Friday, December 23, 2016

Snapshots of us at Christmastime

She took the last of the cookies from the oven and set the baking sheet on top of the stove. On each cookie she sprinkled red or green sugar, alternating the colors evenly, and pressed the granules down with her fingers. She washed the sticky residue from her hands and, from the window above the sink, looked out at the dark street, how it was punctuated with flickering white lights that moved with the wind.

Every light on the main floor was on. Cliff held his iPod and sang loudly, the lyrics indistinct to her ears so that the song he was listening to was unidentifiable. Max sat on the couch watching the Patriots play, with a bottle of Sam Adams in his hand. 

“Cliff! Too loud!” he shouted.   

Her husband entered the kitchen and hugged her close. “Smells good.” He pulled away, smacking her rear.

“Hey!” She rolled her eyes at him.

Cliff had gone quiet, draping himself over the back of the couch. His eyes were partially closed, one hand  tapping the side of his headphones.

Her husband called to her. “Looks like he’s almost ready for bed. Want me to take him up?”

Their daughter rushed down the stairs, her curls falling delicately around her face. She wore sweats and a t-shirt, and held a thick textbook against her chest. “Wait! We still have to bring Cliff outside to feed the reindeer.” 

Her mother pointed to the family room and Olivia went to sit next to her big brother. He roused himself and smiled broadly at her, “O-vilia!”

She pretended to tickle him and he giggled, jumping up to sit next to Max on the couch on the other side of the room. “Brudder boy”, he said.

“Hey, Cliffy, do you know what it’s time for?” Cliff leaned into him, and Max put his muscled arm around his shoulder.

She called them into the kitchen and handed each of them a plastic baggie filled with a mix of Quaker Oats and red glitter.

Her three children pulled on their boots and coats, and stepped gingerly down the icy steps holding their big brother’s hands.  She and her husband wiped the frost off the glass, and watched them toss small handfuls of reindeer food over the snowy lawn. Some of it reached far into the yard, and some, thrown awkwardly from Cliff’s grasp, landed at their feet and on their coats.

The baggies empty, the three of them stood huddled together, looking up at the multitude of stars in the sky.


They took their brother’s hands again, and turned to lead him back up the front steps, their hair sparkling with red glitter.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

What Comes to Pass

It's a sad day when waking up to see the new president puts pain and fear in my heart. There is a tightness in my chest that makes it hard to breathe. I'm not looking forward to trying to explain to my mentees why America doesn't care about them and how they need to protect themselves. So many of them dream of becoming president now that they've seen it's possible, but will they still believe it's possible after today? … this really feels like the world is ending and the world feels like a very scary, lonely place right now. I didn't expect to wake up in tears and hurting like this.”--Olivia Taylor

The day after the presidential election, I kept checking Olivia’s Face Book page for any sort of response from her. Her post from that morning had reflected the unease in which she was mired, her deep disappointment in the results, and the difficulty of finding the right words to say to the young girls she mentored.  There was a meeting of her Strong Women, Strong Girls group that afternoon, and my intention was to provide her a hopeful message, something positive she could consider when she met with them. 


Oh Liv, my heart hurts that you are so devastated. I want you to feel my arms around you today, assuring you we will all be okay. I'm proud of you for bravely and eloquently speaking your mind these last few months. Now you have to concentrate on changing your own part of the world. You have that in you. Tell your mentees that they need to always have hope and that they DO have the power to dream. There is nothing in their way when it comes to effecting change. You must remain positive for them. Reframe this thing for them to remember to maintain knowledge of their own strength. https://www.facebook.com/images/emoji.php/v6/f6c/1/16/2764.png❤ Mama


My daughter feels everything deeply, both joy and pain, but like her mother, she tends to hang on to hurt the way a drowning person clutches a life preserver. My post to her was heartfelt and encouraging, I thought, except she hadn’t replied to it, not even with a “like”.  Her silence was anathema to me. I began to worry when she posted a second time, announcing she planned to take a ‘mental health day’.  

