Tag Archives: death

Why The World Needs Heroes

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In the aftermath of a tragic moment, a hero can be born.

Heroes propel themselves from the ordinary to the extraordinary not in what they choose to do under ideal circumstances, but by what they can’t stomach avoiding in moments of immeasurable stress.

We need heroes when our world is shifted off its axis because they’re willing to pick up the pieces, no matter how crushed, damaged, or broken, and put them back together.

Heroes move while the rest of us sit mute in stunned silence. They do what others can only manage to watch. Heroes don’t have time to take pictures because they’re already working from inside the frame.

We need heroes because there is exponential strength in numbers.

If only for a moment, heroes ignore their ids and embrace their super-egos. They reject selfish and replace it with selfless. They sprint from the spotlight toward the trenches. They don’t think. They act.

We need heroes because they remind us that we’re all part of a tapestry much more rich and meaningful than the narrative of our individual lives.

Heroes don’t just rise to the occasion. They rewrite the rules.

We need heroes to inspire us. Generosity is contagious and grows without boundaries under the right conditions.

Heroes prove, by their humanitarian feats of kindness in the face of uncertainty, destruction, and death, that when the scale is tipped between good and evil, good always prevails.

We need heroes because they choose love over hate.

Heroes stand up for those who have fallen.

We need heroes because they are the living definition of patriotism and are the antidote to cowardice.

Heroes run to the places everyone else is trying to escape.

We need heroes because they make us believe in silver linings.

Heroes aren’t comic book characters pre-determined to walk the earth as Gods. They’re humans with flaws and frustrations. But in that moment when they choose to be something more? They engage. They are selfless. They serve. They overcome.

The world needs heroes because they remind us, in moments of bewilderment, confusion, and pain, that maybe, if confronted with an unexpected test of compassion for our fellow brothers and sisters, we could be heroes too.

If you would like to help the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, please contact the American Red Cross or The Salvation Army. Both organizations are providing much-needed support to survivors and first responders.

For The Voices We Can No Longer Hear

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I’ve never really used the word “evil”. I don’t like it. Pronouncing it turns my mouth in the wrong direction and my face into an ugly sneer. The word is as powerful as the actions it’s meant to describe, and it makes me feel uncomfortable. Even the juxtaposition of consonants and vowels is wrong, like it was supposed to be entirely different but somehow came to being in a damaged state. A mutant aberration of the English language that was never meant to exist. A freak of nature. A reject. A heinous mistake.

But as I sit this morning, scrolling through twenty-six names, twenty-six beautiful, innocent faces, and twenty-six life stories that are far too short, it’s the only word that comes to mind. I have the luxury of reflection; the ability to peek at bit pieces and highlights of lives I was never supposed to know. You do too, because we’re not dead. Not today, at least, and not at the hand of something that can’t be imagined without the use of that one terrible word.

When you’re given two or three paragraphs to memorialize the life of your child, where do you begin and how can you stomach that there is now, too early and completely unimagined, an end? Do you mention that she’ll be buried with her favorite stuffed animal, Bluie, because, at the age of six, they were best friends? Do you tell the world about your super-secret code, how you’d squeeze your son’s hand three times to say “I love you” and that his four squeezes back meant “I love you too”? Do you share how much you’ll miss sneaking into her room at night while she’s fast asleep, simply to trace the delicate features of her timeless face and wrap your arms around her warm, tiny body? Do you tell millions of strangers what was on his Christmas list, how he felt sure he’d been a good boy this year and that Santa was on his way? How do you explain, in one hundred words or less, that her life was bookended by an infinite reservoir of your love, and that without her, you’re not even sure what that word means anymore?

I’ve struggled over the past two days to find some kind of meaning in this madness, a tender take-away that will somehow still my mind, break the string of awful images bombarding my brain, and commemorate those lives the world has lost.

But I can’t. The crime is too big, the scope too powerful, the pain too deep, and I am too small.

The only way I can think to honor the innocent women and children the world has lost is to fully embrace what I consider to be opposite of evil. Hope. If evil is a one-word definition of the things most wrong with our world, hope is its antidote. It’s a rare flower that, under pressing odds, fights through the squalor of life and grows. It’s a pervasive, persistent feeling in your heart that somehow overcomes the bile in your gut. It’s the power of love taking its rightful place over the power of hate.

I hope medical technology will soon advance to such a degree that minds gone off the deep end can someday be identified, and if not cured, curbed to the point of stability. I hope that this, and the many other recent horrific incidents involving guns, will give serious pause to the politicians who govern them, and everyone who sells them. I hope that families and friends, but especially the parents of these innocent victims, find the slightest amount of solace in the inescapable ache that has wrapped our national conscience in a dull, gray cloak, and that they can somehow feel the only thing we have to give. Our tears.

