My Friday began at 4:47 a.m. when my sciatic nerve woke me up. I didn’t even know where my sciatic was until 8 days ago. Now we are very well acquainted. Frenemies even. There was no more sleeping after I woke up this morning because there was no sleep position in which my sciatic wasn’t a major player. I got up and went to the gym. Before 8 a.m. I had exercised, washed and vacuumed my car, walked the dog, yelled at a couple of sleeping kids, and showered. At 9 I had breakfast with a friend that included a 2 hour conversation that was better than cheese grits. From 12-3, I did my errands and chores. At 3:30, I pulled back into my driveway as Andrew’s birth mother called my cellphone. I took the call and knew it had something to do with a plan in the works for tomorrow. Plans were made, but in the meantime, we actually talked about stuff. For 10 minutes. And it felt like a thing I needed to notice and treasure. With that in my head, I ran in and typed a strongly worded letter that’s been on the list for a week. The words weren’t that strong. Nothing will come of it. But I checked it off the list. Sometimes that’s all that really matters to me. I picked Jenna up from school at 4:20 (I know. It’s a ridiculously late end time for a school. Don’t get me started.) Once back at home, I ordered some food for the kids and Brady picked it up for me so that I could get ready to go to dinner with Todd and friends. The dinner was as good as my breakfast had been. So many of my local people in one room, laughing and telling stories with plates of food in front of us. During my dinner, Brady and Lucy texted that they were going together to Lucy’s friend’s house to carve a pumpkin. Three people, one pumpkin. In the shape of a rat. Two hours later, while they were still doing that, I returned home, grabbed Jenna, and took her to Wendy’s because she hadn’t eaten dinner. The rest of the evening was baking. I made 3 desserts with Jenna while Hamilton music played in the family room. One of those desserts was requested by Andrew, who ran through the kitchen several times with a headset over his ears. He was delighted to see people preparing food and to get in on the action. Brady and Lucy returned home and wanted to discuss the rat pumpkin and eat whatever I didn’t slap their hands away from. At points, my entire family was in one room with music going and the dog asleep on the couch.
It felt like something out of a dream. A superlative day. A Day in which almost everything felt exactly right. The Day Most Likely to Succeed. The Day I Will Remember as I am helping with college applications for a boy who carved a rat silhouette into a pumpkin with his younger sister and her friend. The Day Where I talked comfortably to the Woman who gifted me her son 20 years ago, about that son and about her own family. The Day I spent talking to friends about Heavy Things and Light Things. The Day Two Very Drunk Golfers tried to pick up my Friend at Dinner and we almost had to Rough Them Up. The Day I stayed up 21 hours without needing a rest. The Day I ended by baking. With my children. The Day I discovered there’s a Happy Days Channel on a free streaming service called Pluto.TV. (Sorry, kids. Mom doesn’t do laundry anymore. Happy Days is on.) A Day where there was Magic in the Mundane Minutia of an ordinary, unscheduled Friday in October.
It was a superlative day. And it felt like something out of a really good dream. But I know it wasn’t a dream. Cuz it’s been a long time since I slept.
I used to say that Fall was my favorite season. In truth, perhaps it is. But the older I get, the more I believe it is the change of the season that I appreciate, as much as the season itself. I have heard myself say this about all of the seasons. Summer brings long days and thunderstorms. More time with family or travel or sleep. Winter brings holidays and, for those of us who are heavy sweaters, less sweating. Spring brings new life. Baby ducks and gator sightings and a world that springs to life inside the bloom on the end of a stem.
But Fall. Fall is special. It represents surviving the heat. And the first of the school year. It ushers in long sleeve fashions and pumpkins and costumes made for tiny people. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. High school football. COLLEGE FOOTBALL. All the football. All of it. I can smell the hint of a backyard firepit when I walk the dog in the late afternoon shadows that reach longer in the shifting light. The days are shorter and people huddle on their couches together instead of finding things to do outside. The stale air of August becomes crisp and friendly, like a side hug from a friend in stead of a backslap from a linebacker.
Every season has a soundtrack. Summer’s is thunder and squealing children. In Spring it is the call of every bird I didn’t know existed. In Winter it is Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby. And in Fall, the soundtrack is the absence of sound. There is a hush I never noticed before. Why have I never noticed the quiet? I can hear it from my porch. I can hear it inside my house. With the dying cadence of the cicadas comes the quiet I can’t ignore. And wouldn’t want to.
Maybe you have to be 50 to hear it. Maybe you just have to be listening. Either way, I’m in.
a forceful quiet
September carries in a dry swirl of waning light and forceful quiet
Overnight the air has shaken off summer and wears a different cloak, deep gold, like liquid butter that drips through cypress branches and lounges reflected in a river that holds its breath. Afternoon shadows yawn and stretch across the lawn as the hush leans in. A forceful quiet that I can hear from any place if I am listening.
As the kids have become teenagers, it has become easier to get out of the house for an evening. Our instructions are no longer rambling missives to the babysitter with phone numbers for poison control. Our instructions now are called over our shoulders to anyone downstairs within earshot.
Saturday night, that wasn’t quite enough. There was a clog in the communication that started with a drywall guy.
Starting Friday, we stepped knee-deep into the project of converting the upstairs, walk-in attic into a livable, climate-controlled bedroom. Our girls have always shared a room. Until a year ago, they always wanted to. When they decided they no longer wanted to share, they really decided it. Like, really. And we’re not easy to convince on making big, sweeping changes. We tried to ride this one out. But it became clear that it was time to give each of them their own space and the only way to do that was with some construction.
By the end of Saturday, all of the framing was done before we left for dinner. We had made a 6:45 reservation to celebrate our anniversary at the Melting Pot. We ordered pizza for the rapscallions remaining behind. And we called out some last minute advice over our shoulder as we left. Be safe, we shouted to the one going out on the town. Don’t burn the house down, we called out to the others.
