four months

Four months ago you left us. Last week as I slept in a hotel room just outside Chicago, I dreamed of you and I wept in my sleep. I wept so hard in my sleep that I audibly cried out until I awakened myself. You were so vivid in my dream that it took me several seconds upon waking to recognize that the reason I was weeping was that you were no longer here. You are no longer here. I have boxed up this reality for several weeks now. I have put it away and avoided thinking about it because it is the only way I can get through the day. But lately I have missed you so much.

All I can think about is how hopelessly I miss you. I miss your friendship. I miss getting your input on the simple, daily things – should I cook this or that for dinner? Should I buy that new coat or wait until I get paid again? What did you think of the most recent episode of Grey’s? Have you listened to that song I told you about yet?

I really, really miss the ability to share new things with you. When I was at a Starbucks up north last week I took a book from a free basket of books that they had. It is a story about a man who suffered from severe abuse as a child, and I know you would love to read it. You were always a sucker for stories about the underdog, stories about the abused who grew up to become strong and resilient members of society. That was your story, and you identified so closely with it. The stories of their plight nudged awake the sleeping child in you, and you were that vulnerable little girl all over again. You held close to your heart all those other sweet little children who suffered unspeakable harm at the hands of those who were supposed to protect them. You held in your heart those who came from nothing and struggled to have everything, life always beating them back into their place. It is why you loved Princess Diana and Anna Nicole Smith. It is why you watched every depressing murder mystery show about some nobody woman from some nowhere town whose corpse led to a challenging and troubled investigation that culminated in justice for her. Yours was a heart that bled often and profusely for the downtrodden.

I wish I had realized the asset I had in you before you were so near the end of your life.

I will never be “normal” again, whatever that means. I am coming to accept this as a fact of my life. There will always be triggering moments that buckle me at the knees, songs that sucker punch me, moments when I suddenly become inconsolable seemingly out of the clear blue sky. Right now we are in the midst of firsts: my first promotion without you here to share in my joy; the first time I had to euthanize a pet without you to talk me through it; the first time we have to handle birthdays and holidays without your presence.

One of your grandsons had a birthday not long ago; another one will have one in a few days. Lately I have not only missed you terribly, I have also felt terribly bitter about what I know I won’t get to experience with you. If I have children, you will not be there in the hospital with me. This is a reality that I have mulled over and held onto tightly in recent weeks. My professional life is going well and I know you were proud of me, I know you would continue to be proud of me, that you do continue to be proud. But I have found myself growing resentful at my reality, at being twenty-nine and having no prospect on the horizon of marriage and family any time soon. These are things that I only realized I wanted in the final months of your life. A year ago I was set on not having children, so certain I was that I would only screw them up. It was in no small part due to your gentle coaxing that I realized I will definitely screw up my children, and that’s okay. We all do it. We do the best we can with what we have, but no child escapes their childhood unscathed. You taught us that no parent makes perfect choices, but as long as the main focus of our existence as both a parent and a human is to love with all we have, to be honest, to be both gentle and tough and to know when which is appropriate, then that’s the best we can do.

It seems bitterly ironic that I would yearn so deeply now for something I wasn’t even sure I wanted, but that yearning is underscored by your absence. I struggle with the choices I have made, I fight to retain the stance that those choices have helped shape the person I have become, that it is better to be where I am than to have gotten tangled up with the wrong person. In some sense I came out of the womb fighting for what I wanted, but it was you who nurtured that and very carefully fostered it so that I would see obstacles as challenges and learn to persevere in my pursuit of goals and aspirations and dreams in this life. It is a strange feeling to be in a place where I cannot fight, a place where I need to coast for a while so that the things I want might fall into place. You and I talked earnestly about this before you died, a time when you were so tired and I was so self-absorbed that I couldn’t tell just how worn out you were. There are nights when I sit quietly in the dark on the floor, the dog pressed against my leg, swilling an over-full glass of red wine, wondering if I will ever forgive myself for not being more conscious during your final months of life. I want to forgive myself, and I know you would want me to, but I find it difficult to do without you here to tell me how.

My sisters and I don’t talk every day like we thought we would. None of us anticipated the weight of the every day or the sheer exhaustion we would experience just from trying to keep up with basic tasks. We don’t keep our living spaces as clean as we used to, we struggle to bother with hair and makeup and appearance. We don’t sleep well. We wake up in the middle of the night. We fail to go back to sleep. We have nightmares with you in them. We box up the raw ache of loss in our waking hours and you slip out of that box at night and that pain torments us in our dreams.

I should have expected that we would retreat and that we wouldn’t experience this loss as a unified front the way we initially thought. I have been through this before to some degree. I have known what it was to become familiar with the extremely personal nature of loss and grief and mourning. It is not that you want to go through this alone, or that you withdraw by choice. It’s just that getting out of bed and brushing your teeth and putting on clothes and interacting with the world outside the four walls of your own space is so taxing that you are lucky to be able to drag yourself inside the house before you collapse into a heap. When you have to care for anyone or anything else? Forget about it. By the time you get to the end of the routine and complete all the basic functions of living, by the time you are able to actually sit down for a minute to yourself and take a breath, you are already in the red. It’s not that you have nothing left. You have less than nothing. And you have to somehow scrape those bits of nothingness together and get yourself ready to do it all over again.

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handshakes and hugs

This week I am at a conference for my job. My industry is very small, and I am younger than most people in it by at least a decade. It is also dominated by dudes, mostly of the older and white variety. This was my second conference, and I would by lying if I said that I got much out of it besides doing some serious networking. The sessions were not applicable to where my particular business is in its life cycle, and much of what was being purveyed was fundamentally and philosophically different than what works for us. The networking was good, though, and I learned a lot on that front. I did sneak away numerous times to strip off all my uncomfortable clothes and work quietly in my hotel room. It is moments like these that make me think I am not cut out to be in an executive position where I need to be “on” for fourteen hours a day, schmoozing and socializing. Shove me in a room where I do my work and make my own hours as long as my work gets done. Meeting new people and explaining ad nauseam who we are and what we do and where we are makes me want to curl into the fetal position after just a few hours.

I have been mulling over a blog post about hugging for a while, and my experience with handshakes at this conference has given me even more fodder to consider. The two are different but similar. But with both hugging and shaking hands, there is a right and a wrong way. Let’s start with shaking hands.

Many women do it wrong. Many men do it wrong in a different way. The way you should shake hands is confidently and firmly without trying to play mercy or holding it uncomfortably long. Don’t be a cold fish with tightened fingers that don’t actually grip the hand of the person who is shaking yours. Don’t let your fingers go flacid. Don’t let your wrist go limp. It is also imperative that you do not put a death grip on the hand of the other person. If you are so firm that you almost snap my metacarpals, you’re doing it wrong. Also, it does not reflect positively on your manhood that you can aggressively squeeze my hand. Congratulations, you’re a dick.

For some reason the percentage of people who shake hands incorrectly surprises me. This is not a challenging concept. I did not grow up in an environment where learning to shake hands appropriately was a skill that was bestowed upon me. All it takes is a time or two to sort it out. This isn’t rocket science, folks. Basically, the same rule applies here that applies in every arena of life: don’t be a douche. Just be a normal human being. Confidently put your hand forward, slide it into someone else’s, move it up and down a couple of times, and voila! you’ve just successfully completed a handshake. So many people I encountered this week have been in the professional sphere for so long and have presumably been shaking hands the WRONG way all this time. This makes me curious – is it acceptable to call someone out for this? Can you at least make a face? I make a face. I cannot help myself. These people need to know that their handshaking technique is abysmal and needs serious overhauling.

Hugging is a little different, though not completely. One of the main differences with hugging is that you can ostensibly call out someone who is a bad hugger. If your relationship is intimate enough that you are hugging, you can tell someone they suck at it. After my mom died, one of my sisters asked that people share stories that they remembered about our mother. One of my dearest and oldest friends said that it was our mom who taught her how to hug. That was the way our mom was – she was “a hugger” in any and all circumstances.

Going on a trip? Hugs!

Going out for the evening? Hugs!

Running to the gas station real quick? Hugs!

Going to the basement for a minute? Hugs!

We girls are also “huggers” as a result. When people try and say silly things like, Oh, I’m not a hugger, I have to admit that I want to stab them in the face a little. My reaction is, Oh, really? You don’t like to engage in one of the most basic human interactions? You don’t like to indulge human affection, literally the basest of our needs as mammals?* Then I hug them anyway.

The thing is, just like with shaking hands, there is a right and a wrong way to hug. I’ll go ahead and speak for every woman who has ever wanted to have sex with a man and vice versa – if you want to communicate that you do not want to have sex with someone, pat them while you’re hugging them. Unless you are in a serious, committed, confident relationship with someone, or unless you are their pastor, it is never appropriate to pat someone who you are hugging.

Patting signifies dismissal. Thaaaaat’s niiiiiice, mmmmmmmk, hug’s over.

Patting is the placating move we use on baby bottoms. What makes anyone think it is appropriate to use this on grown adults, especially grown adults with whom you might want to fornicate at some point? Patting someone on the back while you hug them is awkward.

Also awkward in the hugosphere is the one-arm. Unless you have groceries, a child, or a flaming bag of shit in your other hand, you’d better go ahead and use both arms when you hug me. What is the value in letting your other arm lie there all stiff and weird? Are you afraid that if you use both arms you might have warm human feelings? Does.Not.Compute.

Seriously, the one armed hug makes me want to Jackie Chan or Chuck Norris snap that other arm. I’ll give you a reason not to hug me with both arms!