No one should have to go through the pain of burying a child. Regardless of age, it’s not a natural state of affairs and, under any circumstances, it isn’t right. But this? This is evil.

“Thinking is man’s only basic virtue, from which all the others proceed. And his basic vice, the source of all his evils, is that nameless act which all of you practice, but struggle never to admit: the act of blanking out, the willful suspension of one’s consciousness, the refusal to think—not blindness, but the refusal to see; not ignorance, but the refusal to know. It is the act of unfocusing your mind and inducing an inner fog to escape the responsibility of judgment—on the unstated premise that a thing will not exist if only you refuse to identify it, that A will not be A so long as you do not pronounce the verdict ‘It is evil.’” Ayn Rand

Charlotte Bacon, 6

Daniel Barden, 7

Rachel Davino, 29

Olivia Engel, 6

Josephine Gay, 7

Ana Marquez-Greene, 6

Dylan Hockley, 6

Dawn Hochsprung, 47

Madeleine Hsu, 6

Catherine Hubbard, 6

Chase Kowalski, 7

Jesse Lewis, 6

James Mattioli, 6

Grace McDonnell, 7

Anne Marie Murphy, 52

Emilie Parker, 6

Jack Pinto, 6

Noah Pozner, 6

Caroline Previdi, 6

Jessica Rekos, 6

Avielle Richman, 6

Lauren Rousseau, 30

Mary Sherlach, 56

Victoria Soto, 27

Benjamin Wheeler, 6

Allison Wyatt, 6

How Do You Move Forward When You’re Grinding All Your Gears?

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As humans, we’re constantly in motion. But motion and movement are two very different things. Just because you’re in motion doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going anywhere.

Trust me on this, I know.

If I could catch a ride with Richard Branson on his uber-expensive Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space, I’d easily be able to assess the difference between the two. But first I’d hit him up for drink. Specifically? A glass of 1907 Heidsieck. At $275,000 a bottle, it would help defray my ticket price while momentarily absolving me of the guilt associated with blowing the kids’ college tuition just to prove a point. BOGO at its highest and best use.

Space cowboy Richard Branson. Image via cognitivelibertyuk.wordpress.com

Space cowboy Richard Branson. Image via cognitivelibertyuk.wordpress.com

The second thing I’d do is settle in to check out the real estate, because isn’t leveraging my children’s future to see the world from a different point of view all about perspective? I imagine myself staring out the window at an earth below that looks less and less like the picture we all try to paint on a daily basis. Not so much a three-dimensional place anymore, but from way up above? A ginormous chessboard marked with clearly defined grids, gateways, and boundaries, as tiny balls of energy collide, advance, deflect, promote, dodge, gather, seek and recede in an endless effort to check the king.

Image via portwallpaper.com

Image via portwallpaper.com

Fascinated with the sparkly surface patterns of intricate motion that everyone on earth longs to be, and all happy-tingly-woozy from my six-figure, speed of sound buzz, I’d almost miss what I didn’t know I flew so high to see. Something small and seemingly insignificant situated inside the massive advance of energy that everyone else on board paid a lifetime of 401K savings to witness.

I’m talking about inert matter. Those pinpricks of light that mimic motion, but whose movement is an optical illusion: running in circles, dancing in place, and bumping up against imaginary walls. As everyone else on board focuses on the obvious, I’d be able to drill down a little deeper. But only because I’ve been there. Stuck. In motion, but not really going anywhere.

Image via trojantimes.org

Image via trojantimes.org

Looking back at my adult life, it’s easy to categorize it into a series of phases.

Phase 1/1980s: The Sussana Hoffs era of Big Hair and Big Dreams.

Big hair is hot. Image via houston.culturemap.com

Big hair is hot. Image via houston.culturemap.com

Phase 2/1990s: The Yves Saint Laurent era of Big Black Suit and Big Career.

Don't look at my body. Look at my soul. Image via www.girlsguidetoparis.com

Don’t look at my body. Look at my soul. Image via http://www.girlsguidetoparis.com

Phase 3/2000s: The Barbara Billingsley era of Big Belly and Big Bills.

That’s not me. OK it is. On the verge of birthing an alien.

I’ve always considered myself fairly stealth, able to move seamlessly in and out of various roles at-will to the beat of a metronome perfectly synchronized to my tune. But about three years ago, on the cusp of my 40th birthday, everything changed. For someone who’s always been confident enough to chart her own course, I suddenly found myself drifting. I was lost and knee-deep in the weeds without a compass, while a storm of my own design grew larger than it appeared in my peripheral view.