My husband texted her.  “Are you all right?”

 A couple of hours went by before she finally responded. “What, you mean mentally?”

“Mentally, physically, emotionally…"

We went to bed that night without hearing back. Worrying kept me awake. I would have been satisfied with “I’m fine” or a simple Emoji.

The next morning passed with no communication between us, and I began to feel less conciliatory towards her.  For hours I couldn’t shake the irritation I felt, and I made an assumption that her lack of response was a judgment against us for not having voted for her candidate.  I resisted a second post, and instead kept busy with various jobs around the house, not the least of which was cleaning out the attic.

Our attic is accessible from a heavy tri-fold-out ladder built into the ceiling in the upstairs hall. Over the last few days, I’ve pulled the ladder down and pushed it back up five or six times. There was twenty years worth of stuff that needed to be sorted and either thrown out or condensed to make room for the HVAC people to replace our old furnace.

I had gone through a dozen boxes when I discovered a letter rolled up scroll-like and secured with red twine. I slid it off and unrolled the paper. In Santa’s voice, I had written to Olivia in response to the very important questions weighing on her mind. She often wrote letters to magical entities-- Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and the mischievous Leprechaun who left our house topsy-turvy every March 16; it was how she made sense of things, and she enjoyed the encounter with celebrity.

It was dated December, 2002, and typed rather than handwritten so the real writer would not be discovered. Yes, I will bring the note you wrote to Sammi’s angel, who I’m sure will deliver it to her. I hear she is so very happy and she is glad when you remember her; No, I don’t think you’re greedy when you want things. I think a person is greedy when they won’t share what they have. It’s true some kids don’t have much, but just try to remember to give to charity as often as you can; Yes, I do think Mrs. Claus will love the picture you drew of her. It looks a lot like her!

I rolled the letter up and slid the string back on, placing it in the pile of precious things I had already gathered together. I climbed down the ladder holding a few items for donation and at the bottom I shoved it back up with my (arthritic) free hand. It did not spring back up into the ceiling.  The ladder unfolded, its entire weight landing on the left side of my head, leaving a quarter-sized, rather painful bump.

I iced it awhile, and followed the first injury with a second one. This time I hurt my hand trying to open a can of paint. In true ADHD style, I forgot about the paint and dragged a box inside that had been in the garage for six months. The box contained a shelving unit for the laundry room.  I pulled out the components—2 top connectors, 4 middle connectors, 2 bottom connectors, 4 shelves, 8 horizontal tubes, 12 vertical tubes and 4 footing covers. I read the directions three times before I successfully created the bottom assembly, but despite a lot of trial and error, the middle and top assembly directions were beyond imprecise and ambiguous. I couldn’t figure it out, my hand hurt and my head wasn’t feeling too hot either.

I sat on the floor, let a few expletives fly, and cried like a baby.

It’s true that no matter how old you are, you never lose all the ages you’ve been, and in that moment I was a frustrated, angry, sad ten-year-old. The upshot is that my ten-year-old self and my wiser fifty-nine-year old self starting working together to bring some clarity to my situation. I wasn’t crying because I got hurt; the flying expletives took care of that. I was crying because I realized something important: Olivia and I were out of sync for the first time in twenty-two years, so much so that she couldn’t bring herself to reply to either her father or to me. I missed her, but more pointedly I missed the way we were often of similar minds about almost everything. Suddenly, we’re miles apart, politically and ideologically speaking, and it has put a temporary, albeit no less painful, distance between us.  

My late father was a lifelong Democrat, and when I became a registered Republican at the age of forty, I hoped I didn’t disappoint him. He never questioned my decision. Even when my sisters and brothers suggested I had been kidnapped and brainwashed, my father stayed silent. Occasionally we would get into a discussion of one candidate or the other, one issue or the other, but he listened without judgment. He trusted me to have the courage of my convictions, and respected my opinions when they differed from his.