If someone has a legitimate reason for the one-armed hug, I’m all ears. But in general, there is no valid reason. Because you do not feel comfortable being a vulnerable human is not a valid reason. Get over it. We’re people. We touch each other. Sometimes we hug each other and we both have bewbs and those bewbs have to be all up in each other’s grill. Get over it.

Sure, sometimes people are weird about hugging and they get freaked out because they have sexual hangups or issues with affection. Let me say it again: GET. THE FUCK. OVER IT. We are human beings. If someone is hugging you, there is a 99%+ chance that they are doing so because they care about you, you care about them, and you have a mutual desire to facilitate one another’s comfort and happiness. All the baggage that you’re carrying around on your back and dangling from your neck and strapped to your ankles and weighing down your shoulders? Don’t let it stop you from feeling the love emanating from another human being who wants to share with you their kindness and warmth. You deserve better than that. You deserve better than to be defined by the lurid past over which you have no control. You’re in control now, so go ahead and use both hands and don’t go pat-pat-pat.

If someone is hugging you without your permission, that’s a different story. Stab that motherfucker in the throat. And then kick him/her in the groin for good measure. And maybe another quick throat stab before you run off into the night.

But if you are engaging in a consensual hug? Do it right. Throw your arms around the other person with abandon and pull them close to you and hold them for a spell. Life is short, y’all. And my reality differs from yours very little in that all any of us really wants is to love and to be loved. All the other shit is just static. Bonuses. Pluses and minuses on a scale of love. Career? Fantastic if you have someone to celebrate it with. Beautiful home? Great! If you can fill the space with loved ones. Lots of money? Fabulous if you can sometimes spend it bringing a smile to the face of someone you care about.

*I recognize that some people don’t hug because of issues related to OCD or touch and I respect that. But sometimes people just aren’t huggers because they are twats who don’t like to acknowledge their humanness in a way that might make them typical or vulnerable. And that’s rubbish.

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crawl forward

Most of what I write has some deep life lesson embedded in it, which is rarely intentional. But in twenty-nine short years I have learned more about life, love, and loss than many people learn in a lifetime. Pondering and processing loss tends to lead one to think about life and love. The three are inextricably intertwined in a way that makes our lives as humans uniquely beautiful, and this tightly woven fabric of our existence is a concept that many choose – to their own detriment – to overlook. We don’t want to think about loss as a real part of our lives. We especially do not want to consider death honestly and analytically. It is much easier to shove our heads deep into the sands of denial, and then to be incensed and outraged when death comes like a thief to take what we love.

I am a good person. We tell ourselves. I don’t deserve this. As if the most natural and inevitable conclusion of life is somehow dictated by an arbitrary measurement of our intrinsic or attempted goodness.

The concept of bargaining is natural in the grieving process. We believe that because we sustained this loss, it would be inhumane for any more trauma or tragedy to befall us. We have enough on the plate of our fractured life; we cannot take anymore. Surely God or the Universe will understand that and take pity on us.

Recently as I lamented the unceasing shitstorm that has been the lives of my sisters and me for the past several months, as I complained about how I must have been Atilla the Hun in a former life, a dear friend suggested that perhaps everything does not happen for a reason. Perhaps the Universe or God is not trying to teach me any sort of lesson. Maybe our lives are simply a collection of happenings and what kind of human beings we are depends upon how we choose to handle those happenings.

Do we carry ourselves with grace in the face of adversity? Do we whine and kick and scream and refuse to accept our reality? Do we take the bad things that happen to us as lessons learned and move forward with greater wisdom? Or do we use our sorrows as a crutch, an excuse to refuse to engage fully with the world around us? When our dreams unexpectedly burst into shards in front of our very eyes, and we don’t have a backup plan, how do we respond? Do we allow the setbacks to make us bitter? Do we become resentful at the people who try to hold us up? Do we lash out at those closest to us, taking out on them the demise of the future we had planned for ourselves? Do we withdraw? Do we give up and stop trying or loving altogether? Do we become bent with sadness, ultimately shutting out everyone and everything to varying degrees? Or do we stop, take a breath, step back, and renegotiate with ourselves how to move forward? Do we find a new path, or do we sit down in the middle of the darkened forest and simply give up?

We are all faced with choices. Life abounds with misery and heartache. Sometimes around every corner is a grim reaper, lying in wait, prepared to steal from us all our carefully constructed plans and dreams. Our grades aren’t what we expected. Our careers stall. Our houses fall apart. Our cars stop running. Our parents die. Our children become sick. Our pets run away. Our marriages fail. Our finances falter. This is not to be despondent or overtly pessimistic. Not all of these travesties will befall every single one of us in that particular order. Or maybe they will. The truth is that the only certainty in life is uncertainty, and death.

At some point in our lives, anguish will gut both you and me. The torment of your crushed life will reach inside you and hollow you out like a pumpkin, leaving nothing but agony. It is how we respond in the face of inescapable suffering that defines us as human beings. It is how we move forward even when we swear that one more blow will bring us to our knees and incapacitate us that determines our legacy. Even when that blow comes, and you hit your knees, what choice is there but to crawl forward?

This weekend I had to put my rats to sleep. Both of them. They each had been struggling with illness, and it seemed that they both were dealing with pituitary tumors. They each retained their personalities, even as their bodies failed them, which made the decision that much more agonizing. Oliver was severely underweight with a bulging swollen eye, unable to eat except through a syringe. Fenton was paralyzed in his back legs and unable to move around unless he dragged himself. It was not an easy decision, particularly in light of the past few months.

exhausted and sickly brothers

exhausted and sickly brothers

Fenton got sick first, and after going to the vet and being on antibiotics for a couple of weeks he was doing much better. He even started coming out of his cage again, playing and snuggling with me. While I was nursing him back to health, Oliver was getting sick and was unable to eat, and I didn’t notice. He still went to the food bowl, food disappeared, and I didn’t think much of it. Turns out his teeth overgrew out of nowhere – something that has never happened in his almost two years of life. They punctured the roof of his mouth, so he had both overgrown teeth and a festering wound. It goes without saying that I felt awful about myself for missing this.

baby food from a syringe

baby food from a syringe

Then, despite both of them being at the vet less than a week prior, they suddenly started to fall apart almost overnight. It is a strange feeling to shift from a sense of urgency, a compulsive desire to fight for whatever is necessary to save them, to a sense of resignation. When you realize that saving them is no longer an option, that all you are doing is prolonging for a brief moment what is inevitably going to come to pass very soon, you have to ask yourself who benefits from that. My mom and I talked earnestly numerous times before she died and even before she got very sick about euthanasia for humans. Though she was too afraid to allow it to be enacted upon her, she believed in the concept for those who were sure of it. Death is a certainty. Suffering doesn’t have to be.

snuggling after being treated by Dr. Mom

snuggling after being treated by Dr. Mom

Meanwhile, Josie started having problems with her ears, as she often does. Normally I have a running supply of her various medications so that when allergy season descends upon us, I can manage all of her skin ailments with little interruption to our daily lives. The only problem this season is that around the same time my mom died, Joseph’s normal vet also died. I did not find this out until several weeks later, and that’s a story for another post, but the result is that we had to find a new vet. Luckily a guy I work with is married to a local vet, and she is lovely. But we do not have rapport the way I did with the old vet, so I need to schedule an appointment and leave work early and run around. In doing so, I also found that I will need to clean the dog’s vulva at least once a day for the rest of her life.

Then, last week, as I was preparing for the difficult decision of euthanizing the ratties, I was also rushing the dog back and forth between home and the emergency vet at the university. She suddenly became unable to walk again, crying out in pain and collapsing onto her side in the front yard, even when I’d carried her out there. I spent one whole evening and the majority of the next day sitting, waiting. The prognosis is ultimately uncertain. She will be on three separate pain medications and subject to cage rest for six more weeks. If it turns out she ruptures another disc in her spine, she is not a good candidate for surgery. I will likely be faced with putting her down. And if she comes out of this, the rest of her life will need to be considerably less active. No jumping or running or rough playing. No hiking with Mama, one of the most grounding activities of my adult life.

Simply keeping all of us fed and bathing myself and going to work every day has been an almost insurmountable challenge these past few months. And suddenly I have three special needs pets. Then, I have to euthanize two of them, while I stare down five and a half more weeks of waiting to know exactly what will happen with the third. I have to be honest – I am on my knees. And I do not feel like crawling forward. I feel like lying right here and letting it all burn down around me. I am struggling to care at all, about anything. I know that this is a defining moment in my life.

Assuming I live that long, I will look back on this in a decade and critique the choices that this version of myself made. Maybe I will write about her, maybe I will be able to cover in detached detail the process of putting the rats to sleep and the frustration I felt at the dog just moments after bringing her home from the vet where I had cried inconsolably at the prospect of putting her to sleep. Maybe I will be proud of that twenty-nine year old who sustained the loss of her mother, her vet, and her pet rats in a three month span and didn’t give up or become a raging alcoholic. Maybe I will want to give her a hug and tell her that it gets better. Maybe in ten years I will have a decade of work in my field under my belt. Maybe I will be happily married with a child or two – something I am afraid to want as hungrily as I do. Maybe I will want to hold this broken twenty-nine year old and promise her that sometimes life truly is sweet more often than it is cruel. Maybe I will tell her that even though she is battered and disheartened, though she feels vanquished by the inhumanity of this often calamitous life, there is no choice but to crawl forward.

