Break Is Not a Simple Word

Last May I attended a writing workshop in the North Cascades, and I drove the fourteen-hour roundtrip by myself. I listened to stories and podcasts, but I also allowed myself quiet time to think as I whipped across the Eastern Washington scablands, under Grand Coulee Dam, and along so many rivers. I used the voice-to-text option on my phone, and recorded hundreds of my thoughts. Some of them were specific to my memoir-in-progress, but many of them were around a common, unplanned theme:

this is what breaks my heart. 

As I traveled, I felt my heart breaking open not from grief, but from immense joy, extreme delight, and uncharted expansiveness. Often when something is described as heartbreaking it’s not because of its power to destroy us, but rather because of its potential to transform us.

Break is not a simple word.

Break means to sustain an injury, separate into pieces.

Codes break, revealing secrets. Fevers break, resetting a body’s internal temperature.

A break can be as simple as a pause, or as complicated as a last act.

Some breaks can be repaired.

We break promises.

We break camp and we break bread.

We break a fall, a silence, a step.

We break each other. We break contact.

Voices break when speaking with emotion.

Weather breaks, resulting in a sudden change.

Waves break. Yolks break. News breaks.

Some things break with intention, while other breaks are followed by cursing.

We break open, break clean, break trust.

We break down.

We break up.

We break out: with hives, from prison, in song.

We break in.

We break off.

We break away.

We break free.

We break even.

We break the ice, the mold, the bank.

We give someone a break. We take a break.

Day breaks.

My brain switched into overdrive after the workshop, and by the time I got home I had filled my phone with hundreds of notes about what I’d witnessed—both along the way and within myself—that broke my heart. The idea for this blog was born, but the following day I was rushing at work and I dropped my phone—with all of my hot-off-the-press notes—face down on a tile floor.

I broke it. The screen was shattered, and I couldn’t access anything.

I didn’t break down, but went to get a replacement, which I was due for anyway. The Verizon store offered to transfer all of my information, and many of my old notes moved to the new device, but not the most recent ones. Of course the notes containing obsolete grocery lists grapefruit, eggplant, yukon golds, toothpaste and tracking numbers for packages ordered two Christmases ago remained, but the most recent notes from leaving the conference were wiped out.

That in itself broke my heart.

Daunted, I put my new blog idea on hold, and took it as a sign to dive instead into the fire-like cycle of writing my memoir, which looks like this:

write-edit-write-edit-pout-write-edit-joy-write-edit-write-edit-doubt-write-edit-write-edit-write-edit-why the hell am I doing this-write-edit-write-edit….

I did that, and it was more fun that it seems, but one thing was missing rom my writing life: the connection with readers I had when I actively posted on my first blog.

It’s been almost a year since I posted even a word on Sorry I’m Not Who You Thought I Was , and although my intention was to return to it and pick up where I left off, I decided to close that chapter and start something new. Six years is a good run for a blog, and I’m not taking it down, but just leaving it there as an artifact. Maybe I’m no longer sorry?

Instead of limiting myself to long-form essays every week or month, I’m going to post something on this theme every day. This is not a resolution, it’s a commitment. It’s an experiment.

My daily entries could be poetry or prose. They might be lists, paragraphs, single words. Sometimes I might post a song or a photo, an essay, writing that isn’t mine.

I don’t know what it’s going to look like in the end or even along the way. But nevertheless, I begin.

Here’s the link to my new blog: This is What Breaks My Heart 

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LOVE IS NOT A STRAIGHT LINE

Last summer I met a man. He surprised me, made me pause, knocked my socks off. I didn’t even know I wanted him until I met him, had no idea he even existed. If asked to sketch a profile of my dream man I’d never have set my expectations so high for fear of being disappointed.

Martin and I met online, but the night we met in person it was just for a drink after I’d had dinner with a girlfriend. It’s hard to tell from an online profile and some messaging if you’re going to like a person in real life. I need to know how the person smells, if he makes eye contact, if he has nice table manners. I was the one who pushed for the meeting, but because I didn’t want to give him too much of my time, I suggested we simply meet for a drink after my girl-date.

“I’m going to be more dressed up for our first date than I normally would be,” I warned him, and the disclaimer was unspoken but understood: I didn’t dress up for you. 

I live in a place where people get judged more for dressing up and having nice things than for being casual, and it would be reasonable for a person to show up for a first date straight from floating the river. I wore a cotton dress, but instead of flip-flops I had on sassy high-heeled clogs. My hair was washed and not in a ponytail and I wore both jewelry and mascara. Instead of a sweatshirt around my waist I had a pretty shawl in my purse.

Martin arrived first and told me he was sitting in the back. He stood up when he spotted me, and when I arrived at the table we hugged, but honestly it was more like him holding me up. He wore well-fitting linen pants, a pressed shirt, and dress shoes. He wasn’t wearing his blazer at that point, but if he had I might’ve just hit the floor right then. It wasn’t just his looks. He oozed confidence and sincerity.

“I figured you’ve probably had your fill of guys in Carhartts and Chacos,” Martin said, “So I got a little dressed up for you.” It wasn’t just a one off. Still, even when we go out for Sunday night burgers he wears a blazer and good shoes.

The beginning was thrilling and filled with the jitters and nerves that accompany the excitement of a new relationship, but it didn’t take long for us to fall into a routine that felt comfortable and safe. Martin does all of the little things that added up to the big thing. The first time he brought me coffee in bed I thought it was a fluke, a kind gesture to make up for him getting out of bed at 6:00 on a Sunday to run eighteen miles, but no. Then I thought maybe it was a Sunday thing, or a weekend thing, but no.

Even on days that Martin doesn’t have to work he’ll set his alarm so he can make fresh coffee and bring it to me in bed. Even on days that I don’t have time to linger, he sets it on the nightstand so I have the luxury of starting my day with a few sips while I’m still cozy under the covers.

We spent our first ten or so Saturdays together at the farmers’ market. I’ve always been a fan of going early to beat the crowds, but Martin likes to go later, eat brunch there, and then shop. It only took me about a week to adapt. Going to market with Martin quickly became my favorite thing. I loved that he’d take my hand and hold it, kiss me just because, wait patiently while I chatted with endless numbers of people. I’ve always hated the question, “What’s for dinner?” but with Martin I liked it and I wasn’t afraid to tell him. In fact, I wasn’t afraid to tell him anything, and our relationship—even in the early days—had a marked absence of fear.

I have a fourteen-year-old dog, and warned Martin that dating a girl with an old dog can be tricky. For starters,  Lucky comes first, which Martin reported was obvious from the start as Lucky had not only been in the car during our first date, but had also sniffed him out. More important is the reality Lucky will die sooner than not and I don’t know what will happen to me when he does.

“I could come unraveled,” I told Martin, “Completely undone.”

Martin held my face and looked me in the eye when he said, “He won’t leave until he knows you’re in good hands.”

My mother came to visit in September and Martin was incredible with her, but during that visit Lucky stopped eating, drinking, or walking for a couple of days. Martin showed me who he is in a crisis: clear, calm, and present. He’d baked my mother a cake for her birthday, but entered my house to find five of us hovering over the dog bed.

The cake he baked was a German recipe that translates into “gentleman’s cake,” which turned out to be perfect for Lucky’s funeral. Martin brought joy into the room where the air was heavy with heartbreak. It was a gorgeous late summer day, but we sat in the living room with the curtains drawn, the only light a thin column coming through the front door. It appeared we wanted to sit in the dark and wallow.

“Let’s take him outside,” Martin said, and we all looked at him like he was crazy. “He needs space,” my pragmatic guy continued, “and air. You’re all so crowded around him.” It was true. All of the fresh air in my house had been consumed by our sighing and heavy breathing. It was stale. It felt sick. It wasn’t helping. We carried Lucky out of the house on his dog bed.

“He’s like Aladdin,” I said, and he really did look like a little prince being carried into the sunshine on his magic carpet, his portal to the afterlife or maybe just to the yard. We let Lucky have some space in the last bits of light which turn quickly that time of year into alpenglow off the mountain across the street. In September this light is warm and pink, yet the air is cool.

It’s a decadent thing to have your dog bed in the front yard, and Lucky looked so peaceful, but eventually his body felt cold to the touch so we carried him back inside and into my bedroom. Everyone else went home, but Martin stayed with Lucky while my mother and I went to pick up slices of pizza; a whole pie seemed like more than we could manage.

Every breath seemed like Lucky’s last. The following days Martin did an extraordinary job bringing presence to Lucky’s downslide, while keeping us rooted in some of our normal activities. We went to the farmers’ market. We went to our friends’ house to pick plums. We hiked the mountain across the street—just the two of us, a first—while Luck’s grandma watched over him. Tears streamed down my cheeks all the way up the trail, and Martin rubbed my back and gave me kisses. It was nearly dark when we got to the top and nobody else was there. The sun dipped behind the mountains and my dam broke.

“I don’t know who I am if I’m not Lucky’s mom,” I wailed, “Who am I without someone to feed and walk?” One of the first things I noticed about Martin the night we met was his intense gaze; it’s unwavering. It made me nervous at first, but then I recognized it as a safe place.

“You will always be Lucky’s mom,” Martin said.

In the middle of the night I heard rustling from Lucky’s bed, little more than an arm’s distance from mine, so I ran to get a piece of bacon, the litmus test of life in a dog. He had no interest. I held the shallow dish of water under his chin, but he didn’t even seem to notice. Martin woke up, propped himself on one elbow and was patient while I sat and cried into my dog’s neck, which smells better than anything I’ve ever known. A quarter-sized piece of bacon sat perched on my knee.

I kept trying with the bacon, alternating between trying to get Lucky to recognize it as his favorite and wetting his lips with a paper towel soaked in water. Martin closed his eyes.

“He’s taking it! He’s taking the bacon!” I squealed. I ran to get more and then fed Lucky strip after strip of bacon. At exactly the same time—but I had no way of knowing—my father was having emergency heart surgery in North Carolina after suffering a heart attack.