He was a wise man, my dad. He didn’t lecture or argue. He wasn’t angry or self-righteous. That’s what you call teaching by example; it was his way, and one of the most loving things he did over and over throughout his life.  

When Olivia and I are able to talk about the events of the last couple of months, I’ll listen to her side. I might learn a few things.

Once upon a time, she found letters from Santa by the empty plate of cookies, and believed in magic. I just hope she understands how much I believe in her.


Afterword:

Text messages from November 11—two days after the election:

Olivia: Sorry I fell asleep last night, I’ve been falling asleep super early cause I couldn’t fill my Concerta prescription for the last couple weeks until today!!  But I mean (I assume you’re talking about trump being elected) I’m physically fine, I’m hurt and afraid for my friends and mentees and people I love.

Ken: Well, we want you to know that we love you and are thinking about you. We can’t wait to see you, and hope that you can always share what you are going through with us, even when times are bad. I’m hoping that there will be a time for healing soon.


Olivia: That means a lot to me <3<3 thank you & I love you!! I can’t wait to see you too, I have a bunch of good new music to share too!! It was really hard to see my mentees crying yesterday. I tried to assure them and I encouraged them to stay inspired and get involved and remember they have power. I think it went over well…

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Resistance

                                                                                                
She opens a drawer, rummages through it, and takes out a black t-shirt. She shakes it out and holds it up, studying it in the late afternoon light. She sighs and puts it into the laundry basket and resumes her search through the drawer.

“Please tell me it’s in here.” She pulls out a second black t-shirt, laying it out on her son’s rumpled blue coverlet. The closet door is open and she moves the hangers to one side, taking out elastic-waist black dress pants. She carries the shirt and pants down to the kitchen where she sets the iron atop the ironing board.

Her husband sits on the couch reading. The television is on and her other son and a daughter watch the screen intently.

“Is Cliff in there?” She places one leg of the pants on the board, smoothing down the pocket. When no one answers, her voice rises over the noise from the TV. “Is Cliff in there? Anyone?”

Her husband stands up and stretches.  “I think he’s in the bathroom.”

“Oh my God.” She puts down the iron and runs to the bathroom. Cliff is standing at the sink, pumping out the last of the hand soap under the running water. Soap foam is scattered in frothy piles around the sink top, pooled on the floor and soaked into his shirt. She watches a trail of foam slide down the door of the vanity. He steps away, dripping water onto the ceramic tile. His eyes widen when he sees his mother’s face. His bottom lip and his chin are covered with foam.

She places her hand on her forehead, and Cliff runs out of the bathroom. Her lips are pursed, and she begins to wipe up the mess with paper towels. She hears her husband say, “Oh no, Cliff, what did you do?” He laughs. His brother and sister laugh. She shuts the bathroom door with a quiet click, leaning against the wall. She cries noiselessly.

Someone turns up the volume on the television. She blows her nose, dabbing her eyes carefully around her makeup, and returns to finish her ironing.

“Cliff, it’s time to get dressed for the show. Come on.” He is dancing in a circle, one hand on his hip and the other holding his iPod in front of him.  She signs to him, “Time to go,” and he follows her up the stairs to his room. “Take off your headphones a second.” She helps him out of his damp t-shirt and shorts.

“Try not to make a mess now. You’re going to be on stage today. Your dance show is today.” She touches his cheek and feels beard stubble. He smiles at her and puts his headphones back on. “Cliff, remember you can’t have your iPod with you on the stage. Understand?” Her voice is firm, her eyes tired.  He responds with a loud sigh.

He follows her downstairs, stopping in the hallway that leads to the garage. He slips into his Velcro sneakers and carries tap shoes in an athletic bag stitched with his name out to the car. He climbs into the back seat of the mini-van, switching back and forth from one side of the car to the other three times before he puts on his seatbelt.

She calls out to her husband, son and daughter. “Let’s go or we’re gonna be late!” She puts on her coat and they follow her out to the driveway. Her husband is holding tickets in his hand, and gives them to her before he turns the key in the ignition. He turns the radio on and their daughter hums to the music as they drive to the theater.