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ratties and love

My previous post was meant to be about the experience of getting pet rats, but it took an unexpected turn. In this stage of my life, after several years of not writing consistently, I have learned to allow myself to write whatever bubbles to the surface. When I attempt to be rigid about what I am writing, the result is awkward and forced. When I let the creative part of my brain take over and write whatever it feels like writing, the finished product is incomparably superior. Most of what I know of other writers suggests that their process is very similar. You think you are going to write x because that’s the idea you had, and that’s what you sat down to do. But instead, you write a, b, and c out of the blue, and hangs out on a list of things you know you eventually want to get to. This is what I find exhilarating about the process, this uncertainty of exactly what you’ll create until you’re in the thick of it and suddenly what you have generated is so much better than what you had set out to make. That said, I want to tell you the story of my boys, how they came to be part of my brood, and where we are in our lives at this moment.

It took over two months to convince my boyfriend that getting pet rats was a good idea. He wanted to, and it seemed plausible in theory. But even after I had purchased a cage and set it up, and even after he got me a book about rat training for Christmas that year, he was still reticent. Hesitant. Afraid to take the plunge. He often got inside his own head about decisions and had a tendency to over-think them, and I knew that was what he was doing here. After about a dozen arguments, I finally decided that with or without his support I was going to the pet store and I was picking up pet rats. I had already visited the litter of baby fancy rats, and had bonded with an off-white baby boy who had curiously, gingerly spent some time playing with me in the visitation room. I was terrified they would sell that sweet boy and I would miss out on a critter relationship that was meant to be. So late in an evening between Christmas and New Year’s, we trekked to the pet store just before they closed to pick up a pair of brothers from the litter of baby rats that was in the cramped room at the back of the store with chinchillas and bunnies and ferrets and gerbils and snakes and spiders and turtles. We were flushed in our winter coats, standing among the heat lamps and the tiny breathing bodies, the birds in the next room chirping and squawking a soundtrack.

matching white spots on their heads

matching white spots on their heads

The little boy with the off-white coat and the diamond on his forehead was still there. So was his hooded brother, the boy who was more outgoing and curious. We had spent a little time together, too, and though ours wasn’t as strong of a bond, he was the only male left at this point and everything I had read implored the rat owner to only buy pet rats in pairs. So we paid a few dollars each for the boys and picked up some supplies while we were there and just like with the feeder rats, they stuck the baby boys in a paper bag. They stapled the receipt to the top of the bag. I grinned from ear to ear as we emerged into the cold winter night, eager to race back to our apartment a few blocks away and set about getting to know our new critters. I was already in love.

uncertain, but curious

uncertain, but curious

The cage was set up and our place was warm and inviting with two Christmas trees twinkling, glowing lights wrapping the huge banister all the way to the top of the stairs, and a Vince Guaraldi Christmas station on Pandora playing over our large sound system. The warmth of the space we shared always belied the tumult that pervaded the relationship, and that relationship would end for the first time a month later. But on this night there were new critters and an inquisitive dog and I had not a care in the world except tending to my little nest of mammals. In my ideal world, I live in a homey but modest space with lots of critters and I work from home, writing professionally. Or maybe I am a web designer. Or maybe I am a psychic. Or maybe my “job” is to be married to a zillionaire or come into some magical inheritance or win the lottery, and to be a stay-at-home-mom to a pack of beasts, including the tiny human kind. What matters is that the existence is comfortable but humble, and it involves a swarm of critters.

sharing an apple

sharing an apple

At that time in my life my future was uncertain. I had just graduated from college and anticipated going to graduate school, though I had severe misgivings about that path. My relationship with my family was strained. I drank too much and too often. I lived with someone who I did not believe had the same life ideology as me, and I was furiously trying to hold together a relationship with a significant other who seemed unmoved by those efforts and unwilling to meet me even close to halfway. I had lost my faith in God. I had lost my faith in love. I had lost my way almost entirely. This was not the first time I had lost my way, and it wouldn’t be the last. It is entirely possible that it won’t be the last. But one thing has remained constant and steady throughout my life: the unconditional love of an animal is the most splendid and unfaltering love I know. I don’t doubt that the love of a child is similar, and I do know that love from my nephews. But there is nothing as straightforward and uncomplicated as the adoration that can be found only in the simplicity of the love of nonhuman mammals.

As an awkward child in the south, I spent most of my time holed up in the neighbor’s barn talking to the horses. I built such an unbreakable bond with that stallion and mare that when they foaled a pretty little paint filly the spring before my family moved away from there, I had access not typically permitted to humans. A twelve-year-old mess of an adolescent, I couldn’t sustain conversation with people my own age and I made most adults uncomfortable, but I could wrap my arms around the delicate neck of that baby horse and her protective mother did not question or challenge me. When the neighbor lady discovered our unusual relationship and challenged me to a series of trust tests, that sweet filly and I sailed through each one. The relationship was not unusual to either of us. It was normal, simple, built upon a mutual trust and an unfettered and uncomplicated desire to be close to one another. Those three horses would stand at the fence and wait for me for hours, whether I had treats for them or not. My touch, my attention, my unbridled love was reward enough. Their acceptance and reciprocated love was their gift to me in return.

As I emerged into adolescence and then adulthood, with all its confusion and unnecessary complexity, with the egos of humans mucking up the simple concept of love, I became increasingly disillusioned with life. Most of my teenage years were spent in a depressed haze, and my early adulthood wasn’t much different. I was bursting at the seams with love, and had no idea how to give it away correctly. I would pour it out too early and too often and would be chided for it, ridiculed by my peers, burned by any potential object of it for being too raw, too naked, too open. In defense I would shut down and turn mean. Lashing out from a place of bottomless fear, I became closed off and callous at some point. Perhaps not unrelated, it was during this phase that I had no pets for the first time in my life. There was no touchstone of wonder and innocence to keep me grounded, to fan the flames of love.

This was the first time I lost my faith. We lived – I realized – in a world of selfishness, despair, greed, hatred, cruelty, sorrow, death. With nothing to remind me that for all of that wretched darkness there was an opposing light three times as powerful, I drifted away. It was only in the face of my own mortality that I came back to what I knew to be true, a truth that existed regardless of the trappings of our self-serving culture. In picking up pet rats that cold post-Christmas night, I was seeking to supplement the critter love that existed in the enormous space that I shared with a partner who couldn’t get out of his own way enough to fully let me in. Joseph was there, filling that space, but it was vast and we needed the warmth of new babies to reinvigorate our world.

While it did nothing to save the romantic relationship that I knew would fail, the introduction of two energetic and snuggly little rattie boys into my world imbued my existence with a renewed sense of unabashed love. It reminded me that pouring all that you have to give down the open drain of someone who will not or cannot reciprocate is not the only option we have as human beings. We can choose to whom we give away our love so big that it can’t be held within the confines of our own hearts. We can choose to give our love to those who choose to give us theirs. And we can love the nonreciprocal in a way that removes us just enough to keep from being damaged.

When I was fifteen and struggling to have my love returned by a boy who had no interest in me aside from keeping me on a string, my best friend told me that love is not quiet and discreet. I know this now, that true love explodes from your pores in a storm of rainbows and sunshine and glitter and joy. True love is not ashamed of itself, not embarrassed by the intensity of its existence, not deterred by difficulty. Real love is bright and giving and natural and easy. It does not fight against itself, it is not compelled by selfishness or anything external. It took two tiny rodents to remind me of this reality, and bringing that love into my life was a turning point that set me back on a path toward a life that I knew I wanted, a dream that I had given up in tiny pieces and large chunks along my stumbling way.

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Filed under Critters, life, Love, relationships

a tale of rats and vulnerability

Exactly two years ago today I sent an email to my then-boyfriend Todd. It was just before midnight on a Monday, and I had undoubtedly been up late working on school work in my last semester at the University of Illinois, and researching an idea I had. The email subject was “rats!” and the body contained only a link to a site about how to care for a pet rat. Not long before this, I had gone with a dear friend of mine to a pet store in town to buy a feeder rat for his snake. When we asked for a feeder rat, the salesperson disappeared into the back and returned with a rustling paper bag, and though I understood this was simply part of the process, I was overcome with the desire to save that rat and every other rat in the entire world. When I peeked into the bag and saw its inquisitive eyes and ears twitching with a heightened sense of curiosity but not outright fear, all I wanted to do was punch my friend in the face, steal that bag, and run far away. I didn’t do that. Instead, I went home and furiously began to research rats as pets. Todd and I lived together at the time, and when you cohabit with another human being, it is prudent to ensure that said human being with whom you are cohabiting is on board with whatever potentially life-altering decisions you might make.

We were the kind of couple who fought about nearly everything. A simple breakdown in communication, a misheard inflection, a misunderstood facial expression, and bam we were bickering. He almost invariably misinterpreted my intentions and I spent most of the relationship miserable and sequestered inside myself. It was one of the few times in my life that I took my time walking away from a relationship that didn’t work, and I could never figure out why until my mom pointed it out to me. After Jason died, my approach to relationships shifted dramatically. I began to unconsciously operate from a place of post-traumatic stress, a place where I was terrified that if I left, something might happen to that person. Not that my leaving was the reason or even the catalyst for Jason’s death. As with most things in life and death, it was far more complicated than that. But our simple, subconscious minds tend to provoke us to actions based on rudimentary reasoning of which we are perhaps totally unaware. And so in my subsequent serious relationships after Jason’s suicide, I was prone to tread very lightly, and to push through awful incompatibilities and emotional damage that I would have given the finger in my old life.

