up for him. I sat on the porch and he sat at the foot of a tree on the end of his ten foot leash, staring off into the distance. On a hunch, I bent over and picked up a stick tapping it on the porch. “Hey, Pedro.” Tap tap. His ears flickered. “Wanna play?” He turned around slightly, his big head resting on his shoulder as he eyed the stick and hesitated for just that one moment. And then he pounced like a cat. I threw the stick across the yard and he brought it back again and again and again. I was instantly good people in the eyes of Pedro. I didn’t get it, or him, totally, but I was trying and he liked that. Connecting to Pedro is about finding the sparks that aren’t ghosts, about not wrestling because he’s not there yet. Connecting to Pedro is about being with him. 

I went to see him yesterday, and he ran out to greet me with a happy wagging tail. I came back for him; I hadn’t forgotten him. I won’t.

I think I found my calling. Maybe I screw it up sometimes, though I think everyone screws up at some point, but I know that these are the dogs I want to work with. I want to rescue. And, just as importantly, I want to tell their stories.

(If any of you lovelies are interested in sponsoring, fostering, or adopting my special friend Pedro, here’s a link to his information: http://www.mightymutts.org/pedro.html . You can also follow his quest to find his forever home on Instagram: @findpedroahome).

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Rosey (On Being Better)

The first time I met Rosey, I almost didn’t meet Rosey. I had been warned that she was having health issues, so I assumed the worst when no dog met me at the door. She was recovering from cancer. Had she died? I wandered room to room through the new to me apartment, calling her name. No response. So I called our office:
“Rosey isn’t here.”
“What do you mean not there?”
I poked my head into the last room. “Not here, not here. Nowhere in sight.” I heard a quiet woof then, shortly followed by a big golden retriever with a white face shimmying out from under the bed. “Aaaaaand never mind,” I added, saying my goodbyes and hanging up.
I stretched my hand out, and Rosey came to sniff it, tail wagging. After some getting to know each other routine, we went into the kitchen and I got a few milkbones for our walk. She promptly stole them from my hand before I could even consider slipping them into my pocket. They were, after all, hers. We set out into the winter March air, crossing the street to Washington Square Park for a good sniff fest of the grass. Rosey was slow. Any other dog would have lapped the park at least twice. Rosey only made it a quarter of the way before we had to turn around. I didn’t mind though. It was relaxing, and she was such a presence that she truly deserved my time.

Rosey taught me a lot about recovery. I don’t think I realized how stagnant I was in my life  and moving on in my identity as a survivor until I walked Rosey at the same time every day, seven days a week; I got to watch her recover and grow. Things were hard for me for a long time. Harder than I let people know. I imagined it was the same for Rosey, that she didn’t want to show people pain and instead gave all the best pieces of herself. Rape survivors are four times more likely to attempt suicide than people who have not been the victims of crime. I’m not that person. I like being alive. I’m the sort of person who needed things to do. All the things. When I sat still, when I did nothing, the largeness of all the things would overtake me. Like Rosey, I took steps. One, two. Three. Always forward. I had to find ways to connect and people to connect to. It was most important to just let myself live.

Rosey got stronger every day. It almost seemed like she was a puppy again. We met another dog in the park, a little black and gray French bulldog named Charlie. Normally Rosey wouldn’t have gone for that sort of thing, but on that particular day she wagged her tail and solicited attention from the much younger pup. They were a blaze of fur, Rosey’s golden locks tumbling around Charlie as he tried to jump up and grab her head sumo wrestler style. A few weeks later, we were stopped by a blogger who interviewed Rosey for his site. She gave him what for, barking until he gave her a milkbone. Milkbones were like doggy crack to Rosey; they were the only treat she could eat. Ever since her cancer, too much protein made her sick. But Rosey made do. Milkbones were her favorite. She learned quickly how to be okay with, and even take advantage of, her experiences.

