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.
When I was a kid, I absolutely devoured the Choose Your Own Adventure books. I loved them because I loved reading. I loved them because the options seemed limitless. And I loved them because I had control over the ending. I read each one multiple times, trying to end it differently each time.
Control is awesome. Options are nice. Sometimes neither is available.
I hadn’t intended to write again this week, but some of the messages I got back from people let me know that I was definitely not the only person stuck under the HowMuchLonger rock. Evidently, there’s a contingency of people that are hitting the same wall at the same time.
I was thinking about that this morning. Thinking about my LONG HAUL acronym and thinking how nice it was to sit down and write yesterday. Writing is my thing. It’s how I choose to create. And I’ve about decided that creating is the key to surviving all this bedlam.
To create is to bring something into existence. In a world where things are closed, cancelled, and restricted and where content has dwindled away, what could be better than bringing a new creation into that? I write, so I’m going to write every day. Every day, I’m going to look at that day as new content. As a new story to be told in maybe a slightly new way.
We are all masters over something. We are all creators of something. Some people cook. They get creative with spices or ingredients or how food is arranged on a plate. Some people take awesome or interesting photos. Some people do interior design. Some people paint. My daughters have taken to painting coasters. Bring your drinks over. We have so many coasters.
Some people think they are not creators because they are left brained. Into numbers. Good at organizing. I could guarantee that even those people (though I do not understand them) are also creators. They are the ones making cool looking flashcards for their kids with multiplication facts. Making their silverware drawers look like they are ready for battle.
If you are stuck under the same rock I was, maybe the answer is simply to create. Every day, create something new and put it into the Coronaverse. Make a flashcard. Bake a casserole. Rearrange a room. Redesign the bedroom of some hoarders that live in your house. Write something. Color something. Paint something. Photograph something. Decide at the beginning of the day what you plan to create, create it, and then reflect back on it at the end of the day. The next day, create something different.
We may not have power over germs or jobs or activities or government, but we do have power over some things.
There are some endings not available to us right now. And all stories require wearing a mask. But there’s still some freedom to choose our own adventure.
So much has happened. Nothing has happened. My world is sometimes unrecognizable, but that’s likely because I never had time to look at it before. I’ve been writing. I haven’t been writing here. It’s hard to do both, but I’m going to make a stronger effort. In the last few weeks, my oldest graduated but did not have a graduation. My second born got a driver’s license and has invented places to go. His two most frequent activities lately are to drive one sister to get smoothies at McDonald’s and the other sister to local ponds to fish. He is determined to be present when she catches her first fish. They are there now. If they survive the heat, I expect good things from today.
I am realizing things about myself in all of this madness.
I do better in the short haul. I’m GREAT in the short haul. I’m all about pep talks and preparation. As long as it doesn’t go on for too long. I remember the heat inside my house when we lost power during Hurricane Irma. I was Caroline Ingalls for the first two days; slogging through the heat and checking on neighbors. The last 3 days I was writing my will and selling off children. It only took 2.5 days for me to completely unravel.
It took longer with this pandemic. I mean, we are 4 months in now. I’ve been fairly focused and upbeat. I set goals and spent time reflecting. I’ve been excessively thankful to have my people under one comfortable roof. But I can’t give myself any credit for my positivity. I had August in my mind. I was always thinking, “If we could just make it to August and get things back to a higher level of normal, I’ll be ok.” We are very nearly at August, right now. And here in Florida, things are getting less normal, not more. More sick, not less. I think I hit a mental wall when I made that connection. And just in the last week, I began to let some thin threads of desperation weave their way into the pajamas I’ve been wearing to walk the dog. Everything is cancelled. The fall will not look like I want it to with sports and school activities. Will there be pro football? Will there be college football? Will there be high school football? WHERE DO WE STAND WITH FOOTBALL?The things that I used to hold up as beacons of hope are likely gone for the next year or at least severely altered. It took me awhile to be truly bothered by it, to feel a tad worried about it.
But I got there.
I spent all day in that space yesterday. I even took a nap before dinner. Because that’s all I felt like I could do. I didn’t see the point in further planning or cheerleading. I didn’t feel like doing it. But I also knew I had to. In my phase of life, I don’t get to skip something simply because I don’t feel like participating. That works for a day. That works for the very short haul. It doesn’t work much longer than that. My long haul is weak. I have to teach my short haul to be a better supporter. So as I went to bed last night, I decided I would do absolutely everything I could do from now on to strengthen myself.
I made my to-do list. I prioritized the items on that list to get all my sweaty chores done before lunch, because our heat index was expected to be 109 today. I checked items off my list as I did them, which gave me an energy all by itself. I am such a list person.