Somewhere between my career and the kids, buried in a pile of laundry or possibly lurking inside a box in the basement that I hadn’t opened for years, I lost my perspective and appreciation for the life I’d so carefully built. I don’t know how it happened, but it felt like I simply woke up one day yearning to be anywhere and anyone but who I was. Confused, I couldn’t seem to recognize the woman looking back at me in the mirror when I washed my face every night.

No matter how enlightened I become, I will always hate matching socks.

It’s easy to get lost in a pile of socks.

I was that person who, although constantly in motion, wasn’t actually moving. Busy with my responsibilities as a parent and a wife, I had somehow forgotten about the inner workings that support the common denominator between the two, and then the kids went off to school, and could tie their own shoes, and make sound decisions without being told how, and I realized that I had unintentionally parked myself on an island and hadn’t taken the time to learn to swim. Even in the middle of paradise, isolation is lonely, and days on end of the most beautiful sunset somehow lose their color. Things that shine on the surface, like the tiny balls of energy you might see from outer space, sometimes look entirely different from the inside out.

Telluride, CO August 2011

When you’re stuck, you’re forced to stop. You don’t have a choice. And then when you’re ready to move forward, you have to look around and figure out where you want to go next rather than simply allowing the tide to sweep you along. That initial inertia and subsequent plotting of a new path has great value, even though in the moment it feels miserable, like treading water in quicksand.

One of the side effects of getting lost is the unexpected places you get to visit on your way to a new destination. Like for me? Writing. This blog is a direct result of a yearlong, step-by-step, rocky hike on a circuitous path. And I’m still going. I’m a constant work in progress, but I’m now comfortable with my ever-changing state of being because I’m doing the work to figure out where I want to end up. Plus I reserve the right to change my mind, which is a great back-up plan when all else fails.

I believe that in life, we all get stuck at some point. Whether it’s due to things like divorce, disease, death, or distraction, almost everyone loses their way. Sometimes we have to move backwards to go forward, or hit a bottom so hard that the force of impact acts like a catapult up to the top, but the a-ha realization at the end, when lessons are learned and intersecting lines actually connect, is priceless. It isn’t easy, but almost everything worth accomplishing in life is born from some type of hardship or loss. So what about you? Are you simply in motion or are you actually moving? It’s a question worth asking, even if the answer isn’t what you want to hear.

Taking the road less traveled and finding my way.

My New Dog is Gone

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When I started this blog a few months ago, my intent was simply to build an audience to support the book I’m writing, so an agent could cyber-stalk me and see that people were interested in what I had to say. Or so I hoped. But as I began to post, a beautiful yet unanticipated outcome emerged…the opportunity to not only give you prose to read, but words to feel. I hadn’t expected that.

When someone tells me my work made them laugh, or cry, or change their mind, or think differently about life than they had before, or feel like they’re not alone, it’s a gift that defies value. It’s incomparable, and for me, a much more important result than my original purpose. Whatever feelings I’m able to generate are doubled, squared, and amplified when they come back. Hearing your thoughts and opinions satisfies my soul in a way I’ve never felt before, and I appreciate it. Every day. So thank you for giving me something so rare. It’s incredible to be surprised by life when you’re halfway through the journey.

People create blogs about everything on the spectrum of anything: cooking, sports, disease, motherhood, death, demons, and gods. I write about my life, and if I had to pick a word to tightly wrap the layers of emotion I’m trying to bind together and deliver, it would be a simple one. Real. Whether I aim to be funny one day or serious the next (remember, I’m a Gemini, and was gifted the right to change my mind by Zeus himself, or the rhythm method, or two x chromosomes, or all of the above), I want to be real, because life is as much about pain as pleasure, and to ignore one in pursuit of the other doesn’t work.

When my husband’s grandfather, Jim, died in February, the only world I knew the day before shifted. Not off its axis and out of control, but a critical element in the chain of my life disappeared. Just like that. Most of us swim with a fairly predictable current every day. We ebb and flow with the tide, catch our breath in shallow water, and brace ourselves when the temperature changes, and colors darken and deepen. But when you’re floating along and suddenly slammed against a rock hidden by a breaking surf? There’s no anticipation, and you’re forced into a position of picking up whatever’s left in the aftermath.

The only thing left alive in the wake of Jim’s death was his dog Brandy. We took her in, largely because we felt an obligation to do what we considered to be the right thing out of respect for someone we loved, partially because I’m an eternal optimist, or so I thought at the time, and lastly, because nobody else volunteered.