The next day Lucky had almost completely reclaimed his groove, and my mother went home to New York. I had a visit planned later than week to see my father in North Carolina, but my flight was cancelled. Driving back home from the airport at 6:00 in the morning, Martin said that he thought Lucky had a hand in this, like maybe he knew his Mommy needed to stay home and rest.

It’s true. I was exhausted. It had been a long summer of running around and I need to be still. Martin set up his hammock with a sleeping bag and pillow so I could read and nap in the sun. He worked in the yard, then baked a cake with the plums we’d picked the previous weekend. He whipped fresh cream.

It had been a hot summer, so there hadn’t been any baking, but with cooler temperatures on the horizon and a few family crises I learned something about Martin: he’s a stress baker. He bakes everything from scratch. When things are falling apart he takes ingredients one at a time and carefully measures them, taking the bitter and making it sweet.

The first couple months of our relationship were filled with joy, yet there had been—for me—a low-grade, underlying grief: I wished I’d met Martin sooner. When my mother has a question she want to ask but is hesitant she prefaces it with another question, “Can I ask you a question,” she’ll ask. This annoys me sometimes and I’ll respond, “You just did,” but that doesn’t slow her down.

“Where has he been?” she asked as if I knew the answer, which I didn’t. The truth was, if Martin had showed up in my life five or seven years earlier there’s a good chance I wouldn’t have been ready for him. By the time he arrived I felt a bit overripe and perhaps ready to be made into a pudding or quick bread, but he quickly stopped the process and renewed my hope.

I hadn’t lost hope in a hopeless way, I’d simply removed expectation. After taking care of my grandmother with dementia I lived with more present-moment awareness than ever before; I was happy with the life I had as opposed to wanting something that might or might not be available to me. But then Martin appeared—a true vision in linen pants with an enormous heart and brilliant smile—and I felt grief. I’d finally met a man who I felt like I could have a family with, but I was forty two and he was forty seven.

The summer I was thirty I’d just broken up with a great guy and Lucky and I moved into an apartment by ourselves. Every morning we walked to a bakery for coffee and a croissant, and I taught him how to walk off leash because every few steps I’d give him a tiny bit of our pastry. I loved being a young mother to my pup. I got to know the owner of the bakery, and sometimes we’d chat. She told me that she never wanted children until she met her husband, and then suddenly it was all she wanted. I didn’t get it, but suddenly, twelve years later, her message was clear.

I talked about this fairly extensively with a few of my best girlfriends, but not to Martin. I know now that I can tell him anything, but I didn’t want him to think that I thought I was missing out. But really, I didn’t want him to run away. Talking about having a family—or lamenting the thought of not having one—was a premature conversation for us to have after two or three months. I wanted us to stay present; we were good there.

During this time my best friend Emily was pregnant. We’re exactly the same age and have embraced lives that were more adventurous and explorative than rooted and oriented toward family. If she could have a baby at forty-two then maybe I could too. We talked about it at length. And then some.

Emily’s baby was born in October. I’d been through an emotional ringer the past couple of months—my ex-husband died, Lucky almost died, my father had a heart attack—and I felt cut to the root and emotionally exposed. I was o raw and gutted over Lucky’s slow dance with death that I worried I didn’t even have the strength and stamina to be a parent. I reckoned I’m just too sensitive and emotional.

But I’d seen how Martin weathers a crisis or two and how much love and tenderness he extends with ease and grace. It made me want a family with him even more, so when Emily asked me—with her newborn in her arms—what I was thinking regarding making a family with Martin, I stood there in the shadow of the mountain and said, “I’m not thinking about it. I’ve stopped thinking about it. I’ve accepted that he and I—with Lucky and the dogs of our future—are enough.” She nodded the way she does, and we hugged and kissed goodbye.

Four days later I got something I wasn’t expecting: I got a positive pregnancy test.

I’d driven down to Jackson, Wyoming to visits a wonderful group of old friends, and was staying with my friend Sam, who’s like a sister. We were enjoying the afternoon sun on her deck, and I casually mentioned a few symptoms.

“Are you pregnant?” she asked, “Let’s go pee on a stick.” We giggled like kids en route to her bathroom where she sat me on the potty with a pregnancy test and told me to pee. She got in her bed, but with the door open we could still talk to each other.

“What does it say?” Sam asked before I’d even stopped peeing.

“Nothing yet,” I told her, then a few seconds later the air was sucked out of me. “I don’t know,” I said, “I feel like it’s dark in here and I can’t really see. I feel like I’m wearing polarized lenses and I’m seeing lines that aren’t really there. I’m not sure.” I touched my face just in case, but my sunglasses were nowhere to be found.” Sam came into the bathroom and took the stick out of my hand.

“This is a positive pregnancy test!” she squealed, “Oh my god. You’re pregnant!”

Not sure what to do, we climbed into her bed with our dogs, a scenario we’ve spent countless hours in over the past fifteen years that we’ve been friends. We do our best thinking in beds with dogs.

I had plans to go meet two other friends, and knew I couldn’t keep my exciting news from them, but I knew that the next person to hear this news was going to have to be Martin. I took a shower, and as I drove across town I called him. I had a hunch he was going to be delighted, but I was wrong.

“How did this happen?” he asked, and I had no answer, but reminded him that he’s forty-seven-years old and I didn’t think he needed a biology lesson. There was a lot of silence from his end. I asked him if he was still there.

“I had to sit down,” he said.

It was awkward. I couldn’t see him, feel him, or smell him. I wanted to reach out to him, but I was four hundred miles from home. I apologized for having to tell him this way, but I told him I couldn’t wait. He was glad I told him, but I felt doom from the other end of the line. The only thing Martin said during that conversation that gave me any confidence was, “Everything will be okay.”

I was fortunate to be seeing four of my dearest girlfriends that weekend and to be able to share shrieks of joy with them, which made up for Martin’s lack of enthusiasm. I held my friend Danielle’s miracle baby as I told her, I walked in the twilight at the Elk Refuge with my college friend Julia as I told her. There was so much joy.

Julia worked some magic and got me an appointment with her astrologer friend for the next morning. I sat with Lyn and told her that I couldn’t quite believe it, but I felt the presence in my abdomen. She told me she saw two babies in my chart, and I panicked over the thought of twins.

“Is is possible that one of the babies is a book?” I asked her, “I’m writing a book, and, well, now I suddenly have the deadline of all deadlines. It would be helpful if one of those babies is a book.”

“It’s quite likely,” she said with a smile. Lyn and I talked about Martin. As with everyone else, when asked about Martin’s reaction I described our conversation and said it was a little iffy. Lyn and I talked about the strong mothering presence in my chart and how I could do this alone if I needed to. I told her I had no doubt about that, but I was also honest with myself and with her as my witness.

“I want a family,” I told her, “My family has been me and Luckydog for years, and I could see myself being a single mom—having that family would be far more than enough—but that’s not exactly how I pictured it.”

The next day I drove home. The drive home was so different than the drive down just three days earlier. I started my drive fresh out of a soul-affirming brunch and walk with Mariah, who I met the summer after I returned from my year in Honduras, the summer after she graduated from college. Mariah and I were in different places then as we are now, and as we always will be—there are eleven years between us—but our hearts are aligned in a way that transcends time. I started home with sore cheeks from so much smiling.

The first couple hours of the drive were a breeze. The sun was shining and I listened to the recording of my reading with Lyn. I knew it would mean finishing the drive in the dark, but I stopped at the Patagonia outlet anyway. I wanted to buy myself some long underwear, and I didn’t go in looking to buy anything for my four-week-old embryo, but I couldn’t resist the little down jacket and fleece vest that would fit him his first fall and winter. I know now that this was not a wise decision.

I got back on the highway headed north, and had the unfortunate happenstance of stopping for gas right as the last light was fading. When I got back into the car it was pitch black. Hunting season was in full swing and I kept my eyes peeled for animals crossing the road, but also for pickups with big game in the bed. I knew it was likely many of these drivers had been drinking. Beer and hunting—especially when the hunt fills a tag—is a natural pairing in Montana. One driver rode the center line for miles, and when he finally edged to the right I drove faster than I usually do in the dark, but it felt safer than staying behind him. I pushed my odometer to ninety—knowing that’s nuts at night—but I begged a cop to pull me over.

If I got stopped I knew the first words out of my mouth would be, “Where have you been?”

It felt different out there on the interstate knowing I was pregnant. I felt like I needed to be more careful, but I also felt desperate to get home. I drove the last eighty miles clutching the wheel both because of what was going on around me, but more because of what was going on within me. I had a lot of practice conversations in my head.

When Martin and I made the decision to have less-safe sex I presented him with a bullet-point list of facts. I’d never stated it quite like this before, but perhaps my intuition had a suspicion something might be at stake. The most important thing I told Martin was that if I got pregnant I would have the baby. I also told him that I would always let him know where I was in my cycle, and that I would share the contraception responsibility but not take it on as my sole responsibility. I was clear that I wouldn’t consider an abortion, but I’d consider taking Plan B if we thought it was necessary. I also told him that if he thought that having a baby with me would be life ruining and the worst thing to happen to him that he should never even consider unprotected sex because a woman’s cycle can be fickle, especially at my age.

Based on this succinct conversation I figured that while Martin might’ve been surprised by the news of our pregnancy to the point of needing a seat, he’d accept responsibility and be happy about the family we’d create. But on that dark drive to his house I also prepared myself to let him go. I wanted to be clear that this was something I really wanted, and if he didn’t I would understand. I wept as I said the words aloud to myself in the car.

“You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to,” I practiced, “I understand, and I don’t want you to force yourself to do something you don’t want to do. Worse than not having a family with you would be you doing it out of obligation, so please don’t do that.” I made myself cry.

“I will tell our child about when we met,” I continued, despite the fact that adding tears to this already dicey driving situation was probably not wise, “I’ll tell him about what a kind, smart, beautiful man you are and how wonderful you are, but that you just didn’t want to be a father.” I was sick to my stomach by the time I arrived.