This is not to say that I regret these relationships that sputtered, existed in fits and starts. The truth is, I learned how to fight and how not to fight. I learned to clearly and calmly explain my own position, to recognize my own needs and to require that those needs be met. I learned to be kind, even in the face of a partner who was not being kind, and how to not let someone else’s behavior dictate mine. I learned to stand my ground on the things that were truly important, how to compromise on the things that weren’t, and how to tell the difference. I learned to slow down and listen, and how to stay and attempt to work through things even when every instinct I had told me to run far away, and fast. I learned to derive my worth not from how I was seen through the eyes of a partner, but how I saw myself independent of anyone else’s opinion.

Had I not had the boyfriend who regularly grabbed my gut and told me I was getting fat, I might not have learned to stop shaming myself about my weight and my body. Had it not been for the boyfriend who left me in bars, I might not have learned to avoid getting blackout drunk in public. Were it not for the irrationally explosive outbursts of the boyfriend who allowed the stress of everyday life to blind him to the importance of taking minor inconveniences in stride, I might not have learned to stop internalizing the daily frustrations of the human existence. Had it not been for the boyfriend who used sex as a coping mechanism and saw me as merely a facilitator of that, I might not have learned exactly what sex in a relationship means to me. Were it not for the boyfriend who told me I could have a hug or a kiss but not both, or the boyfriend who actively moved out of the way so he wouldn’t have to accidentally touch me, I might not have recognized that I am a very affectionate person who requires a very affectionate partner and that’s okay.

With each relationship, I learned a multitude of lessons that I may or may not have picked up along the way without those experiences. The way we grow is determined in large part by our surroundings, and the way I have grown in the five years since Jason died is likely very different than the way I would have grown if he had lived. Had things gone down differently in 2008, he and I probably would have gotten married in July like we had planned, and we might still be married today. And maybe we would have learned all of those lessons together, bumping against one another as we figured out adult life, bumping against the complications of that life as a united front. As two early-twenties kids, we were trying desperately to learn those lessons, even if unwittingly.

Had we not lost the battle against the depression that swallowed Jason up, I like to think that we might have landed as a couple and as individuals in a place similar to where I feel I have landed at nearly thirty years old. It is a place where humility reigns supreme. A place where I know who I am, but I do not hold dogmatically to any part of my identity. A place where I do not take for granted any aspect of my world. In this place I acknowledge and respect the tenuous grasp we as human beings have on this fleeting life of ours. Maybe we wouldn’t have landed in this place as a couple. But I like to think that even if we hadn’t, we would have landed there as individuals, and we would have been lifelong friends. Sometimes I imagine us as friends, the two of us sitting on the tailgate of his truck in the woods, sipping beers in the moonlight, talking and talking about life and relationships, love and hope and dreams. We would talk endlessly, or sit comfortably in silence, the way we had so many times before and after we started dating.

In these thoughts of days that will never come to pass, Jason is still twenty-five, unable to age in my mind’s eye beyond where he was when he died. And in these thoughts we communicate more readily than we did toward the end when darkness had seeped into every open space of our life together. We are not perpetually exhausted and weighted down with the triviality and mundanity of daily life. We are not engrossed in a wearying war against a force so powerful it had the ability to completely snuff out the life of one of us, and threaten to do the same to the other. In these talks that we have in my mind, these talks that drift to me sometimes in the fuzzy state of almost-consciousness between wakefulness and sleep, we are self-possessed and poised. We sit on the porch swing as the sun goes down, me with my bare feet on the porch railing and him with his long legs stretched out in front of him. He wears his boots. He always wears his boots. We talk about how far we have come in five years, we lament the challenges we have faced and applaud our triumphs.

In my alternate reality where I share deeply with the person with whom I thought I would spend the rest of my life, the prevailing lesson is the same as the one I have learned so painfully in my actual reality. Through every broken relationship, and through every unexpected, grief-laden bend in the road, the overarching lesson remains the same: vulnerability is key. This lesson first throat-punched me when I inexplicably went blind in one eye at twenty-three. It has been conspicuously reminding me of its presence ever since. As a young person, I refused to make promises or allow anyone to rely on me. I refused to rely on anyone else. I obstinately denied myself a tremendous amount of love on the premise of being “strong” or “right” or “independent”. We get so caught up proving to others and to ourselves that we can handle everything. We get so bent on needing to prove a point. We stingily cling to our sense of indignation, we write people off, we reject the beautiful opportunity to be the first one to apologize. We hold grudges and we enumerate the wrongs we believe we have suffered at the hands of the people who love us.

I am not above any of this. I spent much of my life allowing these tendencies to be my soldiers on the front line, so certain I was that I was protecting myself. Even in the failed relationships I have had since Jason’s death, since I had to recalibrate my plans for the future, I have not unequivocally upheld what I know to be true of vulnerability. One can only turn the other cheek so many times before the claws must come out, or so I thought. As the summer of my mother’s death has faded into autumn, and I drift further away from her wellspring of wisdom about life, I am forced to recalibrate again. In doing so, I have found myself stark naked in front of the bright reality that there is no such thing as too much vulnerability. Of course you cannot allow yourself to be completely taken advantage of, and it is imperative to speak your truth and to stand your ground. But I am continuing to learn that being vulnerable and standing one’s ground are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the most assertive and freeing way to truly stand your ground and to speak your truth is to do so entirely unguarded. The only way to test the principles upon which you have built your life is to expose them to the harsh realities of someone else’s criticism, the brutal judgment of the world at large, or – most terrifying of all – the honest critique of someone you love.


Filed under Critters, life, relationships

Sheltered Beagle

As a young child, I was strange. This may or may not come as a surprise. Adulthood has not made me less strange; it has simply made me more able to fight (some of) my weirdo tendencies, and more able to hide the fact that I am a total weirdo. More often than not I preferred the company of animals to that of other children when I was little. Even as a child, I had little use for children. I found it difficult to communicate with them, and especially challenging to bend them to my will. So any time I could sneak away from the neighborhood kids and hide out by myself like a bizarre little recluse talking nonstop to whatever mammal I could wrangle into my presence, that is precisely what I did. Most of the time it did not matter whether the mammal in question was alive or dead. We’ll get to that.

Our family has had dogs in one capacity or another for as long as I can remember. We had a huge black Lab named Trapper who lived mostly outside, a fact that I find appalling as an adult – dogs are not outside creatures. They are social animals whose driving desire in life is to be with their pack, you, their human family. This is something about which I feel very, very strongly, but I will refrain from ranting for now. My dad loves Beagles, and I remember at least one moronic Beagle dog in my very early days in Decatur, before my parents divorced. Sheba was her name, and she was sweet but dumb, as Beagles are wont to be. Some people would have you believe that Beagles are not intelligent, but those people are wrong. Although I just referred to them as dumb, do not be fooled into thinking that Beagle dogs are stupid. On the contrary, they are generally fairly smart, they just choose to completely disregard their own intelligence in favor of acting like complete fucking idiots. This makes them dumb. I have grown to conclude that there is something special about the Beagle Brain, some sort of unique wiring that lends itself to a profound idiocy that cannot be found in any other breed of dog. The brain of a Labrador Retriever is not dissimilar to that of a Beagle in that there seems to be some sort of unusual behavior in their neurological pathways that causes them to forget everything the have ever known or learned in the face of an enticing smell or any sort of movement by an unidentified animal/person/object/limb blowing in the breeze. The difference between a Lab and a Beagle is that the former lives to please its master, while the latter lives to serve its own broken brain.

When I decided to adopt a dog almost exactly six years ago, my one stipulation was that I did not want a Beagle. Under no circumstances would I adopt a Beagle. Out of the question. When I went to the shelter about an hour away from where my fiance and I lived, I knew that I wanted a German Shepherd mix. He and I were not in total agreement on this decision. We already had a six month old German Shorthaired Pointer, but our ideas about how to raise a dog and for what purpose were vastly different. He intended to make her into a hunting dog. As such, she was not to be a “pet” in the same way that most dogs are pets. Although we engaged in exhaustive discussions on the subject, I never fully grasped exactly what that meant. What was very evident, though, was that she was his dog. She loved me, but she thought the sun rose and set on him, and when there is a bond like that between a dog and its master, all other bonds pale in comparison.

A beautiful specimen

A beautiful, gigantic specimen at only six months

Having had my own sweet girl Sugar put to sleep three years prior, I felt ready to take on the task of raising my own puppy again. My aunt and uncle had owned a string of German Shepherds and Shepherd mixes throughout my life, and Sugar had been a Shepherd mutt. They are a breed that I love, primarily because they are intelligent and obedient without being overly needy. Another fundamental element of the Labrador Brain and most similar breeds, including Pointers, is The Neediness. Good God in heaven, The Neediness. Dogs who whine all the time are not and will never be my cup of tea. I can.not.stand. a whining dog. This probably has something to do with my stimulation and sensory issues, the fact that it is disruptive to have some creature plaintively carrying on about the unfairness of life without the benefit of language. Obviously I am going to make an amazing mother when the time comes. German Shepherds bark at perceived threats, and they will whine, but my experience with them has been that the noise they make is negligible in comparison to other breeds. So I set about finding a German Shepherd mix to adopt.