We should have been more specific
I was relaxed and happy on the way to the restaurant. We talked about garage sale fiascos that spanned the entire decade of 2000-2010 before Todd finally put his foot down and said he’d rather set himself on fire than ever host another garage sale. When we finally got seated in our private booth, I was feeling a little cocky. It was going almost too well.
But there were some apron strings still tied to home. And the texts started coming in.
The first text came in before we were even seated. It was innocent enough. The youngest texted me to ask Todd if it was okay to use the power in the attic. Could she run a load of laundry? Our attic, while being mostly converted into her new bedroom, is also the laundry room.
Sure, I said. It’s all fine.
The next text I received came in while the server was explaining the courses and describing our menu options. It seemed like pertinent information for the rest of my meal, so I had set my phone aside. I didn’t see that it was blowing up with a second series of texts. This second batch came in from our older daughter, who was relaxing in the living room on the first floor. It said something to the effect of, “I’m just going to ignore the fact that it sounds like it is raining from the upstairs into the living room.”
Her text about ignoring this obvious disturbance was immediately followed by a much more urgent text that read simply, “OHHHHHHHHH NOOOOOOOOOO.”
I hadn’t seen either text when the phone I had set aside began buzzing at my hip. I flipped it over to see who was calling and it was Lucy. I was fairly certain that she wouldn’t call about nothing. As I was deciding what to do about answering, I saw her unread “OHHHHHHH NOOOOOOOO” text on my lock screen and eliminated the “should I answer’ question.
She began with, “I don’t want to ruin your anniversary, but….”
And so it began.
The drywall guys hadn’t hooked the drain hose back up to the washer when they left for the day. Apparently they told us not to use it. They said so in Spanish. While we speak enough Spanish to ask for a bathroom and announce that the burrito is hot, we don’t know what “Don’t use the washer tonight” sounds like. So, you know. She used the washer.
And at the end of the wash cycle, instead of all that dirty, soapy water draining where washers drain, it projectile shot out into a half-constructed attic bedroom, soaked into the floor, and down into the ceiling of the living room below.
The next 30 minutes were a blur of tactical information. Where the shop vac was located and how to use it. Go get your brother. Make sure you empty the shop vac if it fills all the way up. Line up buckets under the ceiling leaks in the living room. Your typical this and that.
Meanwhile, the poor server thought we must be on the brink of calling it quits after 28 years together. She couldn’t get a word in. And there was never a “ha ha, house is flooding, sorry about the phone calls” moment in our chit chat. So she had to dance around a crisis she knew nothing about and we had to let that go.
After the crisis came the apologies. We’re sorry we did laundry. How much is fixing this going to cost? Is your dinner ruined?How’s Dad? We paid our bill after I did some fairly significant damage to the dessert plates and the chocolate fondue and headed home.
On the way home, I could tell Todd was focused on what we would walk in on. They had done a pretty good job–and when I say they, I mean Jenna–but we knew there was a totally separate clean-up phase waiting for the adults with adult skills.
But really. What did I expect?
About halfway home, I looked at Todd and said, “I wonder what we would have talked about tonight if the washer hadn’t overflowed into the attic and down into the living room?”
This has not been my best week. About 75% of that was my own fault and within my own control. The other 25% just was. I tried to slog through it looking as normal (for me) as was possible.
Sunday is Mother’s Day. If this is a surprise to you and your mom is within reach, you still have tomorrow to scrounge something up. I would not have considered this to be a triggering day, but this year it has been. It has as much to do with the ages of my children and the state of the world as it does with the fact that my own mother has been gone for 3 years now.
The real problem this week is not what’s going on around me. It’s that I went into it unprepared. There are a lot of quick moving storms that go just fine in a 14′ skiff. But if you try to ride one out on the upside of a sheet of cardboard, you’ll have a different experience.
The last few weeks I’ve been riding the cardboard. But I’m working on that one and I’m still floating.
It has been impossible not to think about my mother this week as I sift through people’s posts and plans and a few of my own regrets. My mother was gone a long time before she died. She was only a shell of herself toward the end. She still knew who I was. She could still speak to me, but her comments were slow and measured and emotionless. I’ve asked myself many times if I did enough while I could. If I said enough. If she heard what I said and what I didn’t say.
Was it enough? It wasn’t enough for me. But in the end, it had to be and I knew it was okay. I’m sure it could have been better. I’m sure I could have done better. If we’d had more time, I feel certain we would have gotten it right, because we never did stop trying.
But it was okay. We were okay. We were always vastly different people and we both knew that.
There was a time when the very pronounced differences between me and Mom caused us to grit our teeth and do battle. I couldn’t openly confront her like my brother could. I was too chicken and she was too smart and too fiery. So I fought back with passive aggressive behavior like sticking my tongue out when she turned her back or by wearing my cleats and softball pants to my first night of the 10-day etiquette class she forced me to attend.
On a crisp day in February of 1987, I had waltzed through the back door for dinner with my gym bag slung over my shoulder. Before I could pick a spot to drop it and then be told immediately to pick it back up, my mother looked up from her spot in the kitchen and said, “I signed you up for a 2-week etiquette class at Maas Brothers.” Her tone was so casual. So unapologetic. “Come see.”
“Are you joking?” I asked her. My tone certainly informed her tone that there needed to be a very good reason for this announcement.
I don’t know why I even asked her if she was joking. She didn’t joke about things like that. I hopped the three stairs into our kitchen from the family room and looked down at the newspaper clipping she had cut out for me. Teen Etiquette and Fashion Class! Teens and table manners. Fashion and form. Maas Brothers. Monday-Thursday, February 23-March 5. 6-8 p.m.
“Mom!” I looked up in shock. “I have practice! Why did you sign me up for this?”