I’m a fixer by nature. I believe that if I try hard enough, feel strongly enough, and force my will and resolve, I can change the world, or more specifically, you. I often substitute the reality in front of my face for the vision I see in my head, because I draw pretty pictures up there and the sun often shines.

When we adopted Brandy, I conveniently ignored the fact that we had avoided her for the past couple of years because she bit my youngest, Essa, when she was five. In the face. Luckily the bite was sent as a warning on Brandy’s part. She broke the skin but didn’t go deep.

I also ignored Brandy’s temperament. She was testy, unpredictable, and didn’t like anyone or anything, except Jim. He came over one day last summer wearing the remnant scars of bloody claw marks all the way up his inner arm. Brandy had attacked another dog on a walk, and in trying to pull her off, he’d been caught in the crossfire.

Regardless, in the heat of emotion and the cocoon of denial, I was determined to make Brandy one of us. For Jim. For Scot. For me. Out of a painful longing for yesterday and a life that no longer included someone I desperately wanted back.

And I failed.

Brandy never assimilated into our family. She attacked another dog, tried to bite our next door neighbor, actually bit Scot, growled at my children and their friends, and frightened my mother-in-law so much that she was afraid to walk around her in the middle of the night to get a glass of water, in a multitude of occurrences, and over a succession of days and weeks. In one visit where we had to muzzle Brandy to get her out of my truck and through the door, the vet recommended we give her a huge wake, especially the kids, and a house that was filled with grief became one augmented by an undertow of fear.

With Jim gone, we slowly realized that there was no way to replicate the life she had, and we were forced to make a decision about her future. She couldn’t stay with us anymore. The risk of her hurting a child became too loud to ignore. We researched shelters, but found that her quality of life would be no life at all. Due to her temperament, she would be caged, walked once during the day, and left largely alone.

After days of discussion, debate, denial, and tears, we came to the conclusion that the only humane choice was to put Brandy down. Scot was the person who took her to the vet. I couldn’t. I didn’t have the strength. How he did is something I will forever question. Jim was the father my husband never had, and the personal sacrifices Scot had to make in doing so say more about his character than my words ever could.

When they got to the office, Brandy was serene. There was no stress. There was no muzzle. There was no fight. Scot laid out her blanket, Brandy jumped on, and he carried her in. As he describes it, she was at peace, having curled up into herself and fallen asleep as he stroked her back and whispered that everything was going to be alright.

Often, in life, everything isn’t alright. It’s ugly, raw, and real. So I have a new definition of optimism. Optimism isn’t waking up to a bright, sunny day where the birds chirp through an open window. Optimism is facing darkness everywhere you turn, choosing the best of equally shitty paths, and believing that the road you took was somehow the right one.

Why You Don’t Want Me in Charge of Your Memories…or Your Garage Sale

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Sifting through almost ninety years of my grandfather-in-law’s stuff just sucks.  On multiple levels.  In an effort to weave a path through lives still in motion, things become pretty cut-and-dry, and more quickly than I’d like to admit, a keep pile, sell pile, and trash pile form.  Multiple mounds ebb and flow seamlessly, in constant competition with one another while they grow in disproportionate shares.  Every artifact is there, present and accounted for, if not fully appreciated for a sticker price that can no longer be collected on demand.

One man’s treasure is another man’s trash, like the wooden bowl with a permanent, oily sheen that’s tagged for Good Will.  Even though it held a homemade Italian salad every Friday for fifty years, because spaghetti night was Gumps’ favorite of the week, valuables must be sifted, prioritized, and turned into chattel.  Tschokies are tagged at a dollar each because they don’t match anyone’s décor.  The truth is, no one else in the family is into cluttery collections, or understands the international appeal of the Lladro-like figurines that lined every dresser and shelf.

Image via teachickadees.com

If you’ve been in the position of having to troll through a loved one’s possessions, you know that determining the “value” of the mementos left behind not only feels wrong, it is.  But life sometimes becomes commoditized, drilling down to a series of lists to be checked off and eventually thrown away.

I’m not going to mine a trove of memories too deeply right now, because I’ve been sad for two weeks, and at the moment, I’d rather smile.  Instead, I’m gonna tell you why you shouldn’t put me in charge of anything you cherish or might want to keep.  As sentimental as I may sound, my actions tell a different story.  It’s not what you say that matters; it’s what you do.

I’m a classic discarder, the anti-hoarder, an OCD Gemini who cleans the kitchen counter and sweeps the floor about nine times a day, with or without Necessary and Proper Cause.  I’ll pick up your glass and put it in the dishwasher before you’ve gotten halfway through your drink, and you’d better nail down or hide anything I consider to be superfluous, because I’ll toss it through the air and into the trash before you have the chance to remember that it was ever yours.