When I arrived at the shelter, I walked up and down the Females side. In addition to having a certain breed in mind, I knew I did not want a male. Boy dogs are also not my thing. They pee on everything, they’re less cuddly, you can’t smack their fat puppy tummies in quite the same way as a girl dog because of the whole penis-having situation. There were several elderly dogs, lots of one-to-two-year-olds. While I was not looking for a brand new puppy necessarily, I also did not want an older dog or even a dog who was beyond six months of age. I anticipated it would be challenging to have two puppies in the house, and I knew that I wanted a dog who was young enough that she hadn’t developed a litany of bad habits or baggage. The shelter was a cacophony of barking and whining and the sound of chain link crate doors rattling. There are people in the world who go to animal shelters simply to “visit the animals” or “just to look”. Both of these are concepts that are completely beyond my comprehension. While I believe there is an argument that having people to interact with might be good for the animals’ well-being, to walk into a shelter with no intention of actually taking home one of the animals who is utterly desperate to have you take them home seems cruel. Not to mention the heartache and guilt that I would carry around for the rest of my natural life for not having taken them ALL home with me.

The girl who was assisting me was just slightly older than high school age, and I envied her in some ways. I often lament the reality that I didn’t pursue something related to animals as a profession, either becoming a veterinarian or a zookeeper or a professional snuggler of penguins and puppies. At the time, I was in college studying Psychology, and managing a bar where I was able to both put what I had learned at school to use and make all sorts of psychological observations. Bartenders and therapists are not so far removed from one another. While I was generally happy with the path I had chosen, I felt a nagging sense of being remiss in my life choices, as I often do when I contemplate that there are people in the world whose sole responsibility in their profession is to help animals in one way or another. Helper Girl wore khaki pants and a polo and she was no-nonsense, bossing me around liberally, even if I was a head taller and several years older than her. She briskly walked off to attend to important shelter business as I made my first trek down the Female aisle.

The concrete floor was damp with small pools collecting in some spots, remnants of routine cleanings of all the individual kennels. On either side of me was a row of kennels separated from one another by cinder block walls painted a soft yellow that was likely meant to be calming. The dirt and grime inherent in a shelter atmosphere dulled the original buttery yellow into a bleak, sallow noncolor somewhere between taupe and ivory. The doors to the kennels were solid on the bottom three feet, a flimsy tin-like metal. The top portion of the doors was made of chain-link and the doors towered seven feet high. On my first pass, I was unimpressed. Helper Girl appeared out of nowhere just as I was emerging from the aisle and hurriedly asked if I’d found anyone I was ready to take home. When it was clear that I was uncertain, she herded me directly into the Puppies Lounge, the special room where young puppies are housed. She had a German Shepherd mix in mind for me, and pulled the sleeping baby girl from her little crate. We went into the visiting room, but she was terrified. She clung to me, the way very young puppies often do. She was fuzzy and brindle and very sweet. Her paws suggested that she was going to be a bigger dog, which was what I wanted.

Making decisions isn’t my sharpest skill. In fact, sometimes decision-making is so taxing because there are so many choices that I take a stress nap to avoid it. Or I avoid it by diving head first into an embarrassingly large plate of food or container of ice cream or whiskey-infused cocktail. This is not my favorite attribute about myself. Research suggests that we are overwhelmed as a culture because choice has gotten out of control in our modern world, as has stimulation. Whether my crippling indecision is a byproduct of too many choices or faulty wiring, it is a skill that I continually try to hone. At this phase in my life, my awareness of my issues with indecision was primordial, and I mostly knew only that I grew uncomfortable in certain situations. I had stopped leaving carts in grocery stores for the most part by then, but making a decision about what dog to commit to for the next decade or so of my life felt big.

Before committing, I opted to take one more pass through the row of kennels just to make sure. On this pass, I saw a fuzzy little black-and-tan sweet old thing that I had previously missed. Although the dogs around her barked and wailed and whined, she was silent. She stared up at me, curious but calm. She had no name. I stared back at her and I knew that I had to at least spend some one-on-one with her just to see if we might hit it off.  Helper Girl deposited us into a visitation room and I sat on the floor trying to engage this puppy whose primary focus was clearly the whereabouts of Helper Girl. The nameless puppy ultimately came around somewhat, though her interactions with me were still somewhat distracted. After we put her away and I visited the brindle again and snuggled her for a while, we headed up front where I could sign paperwork if I had made a decision.

For some reason, even though the brindle baby seemed to need me more, I opted for the nameless and quiet black-and-tan. They would send her to be spayed and I could pick her up at the vet in a few days. I walked out with a leash and food and instructions that appeared to have been composed on a typewriter and then reproduced through copies of copies of copies. They were vague and rooted in common sense, but I devoured them anyway. We had a low-key weekend as we often did, and on Sunday night the nasty monster that is Congratulations! You made a choice but it was probably the wrong one! open-palm slapped me in the temple and I spent over an hour crying at the terrifying possibility that I had chosen to rescue the wrong dog and my eternal soul was surely going to burn for this. My fiance spent Sunday night consoling me while trying to wrap his brain around the prospect of marrying such an unstable weirdo.

My mom was slated to go with me to the vet to pick up my new bundle of joy, and we laughed and talked on the hour-and-a-half drive. It was not often that my mom did this sort of thing with me, especially by this time of her life, and I reveled in the rare opportunity to spend time with her doing something out of the ordinary. The plan was for me to hold the pup on my lap while Mama drove us home. What I hadn’t noticed in my rushed whirlwind of five minutes with my new baby before Helper Girl had moved us along was that my nameless puppy was super skinny. Also, she smelled like the wet sludge in the bottom of a dumpster after a heavy rain, but not right afterward, more like when a midsummer sun has had the opportunity to braise it for a few days, but there was such a volume that it didn’t fully dry up. She smelled like decaying, rotten ass. And I had to hold her on my lap for the next hour and a half. Mom and I decided immediately that we would stop at the decent sized town twenty-five miles into the trip and pick up something with which to clean the abhorrent stench off this little mutt.

We got to town, and I took the newly christened Josie into PetSmart where I bought a couple of treats and a giant tub of doggy baby wipes, and we went into the bathroom so I could scrub her down at least enough to keep our gag reflexes in check for the rest of the trip. I handed her a bone to chew while I cleaned her up, and it was then that something else I hadn’t picked up about her came to light: she was extremely aggressive with food/treats. Kneeling on a cold and filthy tile floor in a pet store bathroom stall in a city where I didn’t live trying to eradicate the vile stank from this emaciated puppy who was trying to eat my fingers off every time I came near her brought racing to the surface every fear I had about having made the wrong decision.

What have I done

I sat back on my heels for a minute, completely overwhelmed. Can I take her back? Surely they’ll take her back. I mean, I’ll eat the couple hundred dollars, but that’s fine, no big deal, it’ll be fine, they’ll hate me and I’ll probably be banned from adopting another dog ever again in the whole world. I’ll probably be registered as a deplorable jerkface in some database like the sex offenders registry or something. That’s fine. Possibilities flooded my brain, all of my hairs stood on end with anxiety, as Josie leaned her scrawny puppy body against the tile wall gnaw-gnaw-gnawing on her bone. Suddenly some instinct of assertiveness from my childhood of handling myself around ornery horses kicked in, along with the realization that she weighed a massive seventeen pounds and I was a grownass adult and I was going to take control of this motherloving situation. So I grabbed that bone, and when she snarled and her sharp little puppy teeth came at me, I grabbed her tiny snout and looked her directly in the eyes and seethed, NO! Then I held her foul little body against my thighs while I scoured her with more than half the container of puppy baby wipes.

When we got in the car my mom noted that now she smelled a little like baby-powder-scented feces, but that at least the drive wasn’t that much longer. Tired by this point, our conversation had waned and we listened to the radio quietly. Mom kept looking over at me. She would look at the dog, look at me, back at the road. Dog, me, road. Dog, me, road. Dog, me, road.

What’s the deal, woman? I asked

Ahem. My mom often cleared her throat to buy a second or two before saying something to me that she knew I didn’t want to hear. I hate to say this… She trailed off.

What? I was worried that maybe she noticed some defect I hadn’t seen, or that based on the happenings in the pet store bathroom she thought my brand new puppy was irretrievably aggressive.

Well. She cleared her throat again. Her head’s shaped an awful lot like a Beagle’s.

And my mom was right. Josie’s head was shaped an awful lot like a Beagle’s head because she is a Beagle. A mix albeit, but a Beagle nonetheless. She is also German Shepherd, so I sort of got what I had set out for, which I think is typical of life. We get some variation of what we thought we wanted. Ending up with her was exemplary of how imperative it is to never say never.

You’ll never adopt a Beagle? God asked, rhetorically.

Interesting. I bet you will. And I bet she will steal your heart and you will love her more than you thought you could love, especially in the face of tragedy and loss and heartbreak that threatens to render you bent and bitter. And I bet you’ll come to rely on her for solace and friendship and comfort, and I bet she’ll become one of the best dogs anyone has ever had. And she’ll be a lesson in loving unconditionally, even or perhaps especially when the object of your love pushes you to what feels like the very end of your sanity, when that love feels more like a grinding toil than a rewarding endeavor. She will be maddening and frustrating and still she will add value to your existence that you cannot even fathom, that you will continue to discover years after she has left your life. She will be – at times – the only thing that compels you to arduously drag yourself out of bed and choose to keep putting one foot in front of the other for one more day. She will be one of the greatest loves of your life.

sleeping baby beagle brain

sleeping baby beagle brain


Filed under Critters, Joseph, Love

strength to be in pain

Last week when I got back into town from camping, it was late afternoon and the sky was the muted cobalt blue that is an elemental part of the autumn. It is this time of year when the sun starts to hang closer to the horizon and even if it is still deceptively warm like it has been in recent weeks, you can feel the seasonal change in the air. The sky gives it away. I dropped the dog off at home to sleep off her timber hangover and set about running some errands. Two days of vacation still hovered over me, daring me to be productive or otherwise find some genuine reason why it was okay for me to bail on what promised to be a fantastic trip. I was starting to look a little like Frida Kahlo or Bert from Sesame Street so it seemed like a good time to get my eyebrows threaded. Waxing has never been my thing, and when I pluck my own eyebrows I tend to become overzealous and get in way over my head and the next thing you know I have a delicate, precarious line of one single hair following another. One wrong move and I could rip out the remaining few hairs and suddenly I would look like I had a skin condition. When I was about seventeen, I started plucking my eyebrows super thin and wearing giant hoop earrings. Paired with tanning-bed bronze skin and heavy-handed makeup application, plus a dash of belly shirts that also showed off the cleavage from the boobs I’d recently grown, I was a trailer park princess.