“You won’t have to miss practice. Just practice, change, and go to the class from the field. You can eat after.” How did my mother not see that this plan was from the actual devil? “You need to learn a little refinement, Missy,” she smiled sweetly and sort of half winked at me. “You can’t spend your life in your softball uniform.” Oh, I think I can, Mom. Pretty sure I can.
Looking back, I wonder if I should’ve argued more. Why did I lead with “I have practice” when the real issue was that this entire concept was 100% detestable? Did she just have a look on her face and a tone in her voice that shut me down? Did I secretly believe she was right and that I needed to learn to walk with 12 place settings of Lenox Charleston on my head? I don’t remember. All I remember is that it was planned and paid for and that I was to report to the 2nd floor of Maas Brothers on Monday, February 23. It was as good as done.
On that Monday, I monitored the time pretty closely, feeling distracted and stressed out during batting practice. When Coach called the end of practice and let us go, I looked at my watch and saw that there wasn’t time for a full outfit change or a shower. I had to sprint to my car and drive above the speed limit to arrive at the Tallahassee Mall on time. At that point, I only had time to pull a clean shirt over my dirty one. I stepped out into the parking lot and looked down at myself. From my neck down, not one thing matched. I had a clean red polo pulled over a dirty practice t-shirt. My pants were smeared in the orange clay of an unnecessary slide into 2nd base. I hadn’t worn my stirrups over my unmatched socks. And my cleats were cleats. I had arrived at my first “refinement class” wearing a golf shirt, baseball pants, and cleats. My mother had made me show up there that day, but that round went to me.
I trotted across a mostly empty parking lot, listening to the cadence of my cleats against the pavement, and noticed a smell like Listerine in the air. I had no idea what to attribute it to. Maybe that was what etiquette smelled like. Once inside Maas Brothers. I walked the short straight path through some lingerie and perfumes to the escalator and spent the entire ride up trying to free my right shoe from the grooves where I had wedged it when I hopped on with too much umph. This was going to be a disaster.
The closer I got to the second floor, the more aware I became that I was about to walk into a class wearing the worst outfit any of them would ever have seen. I didn’t have much time to twist in my worries, though, because as I stepped off the escalator, I could see a group of teenage girls sitting in chairs in a circle, right out in the middle of the store. There was nothing to do but join them. Only one chair was empty, between two strangers, and I plopped down in it and tried to tuck my shoes under the chair. When I got up the nerve to look around the group and make eye contact, I saw the smiling green eyes of my middle school best friend, Meredith. She waved subtly from her waist, because she knew how not to draw attention to herself. Ah, Meredith. Nothing in that moment, besides being sent home immediately with $100, could have made me happier. I had a friend in this miserable class.
When we had a moment to chat, she laughed and looked me over quickly.
“You came straight from softball practice, I hope?”
“Yeah,” I chuckled. “I won’t be doing this again.”
I didn’t, either. I showed up each night to learn from Judy Turman, a graceful woman who looked like porcelain and moved like a fluid. She was tall and thin and well put together. From her, I learned to cross my feet at the ankles and tuck them under my chair at an angle. I learned what would happen to my legs over the course of a lifetime if I continued along the desperately misguided path of crossing my legs at the knees. I learned how to sit. How to stand. How to wave. How to smile. How to properly set a table. Which forks to use for which foods. And how to dress. I learned that Meredith was still my friend, though we were now at different schools, and that I would always, always be more comfortable in cleats than in heels.
On the second day of the second week of class, we began to hash out details of the course’s grand finale: a fashion show complete with a runway and the music and outfit of our choosing. Parents, friends, and any casual bystanders with nothing better to do were invited to witness the fruits of Judy’s labor, which would comprise the entire session on the final night of the class. She met with each of us to choose songs and to discuss our taste in clothing. It was obvious to Judy, from only a few days of teaching us, who should wear what. Judy knew a girl that came straight from softball every day was never going to wear wedges or power suits. She dressed me up in 1987 overalls and slipped some red flats on my feet. As much as I did not want any part of the class or the event, I remember feeling like I had won the outfit lottery. To be flat on my feet and wrapped in denim was my fashion show best case scenario.
When Thursday night regrettably arrived, I found myself standing in a clump of girls, outmatched and uncomfortable, waiting for my cue to walk. When I heard the words, “Hi there,” I stepped out onto the runway and strutted my white denim stuff to Peter Gabriel’s Big Time. I hated it. Every second. All of my empty spaces were filled with knots and nausea. When I was done and sweating through 1987 behind the stage, I scanned the audience for my family and caught my mother’s eye. What was the expression in her eyes? Was it joy? Was it an apology? Was it a truce? Was it concession? It was maybe a little of everything. I never asked her for any detail. If either of us had gone into this course with any doubt about who we were, there was no doubt now. She was her. I was me. She was skirts and matching shoes and hose with no runs in them. I was cleats and sneakers and denim and tube socks.
And by the end of that final night, I had a certificate in my hand that essentially stated we were agreeing to disagree. For the rest of our lives.
So to my mother, on this Mother’s Day weekend, I raise my shrimp fork, with a plate on my head. There are running shoes on my feet which I can clearly see because my legs are so egregiously crossed at the knees.
Through the years, a lot of my friends have managed to raise kids and hold down jobs at the same time. I don’t understand this extreme and skillful display of multitasking. I have never been able to do it myself. Those of you out there with this skill, I applaud you.
Lately, I can’t even live life and then blog about it. I’m just living. But that part is going pretty well.
I’ve been asked a lot about whether I have been Covid vaccinated. I haven’t. I plan to in the summer. I have also been thinking about Mother’s Day, which is next weekend. And in clicking around my blog, I found a little something that managed to ensconce motherhood, vaccinations, and my inability to multitask.
This particular day is probably the worst one I ever carried out as a mom. I can’t believe there wasn’t a social worker waiting in my driveway to take my children when I got home from the store.
They don’t remember this. I will never forget.
———————————————————–10 years ago….