I am not a hoarder. I am, however, hyperventilating while looking at this picture.

This is especially true with anything containing the words “stocking” and “stuffer,” and if it was purchased at Dollar General?  Forget it.  It never existed as far as you know.

So I found myself in an interesting position yesterday, suddenly a person of great influence and power.  I was tasked with the responsibility of negotiating prices at Gumps’ estate sale, and while others in the family were actually trying to make money, my goal was a little more mild: to get anything inside the house out.

If you’re gonna take the time to argue over why a box of sandpaper should be $0.50 instead of a dollar, you can have it.  Seriously.  Take it, because I’ve got better things to do than give you the thrill of your life when I settle at $0.65.  In fact, since I’m in such a generous mood, why don’t you add the dining room set and a Mandarin-to-English dictionary while you’re at it?  You’re a big guy, perfectly capable of strapping a four hundred pound organ on your back, right?  So go for it.  It’ll look great next to that new table and chairs you’re lugging home to set up in your backyard alongside the washer and dryer that don’t work and your collection of blown-out tires.

Sanford and Son rules!

But in my haste to discard waste yesterday, I was little trigger-happy with a couple of things that deserved a second thought.  I’m listing them below so that when you have to spend a warm, sunny day selling the relics of someone you wish was still around, you’ll be a little more judicious than me.

Even though the Craig’s List ad says the doors open at 10:00 a.m., there’s a contingency of scavengers who get to a garage sale at least an hour ahead of the start, and sometimes camp out the night before (just kidding…I hope).  I imagine this occurs because at a certain age, the sleep that’s beginning to elude me simply disappears, and rather than watch an endless, glassy-eyed loop of Lawrence Welk reruns, it’s a lot more fun to get out of the Barcalounger and haggle with me.

Image via furnitureplanners.com

So when an ancient dude walked up with a box full of old spray paint, I thought I’d hit the mother lode.  Not only was it useless junk, but hazardous waste that I couldn’t put out by the curb.  Double score!  If he’d been the clairvoyant zombie that keeps popping up in every book I read lately, he’d understand that I would have paid him to take that stuff off my hands.  Instead I got a crumpled $10.00 bill.  Sweet!

Image via senseslost.com

I was feeling pretty good about myself until a nice lady tapped me on the shoulder and told me the real value of what I let ricochet out of the tool shed.  Apparently, there’s an ensemble of successful graffiti artists, mostly residing in Malibu or Park Avenue co-ops and not anywhere close to the river in a tent, who will pay just about anything for certain paint colors that have been retired.  Like, to the tune of $1,000 a can.  As I internally high-fived myself, about a dozen of them walked out the door, on my watch, and under the appraisal of my self-satisfied eye.  Oops.

A little more on my guard (or so I thought), I immediately ran into another kind person who found a box of toys we hadn’t had the chance to sift through.  We managed to pull a vintage G.I. Joe off the top just ahead of the sale, but hadn’t yet foraged into the depths of broken Lincoln Logs, pick-up sticks, and dirt.  He rummaged around, and at the bottom found some old Barbies with mismatched clothes and really bad hair.  He mentioned that his granddaughters loved to play with dolls, he missed them dreadfully because they lived out of town, and that he’d take them off my hands for $1.00 each.  I found this sentiment to be endearing, since I have two little girls of my own.  Plus, he was old, and even though the coot with the spray paint pulled one over on me, I have a soft spot for elderly people who smell like Vicks vapor rub and mentho-lyptus all rolled into one.

Vintage Bad Hair Barbie. Image via Flickr.com.

Had I made it past remedial math in college, I would have realized that at about eighty, his granddaughters would be like, twenty years old today.  Playing with dolls when you’re almost legal is creepy, but I was so touched by his desire to look out for his sweet girls (and excited to get rid of more junk), that I would have happily let him take the whole box off my hands for free.

These are the Barbies I deal with on a daily basis at home:

In the land of Essa's misfit Barbies, amputation is common, and floating heads fly across the room for no apparent reason.

This is the one he was most interested in at the sale:

1962 Bubblecut Redhead Barbie loves hanging out in the desert.

Notice any similarities?  Right.  They’re all scary as hell.