When I turned the corner to his house I saw Martin in the kitchen, and when I opened the door the first sensation that hit me was the evidence of baking, the warmth of cinnamon. If I knew nothing else to be true I knew this: nobody bakes a breakup cake. Lucky ran toward the kitchen while I took off my boots.

“Hey, stinker,” Martin said, “Welcome home!” I heard joy. I felt love. I was home.

Martin greeted me with a soft, gentle smile and a strong hug. I cried into his chest, and for awhile neither of us spoke.

“I talked to Marietta,” he said finally, “And Thanksgiving dinner will be at 2:00.” He wasn’t dumping me. That was all—in that moment—that I needed to know. We went out for burgers, and then home to eat his apple cake and get to sleep early. We were exhausted.

That whole evening we didn’t even talk about the pregnancy. At first this concerned me, but then I realized that the most important thing was that we connected to each other. We held hands, looked deeply into each others eyes, and fell asleep cuddling, but in the morning I was anxious. As we ate breakfast I told Martin that I was glad we took that time to just be together, but that we needed to actually talk about the pregnancy. He agreed, but the next time we both had available was Thursday evening, otherwise known as an agonizingly long time away from Monday morning.

In the meantime I got to see Emily and baby Nina, I hosted some of my dearest friends for a birthday dinner, I met friends for hikes and tea. I got to tell a lot of people my exciting news. The news of my pregnancy was just a week after the election, and I got to be the bearer of good news in a world that had, overnight, turned more complicated and confusing than ever. I got to feel a lot of joy that week with many of my closest friends, but I still wasn’t sure how my boyfriend felt about all of it.

I was already pregnant the week before I found out, and I put on a pair of jeans before heading over to Martin’s. He put his hands on my waist to pull me in for a hug, and I said, “Ick, my jeans are tight today.” Martin kept his grip on my waist and looked at my belly before looking at me and asking, “Are you pregnant?”

“No!” I laughed, but the sweet way he asked the question made me believe he wouldn’t think pregnancy wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen to us.

Thursday came around and I made a beef stew to bring over and Martin picked up fresh bread. We chatted about the week as we ate, but the longer it took to talk about the baby the more my anxiety grew. Finally we settled in on the couch. I curled myself around him and prepared for the worst. I’d yet to see joy from him regarding the pregnancy and I wasn’t expecting it. I asked him how he felt.

“Concerned,” he said, and I peeled my body away from his a little bit. “I’m concerned because of our ages, because of all that can go wrong with a pregnancy. I’ll be close to retirement when the child graduates from college, my parents are getting older and it’s harder for them to travel. This will mean more trips to Germany. I worry about what having a baby will do to our relationship, what losing a child would do to our relationship.” He also talked a little about the upsides, that we’re more financially and emotionally stable than many people in their twenties and even thirties who are having babies, but the scales were far from even.

“I worry about our energy,” he continued, “Do we have the energy for a child? What about a child with special needs?” He told me that ten years prior if he thought he wouldn’t have a chance to be a dad he’d have thought he was missing out, but as he grew older he let go of that. I laughed and told him that ten years earlier if I’d had a baby I’d have thought I was missing out. We were coming at this thing from completely different points of view.

Martin’s points were valid and I told him so, but I also told him that I was optimistic. I told him that statistics are complicated and we’re both healthy. He told me that paternal age is more of a factor on a baby’s health than I might realize; he’d been doing research.

When he asked me how I felt I answered, “Excited.” I struggled to see this guy, whose heart is light, force a smile. I fell back into the headspace I was in on the drive home from Jackson, and I told Martin that he didn’t have to do this with me, but I was going to do it.

“You don’t have to do this,” I said, “You don’t have to make a family with me. You can’t want something you don’t want.”

“I want you,” he assured me.

The next four weeks were a challenge. I was tired and Martin wanted his girlfriend back. Things that hadn’t been a question before were suddenly looming large. The major upside was that the most pressing question of all had vanished. I’d been pondering for years how I’d survive the death of Lucky—even in Martin’s good hands—and what I would do with myself on a day-to-day basis. The answer had eluded me, but suddenly it was clear.

“I’m going to take care of my baby,” I realized, “When Lucky dies I will take care of my baby, and if the baby hasn’t arrived yet I will take good care of myself.” I no longer had to worry if I’d sell everything and run off to Bali or if my sadness would wither me away to nothing. Just like Lucky had a hand in delaying my trip to North Carolina, I started to believe he had a hand in bringing me an against-the-odds baby.

Those of us who witnessed Lucky’s near death in September knew he was close. His eyes were vacant, his breath labored, his body lifeless. For a few hours that Saturday afternoon we gathered in Emily and Jeff’s yard as Martin picked plums, and over the course of a few hours we all felt Lucky slipping away. He might even have crossed over briefly before returning to us. Lucky is an old dog. He’s almost fifteen now, and it’s not like he’s going to live forever, we just get to enjoy him a little longer.

What I enjoy the most about Lucky—and the list is long—is not his cheerful demeanor, not his unwavering love, not even the smell of his neck. It’s his wisdom. He is truly the smartest person I’ve ever known, and he only became brighter after his near-death experience. It didn’t take long to convince me that the only way I’d conceived a baby at age forty two while trying not to get pregnant was if Luckydog had a paw in making this happen.

It made sense. Perhaps Lucky thought I was prepared to let him go. Martin was the guy we didn’t even dare dream of, and he liked us too. Perhaps Luck had thought I was in good shape, and he had every reason to believe. That day in Emily’s yard we all got down close and talked to him. We told him he’s been such a good boy and that we love him very much. We said everything we could think of to let him know that he didn’t have to hold on if he didn’t want to, that he could let go if he was ready.

Martin crouched behind me and spoke to Lucky. He said, “You’ve taken such good care of your momma, Luck, but you don’t have to worry anymore. I can take care of her now.” Martin and Jeff wrapped Lucky in a blanket and placed him in my car, all of us certain we were taking him home to die. But he didn’t; he wasn’t ready.

I was eight weeks pregnant when I went for my first ultrasound. I’d been so worried that the images might show two babies, that I’d completely forgotten to worry about the absence of one.

Before the ultrasound I had a thorough exam and answered a lot of questions. I had many symptoms of a healthy pregnancy, and no reason to think anything was wrong. It was a transvaginal ultrasound, which means a probe is placed inside the vagina. Right before the midwife stuck it inside me she asked me why Martin hadn’t joined me for the appointment. It felt like an accusation, but I gave her the only answer there was.

“I didn’t ask him to,” I told her. I knew if I’d asked Martin he would have joined me, and I’d even booked the first morning appointment to make it easier for him with his job. But I didn’t ask him. In part I didn’t ask him because I knew it would be a long appointment that dealt with a lot of my health history and I didn’t want to waste his time, but I know now that I was afraid of the outcome.

Emily had asked me the day before if Martin was joining me and I’d told her no, for the same reason, and she pointed out that hearing the baby’s heartbeat is a great way for a father to connect with the baby. The mother is automatically linked physically, but the father just has a tired, cranky, swollen mother and that doesn’t always lead to feeling connected.

Of course she was right. But what happens when there is no heartbeat? What happens when the midwife turns the screen away from you to get a closer look and then turns it toward you, and with the cold probe still in your vagina, shows you the emptiness in your womb. She pointed out the size of the gestational sac and the slight fetal pole—the egg had implanted—but told me the baby had stopped growing after five or six weeks and that the pregnancy was most likely not viable.

When I heard that the egg had detached, the big question of what I’m going to do when Lucky dies came rushing back at me larger, louder, angrier than before. It was a slap. It had bite, now, when previously it only had bark. The option of having a baby to take care of had been removed from the menu, and now there was just me. I could just take care of myself, if I could.

I didn’t cry. I didn’t believe it. I was in denial. Grief can be like a moving target, but I refused to buckle under the weightiness of this unexpected plot twist within an unexpected plot twist.

I consulted other health professionals, some of whom are close friends, and I read everything on the internet. In some cases the ultrasound is wrong, and I held onto that hope. There had been a distinct shift to my nighttime fieldwork; I transitioned from staying up late researching non-toxic cribs to staying up late at night asking Google for how long will I bleed? I tried to be both realistic and optimistic, but until my water broke I didn’t fully believe I was going to lose the baby.

For nine days I waited to miscarry, which I now know is like waiting to exhale. I never considered a D&C, but I did consider taking a drug called misoprostal to encourage labor. I wanted the miscarriage to happy naturally if it was going to, and taking misoprostal felt like giving myself an abortion. I couldn’t personally do that without being 100% sure. I still felt as pregnant as I had before the ultrasound showed my blighted ovum. I felt I could breastfeed on the spot, and in many ways felt like my body had betrayed me. Purgatory is a lonely place.

I got another ultrasound that confirmed the first, and hoped it would help my body let go but it didn’t. I went to my writing group wearing a nighttime pad just in case, and despite my red-rimmed eyes and hollowed out heart I participated in the conversation as if nothing was wrong. I went to work. I told a few of my coworkers who I share shifts with what was going on because I wanted them to know in case I started cramping during a massage and had to leave in a hurry. One of my coworkers had a miscarriage and when I told her the waiting was the hardest part she said, “No, the worst is yet to come.”

It was the most honest thing anyone had said to me regarding the miscarriage process.

“If it happens at work you won’t be able to drive home,” she said, and that was actually the closest I got to comprehending that a miscarriage is far more than heavy bleeding and bad period cramps. Women don’t like to talk about their miscarriages, about how their body failed at the one big job it was designed to do. Some bodies fail at the simpler tasks, the ones we take as a given—breathing, digestion, happiness—and when those systems fail us we don’t do much like to talk  about them either.

By day seven my patience had worn thin. A dear friend was having a double mastectomy the following day, but she stopped by in the morning to bring me chocolate because we know that chocolate always helps. She was also the first person to bring me a congratulatory gift—tea, chocolate, prenatal vitamins, and a note telling me I was going to rock it. Neither of us wanted to believe we were in danger, but we worried about each other.