Inside the theater they weave through the people standing in the crowded lobby. She hands her husband all but one of the tickets. “You guys go ahead and find your seats. I have to help Cliff with the rest of his costume.”

She takes Cliff’s hand and walks him down the corridor to the dressing room. Everyone else is already there, completely dressed in their costumes. She finds the black top hat and sparkly green jacket hanging up behind a small, curtained area and holds the jacket out to him. “Okay, time to take off the headphones.” Cliff is still, holding his mother’s gaze.

“Cliff, come on. You have to get ready for your dance now.” Her eyes are stern. Cliff looks past her. 
She reaches for his headphones and he takes a step back. “No!”

“Cliff, I’ll hold onto your music in my purse. You can have it back after the show.” Her arm is outstretched to receive the iPod and headphones. He turns and runs to the door of the dressing room and stops when she yells, “Clifford Taylor!”

He allows her to put on the jacket, and she hands the hat to someone. “He won’t keep the hat on, so have him put it on just before he goes on.”

She turns back to him, and takes a deep breath. “Okay, Cliff. I have to go sit down now. Let me hold your head phones.”

“No!” He backs away from her.

“Listen, you have to leave them here. You can’t wear them on stage!”

He turns away from her. “If I see you with your headphones on that stage, we are NOT going to the restaurant!”

She waits a beat and repeats herself, adding, “I mean it, Cliff.”

A girl dressed in a ball gown hears her and steps in front of Cliff. “Cliff, you have to listen to your mom.”

She leaves the room, and barely returns the smiles from the parents lining the hallway.

Her husband waves to her from his seat and she sits down with her arms crossed. “Just so you know, I told him we’re not taking him out to dinner if he’s wearing those fucking headphones onstage.” Her husband and her kids glance at each other, silent. He pats her thigh.

The curtain rises, and they watch as dancers move across the small stage. Her arms remain crossed through each successive act, until she adjusts herself in the seat when Cliff is introduced. The lights come up and he steps onto the stage holding his instructor’s arm. He is wearing the green, sparkly jacket and no hat. The music starts. She watches, unsmiling, as he does the entire routine wearing his headphones and holding the iPod in one hand. The crowd erupts into applause and whistles. Some yell out his name. Her husband and kids are clapping, and she looks down at her shoes.

She is silent when they walk out to the parking lot. Cliff is giggling, his arms around his brother and sister.

“Good job, Cliff! You’re a great dancer!” He tightens his arms around their necks.

They pile into the car and her husband is in his seat holding the keys in his hand. “Well, what do you want to do?”

Her eyes are focused on the dashboard. “I already told him we weren’t going out if he didn’t take off his headphones. So we’re not going out. Period.”

He starts the car, clears his throat and waits. “Well… what do you want to do for dinner then?”


She turns away and looks out the window. Her daughter taps Cliff on the arm, and forms the sign for “I love you” as their father drives slowly toward the exit.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Be A Camera: Life With Cliff