Our fourth kid is a robust little sisterwoman. She’s chubby and tough and she doesn’t get sick. If she has ever been on an antibiotic, it’s only been one. And I’m not sure she’s ever had one at all. The others haven’t fared so well, so many of Jenna’s trips to the doctor have been as a spectator for some other very grotesque ailment. And then there was this whole “doctors charge too much” tirade I went off on, and I up and switched doctors, and charts were moving around faster than a suitcase trying to catch up to a frequent flier. And in all of the swirling chaos, I guess I just forgot about the whole “check ups” thing. I was checking her at home. She was fine.
But then one day quite recently, it seemed like maybe it was time to get her established with the pediatrician and figure out where we stood on the vaccinations issue. So I went. I didn’t tell her what we were doing. We just went to meet the doctor. He looked her over, met her, and then said: “Now, about her shots.”
“Oh yes. About that. How many are we behind?” I asked. I didn’t even bother to ask if we were. I knew we were behind. I think I even knew we were woefully behind. But I didn’t know we were devastatingly, woefully behind.
“Let’s see,” he said, referring to her chart. His eyes were down and his lips were moving. His head bobbed as he counted under his breath. One, two, three, four, five…..six, seven, eight….nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen…fourteen.” He said. His voice seemed unnaturally high and glib and he paused for just a fraction of a second to let that final number have some hang time before he said, “We’ll need to split that up over 5 visits.” Oh good. She’s going to love me for this, I thought. As if the doctor really needed to continue, he added one final note, “What I find funny about all of this is that you are pro vaccination!” Ha ha ha ha ha. I know! Isn’t that a gem? Welcome to my world, doctor. It’s crazy in here. I did manage to show shock, because it was a staggering number he’d proposed, “Have I taken her to any of her check ups?” He looked down at the chart again. “Yes, you took her for her 2 month and her 4 month.” Huh. She’s 3. His expression was blank. So was mine. Huh.
So, to add to the fun of that 14-shot diagnosis, on my way out he handed me a stack of papers to do some lead poison testing on the baby. This, I must admit, I have no intention of doing. Though I am pro-vaccination, I am anti-lead-poison-testing. That just reeks of doctor-insurance scam. Perhaps this thinking caused me to subconsciously place the stack of papers up against my windshield as I strapped the girls in the car. I’m not really sure about that. But the effect was clear. I pulled out into 56th street and 130,000 papers went flying into the Tampa sky like confetti in front of a fan. Well, pooh. That’s a problem. I had to pull into the median, and while my ridiculously bewildered girls watched, I darted into traffic, between spurts of passing cars, and collected the lead poison testing papers. Really. Does it get better? Yes, it does.
We were in a super big hurry that day, because it was a half day at school and because that’s just how these things seem to go. Before we could pick up the boys, we had to pick up a pie crust at the grocery store. We only needed this one thing. And in case you don’t see it coming yet: Super big hurry + quick stop = spontaneous catastrophic event. I am still so dumb in matters of daily living that I did not see this one coming. We threw Jenna into a cart, because she really cannot be trusted anywhere. Ever. And Lucy, who’s 4, was on foot. And as I was staring at the wall of Pillsbury products, Lucy began to cough. A lot.
“Are you okay?” I asked. “Yes, Mommy. I’m fine.” She replied, without hesitation. OK, good. That’s good. My eyes went back to shopping mode. The coughing started again, this time with some disturbing cadences thrown in. “Seriously,” I said. “Are you okay? Are you going to throw up?” I asked, growing more alarmed. “No, I’m not going to throw up. I’m okay.” OK. If you say so. But oh man. That cough. And those cadences. And there it came. Up came the Frosty I had bought her at Wendy’s just 20 minutes before. This all came as a complete shock to me, because…well, because I’ve chosen to block out all the other public vomits and catastrophic grocery visits that have occurred in the last 6 years. There’s no way this should have shocked me. I was just in denial. But as it was, I had NOTHING with me to use for catching a second-hand Frosty or cleaning up the after effects of the Frosty. So I did the only thing I could think of at the time: I grabbed the bottom of her t-shirt and used it as a bucket.
It kept coming. I kept holding that shirt. Patrons were walking around us, bug-eyed. What do you do in this situation? Totally pretend it isn’t happening? Make eye-contact and start offering giggly “it’s not viral” explanations? I couldn’t worry too much about all of that, because the Frosty was STILL coming up. And though I hate to say it, we were out of shirt.
In the intense pandemonium of the moment, I rolled up the nasty shirt, lifted it over her head and now she was shirtless and throwing up on the floor. Oh man. My head darted around like an owl until I saw a couple of employees chatting in the warehouse, behind double doors. I ran about 10 feet, banged on those doors, made some quick “we’re vomiting. it’s not viral” conversation and begged for a bucket or a mop or something. Anything. The lady came rushing back out with a mop and some paper towels and leaned down to start cleaning it up. Oh, no, ma’am. I’ll do that, I offered. I don’t want anyone else to have to do this. So I mopped up the floor, pulled Healthy Child out of the cart, put Shirtless Child into the cart, grabbed a silly pie crust and went running for the check out. On the way, I threw that shirt into a trash can. We had to stop in the bathroom to clean off her shoes. Twice she stood up in the cart…with no shirt on. “Sit down,” I whispered, mortified. “You have no shirt.”
As we checked out, I internally weighed the pros and cons of addressing the obvious fact that she was shirtless. Do you tell the cashier, ‘Oh yes, she’s shirtless because of all the vomit,’ or do you just let it sit there, unexplained, like it’s somehow what you meant to do that day? I went with ‘say nothing, make no eye contact.’ When in doubt, skulk. She does have a nice tan. I’ll say that for her.
So. When one silly pie crust can cause this much commotion, do you see why we are 14 shots behind? I think it makes perfect sense.
