Friday, December 30, 2016


Good girl.

Years ago, my husband Larry, who grew up with bird dogs, gave me a Himalayan kitten for my birthday. I'd wanted a cat since we married. I understand them, they understand me.

He loved Percy as much as I did. When we lost him four years ago, it was Larry who came to me with links to Himalayan rescue sites.

"This one looks nice," he offered.

"I can't have another one," I said.

We got Gus, a ragdoll kitten who has been lying on my keyboard ever since.

For a couple of years, my husband has wanted, maybe needed, a dog. On a rescue site, he learned about Abby, a ten-month-old English Pointer who was found wandering and starving in Texas wearing a too-tight collar.

"Let's do it," I said.

The adoption went through faster than we expected. Abby arrived two days before Larry left for a business trip. The dog expert, he left me basic training instructions: if you want to teach her this, do that. If you see this, do that, etc.

"Sure, okay," I said. But I wanted to understand Abby, the being who'd spent all that time outgrowing her collar. And wouldn't she love her "forever home" here with quiet me, and serene Gus, our classical music wafting like soft fragrances, our early morning fire glowing? Who wouldn't?

The day before she arrived, the adoption coordinator told me that she'd had some problems with "loose stools." But no, her transport volunteer told us when he delivered her, she'd been a "sweetheart."
She had long legs and a puppy's body. She looked like a black and white fawn.

We attached instantly.

I'd done some research on orienting her to a new home with an established cat. The use of a long tether was suggested to control her introduction to Gus, who has not seen another cat since leaving the litter, and has only met dogs at the vet when they're sick and uninterested in him.

We spent the first day observing and praising Abby for everything she did, including her success at lying all the way on her bed. She didn't seem to know what it was. 

On day two, Larry's travel day, we woke to an inch-an-hour snowstorm. It was five o'clock; Abby needed to go out, Larry needed to leave early to make his flight, I needed more sleep. It felt frantic, all those unmet needs in one room.

After he left, I sat at the kitchen table and started a spreadsheet to keep track of Abby's activities, a diary to keep track of my observations. Data heals, is what I always say.

But Abby watched the door. Then she paced. Then she whimpered. Then she paced and whimpered some more while I said ineffectual things like, "What's the matter? Are you hungry? Do you need the potty? Do you need a hug?" She tangled herself in her tether, she needed to sit in my lap. She barked when I turned my attention to anything else for any amount of time and didn't stop. The cat was nowhere.

I took Abby to the "bathroom" we'd installed for her, a 25x30 enclosure off a side door of the house with three sides of six foot chain link fencing, padlocked to prevent access through it to the house. Immediately she bolted and leaped, at one point more than two feet off the ground. I realized that easily, if she wasn't watched, she'd go over.

This was not a dog, I told my mother. This was a gazelle.

Inside, when Gus reappeared like a shadow on the wall, Abby sprang to her feet, barking and driving him away a second time.

Snow whipped past the window. It was just after seven-thirty. I was already overwhelmed and the sun was still coming up.

At the end of the day my spreadsheet said "Abby's Schedule," and nothing else.

Despite an array of teething products, she chewed incessantly. She chewed my hands when I stopped petting her. She chewed the leg of the table and chair, and the rug and a leg of the piano. When she became tangled in her leash, she chewed that too. She shredded her toys, she destroyed her crate mat.
Here is a chew-resistant
toy called "Tuffy," shown
here without his "stuffy"
because it is not

I became aware of how much "No," I was saying and decided I would offer words of affirmation for each one. I sounded like both her therapist and her mommy.

"You haven't had a home for a long time. You must be unbelievably stressed and unsure about this."

"I know how upset you get when you're alone in a room. But you'll see, I always come back."

"You didn't eat much. What's wrong? Is your tummy okay?"

We learned together.

I forgot to take off her leash before letting her into her pen and she immediately peed on it. I washed it and hung it to dry.

She ran like a deer around the inside of the pen, and through her own #2 before I could stop her.

When the snow stopped, I secured Abby and went to shovel out my car. I could hear her crying inside. I would have preferred barking.

In the late afternoon, she slept like a college kid on break. I started an essay of "observations in 2016" for my blog, but kept remembering, in a good way, my first days of new parenting. In the things-you-learn-about-your-patience-and-capacity way.