At a birthday party we laughed—even though it wasn’t funny—and agreed that I could worry about her and she could worry about me but we wouldn’t worry about ourselves. It seemed easier, I guess, to keep that distance from our own potential pain. That night at that party neither of us knew how complicated our situations were going to become over the next few weeks. She only needed a single lumpectomy, I was having a healthy first trimester. Boobs seemed to be our only problem.

Three weeks later things had changed dramatically for both of us, we could hardly keep up with the emotion and it felt easier to be strong. We stood there in my living room and cried, though neither of us really let go. We were both scared, yet at the same time fearless. The list of unknowns lengthened by the minute, and questions we didn’t even know we had multiplied until even our questions had questions. It was hard to determine which ones needed answering and which ones would remain mysteries. Neither of us drowned, but we swam hard.

I went to work that day, but not the next. Day eight was spent preparing. I saw my Osteopath and my Naturopath for care and supportive therapies. I changed sheets and cleaned the house. I stocked the fridge. I’d bought all the right stuff: apples, almond milk, letting go bath salts. I put together baskets of items I’d need—one with dark towels, one with cozy pants and tops, one with undies— so I’d have easy access to it all. I’d bought pads and wipes and set those in the bathroom in another basket. I mothered the shit out of myself.

I’d made a soft decision earlier in the week that if the miscarriage hadn’t happened naturally by Friday that I would take the pill so I could recover over the weekend. I laugh now—a month later and still recovering—that getting back to work on Monday was a priority. Blake gave me advice I wish I’d had the wisdom to heed, “Protect yourself. Don’t push pain.”

My body finally cooperated. For nine days my body had fought an inevitable process as it refused to let go of an embryo that had stopped developing three or four weeks prior. Martin came over. I was in the bathtub when he arrived, and he sat on the little stool and rubbed my head while I wept. I wept because of the agony of waiting, because of my fear of the pain, because of the outcome that I wasn’t sure I could accept. I was in it. This was not a story I could step out of.

I was weary and weak, and after soaking for well over an hour I asked Martin to dry me off, and he did. I put on underpants and a pad and he tucked me into bed. I don’t know how long Martin sat on the edge of the bed, but it was long enough that I was drifting off to sleep. I told him I had slight cramps, but nothing too bad. He left and we said we’d talk in the morning.

I was crampy during the night and aware of it, but I slept. About an hour before the sunrise I got out of bd and started moving about the house without thinking. I turned up the heat. I put on the kettle for tea. I ran water for a bath. I moved with purpose, yet it felt like a walking meditation, like maybe half of me existed on another plane.

I added salt to my bathwater and set my tea on the ledge of the tub. I was cold and ready to submerge myself. My water broke as I slipped out of my pants. I felt it burst and heard it hit the bathroom linoleum. It seemed louder than it was supposed to be, and at first I didn’t even know what it was.

I wasn’t expecting my water to break. I was only nine weeks pregnant, and despite all of my reading on the internet I didn’t have a grip on what was actually going to happen during the miscarriage. This is in part because every miscarriage is different, but also because I’d mostly been reading the stories about the cases where the ultrasound was wrong and the woman went back at ten weeks and the heartbeat was strong.

The other part is that a lot of women don’t want to talk about it, not to their friends, not to strangers on the internet. It’s an incredibly emotional thing to go through, and difficult to process on the fly. Then, when these mothers have recovered, they just want to move on and don’t necessarily want to relive the experience.

I wiped up the floor and got into the bathtub. I texted Martin, Emily, and Charlotte. They all offered to come over to provide support, but I told them it was an inside job.

The contractions took me by surprise. I hear from people who’ve experienced both miscarriage and live birth that the contractions during a miscarriage are almost worse. I think that’s in part because of the body’s physical experience of grief and knowing that in the end there’s not going to be a baby, but rather a void. I think the other part is purely physical, sort of how it’s almost more painful to dry heave than it is to vomit. During a miscarriage the cervix is dilating and the uterus is contracting to remove the tissue, placenta and sac, but there’s so little in there it aches against the pressure of itself.

As the contractions increased I quickly changed my mind. I was screaming and writhing in the bathtub and I had no idea how long I’d be there, but wanted to make sure Lucky was taken care of so I asked Martin to come walk him. It had snowed overnight, but was hovering just above zero that morning. Martin told me he’d clear the car and be over.

I discovered pain that has edges. It didn’t appear to have limits.

I put on classical music and tried to remember to breathe. At some point I texted Martin, “Please come straight into me.” I was worried he’d walk Lucky right away, which was silly, and I’d be left freezing in the bathtub, which I’d since drained. I was sad the night before when he found me crying as I soaked, but this was a whole new level. I was full-on primal, squatting in the bathtub, streaming blood and rinsing it away with water from a plastic cup. I was so cold.

“Get me out of here,” I pleaded when he opened the bathroom door.” I had a contraction then and fell back in the tub. “This is so much harder than I thought,” I confessed, “I had no idea.”

I repeated that line a lot over the next days—I had no idea—and still, as I continue through this process, I have no idea.

Martin got me into bed as the contractions continued. The pain was close to unbearable. The morning classics played and were calming, but the music sounded both near and far, a perfect metaphor for my experience. Martin gently stroked my face and brushed my hair off my forehead. The contractions got closer and the intensity continued to build. I hadn’t expected labor or delivery. There are a dozen “What to Expect” books for pregnancy through the preschool years, but nobody thought to write a book—or even a measly pamphlet—on what to expect when you lose your baby.

Exhaustion took over and I closed my eyes. I fell asleep for a few minutes, but I was aware of Martin’s presence, his weight on the edge of the bed like an anchor holding me in place. When I woke up and opened my eyes I asked Martin how much time had passed, and he told me it had been about thirty minutes.

We asked each other, “Is it over?”

It was. In many ways it was over, but a hundred times more ways it was just the beginning.

I texted my friends, and told them, “Emotionally I feel calm, clear, and aware. I love this aftermath of a trauma: even though it was difficult, stretching, exhausting, devastating…I still wouldn’t trade the experience and know I’m better for having had it.”

Charlotte, who in addition to being a friend who guided me through this, is a midwife, and she commended me for trusting myself to allow the process to happen naturally and for trusting my inner wisdom. She recognized the empowerment in relinquishing control over the inevitable, and tapping into my own insight and groundedness to find my reserve tanks of strength.

She said, “Seeing a best friend be so in charge and in control and trusting and working with things like this.. such a mysterious process…is pretty much the central love of my career. I work everyday and have for years for patients to have this sort of experience, so to witness my friend being so in tune, just sends me to the Stars, although it has been a very hard and perplexing couple of weeks. It makes me know that I am doing the right thing, in my cells to see you be so Amazing.”

My mother said, “I’m always so proud of you.”

Most people don’t share their pregnancies in the first trimester, and even though I felt like I didn’t tell everyone—just my local friends, people at work, a few old friends across the country, people I saw and told because I couldn’t contain my sweet secret—the numbers added up. I sent several dozen texts to relay the sad news.

It was crushing to have my friends’ hearts break along with mine, but I was glad for the support, which would’ve been harder to ask for had I not told people I was pregnant in the first place. So many people suffer silently—with miscarriage as well as with illness, heartache, etc.—and that only leads to a deeper struggle, to more suffering, to more disconnection from ourselves and the world. Breaking open is difficult, but it’s worth it.

Friends delivered candles, flowers, soup, chocolates, essential oils, books, sexy tank tops and cozy leg warmers. I sobbed over a goody bag with a mug, my favorite teas, a candle then when lit looked like a little sun, and an apology note from a friend who hadn’t intended to hurt my feelings. I drank fresh juice, herbal teas, and broth. Friends told me stories of their own miscarriages, and how they grieved and healed and built strength. I felt guilty for not knowing how to support them when they went through it, for not having the empathy to understand the depth of the loss.

My dear friend Julia—who hooted and hollered with me under the rising moon in Wyoming when we were celebrating—offered to drive half a day over the snowy mountain passes to support me. I knew that all I had to do was reach out and a hand would be there, but for the most part my friends knew that what I needed was space to grieve and the security in knowing I only had to answer the question, “What do you need?”

A lot of my grief was silent. I didn’t take much time to recover and I went back to work, to the gym, to making dates for lunches and hikes. It was too much. I was physically, emotionally, and hormonally depleted. I continued to downplay the emotional and physical trauma of a miscarriage until it played me down.

Most of Christmas weekend I sobbed. Martin, Lucky, and I hiked through deep snow to cut down a tree, and when I stopped to pee I saw my blood in the snow and it unhinged me. Martin asked if I was tired, and I was. I told him yes, but I as far as I could. I didn’t trudge through the even deeper snow to the place where he found our perfect tree, but I stood and listened to the rhythmic saw, soaked in the pine smell which invigorated the air.

By the time we got home I’d whipped through my already low reserve tank and had nothing left to even help him decorate the tree. I drank tea and snuggled on the couch with Lucky and watched Martin wrap lights and hang ornaments. I cried over my lack of involvement, and he gave me a simple job of tying silver string on cookies so I could participate in our first Christmas together. Martin never faltered, and has cared for me throughout this ordeal in a way that is nothing less than extraordinary.

The next night we drove through a blizzard to have dinner with his family up the Blackfoot, just past my favorite beach, where we’ll go when it thaws and have a ceremony. We went to church and sang Silent Night with candles in our hands, and he rubbed my back when I cried not because it was sad but because it was so beautiful.

Emily and I talked about how loss is sort of a homecoming, how enduring a great loss can be the path that leads us home. I thought Lucky had this miracle baby sent to me to pick up where he leaves off, but I was wrong. The baby came to show me intense loss, Lucky stayed to show me how to endure it.

This miscarriage has left me emotionally strong but physically weak, and I’ve had to accept that. I did too much, too soon, and I learned a lot of lessons about how to heal. I pride myself on my strength—both inner and outer—and confessed to my Osteopath that I’d been hiking and lifting weights at the gym, but that it wasn’t working. I told him I wanted to go running because that’s been how I’ve regulated my emotions since middle school, and it was driving me crazy that I don’t have the energy. I wanted to feel strong by building strength, and I didn’t realize that in order to feel strong I was going to have to submit.