                                                   
The porch was enclosed, and the tall windows were open all around, enabling a cross breeze. She sat at the edge of the chair, a laptop and a cup of green tea in front of her. She typed, pausing to watch the birds at the feeder and a red squirrel eating the seeds that fell onto the deck. She was alone in the house. The only sounds she heard came from the tapping of the keys and the birds that bumped against the sliding glass door.
She got up from her chair from time to time, and checked the clock in the kitchen or warmed her tea in the microwave. The third time she looked at the clock, she went to the stove and set the oven timer to go off in thirty minutes. The pan she’d used for scrambled eggs that morning was still dirty, but she left it there and opened the back door. She looked out and saw no one, and came back to peel and slice an apple which she laid out on a plate. She opened the refrigerator and pulled at a broken drawer. “Dammit! Stupid piece of…”  With the third pull, she managed to take out two squares of cheese to place  next to the apple, arranging everything in neat piles. She brought the plate to the kitchen table, setting a napkin next to it. She looked out the door once more and went back to her laptop to type.
The van arrived in her driveway in the middle of a sentence, and she jumped when the driver beeped the horn. She scurried to the back door, down the steps and out to the driveway. The van driver got out to open the door for her son, and continued to tell her the story she had started this morning, as though no time at all had passed. “Well, it looks like it’ll be two more days.”
“Two more days?” She watched as he shimmied off the seat and swung his backpack off to hand it to her. She walked backwards towards the steps as she spoke. “Oh, right. Your husband. He’ll get out of the hospital Tuesday then?”
“Yep, which means I gotta look on the internet for some meals he can eat. The doc said no carbs. My husband’s not gonna like that!” The van driver climbed back in, cackling and shaking her head as she backed out of the driveway.
Her son was already sitting at the table. She watched him eat all the apple slices first, and asked him questions about his day. Before she finished speaking, he got up from his seat and hurriedly took his plate into the dining room, leaving the napkin where she’d placed it.  He sighed loudly at his mother, and she stood in the kitchen with her hands on her hips.
“Okay then… Poopyhead.”
When he was done eating, he opened the garbage pail to throw away the dish. “No! That’s not garbage, Cliff! Put it in the sink!” He huffed at her again and tossed the dish carelessly, so that it knocked over the wine glass she’d used the night before.  “Hey, what did I tell you about that? You know how to put the dish in the sink the right way. Oh my god!”
He ran into the family room, put on his headphones and clumsily plugged the headphone jack into his iPod. She had begun loading the dishwasher when he approached her, offering the iPod for adjusting.
“What do you want me to do?” She waited until he answered, “Hep, pweese.”
“You want help, yes!”  She shoved the jack all the way in, and returned it to him. The timer went off and she took two pills from the pharmacy bottle, filled a glass with water and followed him back to the family room. . She placed the two pills in his mouth and held a napkin under his chin to catch the water spilling out.

He allowed her to kiss his forehead, and she struck various dance poses to entertain him. He laughed out loud and hugged her neck tightly, and they swayed back and forth, ignoring the beat of the music playing in his ears. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Training Ground


I saw Mr. Napoli today at the Port Chester Acme, shopping for groceries with his wife. Mr. Napoli sightings are rare, mostly because I live in Massachusetts, and my visits home are usually brief. It’s been thirty-one years since Tony Napoli was my boss, the principal at Port Chester Senior High School, but he remembered me. I was glad to see him and I hugged him warmly. I said to his wife, “Your husband was the best principal, truly he was”.  Cliff was with me, steering the grocery cart. Mr. Napoli had his hand on Cliff’s shoulder while we talked, and then we went our separate ways. Our brief exchange reminded me that I'd never spoken about the deep respect I have for Mr. Napoli, or the extent of my gratitude for the year he changed both my teaching life and my personal life in ways he could not have foreseen. 

My first job after college came about serendipitously thanks to a man I’ll call Mr. A, whose teaching career had met an ignominious end, much to the relief of the Port Chester Board of Education, the Port Chester Junior High School administration, and the entire English Department. According to my younger sister, Barbara, who suffered through Mr. A’s seventh grade English class, she and her classmates rarely did a lick of work inside his classroom. The administration began to keep a close eye on him because word had gotten around that Mr. A was essentially warming his desk chair by then, biding his time until he would be eligible for a fat pension from the state of New York.

Mr. A was tenured, which meant that even if he were giving his students free periods for 180 days a year, it was still going to be a bitch to toss him out on his warm kiester. So while I was freezing my own kiester at Buffalo State Teachers’ College, the administration worked to stockpile evidence of Mr. A’s incompetence. The serendipitous part is that I applied for a teaching job just as the school had enough evidence to bring the case against him to court.

“Miss Meloni, we’d like to offer you the position, but you’ll be a long-term sub until Mr. A’s case has resolved, either way.”  Mr. A officially lost his position soon after.  I was in!