That was all short haul business, though.
The hard part is applying it to the long haul. Back in February, I started a list of 50 things to do before I turn 50 at the very end of this year. About half of those things are either now impossible, illegal by orders of the local governing pandemic authorities, or highly discouraged. But I’ll still turn 50 at the end of the year. So I need to modify my list.
Since I struggle with my long haul goals, I am turning it into an acronym.
Lists – Make daily lists for daily tasks and bigger lists for longer term goals. Others – Check on others more often. If I’m struggling, they may be too. Nature – Go outside every day. Walk. Exercise. Whatever. Gratitude – Be conscious of the good. Even in the bad, there is good. Thank God for all of it. Homies&Health – Spend time with my people and stay healthy. Aspirations – Set goals. Just because movie theaters are on hold doesn’t mean my dreams have to be. Uturns – When something isn’t working, fix it. Uturn when necessary. Adjust. Literature. – Read and write. Weekly.
Yesterday was a day of nothing and it was a day of everything. It was a day I’ll remember for awhile. A day in which the girls painted their nails and ate sandwiches for lunch. A day that had me pulled up in a line of cars to celebrate my senior who most certainly did not want to be celebrated. A day of porch swings and deck fishing. A day of thick, heavy humidity that clung to our necks like a panicked monkey. And it was a day that led me to I-75 at 4:30 in the afternoon, with my permitted driver behind the wheel. At 4:30, on I-75, all of the mundane and fantastic elements of that same day unleashed by way of a furious thunderstorm. When I say furious, I mean super DUPER angry. Irate. Violent. Berserk.
It had started an hour before with a text exchange. “Hey, boy,” I started. “Drive me to Costco. I need a ride to Costco.” “Did your car break?” Brady texted back. “No. Car is fine. I need a practicing driver. It will be good experience for you.” “Costco is a bit far. And will take awhile.”
I convinced him, from his stretched out spot on the porch swing, that it was an in-and-out errand. 45 minutes round trip, instead of our usual $200-2hr adventure. Brady reluctantly rose from the swing and off we went to pick up Andrew’s graduation announcements.
The trip there was uneventful, just as I had advertised. The trip home had all the events. We were only halfway home when we could tell we were in for a thrashing.
“We’re going to drive right into this, boy, so be steady and keep some space between you and the car in front of you.” He gripped the wheel and we drove into a sheet of water as disorienting as a drive-thru carwash.
“I do not like this,” he said. But he stayed steady and we were safely in our garage 15 minutes later.
For the next 2 hours, we watched from every window as nature pistol whipped the neighborhood. Our Adirondack chairs flew into the river early on. They were gone forever. Our zucchini plants bowed into the earth, as if to beg for mercy. Our dog was inconsolable. Water rushed in the roads where the pavement had been only a few minutes before. The pool floats were flying around the back yard in a magical swirl.
“Mama, the LLAMA! It’s going to fly into the river!” Both of my daughters were unnaturally concerned about the inflatables.
“Then let it,” I replied. “I am not risking a lightning strike over an inflatable llama.” I felt like surely my life was worth more than that, but I chose not to pitch that to the family.
Our power went out 3 times while dinner was cooking. Three times we restarted the oven and crossed our fingers. The third time lured the last kid into the family room and we all sat together, in one room, watching the weather rage.
The last three months have been like that for me. I regret the situation that has landed us here. And I look forward to a time when we can gather in groups and put our hands on people without wondering if they just infected us. Or if we infected them. I look forward to watching 2 of my kids march a halftime show at a football game that I enjoy like it’s the last game on earth. And I wonder if they’ll get to. And I worry that they won’t.
But it doesn’t matter what I worry about or what I want. None of that will change how things unfold. I won’t be able to predict the storm. Or control it. All I can do is watch and weather.
Last Thursday we watched and weathered. And the next morning, we ventured out to clean up branches, round up llamas, and pep talk the zucchini plants. And I couldn’t stop thinking about it all. About the last 3 months. A little of everything and a whole lot of nothing.
I didn’t know then how much I would relish a simple dinner with my family as my power flickered off and on. I thought it would get old. I thought I would be bored. I thought I would hate the home-cooked pot pies and pine for the restaurant chips and salsa.
I thought I would resent the “nothing.”
As it turns out, a lot of nothing isn’t actually nothing. It has turned out to be everything.
Everything I needed to know about living through a global pandemic, I learned in 1983. I just didn’t know it then.
We’re all in this together. I keep seeing that.
Americans were a little late to the party, but we sure came in loud and proud. We showed up. We felt a little mad at China. Sanitize, why don’t ya. And we felt a little sorry for Italy. We watched them play music from their balconies as they were stuck at home. Then we watched as it slammed into a nursing home in Washington state. Not long after, New York City caught the literal fever. Then New Yorkers fled and took the fever with them to other places.