Luckily, the same kind, genius-lady who knew what a fortune we lost in paint was hovering nearby, and stopped him in his tracks.  Not only was he trying to get out the door with the previously pictured 1962 Bubblecut Redhead Barbie with extra-large bangs, he had Yachtsman Ken #789 buried at the bottom of his stash, who was totally spiffed up and packaged in mint condition as he smiled winningly from the confines of his box.  You could just tell that Ken was dying to go sailing with the mega-millionaire graffiti artist who buys four-figure cans of half-used spray paint on a whim, and probably, in a strange twist of fetish-fate, loves to play with overpriced vintage dolls.

Vintage Ken wants to play with you. Image via boocoo.com

The old codger’s offer immediately went from $5.00 to $100.00, my savvy mother-in-law said no, he turned a ghastly shade of do not resuscitate, and quietly slithered away.  As it turns out, Barbie, Ken, their friends Skooter and Skipper, and all of the mismatched clothes are worth thousands of dollars.  Don’t come lurking around my house in search of them as they await their eBay fate, though, because they’re nowhere near my house.

Everyone in the family is onto me now, and next weekend?  I’m in charge of the free coffee and donuts, and that’s about it.

My New Dog Hates Me

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Anyone who’s read my blog for the past couple of months knows how I feel about dogs.  It’s not that I don’t like them.  As a species I think they’re generally fine and great to have around as long as they’re across the street, next door, or tearing their way through someone else’s underground sprinkler system (in case you didn’t know, dogs love to dig up anything that’s supposed to be firmly embedded beneath the earth…especially if it costs about $1,000 to repair).

Image from squidoo.com.

We all have our personal boundaries, and I like to maintain a huge wake when a Canis lupis familiaris comes sniffing around my brand new knee-high, chocolate brown, super-soft suede boots that I siphoned unmarked bills from our vacation fund to buy.  I just love expensive footwear, so in other words?  Back the hell off.

Français : escarpins ouverts en Élaphe de marq...

All things considered, when it comes to canines, I’m a “smile and wave” kind of girl.  The smile serves as a decoy.  It says “Hey!  You’re cool.  I’m cool.  Now please don’t attack me and dig your cuspate, frothing, serrated mandibles into my left calf as I sprint past your driveway on my morning run because your awesome owner never turns on the electric fence anymore due to your deceivingly docile nature when you’re laying at his feet eating nasty dog biscuits.”  The wave is meant to establish authority, so you know that when I’m bounding by your house, I’m the one in charge.  Alternately, if you happen to be a two hundred pound Bullmastiff and I’m on the ground pinned underneath you?  It becomes a fairly effective cry for help.

I don't like this dog. Image via topnews.in.

I don’t know about you, but I process pretty much everything through my pseudo-bionic senses, and I don’t particularly care for dog smell.  Or dog breath.  Or copious amounts of dog saliva.  Or wearing a dog hair fleece when I run to the grocery store to pick up a $6.99 rotisserie chicken to feed my family for dinner (everyone is so over the new Taco Bell located inside the gas station where you can get a twelve-pack of chalupas, Captain and Tennille CD, ginormous can of WD-40, and a bag of pork rinds all at once).

Super-masculine man stare. Image from 991.com.

All the people sleeping under our roof understand that Man’s Best Friend is not mine, and as the primary dog chaser, puke cleaner, hair remover, and everything disgusting scooper in the house, my vote far outweighs yours.  If you know me, you’ll begrudgingly acknowledges that the most direct route to my heart is straight through the front door, on two feet and upright, shoes off at the entry, and please pick your coat up off the floor while you hang your backpack on that cute little hook I installed in the laundry room.  My fuse is pretty freaking short at the moment and I’m not your maid.

My fuse. Image via thepave.net

But as I’ve learned, a carefully plotted life often has plans of its own.

As I mentioned on Monday, my husband’s grandfather/best friend/coolest person on the planet passed away last weekend at the age of eighty-nine.  In addition to amazing memories and enough love from all of us who knew him to fill an ocean, Gumps left another very important thing behind.  Brandy.

Brandy is a rescue dog, physically abused by her original owner and adopted by Gumps when she was just a pup.  Understandably skittish and now thirteen years old, she’s bonded with nobody.  No one, that is, except the person she searches for every day and can no longer find.

Against her every wish, she’s been with our family since Sunday, pacing back and forth while she explores each room with her cataract-clouded eyes.  Restless, she spins in circles trying to find a place in our house that feels like home.  First one spot.  Then another.  Switching rooms.  In the middle of the floor.  Back in a corner.  Out of sight.  On her blanket.  In everyone’s way.  She tests countless options, but nothing feels right.