“I don’t feel energized,” I told Matt, “I’m just so exhausted.”

He laughed. “Energized isn’t the goal. Calm is the goal.”

Matt told me to just be tired, and wrote me a prescription for rest. He told me to stay home until 1:30 for four days in a row, drink tea and broth, and watch and read lighthearted movies and books. I texted Emily a photo of my prescription, and a question.

“What’s a funny book?” I asked her because for the life of me I couldn’t come up with one measly idea. She rattled off a list and offered a delivery. It was frigid cold, and I didn’t want Emily and the baby running errands for me. Not only did she insist, but she also knew just the book.

When Emily and I celebrated our fortieth birthdays together in Portugal we were both grieving. I’d brought a funny book on the trip that I finished before we met, but it was worth lugging across Spain to watch her giggle as she read it.

That book (Where’d You go, Bernadette?) was on our bedside table the night we heard a sound like someone breaking into our apartment. I was fast asleep when Emily grabbed my hand in the middle of the night and told me she was scared. I held her hand and we were quiet as we waited for the noise to return. When it did I listened closely and took a deep breath after determining it had come from the apartment next door. The doors on the ancient buildings were five inches thick and swollen from the salty air; our neighbors were trying to close their door, not open ours.

“That’s the sound of a door closing,” I told her, and in that moment we both put a lot of our grief behind us. The book Emily bought for me is from the same author who wrote the book that made us laugh as we turned the pages on a new decade, and this one has a title that couldn’t be more perfect: Today Will Be Different. 

Maybe we need to stop encouraging people to keep their chins up, and instead give them books, leg warmers and permission to sit with their grief. At the end of my line, I submitted to the deep grief. My vitality and fire are returning.

With my renewed clarity and a little distance I’ve realized that I didn’t just have a miscarriage; four weeks later I’m still having it. When I sat down to write this essay my intention was to write a lot more about the miscarriage process itself, but I realized once I began that what I needed to write was everything that led up to it. The essay about the miscarriage will come when its ready, when I’ve completed the full circle. When that will be is still a mystery, and I’m okay with that.

There were dozens of photos and quotes I wanted to include with this post, but I decided to let the words speak for themselves. Except this one.

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I took this Wednesday driving up to Hot Springs, where I go to rest and restore, and where I also hoped to locate the strength to write this post. It worked. The catharsis from writing this essay has been tranformative.

After I posted the above photo to Instagram, my dear Emily commented, “…driving to the core.”

Yes, that’s what I did. I drove right to core. I drove it home. I drove myself straight to love.

Just in Case, Just in Case

Today my baby turns 14. I can’t believe it; if he was (slightly more) human he’d be off to high school in the fall, though he’s smart so I’m sure he’d have skipped a grade or two, maybe even dropped out, gotten his GED and gone to trade school for something badass like underwater welding. You know, because he’s so smart.

Luck is also sensitive. Two days ago I had a busy day, and he spent a lot of time in the car waiting for me to be done one place or another, then I did a quick turnaround and flew out the door to go work my five-hour massage shift. After work I stayed out to attend one of my favorite Missoula events, Tell Us Something, where I told a story four years ago about “How I Got Lucky.” This link is HERE

Because I went out after work, Lucky was home for eight whole hours by himself. He has no clue that many dogs live this way day after day, week after week. I fed him before I left and left lights on. He had his two beds, his couch, my bed and his rubber chicken that I brought home (gift wrapped and everything) from Barcelona.

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The previous night a friend and I made delicious chicken drumsticks, and six of the bones were in the garbage. Lucky has never been a dog to get into the garbage and I didn’t even think about it. It didn’t even occur to me to put the garbage up or secure the door “just in case.” Lucky isn’t very naughty, but he is very sensitive. And chicken is his absolute favorite food.

I didn’t see the mess at first. Lucky wasn’t waiting for me on the couch, but was in the dark in my my room on his own bed. I could tell from his body language that he was crabby—mad that I’d been gone so long—and didn’t want to get up. I figured if I went to the kitchen to fix myself something to eat he’d follow, but he didn’t.

I flipped on the light and saw that he’d opened the cabinet under the sink and helped himself to a chicken drumstick buffet. I searched all corners of the house for bones, but he’d completely consumed them. He’d also licked the smoked oyster tin clean, and—always the optimist—I was grateful he hadn’t also devoured the tin itself.

I called the emergency vet and told the sweet girl who answered what had happened, but I prefaced it by saying that he’s eaten chicken bones before (scavenged from the streets of NYC and the beaches of Honduras) and been just fine. “But six legs is a lot,” I said, and she told me that making him vomit would double the danger of the splintery bones and the best thing to do was make sure he’s still eating (he scarfed down his third dinner) and keep an eye on him.

I was fueled by a mother’s adrenaline and suddenly wide awake, when I’d been ready for bed when I walked in the door. I washed a few dishes and hugged the dog. I folded some laundry and spooned the dog. I washed more dishes and stuck my nose in the dog’s ears. He burped in my face.

I got down on the floor with him and held his face. I told him he did something very naughty, but that I loved him very much. I told him that he’s done an incredible job taking care of me but that the job isn’t quite done and I’m not ready for him to go. I told him that if he gets sick in the night that I’ll clean it if he can’t make it outside, but that he knows how to wake me if he needs to.

I told him that he’s a healthy, strong, old boy and it would be a shame for him to die because of something like gluttony. Shaming wasn’t going to save him, so I went back to hugging.

I OCD-cleaned as a way to assuage my fear. I had a lot of good talks with myself about love, about loss, about grief. I thought about how I’ve never lived so completely and happily in the present moment as I have this winter, loving my old dog and doing lots of old-dog things.

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Luck still gets on the mountain to hike a few miles miles almost every day and loves to be the leader. I take a picture of him almost every day. Some of them are great, some of them not so much, but I do it “just in case.”

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Lucky is a survivor. He not only survived the over-salted streets of NYC but also the humiliation of me making him wear booties. He also survived eating rat poison in New York.

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In Montana he had a chunk of his heinie bit off by a dog one time, and another time ripped his entire inner thigh open on barbed wire when a bigger dog hip-checked him into it. He tried to hide the barbed wire incident from me, thought he could tuck away in a corner, lick it, and clean it out himself. It’s amazing someone so sweet can also be so tough.

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He survived being dragged all over the country by me and sleeping in a lot of different places. Lucky will make himself at home anywhere.

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He also knows how to take a moment for himself—just in case—because he never knows what kind of shenanigans his mother has up her sleeve…

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Luck survived me leaving him for three months so I could go to Europe—though it’s an understatement to say that he was in good hands with his grandma—and so far it looks like old Luckydog has survived eating an unprecedented amount of cooked chicken bones.

I wrote that last line—the one about him surviving—well after midnight when I wasn’t sure if either of us would make it through the night. I’d already called in reinforcements, asking a friend if he could do his work from my house while I went to work, just in case. Another friend texted and said to call her if Luck or I needed anything, that she’d come get him or check on him if I needed her to.

Just in case.

Just in case is not my preferred setting, though it’s the setting genetically hard-wired into most of the women in my family so therefore in me. I don’t like to live with my finger on the panic button, and my Osteopath recently told me that I’m actually allergic to worry. But still: I worry.

In between checking Luck’s belly for pokey bits and making sure his nose was wet and his paws were warm, I scrubbed the bathtub, (over)tweezed my eyebrows, and paired my socks.

Just in case makes me uncomfortable. I prefer a laissez-faire strategy; a cross-your-fingers, say a prayer, and light-a-candle-if-things-really-feel-dicey approach. I don’t panic in emergencies, and if the shit hits the fan I’m the friend you want on deck. Except with Lucky; with Lucky I worry my little brains out.

Because just in case.

MY GRANDMOTHER STILL BELIEVES IN LOVE

mimi coloring

I love this picture of Mimi. I love that she’s content and coloring. I love that she started with some peach and is now adding purple. I love how her left hand is perched like she’s thinking about steadying the paper, but is concerned about leaving a smudge. But Mimi is at the ready if that paper even thinks about shifting. Coloring outside the lines doesn’t seem to be an option for this lady. I love that the flowers she’s coloring look exactly like the flowers she used to draw on construction paper for me to color when I was a kid, and I hate that she probably doesn’t remember that.

 I love that she’s wearing her wedding ring.

 I can’t see her face in this shot, but I know it so well I don’t have to. She’s calm and focused. She’s in the present moment. Living with dementia is frustrating and scary, and the present moment is all they have. When I lived with my grandmother and took care of her she was often terrified to the point of tears because she couldn’t remember if she’d eaten, or what day it was, or if her sisters and husband were dead or alive.

She could sit for hours in the kitchen while I cooked, and then we’d eat our evening meal, which was often in the afternoon because we had a hard time filling the days. When that meal was over I’d be packing up the leftovers and she’d say, “I don’t know what you’re doing, babydoll, but if you’re fixing something to eat don’t make me a plate. I’m not hungry.”

I’d crumble against the kitchen counter—sometimes in laughter if it was one of those days, and sometimes out of exhaustion because we had days like that, and with each passing day it became more obvious how sick my grandmother was becoming and how there was neither a cure nor a reversal for her disease. It was an agonizing time for my mother and me. We had no idea how we were going to get through it or what the outcome was going to be.

We tried to figure out how to keep my grandmother at home, but in order to do that we’d have to unravel decades of extreme hoarding. Mimi’s apartment was so degraded that in order to bring in someone to help, we’d have to get the apartment squared away and it was impossible to do that with Mimi in it. She wouldn’t let us remove so much as a single broken flashlight.

We came up with a million possible scenarios, but none were actually feasible. We thought about taking her on a vacation for a month so we could get the place together, or having her stay with a relative so my mother and I could do the cleaning out. We came up with these ideas out of desperation, and had no idea how many months it would take to get the apartment cleared out and cleaned up. (When we were in the thick of it I wrote a blog post that you can read HERE about what it was like when I was first taking care of my grandmother and thought we could clean up around her.)