Ten years ago, I became friends with a dog on Facebook. I wouldn’t have thought about this again, except that a few days ago, a different dog friendship got the better of me.
And that got me to thinking.
Dogs are owned by no one. They are the true masters.
But back to my Facebook Friend Dog. Late one night in 2011, I noticed a red notification. It was a friend request. From a dog. Lucy Pug, the dog of my best friend in my childhood neighborhood, was there in my box requesting me as a friend on Facebook. I stared at that request for a couple of minutes while my finger wavered on the mouse button. Finally, I selected Confirm. Sure, Lucy Pug. I’ll be your friend. Far be it from me to be the lady who won’t be her friend’s dog’s friend on Facebook. It’s a mouthful, I know. Two minutes later, a message came up. It said simply: Lucy Pug has accepted your friend request.
Wait a second. What? She accepted MY friend request? Apparently I hadn’t been asked to be her friend. Facebook had suggested that I ask her. And I never saw it coming. I requested that a dog become my friend.
I was a sucker that day for all the right reasons.
Last Tuesday, it happened again.
My friend, Erin, has had a dog for 13 years. His name is Cobi and he’s the sweetest, easiest dog most of us have ever known. He was the group mascot. Cobi came to the park when our children were little and we had Tuesday morning play group. Cobi went camping. Cobi caught sticks and frisbees in his mouth like he was training for Cirque du Soleil. Cobi is the dog that helped my frightened, allergic children adjust to dogs. Cobi is a very good boy.
Last weekend, Cobi got sick. Very sick. He’s been getting older and slower for awhile now. We all knew he was nearing the outer fringe of his life expectancy rope. But none of us thought this would be the end. After all, it was Cobi. He just had to get better.
All weekend, leading up to the Super Bowl, Cobi dragged himself around refusing to eat and struggling to contain the food that was already in him. After watching him suffer, Erin took him to the vet on Monday morning. He was running a fever and it seemed like his kidneys were failing. Instead of running more expensive tests and prolonging his suffering, Erin and the vet set an appointment for Thursday morning at 8:30 a.m. for Cobi to go the way of all the earth.
Cobi was being put down. Erin was heartbroken. We all were.
Because there were a few days to work with, Erin set a window of Tuesday afternoon, from 4 p.m. to 8, for anyone to come by that wanted to say goodbye to her sweet dog. She told us she’d be sitting in the yard with him that entire time.
I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to say goodbye to that dog or watch other people say goodbye to him. I didn’t want to face the future of someday saying goodbye to my own dog. I couldn’t even tell my daughters about the appointment without choking up a little.
But Tuesday afternoon at 5 p.m., we climbed on the golf cart and drove a short half mile to say our goodbyes. Erin was sitting in the yard. Cobi was lying beside her in the grass. The late afternoon sun was filtering through the oak trees and laying in patchwork swatches on the grass. Cobi raised his head when we walked up and then forced himself up to greet us. Before it was over, he was smiling in pictures with my girls and catching easy stick throws in his mouth.
He gave us a tiny glimpse into the good old days.
When Erin’s parents showed up with their dog, Cooper, I knew it was time to go. I couldn’t watch that one.
I didn’t actually say goodbye to Cobi or say anything profound to Erin. I just couldn’t do it. He seemed too much like the dog I remembered. I refused to think about Thursday morning.
For the rest of the night, visitors streamed into Cobi’s yard. Cobi’s actual brother came by. All of our local friend group was there at some point during the night.
That was the last time any of the rest of us would see Cobi alive.
The next morning—on Wednesday—we all received a text in the group chat from Erin.
“Yall are gonna think I’m insane, but Cobi had a great night and then woke up this morning and ate his entire bowl of food like he was perfectly normal. I’m going to cancel the appt for tomorrow.. I just can’t go through with it if he’s happy and eating. Which he is.”
Within moments, the celebration texts chimed in. And it was determined that maybe all Cobi needed were more parties where he is the star of the show.
Maybe this was even premeditated. He knew exactly what he was doing.
I’m so grateful to be typing a positive ending to this story. But I gotta be honest. I feel a little played. By a dog. And I’m not falling for that friend request thing again. If Cobi wants to be friends on Facebook, he’s going to have to come to me first.
I jumped into the Hillsborough River on December 28. Shortly thereafter, I celebrated turning 50. Turning 50 was a milestone that had initially bothered me. I can’t explain why 50 bothered me and 40 didn’t. I guess we all draw lines in our heads sometimes. I don’t mind gaining a few pounds, but 10 pounds is unacceptable. I didn’t mind turning 40, but 50 found me at the mailbox opening registrations forms from AARP, complete with a laminated card. It was a tad insulting.
50 comes with strings attached. Strings that seemed to be tied at one end to me and at the other to the coffin I’ll someday be placed in.
Not really. I’m being cremated.
I don’t really mean it like it sounds. I don’t look at other 50somethings, or even people older than that, and plan their memorials in my mind. It was just the harshness of the number, somehow.
But because it was hitting me funny, I had made a list. Fifty things to complete by the time I turned 50. I don’t really know how many of those I completed. There was this thing that happened called the Coronavirus, which took people’s bodies and minds and 50×50 lists and tossed them all into wind. And good luck to all of us in finding them.
I did all I could. And I was satisfied with how I ended the year. It was the first time in my 50 years that I entered into January already eating well and exercising.
But it’s almost February now and 50 is basking in the memories of that cold swim in the river. Time to move on to 51. I’m approaching 51 like I attempted to approach 50. I think I have a much better shot at finishing the list. My 12-year-old daughter climbed up onto my bed with me the other night and was looking over my shoulder at my list, which I was editing on my laptop. I probably should have closed my laptop and started an unrelated conversation with her about whatever she wanted to chat about. But I didn’t know I needed to do that at the time.
My list completely stressed her out. Before she finished reading it, she was in tears. I can assure you that was not my intention. I am deriving nothing but joy from the list. And I derive no joy at all from other people’s tears over the list.