Respect and respond to a lowering level of patience, and capacity rises.

I decided to teach her how to sit, but she seemed to have come with that knowledge. I rewarded her, and then I wondered about the person who'd taught her to sit before he, or she, or they, lost her.

I would teach her to stay, then.


Good girl.

Two days later, more snow fell and I forgot to shovel the stairs that led to the pen. By the time I got to it, enough had slid from the roof to block the door. While I shoveled, Abby did laps and zig-zagged around her #2, which made me realize how little it takes to make me very happy.

Inside, she still barked at the sight of Gus but now seemed disappointed by his rejection. Once, after driving him into his safe space, she sat whimpering at the bottom of the stairs as if she just wanted one more chance.

Three days later, I was so pleased by the consistency of her #2, I wanted to call someone and share the news.

That afternoon, while I was across the room, she chewed my laptop cord in half. It would have bothered me more weeks earlier, but I was strangely indifferent. I placed an order for a new one, then increased it to two. I posted an image of the chewed cord on Facebook. Ha ha.

That was the tip.

The iceberg came the next day.

Gus entered the room through a barrier I'd forgotten to close while Abby was off her leash and roaming. She spotted him and lunged,, barking, chasing, cornering and terrifying him. While I grabbed at her harness, Gus tried frantically to escape, running into a wall before he located an exit. I was horrified to see him move that way.

I crated Abby and found him in the loft where we spent most of each day together. "I'm sorry," I said.

Later after temps had fallen into the ungodly range, I opened the door to the pen and closed it, locking myself in the enclosure. I stood gloveless, while Abby barked hysterically on the other side of the door. "Please," I said, reaching into my jacket where I found a key I'd had the forethought to pocket earlier.

I was joyful enough over this to forget about earlier and not worry about later.

That night, my mother came for a visit. At the sight of this new person, Abby lost it. Leaping around the room, barking, nipping, she pulled and twisted so hard to get free of me, I felt something happen to my back.

I'd been vocal about socializing her at every opportunity. But with Christmas Eve only days away, and eighteen people coming over, there was no way I wouldn't crate Abby for the party. My mother liked that idea very much.

While I made dinner that night, Abby laid in her bed and watched me. I talked to her. I told her I didn't think I'd have sauteed onions with my omelet after all, and what tomorrow's schedule would be. She was surrounded by toys that arrived with her, she didn't take her eyes off me. I asked her who was a good girl? Who was a good, good girl?

She hung on every word, eyes locked on my face.


Good girl.

I crated her and went to bed. The next morning, I woke at 4:30 to whimpering. I smelled it from the top of the stairs. Inside her crate, she'd had diarrhea. She huddled in a corner, her toys all buried under the mat near her.

Exhausted, I wanted to cry for both of us, but more for her. I cleaned her up, secured her in the kitchen and went back to throw away everything but the crate.

Solemnly, noiselessly, she sat where I'd left her. I sat down on the floor and called her to my lap. I said, "Well, you had one hell of a night, didn't you?" She nuzzled me, and I hugged her. "It's okay," I said. "It really is." We stayed like that for a while.

It's been eighteen days. My husband has been back in the picture for a couple of weeks, caring for his beings. He's surprised that she's come so far. "Look at how calm she is," he said.

Resilience is one of the few things that connects us to animals – the spirit to get through something, because we are certain there is something to make the struggle worthwhile. It's how humans get what they want. It's how animals survive.

I like to think we bonded over the crate trauma but however it's happened, Abby has found the calm to love the fire every morning while I write, while classical music plays, and while the cat watches from a safe stair. 

But I think it may be more. I think it may be that she finally got the hang of staying.
Abby, almost three weeks later, shown
 here with our creepy nutcracker which
we only keep to make fun of.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Things to keep

Note:   Here is last Thursday's blog post. It's late because we adopted a puppy and the only line I had time to write last week was, "there is dog hair on my keyboard."  