I think that being okay is relative. I think that we have to work to attain that status. We have to push ourselves. Someone I will always respect from the bottom of my heart once told me, “I think that only you can decide what will help you. No one else can say that for you. It is, like everything else in your life, your choice.” I had to choose to be better than what my attacker made me. I had to choose to move forward, to embrace life, to embrace my gifts and use them. For me, that meant learning how to tell my story and tell it well. Better.

The last time I walked Rosey as her primary walker, she greeted me at the door with a red and white dish towel in her mouth, the whites and grays of her formerly golden face painting her snout into a perpetual smile. Her tail swung back and forth frenetically as she waited for me to try and take her gift; when my hand closed around the fabric, she gave it to me without a fight. I was careful to keep my dislike of dog drool all over my hand off of my face so I didn’t hurt her feelings. “Thank you, Princess,” I told her. I grabbed her harness from the table next to the piano and draped the main part around her neck. Rosey gave me her left paw without being asked so I could fasten the other section of the harness around her middle. She dragged me to the front door practically the second the harness was fastened, prancing from paw to paw and woofing at me the entire way. The entire elevator ride she could barely contain herself; when we arrived on the ground from the 17th floor, she exploded from the elevator and hauled me out of the lobby and across the street to the park–a fireball of energy. A different dog from the one I had first met that walked so slowly I would never jaywalk for fear of us getting killed.

This morning I received an email that today was Rosey’s last day, that she would be crossing the Rainbow Bridge. I was offered the opportunity, as were all of her walkers, to say goodbye. So I did. I sat on the floor in the hallway with her and her dad and spoke to her and whisper sang her favorite song from Shrek. She was completely paralyzed; it was time. Rosey knew I was there with her though, at the end. Her eyes rolled back to meet mine, and I could tell she was happy we were letting go. She had a good life. I know she’d want me to remember the good and not the bad. Rosey was better than her bad experiences, than the cancer that took her after seventeen years. And I know, from getting to be with her for even a small piece of her seventeen years, that I am better too.

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When Sometimes We Fail

My grandma bred in me a spirit of giving; volunteering is a thing I have always done and like to think I will always do. Over the last year, I’ve become pretty well versed in the land of dog via my job and my volunteer time. The volunteer dogs were supposed to be the fun ones–using the knowledge I’d learned on redirection and body language and the intricate way in which dogs think was going to be the new way that I gave back. I had training skills, I told myself. Why not use them? My friend and coworker S found this great organization, and we decided to do just that.

Enter G, a great big lovable smart goofball of a pitbull mix with a food motivated heart of gold and a tendency toward mischievous naughty acts. No one else can handle him, I was told. He was just for me. We clicked instantly. After all, I came with a pouch of treats and two hands to give plentiful pets. We were a match made in heaven. I became G’s personal vending machine.

G, I was told, got bored at adoption drives. He had an incident where he lunged at a passerby, and after that he wasn’t allowed to come out for almost a year. Having never seen the foster farm where he lived, I pictured the worst. I decided that I would be the one to fix him, and I set to work during adoption drives teaching him skills like sit, stay, wait. G and I quickly moved on to more fun commands like paw, crawl, switch, and perch on a stool like a circus animal. He looked utterly ridiculous yet still adorable–an easily 80 pound pitbull standing on a tiny plastic stool, but it was his favorite trick. People loved him, even though he only loved them if they had treats. I loved him. I like to think he loved me too. We had a connection; we understood each other.

It wasn’t until I started writing my thesis that I realized how my love of dog training and my status as a rape survivor went hand in hand. Because I was raped, I have a fear of many things (some weirder than you might expect). Because of the things that happened in the pasts of the dogs I’ve worked with, they are afraid too. The dogs I work with are weird and wonderful and wacky, but for all the fun, they’re hard a lot of the time. T, one of my favorite pitbull mixes, was left alone in her former home for much longer than dogs should be ever left alone; as a result, she was never properly socialized with other dogs and thinks they are the absolute worst. M, a little Boston terrier I walked until recently, was attacked in an elevator and subsequently feared not only the elevator but all other dogs ever. MV, an 80 pound plotthound mix, was not only attacked in the dog park this year, but was also attacked while we were out walking by a homeless man and a shopping cart. She’s afraid of everything now. I like to think that, by training them, I’m helping them. But G was different. He always was for me. I didn’t know where he came from; I didn’t know what he’d seen. I tried the best I could to help him.