“What’s wrong, Jenna?” I asked, trying to have sympathy without sacrificing any of my list items.
“Why can’t you just be normal?” She asked. “Why can’t you be like other 50 year olds? Why do you have to do things that will kill you?” I looked from her distress to the items on my list. #22 was clean out my email inbox…for the first time ever. It has over 100,000 unread emails from places like Sam’s Club and Neiman Marcus and Americans for the Americanization of American Democracy. Annoying yes. Dangerous, no. #28 was Organize Attic. That one is slightly more dangerous, because of the piles I have accumulated. #32 was Floss Regularly. Get a mammogram. Read all the books in my room before buying new ones. Etc. What’s the problem, man? I kept reading. #35 is Wear stilettos to walk the dog for any entire day. Any time I walk the dog, I wear the heels. Hmm. She found that one awkward. #50 is Hang Glide. #51 is Skydive. I guess I could see her point.
The list will continue, but I’m going to keep it a little more hush-hush around my youngest. And I intend to stay alive through all of it. If I do die this year, I have a strong inkling it won’t be a 51 List item that kills me.
As I go along, I will likely share a few of the adventures. Some will be worth sharing. Some will not. Sharing the mammogram would get me arrested. Sharing an appointment the podiatrist would cost me every friend I have. And sharing some of the items would be too much talking about me.
Item #4 was to take the jon boat across the river, tie up to a tree, and climb out on the other side to explore the woods I have looked at for 25 years. I have always wondered what is over there. When I said this to Jenna, as I wrote up my list, she had a quick answer for me.
“I know what’s over there,” she replied, her voice drenched in a tone of disdain. “Ticks. That’s what’s over there. You’re going to get bitten on the head by a tick and get Lyme Disease.”
Oh Jenna. What fatalistic thinking. I then Googled when ticks are most active and decided I’d check this item off sooner than later, while the weather is cool.
Last week, on Thursday, I tossed my friend, Melissa into the front of the boat and took off toward a spot I had been eyeing for awhile. Melissa is up for almost any adventure as long as she doesn’t have to get too tangled up in it. You won’t have to be involved, I said. You’ll just sit in the boat. That sounded good to me and to her both until I ran off into the overgrowth and left her floating alone on the Hillsborough. She didn’t exactly trust the knot I had tied. While exploring, I received a series of “Are you Alive/What the heck was that sound” texts from her.
I was alive. The sounds were me. I didn’t see any ticks. And I checked that bad boy off the list.
The day before I turned 50, I leaped into the Hillsborough River. Intentionally. Nothing was chasing me except the clock.
I have watched the Hillsborough River snake through my back yard for more than 6 years now. I have always wanted to jump into it. You have to pick your time slots carefully, however, as the river is home to many things that might be considered hazardous to humans. Only twice have I seen water moccasins, but the alligators are a regular occurrence in warm weather. The weather hasn’t been warm lately and the alligators have been sleeping in the woods for several weeks now.
The risk was very low.
As with any stunt I plan, I made sure there was at least one person to pull me out by my hair if needed and one person working the camera. Because, you know–proof. Today I had Jenna working my phone and Brady operating his new drone and Andrew was there to pull me out. Todd was also there, but in general conscientiously objects to things that could end badly or be viewed as a compete waste of time. I’m glad he’s that way, really. We’d all be dead otherwise.
Earlier in the day, when I was planning my jump around his conference calls, he shook his head at me and said, “Do you even have an exit plan? How are you going to get back out of the river?” Well, of course I have an exit plan, I emphasized to him as he walked away from me and went back into the house. I immediately went down to the deck to make an exit plan. I tested the water depth with a pole and dug my water shoes out of a bin in the garage.
When it was finally time to leap, I didn’t have time to pace nervously on the deck for long, as Brady announced that he didn’t have much battery power on the drone. If I wanted the drone to capture it, I needed to jump. So I did. I jumped where I had planned to jump and entered as I had planned to enter. The only thing I had not taken into account was the water temperature. It has been in the 30s at night, even here in Florida, and not climbing out of the 50s some days. It never occurred to me that this would make for some chilly, black river water.
When I was completely submerged, the water hit me like little needles and crawled all over my arms and legs before I even began swimming. By the time I was at the storm wall, to enact my foolproof exit plan, nothing was working. My arms and legs were stiffer than carnival food and I wasn’t getting out of anywhere very gracefully. Andrew walked over to the edge.
“Do you want some help?” He leaned over and extended his hand. I didn’t want help, actually. I wanted to follow through on my little bet with myself.
“No, I gotta do this on my own, man. I’m almost 50. I can do this.”
I kept trying to hoist myself out. Hoisting and flopping. Had they dropped the water level at the levee in the last 30 minutes? What was the deal?
“Do you want some help now?” He asked again, with a tone of voice that sounded a little like an eyeroll.
“No, not yet. I think I got it. I need to do this.” I turned my back to the wall and tried to make my triceps work for me. So frozen. Goodness. I have got to start working on my upper body strength.
I got out. Finally. Without help. I’m thankful the drone was turned off before the exit plan got started good. That might have been awkward on film.
After it was over and the kids had gone inside, I sat out on the back deck and dried out, letting the 73 degree sun drape itself around my shoulders for a while, and reflecting on the past year. When I first decided to do a 50×50 list leading up to my 50th birthday, there was no pandemic. People were hugging. Schools were in session. Restaurants were open. Gyms were packed. I made my list based upon what I knew of the world then.
When the world changed, my world changed too. My perspective shifted. The parameters I needed to work within were different. What had been important to me in February and March of 2020 was bottom of the pile by June. I didn’t care about getting articles published in magazines. I didn’t care about readership. Or money. Or public opinion.