And here we all are. All of us. Missing church. Rationing toilet paper. Mourning with the graduating seniors. Posting our own senior pictures and pretending the class of 2020 is comforted by that. Figuring out a totally different path to education. Worrying. Not touching other people. Rallying around the ones who need more than we do. Praying. Confusing our days from our nights and sleeping in. Wondering how long our world will look like this and function like this. Questioning how long we are capable of keeping this up.
We’re all in this together.
What a strange phrase that is. Like a spanish conversation that walks past me before I can pluck the message from the few words I know. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around it.
Because it’s never been true for me before.
I think back over the scores of tragedies that have pierced our world over the years. Floods. Bombings. Tornados. Sandy Hook. San Bernardino. Orlando. Hurricanes Katrina, Michael, Irma, and Maria. So many news stories that became hashtags and benefit concerts and prayer vigils. But those things were not in my house or my back yard. Those people were not my people. I felt the sadness. I rallied around from afar. But I wasn’t in it with them. Not like this.
I am now.
We truly are all in this together.
All at risk. No one immune. From the disease or the grief of knowing someone who is suffering or has succumbed. All of us need the rules that are in place to protect us. We need our leaders. We need each other. And we need God.
I was out for a bike ride on Tuesday evening, pedaling up central Florida’s excuse for a hill and trying to outrun my grumps. I was grumpy at one kid for–well, never mind–and I was grumpy at another kid for running my AirPods dead. Instead of the queued up playlist I had planned for my ride, I was forced to stuff my technology back into my pockets. I had nothing to listen to other than the hum of my bike tires and the crickets warming up for a night’s symphony.
It was almost dark. Dusk was filtering through the trees in shades of lavender. No one was out. I was alone on the road. And in my mind, I was suddenly back in a wooded side yard of Lee Avenue in Tallahassee, Florida in 1983. I was in the 6th grade.
My friend, Rondelle, lived in an old section of Tallahassee. Her street was lined with old brick homes flanked by old oak trees and owned by old people. There was nothing on that street that wasn’t old. Except for us.
On Friday nights, we slept over at her house, because there was something so exciting about roaming a neighborhood that went to sleep at 8 p.m. There were always at least 4 of us. Sometimes 6. And we always went out after dark to play a game invented by her older brothers called Ten Speed.
Ten Speed was hide and seek after dark in teams. We always set a boundary of some sort, because we weren’t the FBI. We couldn’t look exhaustively. There were really only two rules in the game: (1) Respect the boundaries. (2) Stay with your team.
On the hiding team you could hide anywhere, from under someone’s patio furniture to up in the ancient, spindly arms of a live oak. On the seeking team, you could do anything within your imagination to draw out the competition. You could spit in the bushes or use a stick to whack at shapes in the darkness. You could tell jokes or whisper threats. Anything to solicit a snort or a shifting in the leaves.
It’s hard to say which side of the game I liked better. It was 100% exhilarating. I always felt like I was 5 minutes from an arrest or a grisly accident. I almost always wet my pants.
I had never been a fan of regular hide and seek. I didn’t like games that were every man for himself. But Ten Speed was different. In Ten Speed, we were all in it together.
Thinking back on those days I wonder how I would have adapted to a pandemic quarantine. If I wanted to see my friends, I had to go find their physical bodies. If I wanted to talk to them, I used one of the two corded, rotary-dial, avacado green phones in my house and I talked to them within earshot of every other member of my family. I don’t know how I would have lasted for weeks on end without access to these games and these people.
When I finished my ride on Tuesday night, I was no longer thinking about the kid that did the thing or the one that used up the juice to my ear buds. I was thinking about people. And how people persevere and overcome. And about the fact that maybe things aren’t so different in 2020 from my childhood days running along Lee Avenue under the hazy glow of a street light.
The 2020 forecast is nebulous and uncertain. I won’t be the one to predict it or figure it out. So I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, with everyone else in the world, and wait for this cloud to lift. And it will lift. I’m going to try not to look too far past my handlebars and listen to the voice of a child reciting the rules of a long-forgotten game:
There’s a lot of bad things going on the world right now. A lot of people sick and dying from a disease they’d never heard of when they were opening their Christmas gifts on December 25. A lot of people losing jobs. A lot of people in fear of losing jobs. Weddings and graduations that are either cancelled or so altered they are unrecognizable.