Today was a busy Saturday. G seemed super overstimulated when I took him from the van. We got to the drive; he got his lunch. There was a little brown haired boy in a blue coat walking a touch too close, pointing a finger at G. I was instantly leery, because G hated kids. I pulled back on the leash, holding tight, and followed the boy with my eyes as he walked to safety beside his parents. I was so focused on him, I never saw the little girl in the pink coat come up behind me. G was on her and had her on the ground before I even knew what happened. We left the drive and looped the city before coming back to give the family time to leave. G was put on no pets restriction. He was fine until a crowd came. There was so many people that another little girl got just a little too close; G went in for a bite, but I had him on such a short leash that he only got her coat. We left the drive. I was told he would never be allowed back. We looped the neighborhood for a long time, and I pondered what I could have done differently. Rationally, I knew I handled the situation as best I could. I knew that anyone else may not have been as equipped as me; I knew those kids could have been seriously hurt if it wasn’t for my quick thinking. But it didn’t make it easier to know the sad fact that I would never see G again. At the van, he went into his crate, and I watched the door close on him eating vanilla ice cream out of a dirty styrofoam cup.

One year together, countless Saturday’s, enough hours to fully earn my CPDT certification, and I didn’t say goodbye. I didn’t get a chance to.

I feel like I let him down.

When I was raped, the people close to me in life didn’t give up on me. They could have, sure. I was a super bitch for a while there. But it wasn’t because I’m that way by nature. I had been hurt. I lashed out where I could. They didn’t dismiss me. They tried their best to understand. To help me through it. I’m a better person for that, for the strength and the will of the people around me. I’m a strong and wonderful independent woman now. It may seem like a strange correlation, but I work with dogs because I understand them; my experiences have given me this gift that I am only just now beginning to comprehend. Totally different circumstances and species, but I wanted to be for G what people were for me. And I wasn’t that. I stopped coming out as much. I stopped really showing up for him. And, what I think happened, is that G stopped showing up for me.

You can say he’s just a dog. But dogs feel just like people. They hurt just like people. I know he always knew me when those vans doors opened. There was a glimmer, a light, in his eyes the moment he spotted me. Now he won’t know me, and I will no longer know him. That’s hard and feels weird, because I keep telling myself I could have should have done more. He’s just a dog, yes. But he was more than that to me. All of the dogs I work with are. My heart still believes I could fix him. My mind isn’t sure that’s true.

I’m standing on a C train platform right now, waiting for the next train, and when I shove my hand into my pocket it comes out coated in crumbs from G’s treats. I’ll have to give these to another dog, and that’s weird too. I bought the bulk bag–I thought I’d see him next week. I won’t. I know what it’s like to be rejected. I didn’t want to be that person, but I have to be. I was supposed to be this great handler, the best of the best, but there’s this one dog I couldn’t help. One dog that I failed.

A lot of dogs I didn’t.

I smile a little as I finger the treats, even though I’m crying, again (ridiculous, over a dog), and I realize that rather than a failing, I should try to think of my experience with G as an opportunity to learn how to be better. Right now it hurts and it’s sad, and I feel at fault. But I’m not, not really, and I know that. Whether I believe it or not, I need to tell myself this is a learning in order to feel better. I won’t fail next time if I learn from this.

So until I’m allowed to visit you, or until you miraculously get adopted, here’s to everything I learned from you, G. May you have all the ice cream and the hot dogs and the meatballs that you could ever want, and may your dreams be filled with Biljacs chicken and liver treats.

Goodbye.

 

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