When a family is in crisis they often grasp for hope where hope does not exist. Often—as was the case in my family—there are other factors driving the decision-making process. It was emotional, and the emotional components muddied our thinking. There was guilt, anger, resentment, and regret. There was shame. We cycled through the five stages of grief more times than I care to count. We dipped our toes into acceptance (sometimes defined simply as having more good days than bad days), but on the bad days we found ourselves spiraling back to anger and depression.

The one stage we had to avoid at all costs was denial. Denial would not get us through this. I continually reminded myself that the only way out was through. I wanted to simultaneously curl up in a ball and pull the ripcord on my parachute, but that was denial and I had to get the hell out of there.

Denial plagued my family, both the one I know and undoubtedly for the generations that preceded me. Denial kept them safe—in a way, for a time—from feeling their emotions. As a coping mechanism denial keeps emotions in check, but it doesn’t facilitate change. Bargaining is also a dangerous neighborhood; it keeps us in the past and wishes it had been different. Bargaining’s language is plagued with statements starting with “what if” and “if only.”

Nothing changes when a person stays in either the denial or bargaining stages; that work begins when we become angry. Anger is uncomfortable and once we go there it can feel bottomless. It’s so tempting to slide back to denial—and a normal part of the process—but anger is where the magic happens.

Anger is where we find strength. Strength is where we facilitate change. Love helps us to do this.

 When I first started caring for my Mimi I wrote this:

        My cleaning is not going to mend my grandmother’s brain or heart, but yet I continue. I dig through the rubble and scrub surfaces in part because it needs to get done, but also because an organized exterior might calm some of the agitation that percolates inside her. I have faith and hope in that possibility, but I do this work for a different reason: I do it for love.

        On some level I’m doing this work more for me than for anything or anyone else. I do it because loving someone when it’s difficult is one of life’s greatest challenges and rewards.

I believed we could love our way through it, and we did. Love was the antidote to our anger and denial, and love is where we found our strength.

 It’s been almost two years since Mimi moved into assisted living, but two Februaries ago we were still very much in the thick of it, still unsure of the way out and hoping there was actually a way through. We subsisted on hope, but we were panicked and afraid. Our doubts often outnumbered our faith. We felt despair most of the time, but we kept going. We had no choice but to push back against inertia until we found a strength that was more powerful than fear.

The angst didn’t subside once we moved Mimi into her memory-care facility, but there was a peace knowing she was safe and we could move onto the next project of cleaning out and remodeling her apartment. It took a long time—most of the past two years—but I think my mother and I have finally gotten to the acceptance stage. It was a hard choice to make, but making a choice was where we found our power, and Mimi is not only happy but also thriving in her new environment.

I follow a few Alzheimer’s groups on Instagram, and this post came across my feed last week.

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The instagram followed in the footsteps of the picture of Mimi coloring that my mother sent to me. Mimi was never a crafty kind of grandmother, so it surprised us that the aides who work at her assisted living have gotten her into coloring. The truth is, if my mother or I suggested coloring to Mimi she’d probably smirk and say something witty and dismissive, but she has a few “boyfriends” at assisted living who can get her to do almost anything.

These boyfriends aren’t other residents, but young men almost half my age who work there, though they seem closer to angels than anything else. Mimi still has bad days, but when one of her boyfriends is on shift she always has a good day. Her birthday was last month, and one of her boyfriends was not only working a double that day, but his birthday was a few days later, so Mimi asked my mother to get a cake—one cake—that said, “Happy Birthday Cathy and Sal.”

When my mother went to get the cake they didn’t have one big enough to fit all the writing on it and that would feed everyone, so she had to get two cakes. I figured Mimi would be upset not to have both of their names on one cake, but she didn’t care as long as she had a grip on Sal.

mimi-sal

If my mother visits when one of Mimi’s three boyfriends is on staff she gets irritated and sometimes outright ignores her until a few hours pass and when my mother suggests she might head home Mimi is quick to dismiss her. She’d rather have visitors on the guys’ off days, because when one of them is working she just wants to follow them around and do whatever they are doing or whatever activity they suggest for her. Jonathan was Mimi’s first assisted living boyfriend and can even get her to go for a haircut, which she hates, but at his first suggestion she leaps to go.

 My grandmother is totally boy crazy.

I spoke to Mimi on Valentine’s Day, and she told me she’s “Fit as a fiddle and ready for love.” I was driving and almost choked. She went on to tell me that she just hasn’t “found the right guy,” and I said, “I heard you have three boyfriends!” She consulted Maureen, who was also driving, who confirmed that Mimi does in fact have three boyfriends. Mimi seemed a little shocked, but hardly missed a beat before she told me, “I’m just trying to figure out who is the right one, but until then I’m keeping all of them.”

Mimi might not remember from one moment to the next, but she hasn’t lost her sense of humor. She also hasn’t lost her belief in love. I think Mimi was nineteen when she met my grandfather and he gave her a promise ring (that I have) before he left for the war. She married him when he got back and the rest is history. He died four-and-a-half years ago, but I’m quite sure it’s never occurred to her to take off her wedding ring.

I love that ring. I’m torn between knowing she should be buried with it and wanting to have it as a reminder of how my grandmother has forgotten a lot of things, but she’s never forgotten to believe in love.

AND THIS IS HOW IT IS

Last night I posted a picture to Instagram and Facebook with the hashtag #welovenighthikes. It’s true—we do love night hikes—but the hashtag could easily have been #welovewhatevergetsusthroughit.

Wondering what’s fair play in social media is a valid question and a worthwhile conversation. We criticize those with piles of unfolded laundry as the backdrop as much as those with nary an item out of place. We criticize those who whine about how hard life is on them as much as those who gloat about being #blessed and #grateful. Sometimes we are those people and sometimes we hate those people.

I have a diverse group of friends and posts in my feed run the gamut from “Look at us going from skiing to surfing in one day!” to “Can someone bring me a bottle of wine and a sandwich?”

Finding the balance on social media is a slippery slope. I’m not sure I understand why we care, but I know that we do. I’d estimate that over 50% of my Facebook feed is news and information, which I love because I mostly get what I signed up for, but it’s overwhelming and I don’t have time to actually read it all. I read very few articles in full, and the rest I skim for the gist before saving the link for the ubiquitous “later” and, well, you probably know the rest of that story.

Like many of us, I show up mostly for the pictures both to post and to peruse.

After I posted the night-hike picture I wondered if it was fair as a stand-alone photo. It was and it wasn’t. A photo is not a film, and a single shot is not a documentary; that’s the thing about any kind of expressive art: it allows for interpretation. And while deriving personal meaning is the beauty in art, it can also be the downside. We’re all free agents here.

Some people (maybe the ones asking for wine and sandwich delivery) look at social media photos (maybe of the people in the members-only lounge at the airport en route to or from a beach or a mountaintop) and they only see the smiles and the wide-open eyes and not the delays or the diarrhea or the fits.

And this is how it is.

I have to say that last night’s hike was crucial to my mental health. I’d had a headache all day. I’d gone to the gym, ran a few errands, walked Lucky in the park, and gutted the crap out of my closet. Nothing had helped the headache, and the headache got in the way of my writing, and then I was just grouchy because I wasn’t using the day the way I’d wanted to. I’d failed to meet my expectation of myself and it was nearly crippling.

I’d also slipped on the ice as I was getting into my car outside the post office and saved myself from hitting the ground (thanks, Pilates) in a way that has my deep abdominal muscles feeling shredded today. Because I’m no stranger to adding insult to injury, I came home and spent some time pulling half-frozen dog poo out of the melting snow. I cleaned out the fridge and the pantry and the linen closet. I cursed myself for saving this or that. I wanted to go for a hike in the sun, but there wasn’t any. It was starting to get dark and I knew there was one last-ditch option for saving the day. I needed that hike.

The truthier, extended version is that I shed some tears on that hill last night. I ran into a guy with his dog, a dog who attacked Lucky and sent him rolling backwards on his bony, old-man spine a couple of months ago. I confronted him about the attack, and although I’m a proponent of dogs running the hills unleashed, when he described his dog as a rescue who is “unpredictable” it boiled my blood. He told me he was sorry, and I’d say the exchange was overall positive, but my takeaway from the encounter was a reminder of was how damn fragile life is and, well, unpredictable.

With that man and his dog heading back down to town, Lucky and I had the whole mountain to ourselves. I kept him on his leash because I couldn’t bear the thought of losing him in the dark and I blasted some of my favorite songs and sang my heart out for no one to hear. I ran, I cried, I lost my breath, and I dropped to my knees. And I felt a lot better. Toward the end I let Lucky off his leash, confident he’d stay with me in the bluish light of dusk, and I took a picture of him because sometimes it’s hard to see where we are when we’re in the thick of it. I needed to shift my perspective.

I saw where the city lights roll right up to the mountain and the companion I’ve had for a long time. I saw a truth that I always end up seeing, that life can be both heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time.night hike

I returned to the cleaning when I got home. I skipped dusting and vacuuming in favor of culling toiletries and tea. I cleaned out as if moving, which I appreciate both in theory and in practice. In my last blog post I wrote about how content I am to be here—and that’s the absolute truth—but then there are those days where I want to be anywhere but here.

Here is relative. During the years I was near constant motion I felt an exhausting weight whenever anyone asked “where do you live?” If my car was near I could point, because it was obvious with a glance that there was a lot of living going on in there, but sometimes I had no props and was reduced to using my words. Sometimes I’d give a long-winded response of explanation and excuse, but then I discovered a better answer. “Right here,” I’d say, pointing to myself, “I live here in this body.”

Because “wherever you go there you are” is true whether running away, moving toward, or sitting still.

My heart has this edgy feeling right now as if poised to spring into action. I might not have one foot out the door, but I’m light on my toes like a boxer or tennis player. I’ve moved so much and gotten rid of entire households several times over, and although I’ve felt tinges of regret over handing over some items I can say without hesitation that I haven’t actually missed any of them.

