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.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

To the Young Woman Who Sat Next to Us at the Movies

I can remember a time in my (much) younger life when I was afraid of a man named Donald. I had no logical reason to be afraid of him; he never bothered me, or even looked my way as he walked slowly up and down Westchester Avenue, a main road in the town where I grew up. He couldn’t have been more than five and a half feet tall, and we were always separated by at least a street length .  

To a thirteen-year-old girl, the problem was he didn’t look right. He seemed unkempt—thin, worn khakis, oversized jacket—and he walked with a limp. One black shoe was built up so tall, it appeared he’d accidentally pulled on two different shoes that morning. The truth is he wore an orthotic shoe with a stack of metal plates inside, because Donald’s legs were not evenly matched.

That’s the memory that came to me when, by chance, my son and I sat next to you and your family. We had been running late so, once we finished eating we had to hurry to the movie theater. “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2” looked to be the kind of movie my son might find silly enough to hold his attention, given the fact he’d more than likely be unable to follow the plot line. Physical comedy, slapstick, larger-than-life characters skilled at funny-face expressions—that’s the genre we go for.

Anyway, we stood on line for popcorn—no butter--Welch’s fruit snacks, small Sprite, and headed for Theater 6. It was crowded inside, as you know, and the front row seats we prefer were already filled.

We stood at the bottom of the stairs while I scanned the theater for two seats together. A voice called out, “Are you looking for two seats? These are free.” An older woman four rows from the back pointed to the empty seats next to you. It might have been your mother, but I can only assume. I felt so relieved and grateful for that lone voice in the crowd.

“Come on up here, Cliff. Follow me.” We linked arms and climbed up, thanking your family for standing up to let us by. I didn’t notice anything about you at first; I was too busy wrestling off our coats and trying to convince my son not to inhale the bag of candy before the movie even started.

The coming attractions played, but no one had turned off the lights. People were shouting, “Shut the lights!” “Hey! Lights?”

A few of us clapped for the lady in the last row who announced her intention to find someone who could rectify the situation. She had a ton of blonde hair and a voice that carried. “Alright, people, I’ll take care of this!” Do you remember that?

I sure do. Do you know why? With the lights on I began to notice you moving yourself as far as you could away from my son. At first, it was a subtle movement. I wasn’t exactly sure what made you shift so far to the right.  Then I saw you glance over your shoulder at him. And I immediately understood; your expression was unmistakable. What was it that made you cringe like that?

Was it the anticipatory giggle Cliff was making, the sound he makes sometimes if he's a little anxious or sometimes when he's just plain happy? It wasn’t loud, and he was quiet once the movie started. Or was it because he looked over at you as though he knew you? I've seen that look on his face many times, the one that expresses an innocent hope that a stranger will smile back and say hi. 

The lights finally off, a few folks responded with happy hoots and hollers. And when your parents couldn’t tolerate your rude behavior any longer, your dad switched his seat for yours. I have to hand it to you; it was swift, it was smooth, almost seamless really.

I looked over at him, wondering if I’d sized up the situation incorrectly, but this kind of thing is sadly familiar.  He kept his eyes trained on that screen  like his life depended on it.  I glanced at him several more times over the course of those two hours. He must have felt my eyes on him but didn’t let on. Embarrassment has that effect sometimes. But the effect you had on me is the reason for this letter.

I am not angry or upset with you. You’re young, just like I was once. And I will not be able to impress upon you the lessons your parents have failed to teach you, because you know everything, like lots of people your age. You don’t have to like my son, talk to him, interact in any way. But you do have to remember that he is a person, and I am his mother, with all the concomitant love and devotion that relationship entails. I love him the way your mother loves you. I will always defend him and I will never apologize for him.

Now that I have that out of the way, I want you to know your behavior made me sad.  It’s an awful thing, to feel as though we are not welcome. Thank goodness my son was oblivious to what happened right next to him. The funny thing is if he had understood, he’d have forgiven you in an instant.

On our way home that night, I thought about how important it is for me to maintain my optimism. Here is what I hope for you:  that your parents will start a conversation with you about who you should rightfully fear and who you need not fear; that you will come to understand that over the course of your life, people like my son are more like you than unlike you; that when you go to school, your teachers will welcome classmates of all abilities from whom you can learn; that when you grow up and leave your family, you’ll find community with the sort of people who would never switch seats; that you will find the depth of understanding your intolerance, and decide instead to be kind.

Remember Donald? My fear and avoidance of him was completely unfounded. According to the people who knew him, Donald was very religious and personable, an intelligent guy with a talent for photography. His friends called him Donny. I wanted you to know that, because I’m ashamed to have avoided and feared someone because of his outward appearance.

My biggest wish is for you to be challenged again and again as you grow up, until you understand that your character is your most attractive quality, not your hair or your jeans or your pink pow lipstick. I wish this with the kindest of intentions, because I wouldn’t want you to miss out on knowing someone as awesome as my son.