A thing to keep, dishes and all, forever.
Every year for almost nineteen years, my sister-in-law and I have hosted Thanksgiving dinner at my house for a crowd of about fifteen family members. 
We're so good at this, we can talk about things not related to Thanksgiving while we're putting Thanksgiving on the table. A couple of years ago, I remarked that it would be even more efficient next year and she said, "I know it will be, if we're here. We'll have to see." 
With their first in college, she explained, the different vacation schedules could limit their chances to be together as a whole family. 
"Thanksgiving could be the only time we're all off. We might head for warm weather, I don't know," she said. 
I respected her reasons, of course, as she would respect mine, but it gave me pause to think we might be in the last hours of a tradition we'd observed for almost two decades.
Because, like first guests who leave a party signal the beginning of its end, when a holiday tradition strays from course once, it makes it more thinkable to do it again. It never happened, we co-hosted Thanksgiving again just last month, but I appreciated this one with new perspective on how long "forever" really is, or should be.
For more than twenty years, my father gathered his adult children every Christmas Eve afternoon for a lunch. Until three years ago, we followed this with a gathering at my house later in the evening. Everybody came. We all had younger kids and after some socializing we had a gift swap for the small ones, and a Yankee swap for the older ones. Babies were passed around. 
We did it forever. 

And it was fun.
Maybe coincidentally, Christmas Eve changed the year my brother died. Attendance at the lunch began to fall off as well. There were people down with the flu. There were people hosting their own gatherings to include in-laws. Maybe it was hard for others, like it was for me, to feel the absence of a person whose presence filled rooms.Whatever the reason, we did it forever and then we didn't.

And it was okay.  
I've realized a few things about traditions now, and the different things they mean to the people who honor them:
First, some traditions don't age and grow rich for some as much as they grow old and obligating. Sometimes, unplanned pull from another direction can open the door to creating  new, and more relevant, "forever" traditions.  
I've also learned that any traditions that seem etched in stone, are really only as "forever" as the time that has passed since the first one.  Kids grow up, people move, babies come and families begin to honor the new rituals they are entitled to create. 
I've seen that it can be very hard for those who have to bow out and disappoint someone else. Often, it's wrenching. Most people who have to decide where to be, want to be everywhere. 
And, especially clear to me is this: 
Some things we keep. Some we can't. But if it's sad to let old traditions go, it's brightening to  remember that new traditions  honor life as we have changed or been changed by  it. Old traditions are about who we were. New ones recognize who we are. 
I visit with my father at his office once a week . Near a shelf displaying his favorite photos of my brother, we sit and talk. Every time, we share a new memory of earlier years, talk about things he observes today, how my kids are and how my writing is going. Our discussions are as meaningful as any we had back in the Yankee swap years. They are easy to cherish, they are things to keep. 
This year, I let the lunch go. For a short time, and because every year could possibly be the last time we can manage it,  my own children will be at our home together on Christmas Eve day. I need all of those hours with them.   
I asked him if we could find other hours for us and he didn't hesitate to say, "Of course we can." I love him for that. 
We'll have a lunch earlier in the week. We've invited the others. I know we'll exchange holiday wishes and memories and as certain as the time that has passed since he was here, my brother will visit in spirit and prompt a new story about something funny or crazy that he did, as well as other good things about earlier years. 
Maybe this will be our new Christmas Eve tradition. 
This year, or next, if you're at the receiving end of a "we can't make it this year" call, particularly if you're an empty-nester and it is your millennial (who still expects a stocking) calling to tell you he's going skiing, or that she's going to Turks and Caicos with her roommate's family, choose your words carefully, because they will sound loud and different in your memory when the new year starts and you're not upset anymore. 
Seize your chance to be the generous one who says, "I've been there, no problem. What should we do instead?" 
There is meaning to what we bring to the lives of those we love and who love us. It may not be on the date you've traditionally set aside for it, but however it stays on the calendar, see it as a thing to keep forever for however long forever is. 
Peace, love and happy holidays.