Obtaining curves later in life can be a bit tricky because there is not quite the same stigma for a seventeen or eighteen year old as there is for a girl just emerging from prepubescence. No one was around to gently nudge me and let me know that while I did have boobs and they were lovely and everything and maybe the whole world did want to see them, that did not necessarily mean I had to share them. My mom tried once or twice, but she was a couple of states away and had lost her parental grip on me at this point. I believe her attempts were met with a very mature diatribe about how my body and my boobs were my business and she oughta back up off me about it. When I first sprouted knockers, I was about sixteen and they sort of just showed up. By the time I was twelve, I was approximately 5’9″ and weighed somewhere in the ballpark of eighty-eight pounds. My front buck teeth accounted for eight of those pounds. Not until I was in my twenties did I break one-twenty. As a teenager, I was nothing but spindly arms and legs, looking like they’d been grown in a tube, and giant feet and frizzy hair. Once when I was sixteen and still somewhat uncertain about my new bewbs, I was sitting on the steps at my boyfriend’s parents’ house. His mother and I had never had a great relationship, and certainly not the kind of rapport where we spoke freely to one another about much of anything beyond small talk. She was talking to boyfriend and me about something innocuous when out of nowhere she blurted, Your boobs have gotten HUGE. I did what any sixteen year old girl might do in that moment: my eyes became the size of saucers and I stammered thank you because in our culture such an observation is tantamount to a compliment. I think I then melted into an embarrassed puddle and drained into the curb that fed into the Mississippi and floated away to the ocean.

By the time I was nineteen, I had traded my skanky wardrobe for a pair of brown skate shoes and equally monochromatic clothes. At least four days a week I wore cargo pants. It was around this time that I discovered that I enjoyed piercings. Like I did with most things, and as is typical of young people, I went nuts at first.

Let’s do ALL of the piercings!

And I did. I barely had enough money to even feed myself – I would beg leftover food that was going to be thrown away at the restaurant where I worked, and otherwise I subsisted on canned soup and Ramen noodles and boxed meals from Aldi. To this day, I’m not sure I could stomach chicken and rice from a box or Bennigan’s Baked Potato Soup. Although I could barely feed myself and I was semi-homeless, I scraped together the money to allow strangers to stab holes into my ears. My life was not happy in this era, my circumstances were less than kind. My family had all gone away in one capacity or another by the time I was 17 (hello, abandonment issues! We’ll talk about you later!), so I was mostly adrift by this age. With no high school education, no parents to help me get on my feet, no support other than a fiance* who was over the moon about me, and an as-yet-undiagnosed proclivity for severe depression, I sought control in whatever unlikely place I could find it.

Sometimes depressed people engage in an activity called “cutting”. It is especially common among adolescent girls. The idea is that by physically cutting oneself, somehow the emotional pain will be lessened, if only for a moment. As a much younger person I tried this a handful of times. But I was a wuss. And I didn’t like it. Mostly I still felt terrible emotionally and then I had a sore wound to boot. But piercings? The pain of someone stabbing me with a needle? I couldn’t get enough. I stretched my ear lobes because the feeling of modifying my body, the pain, the knowledge that I was in control of this – it was intoxicating. It was a high of sorts. My love affair with piercings didn’t last long. The last time I stretched my ears or got something new pierced was right before I turned twenty-one. After that I got a couple of very large tattoos, but never another piercing. In fact, I took out two of the piercings in my ears a few years ago for a job, and was always a little sad about it.

When I was out running errands the other day, I suddenly decided I should get my nose pierced. One of my sisters had recently done so, which made it seem like a good idea. This is typical of me: doing something because one of my sisters did it and tested the waters for me. Most of what I have learned in life has been a direct result of watching my siblings learn it first. They step on the ice and make sure it won’t crack, and then I feel safe stepping on it too.

A cute little stud in my nose seemed like a great idea, as did re-piercing the tragus piercings that I’d removed for a corporate retail job a few years ago. We started with the tragus piercings and they were awful. The notion that I ever enjoyed this was suddenly absurd. She struggled to get the jewelry in, she struggled to finish the piercing, she shook and used clamps and had a hard time. She’d come highly recommended, so I was a bit taken aback when she was so bad at what she was doing. My ears bled. I shook uncontrollably. The pain and the difficulty was so pronounced that I almost backed out on the nose piercing. And then it kicked in. It was that feeling that I’m certain washes over the severely depressed, the grieving, the broken, when they slice open their flesh with something sharp. When you are in so much pain, what’s a little more? Something happens when you are broken like that. Your periphery blacks out, and all you can see is what’s right in front of you. People often tell me how strong I am. In some ways it’s flattering, and I appreciate the compliment, and I understand that people perceive me this way. But what is it to be strong? It is simply to not give up. It is simply to recognize the circumstances in front of you, and know that you have no choice but to shut down whatever is in the way of you surviving those circumstances. Close it off. Box it up. Keep moving forward until the pain has lessened and until you can see the sun shine again. So I let her stick a needle in my nose and shove a shiny stud in the hole and I survived it, much like I will undoubtedly survive whatever else comes my way. Because what choice do we have in this life?

pensive rearview selfie

pensive rearview selfie

*Said fiance is not the same boyfriend whose mother shamelessly pointed out my dirty pillows. We also never got married. We were on the “marry me someday, here is a ring, it’s more serious than a promise ring but we’re super poor so we can’t actually plan a wedding at this point” plan. He is also not the same person to whom I was engaged who ultimately died. I have been engaged twice: once at eighteen, and again at twenty-three. I hope to maybe be married by the time I’m thirty-one. I’d say thirty, but that’s in seven months, which seems unlikely unless it becomes legal to marry one’s dog.


Filed under Uncategorized

Three months in one direction or another

Three months ago today you left us. Some days my sisters and I refer to it as being “three months in”. Other days we call it “three months out”.

We are a few weeks out from having last held your hands, a few weeks out from the last time we heard you laugh or saw you smile. We are a few weeks out from sharing our secrets with you, a few weeks out from the last time you played referee for us – three adult women who still need their mother to catalyze their communications at times. We are a few weeks out from sharing with you newly discovered songs, you with your impeccable taste in music. We are three months out from those final days in that room where we piled in around your bed like little girls climbing into your lap to find comfort. We are three months out from you finally leaving behind a life and a body that was never very kind to you.

And at the same time, we are three measly months in. Three months in to a winding and interminable lifetime ahead of us where you aren’t there. Three months in to being orphaned children, motherless daughters before we felt remotely prepared to face the world without you. We are three wearying months in to an existence where we simultaneously battle the desire to walk right off the earth, and the need to somehow anchor ourselves down, lest we float away. We are three months in to a sea of pain that will never fully disappear, an ocean whose tides will secede at times, but whose black waves will always return to wash over us. We are three months in to having to explain to head-cocked strangers how we lost our mother in the summer of 2013. We are three months in to bitter and unforgiving mornings soaked with tears, and lonely nights whose deep darkness keeps us even from the warmth of one another.

We circle back to this pain, so large and consuming. It gnaws on our hearts every moment of the day, eats us up from the inside. We are battered and broken and so very, very tired. We feel worn and haggard, aged decades beyond our years.

I went camping last week, searching for something in the woods that I was unlikely to find. This is one of the many hallmarks of grieving you: this restlessness that won’t be soothed, the feral scratching at the back of the back of the psyche, the white noise that never fully goes quiet. Perhaps peace will come in the form of time off work. Maybe I’ll find it in the evenings I spend with my siblings and my nephews. Perhaps there will be rest in the beauty and splendor of the landscape, or maybe I will be at peace with my nose buried in a book. Possibly I will find it in overeating and sleeping too much, or maybe it hides in sleep deprivation and eating too little. Peace is elusive, and like the pot of gold at the end of the fading and shifting rainbow, it may never materialize in this life. It seems counter-intuitive to fight for peace, yet this is how I spend so much of my time, fighting and grappling for a settled feeling in my soul, clutching to the rare moments when I find that I am even slightly at ease. It makes many of my interactions neurotic and disingenuous, this distracted broken brain of mine, this fractured heart.

You would probably tell me that this is okay, that I should go easy on myself, that all I can do is my best and that my best doesn’t have to be good enough for anyone but me and God. You would promise that no matter what, things would work out, and you would do so with complete confidence, so sure you were of the success of your children. Even to the very end, your hope burned white hot for us, a facet of you that I will never understand, but a trait that I fear I may have inherited. For you the world was a hopeless place. For your girls, the future was bright and limitless and teeming with hopes and dreams and successes just waiting to be discovered and claimed. I know there was a time when your own future felt that way, and that reality hit me over the head like a mallet when I was in the woods, and I clenched my teeth and wrapped my arms around myself while I sobbed for all of your dreams that died years before you did.