I hadn’t felt compelled to read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, but I visited a friend last weekend and found myself thumbing through the book. I knew the theory, but hadn’t put it into practice until yesterday when I asked myself over and over if various items “sparked joy.” If it wasn’t a quick yes then it was a no and into the giveaway bag it went. It’s a process, though, and there are a few items remaining on my hit list because I have to do some deep digging to figure out if I still need them in my space and if they spark joy or, it’s opposite: regret.

I never got around to the vacuuming or dusting, but my house felt “clean” in a deeper way than if I’d wiped surfaces and stuffed unfinished projects into drawers and closets. By the time I went to bed my headache was gone and I got the sleep of all sleeps. I could’ve gotten up earlier than I did for writing, but made an adult decision not to beat myself up over that one. Luckily there’s also a book called The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck  so in the spirit of balance and riding that slippery slope like a wave…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WE TOOK THAT CLASS AND PASSED

Today is my 15th anniversary with Missoula. We’ve broken up a few times, and have even gone so far as to say “I am so done with you.” We’ve stormed off, slammed doors, and pouted. But either I can’t stay away or she lures me back. Or both. It’s hard to say. My returns have been with joy, but more often than not the moves have been slightly more by default than by choice. When I returned this time, for round four, it was an intentional choice though I had no idea how good it would be or how right it would feel. I assumed I’d live here as I always did, with one foot inching out the door.

Fifteen years ago I was in the process of getting divorced. The marriage was over, but Massachusetts requires a ninety-day waiting period before inking the final signatures, so I decided that instead of restarting my life, I’d put myself on ice (literally, in this case) in Missoula, Montana. So on the morning of New Year’s Eve 2000 I flew with two duffel bags to this faraway town to be with a boy I knew from a faraway time.

I felt old at twenty-six. I’d worked in investment banking and then, despite my success, quit to go back to school to be a Montessori teacher. Then I quit that and worked in development at a private school. I’d gotten married, moved back across the country, and remodeled a hundred-year-old house. I had a good life, but it wasn’t what I wanted. I didn’t know what I wanted, which is why I quit everything. What I really wanted was to reclaim my twenties, and what better place to do that than Missoula, Montana, which, as a friend’s father once said, “is like a retirement community for thirty year olds.” He was kidding, but he was right.

Missoula is a good place to be young and an even better place to stay young. This is the delightful double-edged blade of this place, and it begs the seemingly unanswerable questions: Can we stay here and grow up? What does it mean to grow up? Do we have to? Are we supposed to? Can the answer just grow and change along with us? Do we have to….?

These are the kinds of questions I asked myself incessantly for a dozen years, thinking the answer would appear in neon or flown behind a blimp or—worst-case-scenario—in a dream. There was no such luck, but what I got was even better: the wisdom to stop asking.

It’s generous to say I do my due diligence, but it’s more honest to say I tend toward overanalyzing, overthinking, overquestioning. To outsiders it might appear I make impulsive decisions, but that’s only because my debating occurs deep in my gut, the place where the answers already live.

I’m one of those annoying people who claim “no regrets” even when dangling from a cliff or sleeping in a laundry room or after hitting an elk on a cell-phone-free back road in Colorado.  I claim to love all of these messy bits and with optimism and forward-thinking declare them “part of the process” and “making me who I am” and “growth opportunities.” It’s true, I do feel that way, but there’s this other part of me that’s often asked myself why I’ve had to make everything so damn hard. A concrete answer to this continues to elude me, but that’s okay because for the most part I’ve stopped making things hard. The answer is not in the questioning; it’s in the listening.

Following extensive error in this department I’ve learned to pay closer attention to my gut. As my friend Soph and I say, “We took that class and passed.”

Passing the class (and there are many classes…) doesn’t mean that you don’t have to sometimes go back and look over your notes. Maybe you aced the class on the first shot, or maybe you had to retake it a few times. Maybe you retook it and then aced it. Perhaps it’s wise to go back and read your own thesis—surely packed with wisdom that can never be unlearned, though there are plenty of things in life—patterns, for example, and habits that no longer serve us—that can, and dare I say should, be unlearned.

These past six months I’ve done a lot of work with my Osteopath to repair some old injuries, and in the process of healing the physical we’ve had to do some emotional work because one cannot be separated from the other. My Osteopath is Matt, and I’ve had some intense moments in his office. I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, and I’ve laughed and cried at the same time, but every time I leave his office I feel more connected to myself, more sure of my path, less inclined to question myself into a corner.

Matt does osteopathic manipulations and cranial sacral, but of the therapies he uses BodyTalk is by far my favorite. This is not a scientific explanation, but for those who don’t know, BodyTalk reconnects lines of communication in the body thus enabling the body to resynchronize. It’s kind of like rebooting the body or, in extreme cases, reinstalling the software and starting over. It feels like magic, but it’s based on science.

Although I’m a proponent of talk therapy, sometimes we just get talked out. More than that our brains take over and give the “correct” answers or the answers that we want to be correct, but in BodyTalk the body gives the information and tells the brain it can take its overthinking, rationalizing, and bargaining and buy it a one-way Greyhound ticket. Of the findings that have come about during my BodyTalk sessions, these are some of my favorites:

  • I’m allergic to schedules and to worry.
  • I can allow more sweetness into my life, but sugar is not my friend.
  • I’ll meet the man of my dreams before I stabilize my sacroiliac joint (he’s funny, too).

One of the first things Matt told me was that I’ve suffered from a broken heart, and I was all “yeah, who hasn’t.” It reminded me of the time the animal communicator told me Lucky would like more steak, but like the time with the animal communicator (who upped the ante and her credibility when she told me Lucky also appreciates the yoghurt I give to him) Matt clarified and told me that the broken heart was from when I was four. Matt had no way of knowing this, but I was four years old when my parents got divorced. It’s impossible for a child not to be broken hearted when her parents split, though in my case I’m quite sure I held onto that heartbreak far too long—well into adulthood—but as Matt reminded me, “…that is not your heartbreak story.” He’s completely right, though it’s often challenging to know where our stories begin and end, tough to draw clear lines between ours and other people’s stories.

I went into Matt’s office one morning in November bundled up. I grumbled and did my scrunchy nose thing as I dehatted and unwound my scarf and unzippered myself out of my sleeping-bag-like coat. I undid the laces on my tall snowboots with frozen fingers and, after pulling my sweater over my head, fussed with the static that was on everything. I sighed. He smiled.

I told Matt that I missed the ease of running out of the house in flipflops and that I hated the dark that got darker every day. “Winter is not my thing,” I fessed and he said we could fix that. I suggested he might not set himself up for failure like that, but he was confident. After the initial adjustments we settled in for a few minutes of BodyTalk.

“It’s not winter or the dark,” Matt said, “It’s a fear of restriction, of not being able to move.” I thought about what he said and felt the tightening in my hips and shoulders just thinking about being held back in any way. He was right; it wasn’t winter.

One of my favorite things about living in Missoula is being able to hike the hills around town every day. In winter it’s harder not because of the weather—I have the right coats and boots—but because of limited hours of daylight. It actually makes me mad. Winter takes one thing that I love and that makes me happy and removes it. In addition, winter makes travel harder, and even though I love this little valley where I live, I always like to have one eye on the door just in case. I like an exit strategy.

But just because these things are hard does not in any way make them impossible; it just requires more planning. It means I might have to prepare my lunch early and then squeeze in a hike when I’d typically be having lunch and getting ready for work. It means that I might not be able to get on the highway and drive myself three easy hours to a change of scenery, but I can sure book a plane ticket.

The solution suddenly seemed simple: I made a promise to get out on the hills every day with Lucky even if it’s just twenty minutes at dusk and I booked a plane ticket to visit friends in California. I’m quite sure my change of attitude—in seeing the solution to winter, not the complication—is the BodyTalk, though it could be surely be written off as a fluke or a coincidence. But I haven’t hated winter yet. In fact, I’m loving it. I’m grateful for cozy nights at home and early bedtimes, for this wintertime of recharging from summer, because as much as summer is my season it always leaves me slightly exhausted with all of those endless days and long, bright nights. I wouldn’t be surprised if next summer I start longing for a little bit of winter…

It appears there has been a major shift.

On my December TODO list was to renew my passport. It had also been on October’s and November’s lists, but I’d put it off because I wasn’t keen on the concept of being without my freedom pass for four-six weeks (despite having zero plans for international travel), but with the clock ticking I got over myself and rectified my aversion of restriction because being without a passport for a few weeks is not the end of the world, but simply a requirement every ten years. Matt and I have worked on the distinction between what is really a big deal and what is just something that is, something we can feel neutral about because it falls into the realm of what we can’t control.

By the very nature of the validity period, each decade of a person’s life is marked by the process of turning in an expiring passport in exchange for another. I was thirty one when I got my last passport, and just starting to work out some of my place-related kinks. I’d expedited that renewal so I could go on a trip to Honduras, because a woman who wanted me to work for her needed me there ASAP. Because it was February in Montana and my dog had been playing with tin cans in the ice-encrusted alley while I slept too late, I said “sure,” although I’ve since learned that when someone says “jump” it’s never wise to ask “how high” or “how fast.” That passport reminded me not only of why I wanted to go to Honduras and what experience I longed for (I lived there for just over a year), but also of the circumstances driving my choices and how the grip I had on my wheel was so loose I might as well have been steering with one knee. Or not steering at all.

I carried that passport for ten years though I often thought of replacing it because I never liked the picture. I’d prefer to say it’s because I look downright terrified, but it’s also because my hair was flat and it only occurred to me retroactively that I could have used a little color on my cheeks. The collar on my coat stood awkward and sharp and inside it my neck looked thick and stiff. My eyes looked creepy and terrified—open yet dark—and my entire self looked as if bracing for a crash, which in many ways I suppose I was. Soph and I refer to the passport pictures of our thirties as the ones that represent “The Revolution,” something we had to go through but nothing we’d willingly return to.