As of the past couple of days, she’s shifted from a state of mild annoyance to outright resignation.  When I walk into the room she lifts her head, cocks it to the left, looks me in the eye, and immediately turns away.  I’m not anywhere close to someone she wants to see.  Grief-stricken, she lays listlessly on the floor, refusing to eat unless I bribe her with bacon, bologna, or sausage; a desperate attempt on my part to communicate in a language that every dog speaks.

Brandy perks up a little when it’s time to go outside, but her arthritic hind legs make it hard for her to go up and down stairs.  Our youngest, Essa, wants nothing more than to wrap her up in a huge cloak of love, but the kids have to keep their distance.  She’s already snipped at me, our neighbor, and even my husband, Scot, who’s a natural magnet to any mammal with four legs and my absolute opposite when it comes to short words containing the letters d-o-g.

She’s a mess, so much so, that some well-intentioned people have recommended giving her to a no kill shelter or putting her down.

But I can’t bring myself to seriously consider those options.  Unless the vet tells me she’s in unbearable physical pain, I’m not letting her go.  I can’t.  If I do, I’ll be giving up on myself.  And that’s not how I roll.

Before the unspeakable spoke last weekend, we hadn’t planned to adopt a dog, much less one that on a surface level appears broken past the point of repair.

But maybe, if I can find a way to open my heart to her, she’ll return the favor.  Just a little.  I don’t expect a miracle, but if we can walk together, if she’ll let someone stroke her back, whisper in her ear or at least lie next to her and be still, our family will be able to give her something worth holding onto until the end.

Our love can’t fill her void, but it can serve as a buffer.  Her presence can’t bring Gumps back, but she can remind us, every day, of someone we never want to forget.

Perhaps, in some inexplicable twist of fate, we were all meant for each other in ways I don’t yet understand.  I have got to get her teeth cleaned before Brandy and I release a flock of doves in the back yard, sing Kumbaya, and intertwine our souls, though.  I can smell her breath from across the room and her halitosis majoritis seriously bums me out.

At the end of the day, maybe life’s not about getting what you want after all, but getting what you need instead.

Me and Gumps

What Would You Do Differently Today if You Were Having Brain Surgery Tomorrow?

Standard

For you and me this is a hypothetical question, because in that way we’re lucky.

But the rhetoric is real for my friend.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to get a fast food dinner to support some of my favorite families, because the restaurant was giving half the value of anything purchased that night to their school.  I’m all about the two-toned beauty of take-out and showing up when it counts, so to me, it was a win-win.

Based on the ginormous line snaking out the door when I got there, half the neighborhood agreed.  Regardless, I dutifully stepped up, wrenched my phone from the ankle-biters, and hummed We Want the Funk under my breath to pass the time.

George Clinton

We want the funk! George Clinton Image via Flickr

It seemed that the lady behind me, who was clutching two kids wearing the uniform of the school I was there to support, didn’t like old-school hip-hop.  Or me.  She was mad, and she wasn’t singing a decades-old song under her breath.  Instead, she ran off a litany of rants that sounded a lot like:

“This line is ridiculous!”

“Do people (me) think we have all night to order?”

“I can’t believe,” heavy sigh, “that someone (me again) would be on their phone in the middle of a restaurant.”

My son, Taylor, was at basketball practice, my husband out of town, I had two straight-from-the-pool, dripping wet daughters next to me, I needed to be three places at once, I wanted to be a good friend, and I quickly glanced at my phone to place the order Taylor had texted about an hour before.

That’s it.

She probably thought I was playing Fruit Ninja, or trolling Safari for articles about Demi Moore.  But I wasn’t.  I was just doing my job as short-order cook and chauffeur extraordinaire for the fam.  Oh yeah, and supporting her kids’ school.

Fruit Ninja is played by using a touch pad to ...

Fruit Ninja Image via Wikipedia

As the back of my head absorbed her string of accusations, it became obvious she was frazzled.  But no more so than anyone else.  Her kids were probably hungry.  Ditto that.  And she obviously didn’t mind taking the news ticker of complaints running through her mind straight to the street.

That’s where I stopped short.

I was this close to going there, and shoving my phone down her throat.  But my soggy girls, wilting by the minute and aware that something was off, stared up at me with a look that questioned a lot more than the menu.  So I kept my mouth shut.

A side view of a Rotary phone

A rotary phone is hard to shove down someone’s throat. Image via Wikipedia

Instead, I stood there and thought of twelve things I’d say to her if I were alone.  That night?  I woke up at 3:00 a.m. and thought of twenty-three more.  I completely obsessed over ways I could fictitiously tell her where to go and how to get there until the next day, when I found out about my friend’s brain tumor.

And then?  That lady disappeared, and instead of stalking my every thought, took up zero percent of my space.  Which is where she should have been all along.