There’s also a lot of good things going on the world right now. Families reconnecting. Mothers seeing their teenage sons during daylight hours for the first time since last July. Kids sitting down at their dining room tables to work 1000-piece puzzles. Neighbors introducing themselves to each other. People eating oreos. People walking off the oreos. People cooking fresh food and then taking their time to eat it. People learning how to navigate hard situations. Together.
I filled my gas tank up a week ago using a paper towel to touch the pump handle. My tank is still full a week later. Because there is nowhere for me to go and no one to take there.
And I keep saying that as long as nobody gets sick, we will not complain.
Does the bad outweigh the good? Does the good make the bad worth it? If you end up experiencing both, how does it balance out?
I don’t know.
I was walking the dog this morning, for the second time. Because my dog is a little demanding sometimes. And along the way, I met a neighbor who wanted to talk about our garden (that’s another post for another day). So because she had nowhere to be and no one to be there with, she walked my dog with me. My own family doesn’t do that. And we talked the entire time.
It was weird. And wonderful. And one of the glories shining out of the darkness right now.
As I finished the last tenth of a mile on my own, I pictured this pandemic as a labyrinth, both bright and beautiful and also dark and painful. And I pictured myself walking into it.
If I knew that inside the labryinth there would be stations along the way that were pleasant and beautiful, full of light and conversation and joy and a love that can only rise up out of trial, maybe little tables along the way to stop and have coffee, or Mountain Dew Zero, and that I might discover someone I truly apreciate, but didn’t know how much until I was inside the maze, but between stations it would be alarming and dark and impossible to navigate without pressing up against the walls and somewhere along the way, I would get sick. Or one of my people would. And although the maze was packed with unexpected beauty and sweeping positive life changes, it would also be riddled with pain and darkness and fear. If I knew all of that, and knew I would be forced absolutely to experience both, would I still be willing to enter the labyrinth? Would the beauty be worth the pain?
I don’t know.
I guess we’ll see.
But as of today, I have not seen first hand the darkness. I am standing in the light.
That being said, I did have a moment–90 minutes worth–on Thursday that probably is worth a couple of paragraphs.
Before March 13, I was a public school mom with a tight carpool schedule and a few hours of quiet every day. Now I am Supervisor of Operations of Onine Crisis Schoolng for grades 6, 8, 10, and 12, all occurring within my ordinarily quiet home. I am a masterful grocery shopper and am learning to cook. The 12th grader has always been a square peg in a round hole where school is concerned. He is smart. He is level headed. And he is ADHD. In a real emergency, I’d run to him before I’d run to anyone else. But in an online math test emergency, he isn’t my man.
So, online crisis schooling isn’t going as smoothly for him as it is for the others. And my supervisory role has me more involved than either of us would prefer. On Thursday, it all kind of rose up from the depths and landed in a lump in my throat. I think it was the TEST DUE BY MIDNIGHT notification that did me in, and the review sheet that we couldn’t access to study for the test due by midnight, and the expression of blank resignation and apathy in the eyes of my senior, that I couldn’t mold into any form of productivity that day.
I walked out of my son’s room and into the kitchen to pop some Mexican food into the microwave. As I did, I felt the familiar hot sting of frustrated tears forming a posse behind my eyes. Oh no, I thought. This feels like it’s happening. It feels like there’s no stopping it. As I was trying to explain what Andrew and I had to do that day for his schooling, one of my daughters said, “Well, I guess we aren’t going to see you today at all.”
That was all it took. She went back to her lunch and I grabbed mine and headed out the garage door with it. I was looking for an escape. A place to cry about Forensic Science. I looked toward the river. That would be a nice place to rest, but they would find me. I was standing by my van, caught in indecision, when I decided to get into my van. I opened the sliding door to the middle row and got in, closing the door behind me.
I sat in that van for 90 minutes, crying into and still eating the frozen cheese enchiladas in my lap. I texted Todd to let him know I was there, because he had walked past me and hadn’t seen me. He got in several times to confer with me and then got back out to re-enter the fray and manage the things I couldn’t handle at the moment.
At the end of a day that was laced with failures and roadblocks, I found myself sitting by the river 6 feet apart with a couple of friends that knew I needed to be yanked up by my socially distant bootstraps and set on a different path. And it was nice.
If I get sick–if my people get sick–I’ll have to wonder if the light can outshine the present darkness. And though I am currently well, I am acutely aware of the ones that are not. And of the ones who worry that they won’t be. And of the ones that are nursing so many back to health and placing themselves at risk as they do so. I am acutely aware that it is not about the online tests or the lack of convenience or supplies.
There is darkness. There’s no denying that. And for many it is as thick and black and sticky as turpentine.
But along the way, the light is shooting up from little taped Xs along the ground. In 6 foot increments. I don’t know if it’ll be worth it all. But it’s pretty bright in spots.