I was green, barely twenty-two and didn’t own a car.  My first day of work was a succession of classes with a minimum of a dozen or so behaviorally “difficult” students all together, one of whom accused me of thinking I was “hot shit” (her words precisely) because I was young and had the audacity to ask her get off the radiator and sit at a desk. She proceeded to let fly a string of expletives as she sauntered menacingly past me on her way out of the classroom. The assistant principal, a wonderfully sweet man, encouraged me to “hang in there” on particularly challenging days, after which he would pat the top of my head, and I couldn’t help but think of the kitten-hanging-on-a-wire poster with that same sentiment; cute, but not in the least bit helpful.

Thus began my teaching career.

A couple of years later, when some of the faculty left the junior high for open positions at the high school, I went along, thinking I was pretty good at my job by then, or “hot shit” as I had once been described.

This was in the early 80’s, a time of exclusion and plenty of outright discrimination towards students with intellectual challenges.  But what the hell did I know? My ignorance was outweighed only by my fear of actually running into one of ‘them’ in the hallway. These students were a marginalized population, and my colleagues and I rarely had contact with them, unless they were special education teachers.

 That was about to change, at least for me.

My students that year were freshmen and sophomores who were tracked, meaning that classes were organized according to ability. Of my five classes, I taught two sections of 9-3-track students, or kids who were deemed to be low achievers for a variety of reasons—low test scores, absenteeism, failing grades, lack of motivation—but I encouraged them to do the best work they were capable of. I knew they were smart, and I saw potential in each one. 
  
A month into the school year, I stood at the door of my classroom to wait for the second period kids to show up. I was minding my own business when Mr. Napoli speed walked through the crowded hallway heading straight for me. If his approach had been a scene in a movie about my life, you would have been listening the soundtrack from Jaws.

Oh, sweet Jesus, please don’t let this be an unannounced observation,” which was a distinct possibility; this was my tenure year; I couldn’t afford to be unprepared. A principal is perfectly within his rights to pop into a classroom at any time, but I knew from some of the other teachers that Mr. Napoli was not the type to pat young teachers on the head and, in fact, the rumor was he could be demanding and even harsh.  

You’ve heard of the way a person’s life flashes before her eyes in the moments before imminent death? I felt almost like that, except it was my lesson plan flashing before my eyes. Go over vocabulary homework, launch into analogies, introduce “The Cask of Amontillado”..., and what else? What else?

“Miss Meloni, do you have a second?” 

He was holding a small notebook and his expression seemed pretty benign, sincere, in fact, as though he had something to apologize for.

“I wanted to let you know I’ll be adding six more students to your fourth period 9-3 class. They’ll start tomorrow…” and the rest of it sounded like all the adult characters in a Peanuts movie, and I was Charlie Brown, all five feet of me looking up at him; “Okay, okay sir, sure. That’s fine, sir, yes, thank you.”

The bell rang, I picked up the attendance book from my desk, put it back down.  “Wait, whaaaat?”

What Mr. Napoli said was illogical, ludicrous, and every other synonym for senseless. I would have six more students in my classroom who had, until then, been under the purview of the special education teacher? What was he thinking? I had no experience teaching at that level! This guy is nuts! And why me, anyway? I’m not going to know what I’m doing!

I resented this sudden assault on my familiar, safe teaching life, and by association, Mr. Napoli. At the time, I didn’t recognize my anger as fear, but regardless, I had to put my feelings aside. I was a teacher; figuring out how to make this work was my job.

You won’t be surprised to know that those six kids became some of my most beloved students. I don’t know how well I modified the lessons for them, or if they always learned the carefully written objectives in the lesson plans. But I’ll tell you what they did get from that year in my classroom:  the understanding that they were capable beyond what they had previously believed, that they belonged, and that what mattered could be found inside their best efforts.

That experience taught me I could adapt, and that it was incumbent upon me to adapt, to search out new ideas and best practices, and to remember that perfection is less important than earnest attempts, that trial and error is how all of life works.