The dog and I walked from the campground to the lake on our second day camping, which would turn out to also be our second-to-last day. It is a quarter of a mile down a dead-end road. The lake is actually a reservoir, a man-made endeavor to stop flooding in the area that came to fruition more than half a century ago and culminated in many people who lived in what is now the lake bed giving up their homes and their land. Roads dead end right into the water, roads that once went straight through what is now the lake all the way to the shore on the other side. When the family bought what is now our family compound and you started spending time there, the lake was young and the land around it was young and there were no fences or barricades. I remember crowding into the back of my dad’s truck with my sisters and my cousins and you, all of us in swimsuits and shaking with excitement at the prospect of swimming in the lake. Our dad would back the truck all the way down into the water, and you would holler at him to stop, scared for all the kids, nervous and bossy and Type A. You and your sister-in-law would soak up and the sun, ever watchful, always mentally counting us girls and our cousins. Our dad was an Eagle Scout and would die before he would let anything happen to any of us, but like a border collie, you could never fully relax. If you stopped worrying, if you let yourself be at ease, something might go wrong and you might be to blame. You carried the weight of the cosmos on your back at all times, the responsibility for everyone else’s happiness and safety dangling around your neck like a half a dozen concrete blocks. You never learned to speak the truth of what you wanted or needed clearly and honestly and with vulnerability.

The road is gated now at a certain point so that no vehicles can directly access the lake from here. There are signs instructing snowmobile riders that they are not allowed beyond this point. There are safety notices and warnings posted along the trail, nailed into the trees. The dog and I descended the hill toward the lake, surprised at how overgrown the roadway was this time of year. As we got nearer to the water, we could see the sun bouncing brightly off its surface, could feel the unseasonable warmth in the air. As the dog lost her mind playing in the water and I walked solemnly down the shoreline, I was not thinking of you in the forefront of my consciousness. You were there, in the back of mind, pulling at my seams like you always are.

When I sat down on a huge piece of wood on the beach and watched the breeze blow ripples in the surface of the water, the dog came to rest at my feet – dirty, wet, and exhausted. It came upon me like an explosion of emotion, the realization that you had undoubtedly watched the sunset from this very spot, the reality that your bare toes had been in that water, your laugh had echoed off these muddy banks. The hope that you once possessed had perhaps been spoken into the atmosphere here, had filled the air, your words tumbling over each other out into the universe. I imagined you then, before I was born, when you were young and life retained possibility and wonder.

My heart tightened in my chest at the thought of how the cruelty of this life slowly chipped away at the dreams you had for yourself. There was a time when you were on top of the world. You and I talked about this not long before you died. We discussed how you truly believed you had it all at one point, modest though your life may have been by most standards. All you ever wanted was a family. You wanted to create a safe and healthy and happy home life. You wanted to raise your children and take in the neighborhood children and live simply. You wanted to develop space and distance from a past that had pummeled you, and you wanted to embrace forgiveness and grace in doing so. When you got married, and you were able to conceive your first child and she was born healthy, you were as filled to the brim with joy as a person can be. In those moments you were free, and the process of slowly disentangling yourself from a lifetime of heartbreak and brokenness was accelerated because darkness pales when bathed in such gleaming light. I think of you then, gingerly stepping onto a path of happiness, fearful that the rug might be jerked out from under you, proceeding with caution and abandon all at once. Five months later your mother’s body would be found in a creek bed, beaten and left to freeze to death, and you would never forgive yourself for that loss. You would spend the rest of your life mourning, aching, longing for the joy that froze alongside her that night. Most of all, you would spend the rest of your life missing your own mother, just as my sisters and I will now do.

The dog and I sat quietly in the woods until I could gather enough composure to walk back to the campground. I spent the rest of the evening writing to you, writing to myself, just writing and crying because it was the only thing I could think to do to keep from imploding.

We are three months out from the day you left us, and three months in to a new life. Some days this reality stops my heart in my chest and I can’t imagine how I am supposed to go on with my entire future ostensibly still ahead of me. I feel so marred and weathered that I cannot fathom how I still have such supposed brightness in front of me – a path that includes a real career, marriage, children. A whole life. But it’s in considering this path before me, it’s in seeing the myriad ways my nephews grow from month to month, that I realize not all of your dreams faded and drifted away into the sunset. We were your ultimate dream, we three girls, and eventually the grandsons my sisters gave you.

Just before you died, when you were drifting between this world and another one, you would sometimes speak things that seemed nonsensical to us. At one point you mentioned your granddaughters, though you have only grandsons. I can’t know now what that meant, if it meant anything at all. Perhaps it was the morphine-induced confusion of a dying woman. Or perhaps it was the remaining seeds of your dreams and hopes for this life coming to rest in the hearts of your daughters, we three girls who are three months into a life where you are everywhere with us, even if you are not here.

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Disjointed Vacation Updates

Tomorrow I will go back to work after an entire week away. I spent my time off catching up on some life things, watching bad television, sleeping and also not sleeping, and drinking alone. For some reason, I anticipated that I would be wildly productive and I would go soul searching all by myself and I would feel better about life when everything was said and done. It is not uncommon for me to be woefully misguided about my own abilities. Present Me is unfairly and unrealistically optimistic about the motivation of Future Me.

The night before my first day of vacation I went directly after work to happy hour with some people. Except the swanky-ish bar we chose featured half-priced martini-esque cocktails, and the truth is that I am a moron when presented with the option to drink cocktails.

Yes, I would love a very sugary, boozy drink! I can’t wait to get drunk inappropriately fast and then bring up uncomfortable topics of conversation and then overshare everything about myself!

This is precisely what happened. It is what always happens. The thing is, candor is awesome and I wish we communicated more truthfully in our culture for a variety of reasons. If there is one aspect of academia that I simultaneously miss with every fiber of myself, it’s the ability to be candid all the time about everything. You are in a safe space where you can work through your reality, your fledgling thoughts and opinions, where you can be naked and truthful and generally that vulnerability is met with curiosity instead of condemnation. I am naturally candid, and living in an environment that fostered that candor for five-plus years didn’t do me any favors in terms of not alienating people in the real world. Sometimes, this is why I withdraw. Not because I am inherently uncomfortable with who I am, and not because I don’t want to be around people; but because I fear other people are uncomfortable with who I am and that makes me uncomfortable. I know, self-loathing, need to learn to love myself, girrrrrrrrrl forget about what other people think and all that jazz(hands).*

Despite my Happy Hour shenanigans, my first day of vacation was productive. I ran errands, I cooked, I cleaned, I got a professional massage, I watched TV, I took a hot bath with essential oils. It was a combination of all good things: productivity and relaxation, no pressure. My goal was to use vacation to reset my sleep patterns, which have been awful for the entirety of 2013, and probably weren’t great for a couple of years before that. So I went to bed super early, and I managed to rise early, and things were right on track toward a healthier, happier, more well-rested me.

By about three days in of just the critters and me, things got weird. With food.

How often do you get to watch a rat eat a piece of spaghetti with a jealous dog in the background?

How often do you get to watch a rat eat a piece of spaghetti with a jealous dog in the background?

People often ask me how she’s trained so well, why she is so obsessed with me, and how I get her to listen. The answer is food and an obscene amount of time spent together. The fact that the rats can run around and she is either disinterested or playful is a testament to her temperament, and the fact that we just hang out. A lot. All of us. We are a bizarre little family.

By Saturday night, things got extra weird, with popcorn.

Jos Popcorn Face

A huge movie buff, Joe also loves to indulge once in a while in lightly buttered popcorn. It’s good for the skin. And the soul.

On Sunday, Jos and I headed to my family’s campground compound for what was intended to be several days alone in the woods, reading books, reconnecting with nature, reconnecting with myself, sleeping, relaxing. It was some of those things. But mostly it was me being restless and uncomfortable in a new location. When I was agonizing over whether I should cancel my trip to the Pacific Northwest, I called my sister Yay. She was on vacation at the time in Florida. She assured me that no matter how beautiful the scenery, I would probably still want to crawl out of my own skin, and that I should definitely go if I wanted to, that parts of it would likely be fantastic, but that I should be prepared to feel uncomfortable at times. She had spent an entire day in bed after drinking too much and sobbing like a weirdo, a whole day when she could have been at the beach or the pool or the aquarium or any number of places. Grief splits you into pieces this way, makes you strange and socially awkward. Sadness settles over you no matter where you are or how much fun you should be having.

If you could just crawl into that sky somehow, you might feel better.

If you could just crawl into that sky somehow, you might feel better.

When I experienced great loss before, I was somehow able to shut down huge parts of myself so that I could go on functioning and living my life. Not long after that loss I started taking a psychotropic drug that rendered me a flat line. I didn’t cry. I wasn’t angry. I didn’t get overly excited. I just was. In retrospect, this was exactly what I needed to keep from dropping out of school and just giving up at that point. I needed to be at least 80% frozen, so that all that was left of me had to be hyper-focused on what was in front of me. And what was in front of me most of the time was school or work. Only once in a while did I have “down time” during these few years. The truth is, I don’t know that I know how to appropriately do down time anymore. When I spend what should be relaxing time, I feel on edge and unwell. My instinct is to be doing something, anything, at all times. I do not feel entitled to earned down time, yet there are times when I should be doing something nowadays where I lie in bed and do nothing. Somehow I can justify stolen time of nothingness. Or maybe I can’t justify it, but I can do it, and I don’t feel entirely on edge, I just feel apathetic and heavy.**

My time in the woods was meant to be deliberate down time, to force myself to disconnect from technology and read actual books and enjoy myself. Except I was deeply lonely. My dad and stepmom were there for the first hour or so after I got there, and when they left it suddenly felt empty. There is a TV in the cabin where I slept and I watched episodes of The Simpsons and I messed with my phone and I was restless, just as I would have been at home. We awoke before dawn the next day and made breakfast. I drank coffee and listened to the birds, we drove in to the sleepy little nearby town so I could get dog food, and then we napped the day away.