I tell anyone who will listen, but especially my kids, that it’s the small things in life that matter.  What I don’t often let on, because I forget it myself, is there are many smaller ones that don’t.

With that in mind, I’m asking you to help me with one of those small things that matters most.  Whether you pray, think positively, or wish upon stars, please keep my friend in your heart.  His surgery really is tomorrow, he’s one of the good guys, and the world is a much better place with him around.

***

This is my friend's brain tumor.

What was your first thought when you found out about your tumor?

Am I going to die? Be paralyzed? Permanently brain-damaged? What am I going to tell my oldest daughter, Maria?

What is your present state of mind?

That my life is on hold.  I’m worried complications may draw out what I expect to be an unpleasant experience, and I’m not looking forward to a hole being drilled in my head.  I’m also hoping that I’m not too much of a burden on my wife.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

To be healthy, financially independent, and spend my days reading, skiing, trail running, cycling, traveling, and playing with my kids.

What is your greatest fear?

Disappointing the people who rely on me.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

My quick temper.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

Intellectual arrogance and physical bullying.

What would happen if you elected not to have surgery?

The tumor would continue to grow over the years.  It would cause more hearing loss and balance problems, as well as ringing in my ears, and double vision.  It would damage nerves that would make the left side of my face droop.  I would lose the ability to close my left eyelid and my sense of taste.  I could have difficulty swallowing which would make it difficult or impossible to drink or eat, and I might have to be fed through a stomach tube.  I would suffer fine motor control problems in my left hand.  The tumor would eventually grow into the brain stem, which controls involuntary muscle like the lungs and heart.  My lungs and heart could stop functioning.

What do you consider your greatest achievements?

  • Graduating from West Point in the top 5% of my class.
  • Successfully leading my Army unit on long deployments in Bangladesh to build schools, the Kingdom of Tonga to build water desalinization plants, and Micronesia to complete various civic action projects for the islanders.
  • Finding a great woman to marry.

What have been your greatest struggles?

Growing up in poor in Harlem Heights, NYC with an alcoholic, chain-smoking, wife-beating father.  I hated being poor, so I resolved at an early age to do well in school so I could secure a more stable future.  I try hard to be nothing like my father.

What do you admire most about your mother?

Despite living a life filled with abuse and hardship, she is a patient, forgiving, and caring person.

What do you admire most about your children?

  • Maria’s sweet sensitivity (age 10).
  • Michael’s resilience and independence in the face of three surgeries (age 8).
  • Alberto’s easy-going personality (age 8).
  • Andre’s sense of humor (age 5).
  • George’s tenderness (age 3).
  • Ann’s rambunctiousness (age 2).

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

First, the fear of losing a child.  Second, being jailed in a small cell forever with a beautiful view of mountains that I will never be allowed to explore.

Has your prognosis changed the way you look at life?

I worry less about things that don’t really matter.  I worked way too hard and traveled too much last year, so I’ve changed that and am spending more time with my family.

What is your motto?

I have two.

The Seven Ps (from the Army): “Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.”

“Life is good.”

***

As I look back at these questions and my brave friend’s replies, I’m struck by something I’m embarrassed to admit.  Before this week, I didn’t know the majority of his answers.  I’d never bothered to ask.

In our daily sprint against a fading clock, it’s a lot easier to say, “How are you,” in the form of a statement rather than a question, because society is conditioned to respond with a unilateral “fine.”

“Fine” makes things easy.  It’s an all-encompassing reply that rests in the gray matter of our conscience and allows us to smile, nod our heads, and move on with our day.  “Fine” is a free pass that someone stuck under the windshield wiper in the grocery store parking lot.  It’s when you wave to a neighbor from the porch instead of meeting her at the curb to talk.  “Fine” is convenient.  It’s Facebook…a click, a thumb’s up, quick comment, and I’ve done my job.  “Fine” is one of the small things in life that doesn’t count.

There’s something wrong with a world where I‘d rather shove my phone down a stranger’s throat than stop to ask what’s the matter, or that I go deep with a friend only in the face of pending danger and loss.  Or maybe there’s just something wrong with me.  Either way, I don’t like it, and from now on I’m replacing “How are you?” with “Who are you?”

It’s a small change that leads to a big question, and I, for one, would really like to know.  If I were having brain surgery tomorrow, that’s the first thing I’d do differently today.

02/16/12: I’m happy to report that my friend’s surgery was a success.  He’ll spend the next week recuperating in the hospital, and then he’s homeward bound to rest some more.  All of your thoughts, prayers, and positive wishes made a difference.  Thank you.