I cared about my family. I cared about my friends. I cared about safety. I cared about forming connections in a community were we needed to be distant. I cared about my health. I cared about growth. And those are the things I got to work on. I don’t know if I got to 50. I wrote some notes–some that I had been putting off for 30 years. I started running again. I lost a few pounds that I am convinced I could find again with 5 minutes alone in a corner with a Cinnabon. And I poured myself into the people that hold me up. People who tell me that jumping into rivers is a little bit stupid, but who hope I survive in spite of it. People who ask me if I have an exit plan. And people who will be extending their hands to me when the exit plan fails.
I’m on the threshold of the half century mark at the end of a year that tried its best to shrivel all our strength and keep us from climbing back out, however ungracefully.
But I’m out. And the sun is shining. And it feels pretty good.
I hate endings. I have always hated them. I hate finishing books and movies. I hate the end of a lovely vacation. I’m not even willing to watch a toxic friendship wither without some grieving on the side. I believe my angst from this is part subtraction and part addition. The joy or satisfaction of the thing that is finished is subtracted from my life, leaving an emptiness. Where there was something, now there is nothing. And the worry or fear of what will happen to the lost thing is my addition. Will it be okay? How will I know what happens if I no longer have access to it?
A therapist could have a field day with me. Because this resistance to change is as deep as the hole I felt when I lost my sweet mother. And it is as shallow as the grave of a dwarf hamster.
I know this firsthand.
Sometime around summer of 2019, my older daughter began to ask for a hamster. I immediately, unequivocally said no. I didn’t leave that door cracked. It was a no. Which turned into a yes when she followed up her request with a powerpoint, written contracts, a song performed on video by her and her younger sister, a ceramic piece painted and fired and given to me as a reminder of her pain, and a Christmas list with nothing else on it.
She wore me down.
On Christmas day, she opened a hamster cage with all the food and accessories a hamster could ever need. The day after that, we drove to the pet store to pick him out. It was to be a boy and his name would be Peter.
There are a lot of stories about Peter and his life as a Snapp. Most of them I’m unwilling to put in writing because they make me feel really bad about myself. But Peter was extraordinary. I mean that. And Peter wasn’t going to have a long life.
During our long summer of going nowhere and doing nothing during lockdown, we began to notice that Peter wasn’t looking or acting quite right. His fur was falling out in places. His hands turned from pink to black. And he started to act a little manic. It wasn’t a good time to lose Peter. Life was sad enough already. So both girls begged me to do something about it.
By the time he was in crisis stage, school was back in session and I was receiving texts between classes and at lunch. What are we going to do about Peter? How’s Peter? Have you called any vets about Peter?
I was faced with the unimaginable. I was faced with the task of calling a vet about a $15 rodent.
I decided in my mind to call the vet we use for our dog. If they could see a hamster, I’d consider it. But I wasn’t going to start calling around town about small and exotic pets.
I dialed my vet’s number.
“Yes, hello,” I started tentatively, with the amount of confidence any person would have in calling about a rodent. Which is none. “This is Buttercup’s mom and I have a strange question to ask you. I have a sick hamster and I’m trying to find a place to take him and figure out if we can afford to treat him.” I was unimpressed with myself when I first dialed the number. I dropped another notch when I said “Buttercup’s mom” aloud. And I dropped all the way down when I asked them to save my hamster.
“We see hamsters,” the receptionist said.
“Oh, you do! Oh great!” Dropped another notch. “Well, I hate to sound heartless, but can you give me a basic price range, because I don’t know how much we want to spend on the hamster.” What is wrong with me?
“The office visit is $60 and then there would be cost on top of that if there’s treatment or meds.”
“OK, we can do that,” I said and proceeded to set an appointment for that afternoon.
And then, by myself, I drove to the vet with a hamster cage on the passenger seat beside me. I went in with a mask. I sat down in a faux leather chair and waited to be seen.
The cage was sitting squarely across my knees and Peter was running on his wheel like a man possessed. I looked at him. I looked at the empty chairs in the waiting room. My friends have jobs. Accountants. Office Managers. Teachers. Speech Pathologists. And I am sitting in a waiting room with a hamster cage on my lap. I gotta make some changes, man.
“We’re ready for you,” the nurse said as she led me back. They put Peter on the scale and weighed him at 20 grams. A healthy dwarf hamster should weigh 50 grams. My mind raced to all the possibilities of illnesses and ailments that could cause a hamster to drop more than half his normal body weight.
The next few minutes were a blur of ridiculous decisions that ended in the diagnosis that Peter had woppy teeth. They were not meeting in the middle like normal rodent teeth. The upper and lower teeth were missing each other and continuing to grow in a curly-q fashion inside his mouth, making it impossible to chew and eat. Basically, Peter’s own teeth were slowly starving him to death. I imagined myself driving from the vet to an orthodontist for small and exotic pets. I pictured Peter in braces. But reality was far less complicated. They would simply trim them, which was like a tiny surgery. It sounded expensive. It actually wasn’t. For $12, the vet trimmed those teeth and said to come back in 6 weeks for a check up.
“What could cause his teeth to grow funny like that?” I asked. I don’t know why I asked.
“Sometimes there’s no way of knowing. It’s just the way they are. Sometimes it’s trauma of some sort…a fall…something like that.”
That’s another story for not another day. I’m sorry, Peter.
The next 4 weeks flew by like a sequel to Mary Poppins. During the day, I hand fed Peter and nursed him back to health. I texted daily updates to the girls, letting them know that Peter had weighed in at 27, 28, 30 grams on the days that I weighed him. We were bringing him back.
At the one month mark of his first tooth trimming, I took him back in—a full two weeks before they told me to. Because by then, Peter and I were very close. Sometimes a mom just knows when her boy’s teeth need a trimming. They did need a trimming, but his weight was better than I had expected. Peter was up to 40 gm. I was feeling downright positive about the direction we were headed.