The vintage coffee pot that we use unironically at the campground.

The vintage coffee pot that we use unironically at the campground.

It was relaxing. It was restful. Except every time we woke up, our reality was still our reality. The dog is a special needs girl who was struggling after only twenty-four hours in the woods; she is no longer a dog who I can count on to hike with me for a whole day. I am a late-twenties woman who feels adrift and ungrounded, and who is grieving a tremendous loss that is not yet three months old. We were a ragtag pair of idiots searching for something in the woods that we were unlikely to find there or anywhere. In fairness, I was the idiot, and the dog was just doing what is her instinct: following her Mama to the ends of the earth.

Finding a slice of heaven in the woods is simpler for a dog.

Finding a slice of heaven in the woods is simpler for a dog.

By early evening, we wandered down to the lake, which is about a quarter of a mile from the family land. We took in the sunset, a story unto itself. When we got back to camp it was starting to get dark in the woods, and I made a strange concoction of food from various leftovers and vegetables I had brought. I built a fire. Then I spent the evening writing with a pen and paper and drinking alone to facilitate that writing and to subdue the hurricane of emotion that was swirling inside of me. I started with a high-end pumpkin ale, but quickly graduated to Bud Light and wine coolers that I stole from the mini fridge in the pantry outbuilding. There is a gun club less than a mile from my family’s land, a place where they apparently fire weapons until after 10pm on Tuesday nights, and because of this, I spent most of the time I was writing with headphones shoved into my ears. It was almost impossible to focus with the intermittent boom! and pop! pop! coming from the gun club, so I drowned out my surroundings with Explosions in the Sky. I was not enjoying the woods. I was listening to music and writing in the outdoors.

By the time we awoke right around dawn the next morning, Josie could hardly even awaken, much less walk or run around.

Can. Not. Rise.

Can. Not. Rise.

I had planned for us to stay another night and into the next day, but after I lifted her onto the floor and saw that she was struggling to walk, I had to call it and bring us home. I thought about staying in the cabin and just relaxing that way, but I figured it made just as much sense to come home and get a jump on preparing things to go back to work. We stayed until the middle of the afternoon, reading in the sunlight and lamenting the fact that I was no closer to whatever it is I was trying to reach after having spent a couple of days away.

Why lie down when you can't keep your eyes open? There's so much nothing to see!

Why lie down when you can’t keep your eyes open? There’s so much nothing to see!

As a pet owner, I know I made the right choice by coming back and forcing the mutt to take it easy. The trip was bittersweet for a number of reasons. And now I get to spend tonight and the entire day tomorrow at home “relaxing”, whatever that means.

*I’m going to therapy next week! Hooray!

**See that part about going to therapy next week. Clearly it’s very necessary!

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Farm cats

When you live in a farmhouse, cats tend to just appearThey show up two, three, seven at a time and suddenly you have a veritable army of semi-feral cats living all around your property. They form alliances and develop systems of government and kill a ton of mice. Sometimes it starts with just one swollen mama kitty who arrives one day out of nowhere, hungry and on the verge of labor. She looks pitiful and you feel terrible for her, and so you give her milk and hot dogs until she disappears for a few days to have her babies in one of your outbuildings. You can hear the babies, but it takes you ages to actually find them because she dragged her fat, preggers body through a precarious heap of old crap that has been chilling in your outbuilding since probably the turn of the last century. (This applies to basements and attics, too!) Cats are surprisingly adept at birthing their young in super weird locations. This is probably by design, some relic of their ancestry when they needed to hide their offspring from predators. And maybe there are still predators on farms like foxes or stray dogs, but when there is an army of cats to contend with, likely those babies are perfectly safe.

The mechanism that is put into place to protect them keeps you from being able to reach them, but that doesn’t stop you from trying. The siren song of baby kittens is too much to take and you can’t stop yourself from searching. Not to mention, usually mama cats will mess with your head. Meow! Wanna see my babies? C’mere! They’re in here! She’ll circle your feet. Shell boop your shin with her head. Mrrrrow. She’ll rub her whole body along each of your legs. Mrrrrow. She’ll purr and be adorable and stare up at you and like a sucker, you will fall for it.You are a bleeding heart idiot fool.

So you’ll follow the evil enchantress into one of the outbuildings, in a walking coma from the overwhelming need you have to squeeeeeeeze those sweet baby kitties. Suddenly you’ll come to, shaken back to real life from your baby kitteh reverie, and you’ll find yourself with one of your arms jammed through a pile of of stuff, your other forearm and shoulder shoved against a different pile of stuff that promises to crash down on your head if you so much as shift your weight. There will be cobwebs in your hair and dirt in your eyes and dust in your mouth. You’ll panic at the realization that you are probably contracting Hantavirus and maybe a touch of Diptheria right this minute. You’re resigned to the fact that you’ve probably already gotten tetanus, along with at least one mysterious rash. And while you’re crouched there, your hand just centimeters from actually being able to get a hold of one of those babies, the mama cat will boop your face. See? I told you my babies were in here. And then she’ll eat your soul right there on the spot.

We had a lot of stray animals that turned into pseudo-pets growing up. When I lived with my dad at a farmhouse in rural Macon County Illinois the year after my parents got divorced, we had a big outside dog named Mac and tons of cats. Eventually I also got two gerbils, and an inside dog named Snuggles. No matter the fluctuation of our other pets, one thing was constant: cats. My dad’s brother lived a few miles down the road with his wife and four kids in their own rural house and they, too, had a standing army of felines. I think we may have swapped cats here and there, even.

Give you this tiger stripe for that tabby? You got it!

I loved all of the cats. My love for animals as a child was perhaps the only thing consistent about me, unless you count unpredictability as a form of consistency. Sort of how change is the only constant, right? No? Fine. Every free minute I had was with animals, alive or dead. My necromancy is a different post for a different time, but we’ll get there. Even when my dad had lost track of how many cats we had, what they all looked like, what absurd names I’d given them, I knew precisely each detail. I was attentive to every subtle shift in the population, even those that had to do with some wicked mama cat wandering off for a few days to pop out kittens in some impossible to reach corner of the barn.

On some mornings after he would plunk me into the tub for my morning bath, my dad would take his coffee and stand on the front porch of our old farmhouse and take in the morning air. It was peaceful there, save for the occasional car that would race past on the blacktop. He would listen to the birds and the bugs, sipping hot black coffee and smelling of Zest and original Listerine. I would be playing barbies and administering a quarter of a bottle of shampoo and conditioner to myself.

One day as he stood on the front steps the sun was at that perfect place in the sky when the shadows are still long, dew lingers on the leaves and the grass, and a slight chill hangs in the air. The morning was just being bathed in the bright orange light of the day and my dad stood on the front steps breathing it in. And suddenly he saw it. Something out of place. A lump in the road. He descended the few steps and walked gingerly toward the road, looking back over his shoulder toward the house, paranoid and hoping I wouldn’t suddenly emerge from my bath.

He had not yet reached the road when he realized that what he feared was correct: there in the middle of the blacktop, having been mowed down by some jackass motorist who thinks it’s okay to drive 75mph on a rural road, was one of my favorite cats. Not so long before, I had asked about her offhandedly, had speculated about her whereabouts. Which one? My dad tried to keep up, and he is a detail-oriented man. But there were just so damn many of them and they were always in flux.

He stood there for just a few seconds contemplating what to do. He glanced nervously back toward the house. This is one of my dad’s favorite stories to tell from when I lived with him, and it is one of my favorite stories to hear. Parenting comes with no rules, as we all know. You have to make it up as you go along, and do what seems right in the moment and hope that you made the correct decision. Most parents will move heaven and earth to spare their children pain and heartache, and my dad is no exception to that rule.

My dad made a game-time decision with the facts in front of him. His daughter was inside in the bathtub, happily going about her seven-year-old life. Within the hour we would plop me into the front seat of his truck and we would exit onto this very blacktop to head into town where he would drop me at McGaughey Elementary School and he would go to work at his shop, Advanced Auto. My heart for animals was crystal and delicate. As a two-and-a-half-year old I refused to speak to him for weeks because he had killed a deer and had its head mounted. Again, another story for another day, not unrelated to my necromancy. Surely in the handful of seconds that he was considering what to do, all these facts scurried into his brain.

He marched out onto that blacktop, glancing quickly back at the house once more just, to be certain that I hadn’t emerged for some reason. My dad grabbed that smashed dead cat by the tail. He raised its carcass above his head. And then he swung that dead cat body around like a lasso, and tossed my fallen soldier kitty into the bean field across the street from our house. This whole decision making process and swift removal of The Threat to Our Peaceful Existence took place in a minute or less. He came inside, washed his hands thoroughly, got me ready for school, and we went about our merry way for the next fifteen years of my life.

Though I am not a parent, I have to say I think he made the right choice. Probably within the week he was crawling around in some outbuilding at my behest, digging a new batch of babies out of an obscure hole for me to charm out of being feral little beasts.

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