Friday, December 9, 2016

When adult kids go other-home: what worked for me

Four people and a cat on a couch
who mean the world to me.
Here is a holiday moment you'll understand if you're the parent of grown children.
Your kids, all living independently this year, file in for the holidays, and you have a fantastic time. You're struck by new awe over who they've become. You smile to see how they enjoy each other more all the time. It hits you that even if they are dissimilar people, they have their independence and confidence in common. Their bond is strong. 
You didn't see quite this much of that last year. 
They leave, and while you put the house back together, you reflect on sweet holiday moments that you'll store like fancy dishes in your brain attic. The sky turns gray, snow flies, and you're nostalgic, but not exactly the way you used to be, because this time they didn't leave to go back to work or school, they left to go other-home. 
You didn't see that last year at all because you were still paying tuition. 
You have to be careful with nostalgia. It's healthy until it becomes engrossing, the way a Facebook newsfeed is interesting until everyone seems to have a more interesting life, even if you wouldn't recognize many of the "everyones" if you tripped over them.
You also have to be careful with nostalgia because right after it makes you feel grateful for where you are, it can evolve into melancholy, that icy patch of knowing something is over that you kind of wish you could do again, or do better, or just wish might have lasted longer. 
You might have seen that this year.
I'll share an attitude adjustment that worked for me after I had my own spills on that patch. 
Knowing that we like to see things in life as true or false, better or worse, good or bad, it helps to remember that most things can all be true but not at the same time.  

It is true that you raised children to become successful, loving adults who are making unique and precious contributions to the world. It's probably also true that after you did that, you found your next life where you come first again and don't have to remember to pick up hot sauce on your way home.    
And, it's true that as you consider the life that grew within and beyond the walls of your home, and all you gave of your heart, you will have trouble picturing anything as vitalizing or affirming.
Melancholy is a bummer.

Melancholy is useful.

But not at the same time.

Trying to drive away post-holiday blues when post-holiday blues are trying to be useful can fail because in your brain attic, there is only one chair.  If your hopeful future tries to sit there while your adult children are wheeling their luggage to the door and making you sad, your melancholy present will push it off and you'll be left there on the floor saying, "Oh my God. I'll never do anything as meaningful again," which is not true at all.
It worked for me to remember that awareness of  things that are over can be the first move toward visualizing a "next" future, if for no other reason than to get off your own nerves. Even if the picture of that future looks like a swirly watercolor and not yet a horse or apple tree or house in a field, it is in this state of need that we open to possibilities which require our qualities as a human being more than our skills as a person. 
And melancholy, if it doesn't drag on, can be a bench at the bend, where you don't just remember how life was before, but feel it again, to make sure your memories live as well.

The only thing better than being surrounded by children you've raised to be happy and healthy and who love you unabashedly is nothing. And the only thing worse than having a nostalgia hangover that you didn't see coming is failing to allow it the time it needs to wane on its own and set you free again. 
Both are true.

I saw that this year.

Thursday, December 1, 2016


Here is Abby. 

My husband found her on a rescue site and fell in love, and because I love my husband, I am to be a dog person again. 
Abby is ten months old, sweet and smart, and was found wandering in Texas, emaciated, with a too-small collar. She'd been spayed. Someone had taken care of her before she lost them. 
Now she's ours.
But for very good reasons, she's especially mine. 
We  had a dog years ago, when I wasn't yet  a "dog person," and did not yet understand that if dogs seem needy, they also reflect your ability to give, and more pointedly, receive love. 
My capacity to be giving in the years of raising small children with a husband who traveled was tested to say the least. But Bonnie lurked around the edges, lying asleep on the kitchen floor when I cooked, nudging me with her nose when I stared into space, thinking about one issue or another. As our kids grew and I wondered where my post-parenting life would take me, Bonnie often came to sit before me quietly, as if she needed something, or, more likely,  as if I did. She had amber eyes that looked right into my soul.
Bonnie urged her way into my world more every day, until she became a constant ally that I talked to like someone who had known me forever. When she developed a serious kidney illness in her last year, I sat on her bed with her. I cooked for her every night, asking her to "Please, just eat this." I would have fed her Twinkies if she'd wanted them. 
By the time she left us,  I'd gone from not being a "dog" person to being, simply, a better person. I connect with kind beings instantly. I love more easily. 
I give reflexively. 
I like to think that Bonnie has come back around in spirit. I like to think that Abby, with her own amber eyes is coming to us, but mostly, coming back to me. 
She's ours, and we will make her life wonderful. 
But for reasons I like to think Bonnie would understand, she's mine for all good reasons

On her way.