I left Port Chester High School after the birth of my first child, Cliff. The plan was to eventually return, but Cliff, born with Down syndrome, needed me more than I needed to go back to my career.  He grew up, and I advocated for him to be included in typical classrooms. From kindergarten on, my husband and I encountered teachers who objected, often strongly, saying they had no experience with “that type of child”, and I was able to tell them I had been on that side of the desk too.

Turns out Mr. Napoli wasn’t nuts after all, just demanding.  Good  principals must be demanding if schools, and kids, are to succeed.

He was a man ahead of his time, which just so happened to be the right time for one young, ‘hot shit- teacher’ to practice the skills she would soon need to advocate for her son. 

Rarely have I encountered moments more meaningful than that of being asked to do what I thought I could not do. Nor have I experienced anything close to the kind of serendipity owed to that October day outside my classroom when my principal set me on a path I couldn’t appreciate at the time.

That’s the best thing about getting older, at least for me, looking behind to remember the places, experiences and people, the connecting dots that bring us fully into focus.  



Sunday, May 15, 2016

Aftermath...When the Dog Dies


When the dog dies,
the house where the dog lived collapses in on itself,
or so it seems, having lost its joyful foundation
and the long-held rhythms of its brown-eyed wanderer.

When the dog dies,
the people inside the house where the dog lived
fall out of sync with obligations and plans.
They hold each other, remarking how alive he had been just the day before.
They call out his name again and again, as they did
a thousand times over days and weeks and years,
but he does not come running-- down stairs, through the door, beneath the table
to sniff out small bits of food or a furtive offering .
They replay what they’d spoken into the dog’s ears,
reciting tearful intimate messages as his spirit separated
for the journey back to the God who made him.

When the dog dies,
no one in the house where he lived
removes the bone from its hiding place behind the couch;
No one paints over the scratches on the front door.
No one empties his water bowl or scrapes the food into the trash
days after it has grown moldy and awful.
No one puts away his favorite blanket,
or the bed where he slept,
paws twitching as he dreamt of rabbits under the shed.

When the dog dies,
someone brings herself to the landing,
falls on her knees weeping,
scrubbing the ruined carpeting, his scattered final humiliation.
Someone closes the bedroom door
and paints the room black,
marking time in his sleep.
Someone wonders who she will tell her secrets to,
and remembers how the dog, now gone,
could always heal what was broken.

When the dog dies,
the people in the house where the dog lived
hold his leash wistfully, place his collar on the mantel,
gather up toys he chased and caught,   
rolling in grass, snow, the woods beyond the house.
They place them tenderly into the blue basket
beneath the window, remnants of a vibrant life.

When the dog dies
and one season has turned into the next,
the house where the dog lived
begins its long, slow breath in, until breath fills most of the spaces
he once inhabited, where once he waited for someone to come home
to greet his wild joyful circles of light.
It fills these spaces, save one, which it keeps like an altar
in worshipful memory, a gift
for the people in the house where the dog lived.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Chasing Sunlight

Early March, and the unseasonable warmth has drawn me outside to walk the streets of my neighborhood, past sidewalks where my children used to ride their bikes and the corner where they’d wait for the school bus and where, in the good old days, there were block parties with frozen margaritas, and neighbors who slowed down in their cars to say hello. 

I walk up Cooper, around Charles Drive to Skyline in a loop, and stop a moment at what remains of the wildness there. Once comprised of blueberry bushes, overgrown grasses, and teetering tall trees, most of the area was decimated by builders. The scraggly path of dirt and rocks where my husband would take our son, Max, where he could safely let our Sammi run off-leash, exists only in memory. A couple of acres survived, the others replaced with pretty, cookie-cutter homes.

Sammi is long gone, but her ghost is still around to help me remember just how short a dog's life is, too short to waste time yelling about muddy paws on the just-washed linoleum,  She was my introduction to dog ownership, and as much as I wanted to love her, I could only muster up a tolerance for her in the beginning. Looking back, I realize I was already overwhelmed with taking care of three kids--two of them under five, and a son with special needs, so throwing a dog into the mix was more responsibility than I cared to have. It took me a good long time to come around to being fond of her; I never considered myself to be a ‘dog person’, but I believed my children needed Sammi to complete the idyllic picture of their childhood.