I wonder now if that wasn’t the problem. I got too confident. I looked away. The 4 weeks after Trimming #2 did not fly by as the first had. The days were busier. Peter was eating on his own more at a table for one. At least I hoped he was. I didn’t have as much time to ensure that he was eating and pooping like the champ he had shown himself to be at his last appointment.
It seemed like he was holding his own. It became fairly obvious when he wasn’t anymore. The old behaviors were back and Peter was struggling. And one day last week, on a day home for eLearning, it was time.
The girls begged me to do something. Do something, Mom. Call the vet again. He’s suffering. We can’t watch him suffer anymore.
So I made another phone call I never pictured myself making and said the words only a crazy person would say, “Do you all put hamsters to sleep?”
Peter was definitely dying. Even though the vet was not going to let all three of us back in the room with Covid restrictions as they are, the girls rode along in the van to the appointment. Lucy cried all the way there. She knew what was coming. Jenna was stoic and silent.
“Keep your phones handy, in case there are decisions to be made,” I instructed as I got out of the car, then mentally reminded myself that we were talking about a hamster. They said their goodbyes. Again.
The scene in the exam room was more grim than it had been the first time I had brought him in. His teeth were a wreck and he was back down to 20 grams. He was just barely still alive.
“We could try one more time and see if he can rally again,” the doctor said.
“We feel like he’s suffering,” I said.
“He is,” the vet agreed.
“I’m not sure we can bring him back from this,” I said.
“I don’t know that you can either,” she replied. I facetimed my daughter and got her to buy in. And then I gave the order to put down Peter the Hamster. They left the room with him and I could feel the burn rising up behind my eyes. I was heartbroken for Lucy and Jenna. I was sad for Peter. And I felt like I had failed. Any person of modest intellect could keep a hamster alive for longer than 10 months. I had not been able to do it.
I shook my thoughts away and tried to keep the hamster tears at bay as the door opened and the doctor returned. Peter was handed to me in a small sealed bag, inside a cardboard box with his name and a heart drawn in Sharpie. I carried the cage and they carried Peter up to the counter where it would cost me $80 to walk out with a dead pet. And as it was all happening, I found myself in a truly astonishing circumstance. I was full-on crying over Peter. Wearing a mask. Trying to talk to the Vet and the nurse and the assistant. Real. Tears.
It all got very awkward.
People don’t put down hamsters after spending a cumulative $207 and 8 weeks of hand feeding. People who do that certainly don’t admit to it in writing.
I hate endings, but here we were, standing at the end. We had to honor Peter’s departure as we had celebrated his arrival. With a foam headstone and 5 participants, we held a service out by the river and said goodbye. For like the third time.
And yeah, that was the end. But it doesn’t end there. And because I’m not the only one that hates endings, today we drove to PetSmart and scoped out our next situation. I’ve never seen so many hamsters. It was like a vending machine full of them.
After much deliberation, we adopted Pablo. He’s very fat and doesn’t seem to like us much. It’s possible that he doesn’t like endings either and feels like his is now in sight. Somehow he knows. We’ll spend as much time and money as it takes to prove to him this isn’t true. For Pablo, it’s just the beginning.
Most of our longest talks were done before you were 10 years old. Now you are 19 and tomorrow you move out. I know we won’t be having a talk then. You are excited, as you should be. You are pulling away and spreading out as you need to. You are growing in all of the ways I hoped you would when we were parked along Davis Road on my bike looking at the way-too-skinny horse and the baby goats. You are not the man I imagined all those years ago. But you are the man you were created to be and I am so proud of you.
You will never know how thankful I am that I was not able to start my family at the time and in the way I first thought I wanted to. If I’d been in control, someone else’s heart would be bursting over you right now. I thank God that it is my heart and that you are mine.
For 19 years our family has been growing into what it is now. For 12 years it has been the 6 of us. We’ve been figuring it out. Slogging through it. Tweaking the problems. Switching the rooms and the roommates. Traveling. Laughing. Changing. Learning. During these years, I have looked around the room many times, into the sea of brown eyes entrusted to me, and thought to myself: Right here, right now, we are magic. But magic grows up. Magic moves forward. And magic goes on to make a new form of itself down the road. Magic changes.
That part hurts me more than a little, I can assure you. For you kids, that magic wasn’t the perfect show. But for me it absolutely was. I could have sat on the front row and watched the exact same show on repeat for the rest of my life.
This afternoon, I was cutting onions and listening to the Rudy soundtrack, neither of which I recommend to moms whose children are moving into a dorm the next day, and I was thinking. You are not even leaving town, which makes my melancholy feel like unjustified whining. Why does this even bother me? Why would I feel emotional about it? I’ll see you. You’re local. Even so, there are a few things that make this feel like a surgical wound.
1. I’ve loved “us” for so long. I’ve loved every stage. I haven’t longed for anything different. Different may be better. Change will likely be joyful. But it will still be the end of our current dynamic. It will still be changing magic. I think it’s okay for me to mourn that for a minute or a year.
2. I will never feel like I did enough. I had 19 years, but still feel it wasn’t enough to prepare you for everything life may hurl at your awesome head of hair.
3. I will miss you. I count on you. I like who you are. No one can replace you. Without you, we are less “us.”
The day you went to Kindergarten, I sat all morning in a chair with a newborn on my lap and cried. It felt like you had walked away from me. It felt like my time with you was so short. 14 years later, I find myself cutting onions and listening to Rudy and thinking the same things all over again.
The universe in 2020 has dealt some harsh blows to a whole lot of people. Some of those may still land hard against me, because Covid continues to hover and the world is shifting and groaning through instability and growth. But what I will most remember is that I was given 6 extra months with you. 6 extra months of magic. The world shut down and the families came home and for just a little longer, I was able to sit on the front row of my favorite show. With you.
My time with you has been very short. But it has been magical like I cannot describe. I am ready for you to walk away now. And I’ll still be standing here when you come back.