One December evening, Ken and I sat our children down on the couch to deliver the news that Sammi was dying. A blood disease had taken over her body, one common among the Springer Spaniel breed. There was nothing the vet could do to fix her.

“But she’s only six years old!” Olivia wailed. It was the saddest Christmas on record, with Sammi gone just two weeks before, buried in the woods behind the house with her blanket and the bone I had bought for her Christmas stocking.

I expected the kids to be upset after she died, but I had never imagined my own reaction would be so visceral. I must have cried twice a day for weeks. I missed hearing the sound of her nails on the bare floor; I kept expecting to see her curled up in her go-to spot by the piano, where she had worn down the carpet from the thousand circles she made settling into a round sleepy pile of black and white fur.What a bittersweet way to figure out I did love Sammi after all.

In the toy section of the January, 2002 L.L. Bean catalog there appeared, almost miraculously, a perfect replica of a Springer Spaniel puppy. I took the personalization option and the dog arrived just in time for stuffed animal day in Olivia’s second grade classroom. That toy was a constant companion from the day I put it in her outstretched little hands. Stuffed, personalized Sammi has gone from home to overnights at friends’ houses, from summer vacations to college apartment. I don't expect she will ever tire of her.

Ever the optimist, I began to search for another puppy five months post-Sammi, and found a breeder in Western Massachusetts with several Springer puppies for sale. It’s hard to believe it’s been fourteen years since the rainy spring day when I pointed to the least active puppy in the pen and said, “That one.” I figured the calmest one would be less work. The puppy wiggled (and peed) in my lap for much of the hour-long ride home. We passed the time thinking up names for him.

Max and Olivia came up with the name Jojo, and Cliff agreed. Thenceforth, his name would be Jojo the Puppy.

Jojo, like so many good old dogs, has been ours for what feels like forever, the kind of forever that makes it impossible to imagine he might ever cease to exist. We’ve loved him through the multitude of seasons--fourteen winters springing over powdery drifts of snow, fourteen springs lying about in the cool grass, fourteen summers chasing the sun’s reflection whenever someone opened the storm door, fourteen autumns greeting strangers walking by as though he knew them personally.  Even the UPS driver gets out of her truck if she sees Jojo outside, regardless of whether or not she has a delivery. Jojo eats up the attention, her tail in constant motion.

We all grew up together, my kids into young adults, and me into a the dog person my kids hoped I'd become.

In February, Ken and I delivered the news that Jojo has lymphoma, to Olivia over the phone, and to Max when he came home from work. I’ve been preparing Cliff for a couple of weeks, telling him only that Jojo is very sick and will go to Heaven soon, and that Grandpa will take care of him there.

For the last two months, the kids and I have been capturing Jojo in pictures and videos in all of the moments we will want to remember, all the “lasts”. Soon, my walks through the neighborhood will be absent of the dog barking and barking insistently from inside the invisible fence as if to say, “Hey, where are you going? Take me with you!”

Everyone who walks by our house will wonder what happened to the happy dog that lives there. The UPS driver and the children so accustomed to his wagging tail will ask where he is.

I’ll point to my broken heart; “Here.”

A package arrived the other day, inside it a liver and white English Springer Spaniel stuffed toy. I plan to give it to Olivia for her 22nd birthday in April, a replica of the dog she calls ‘my little gentleman’. I’ve anticipated she’ll need it.

I read a book recently, an instruction manual of sorts, about how to let go of a beloved pet. The author, Jon Katz, wrote about the way our pets come and go,  marking a specific season in our lives.Soon I will think back on the Jojo season as a time filled with changes big and small, but the most significant part of these fourteen years will be how much happier it all was with our little brown-eyed wanderer, Jojo the puppy.