My previous picture, taken when I was twenty-one, was amazing. I carried that passport around instead of my driver’s license claiming it was easier, but honestly I just wanted the physical evidence of how good I looked on that one day in March 1995 when I was twenty-one years old and just happened to have a killer suntan on the day my mother took me to get my passport renewed. I may or may not have just gotten off a plane from Florida, and was wearing a creamy, white, Irish-knit sweater and pearl earrings and my sun-kissed face looked airbrushed and my eyes were completely wide open yet lacking that hideous deer-in-the-headlights look. There was plenty to be wary of then, but I dwelled securely in that lovely ignorance-is-bliss space of young adulthood.

The truth is, I hydroplaned through my twenties, hoping a wheel might touch down before I crashed or spun completely out of control. That passport represented youthful innocence and naiveté. If I was sad to send it in for renewal I was equally delighted to turn in the one from “The Revolution,” the decade of questionable choices that I’ve since declared an official end to.

When I went to get my forty-one-year-old picture taken I made a mature choice to go as myself though I took a few basic precautions like showering, brushing my hair, and remembering that a little bronzer goes a long way in December. Though I rarely do these days, I wore my pearl earrings only as a throwback to twenty years ago, not because I was hoping for a miracle. I’m might be optimistic but I’m also quite realistic.

Standing among the office supplies at FedEx Kinko’s is not the best place for a glamour shot. The guy pulled down the white screen in front of binders and presentation materials and positioned me under the unforgiving fluorescent lights. Then, contrary to most photos taken in the history of forever, instructed me to not smile.

The clerk said we “nailed it” on the first shot and he let me take the briefest glance on the small screen before he went to the printer. I cringed opening the tiny folder, and was initially unimpressed. It might have been the light, but if I really have dark circles under my eyes I wish someone would drop some concealer in my mailbox or at least send me an Amazon link so I can set myself straight.

I am, however, pleased to say that my neck looks really good in the picture. An Italian man told once told me that you can tell a woman’s age by her neck, and he said my neck was incredibly youthful and shaved at least seven years off my actual age. I thought of him when I saw how damn good my neck looks in my new passport picture, so good I might give up my beloved scarves. I’m quite certain that by the time this passport is up for renewal I’ll be clinging to the picture as the next decade begins. It’s not that the picture will get better, but by the time I’m fifty one I’ll probably be in absolute awe of the things I hated about my face when I was forty one.

My eyes themselves also look good, and by good I mean they look normal. The whites of my eyes look healthy and white, but more than that they look calm. I don’t look like a woman who’s running either toward or away, but like a woman who is content right where she is. Oh, and I got my new passport in a measly two weeks. The anticipation of the wait was the hardest part.

Here’s Lucky and I together on the beach in Honduras in 2006, and just a few weeks ago hiking on our hill on a snowy December day.

luck-ma-roatan-2006

luck-ma-missoula-2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ARE YOU STRONG ENOUGH TO BE?

I fashion myself a person who isn’t scared of much. I play it cool even when shaking in my boots. I recount past horrors with a detachment that is borderline frightening in itself, and I recall the details with such intense detail that listeners often say they felt gripped, like they were watching a movie. What they don’t say is that sometimes the movie I show them is one that needs to be leveled out with a piece of pie, a slapstick comedy, or a cocktail on the rocks.

Despite my ability to talk and write about my life with distance and perspective—sometimes even when I’m still in the thick of it—there’s one thing that when I talk about or even think about springs tears to my eyes. It lumps my throat, twists my gut, and takes my mind down the darkest, dirtiest avenues. I suppose I’m emotional about it because it’s still very much in the abstract, the kind of thing that it’s wasteful of time to worry about in advance. But, simply put, I don’t know how I’ll survive the loss of my dog.

Despite my transparency on this, it makes me uncomfortable when people express worry about how I’ll handle the loss. Sometimes well-meaning comments don’t come across that way. They’ll tell me about their own beloved-pet losses, and how it was easier because of their husbands, kids, other pets. Sometimes they come straight out and say, “I’m worried about you.” One part of me hackles my Mohawk—as if I’m a dog myself—and thinks “I”ll be fine…” and another part says, “Jesus Christ, you’re totally fucking right.”

The part that bothers me, as is often the case, is the part that’s true. When Lucky dies I’ll be alone. I describe myself as a person who’s happy being alone, who can read or write for eight-hour stretches. I can eat alone in a restaurant without any awkwardness or discomfort, go to a movie, move to foreign countries. I do an awful lot of things alone, by choice, despite loving spending time with friends.

I grew up an only child, and am always proud to say that “I know how to self-entertain.” That’s all true, but the other truth is that ever since Lucky picked me up at that party in June 2002 I’ve not really had to ever fully be alone. I have my friends and my family, but I wonder what it will feel like to wake up without Lucky, to wake up alone. Nobody to walk or feed or say good morning to.

I used to say that I’d need all of my friends around me when Lucky goes, then I upgraded to a fantasy involving a vacation to someplace tropical and lovely where I could erase my mind and then come home to a house where a team of cleaners had meticulously removed every dog hair and evidence of him so that I could move on, I suppose, like nothing ever happened. This past year, as Lucky turned thirteen, I started to believe in a more dramatic ending to this love affair where I’m put into a medically-induced coma. I say this last bit tongue-in-cheek, in part because I have a hard time believing that my heart just won’t stop beating on its own.

This is absurd on so many levels. Why would I want to erase evidence of the greatest love I’ve known? Why would I want to numb the feelings of such an intense love when I’ve dedicated the majority of my life to diving intentionally out of my depths simply so I could feel everything deeply?

It’s safe to say I’m unprepared.

I am a prepared person. I pack for a trip with a precision that borders precariously toward obsessive. I’m rarely caught without a sweater or a raincoat. I travel daily with Band-Aids and a few other first-aid supplies. Mini scissors are my best friend. I’m currently packing (I’m also skilled at procrastination) for a five-day trip that includes camping, a river float, a country club wedding, and temperatures between 30 and 80F . I’m pretty sure I’ve got it all and more, but despite my neurotic preparedness, there are things in life we simply cannot prepare for.

A friend lost her dog a few years ago, and she told me, “It doesn’t leave a hole in your heart; it opens you up to a bigger love that you didn’t even think was possible.” I believed her because I wanted to. Another friend recently told me that when he lost his dogs a few years ago it spawned a mid-life crisis. “Yes,” I said to him, “Yes. That will be me. Mid-life crisis is already on my calendar.”

Right when I was visualizing said crisis and myself in a muumuu for days or months, he told me something that surprised me, something that gave me a little hope. “You’ll love your next dog more.” His words hung in the late-summer afternoon light, and I asked him, “How? How could that even be possible?”

“It’s simple,” he said, “You’re able to love more because you know how it feels to lose them.”

Some of my friends have lost their dogs this year, this summer, this month. Some of these people have husbands and other dogs, but some don’t. Some buy plane tickets. They all survive.

Summer is a busy time everywhere, but it seems that Montanans log more miles than most what with our two national parks and all of the rivers and lakes to be accessed. Winter travel can be tedious with all the hours of dark we have up north on top of the ice, snow, and blowing snow. I drive very little in the winter, but usually, like others, I get out and explore my pants off during the summer. This summer has been different.

When people have asked me, “What’re you up to this summer?” my answer has been both clear and complicated, “Not much, sticking close to home.” Depending on who it is that could mean barely leaving Missoula or barely leaving Montana or barely leaving North America. For me it has meant sticking close to Lucky.

I declared this the summer of Lucky. Nine months ago when we were heading back to Missoula I didn’t think he’d last this long. If he was still alive by August I’d have guessed he’d be more like a bag of bones that I had to lift to a standing position, help up and down stairs, and boost into the car. Nope. Not even close.

But the guy came alive as we drove back to Montana and he was a hiking machine this winter. He slowed down when the heat arrived, so we’ve limited our hikes to early mornings, late nights, and less than three miles, though on a couple of cooler days we hiked over four miles and he finishes with a smile every time, and even some last-minute disappearing shenanigans just to let me know he’s still got it. By far the best parts of his summer have been our days on the river. We haven’t done any boating or anything fancy or exciting. We’ve just gone to the river to be.

luck-blog-river

I always focus on his smile, though it’s hard to not also notice when his back legs look tired and rickety, when he needs a boost after hard playing. My friend Soph and I always spend Mondays together. In the winter and spring it was hikes and barre class, but this summer we’ve spent our Mondays at our favorite beach on the Blackfoot River. This past Monday the smoke had finally cleared, but it wasn’t really a “beach” day. We could have gone on a hike, though it may have been a little hot for Lucky. “This could be his last swim,” I said as we sorted out our game plan, and she said, “Yeah, of the summer,” and I said, “Well, maybe ever…” That sealed the deal with cement. “I’ll be right over,” Soph said, “And I have snacks.”

That’s the story I’m telling myself right now, the story that my dog is getting older and our days are numbered. In a way it’s ridiculous because three winters ago I thought it would be his last to  get out and play in the snow, but I was wrong. I figured he was going to conk out last winter after he ate rat poison in NYC, but the kid got his groove back. The problem doesn’t lie so much in the fact that Lucky is aging (albeit gracefully), but the damn story I’m telling myself about how much time I have and how completely I’m going to come undone when he goes.

Brené Brown wrote a great essay that was published recently in O Magazine about the power we have to change our narrative. She said:

“In navigation, dead reckoning is how you calculate your location. It involved knowing where you’ve been and how you got there—speed, route, wind conditions. It’s the same with life: We can’t chart a new course until we find out where we are, how we came to that point and where we want to go. Reckon comes from the Old English recenian, meaning “to narrate.” When you reckon with emotion, you can change your narrative. You have to acknowledge your feelings and get curious about the story behind them. Then you can challenge those confabulations and get to the truth.”

I’m working on modifying all sorts of patterns and narratives I’ve grown tired of, and this weekend I’m doing a bit of an experiment: I’m taking my first road trip without Lucky. My guy definitely gets jazzed about traveling…

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…but he’s become a very sleepy guy.

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The pace of the five-day “weekend” is going to be intense, and even if Lucky was a younger dog it would be tough on him, but I know I’d have dragged him around. I have always dragged him around. But I have to be smarter now, less selfish. Yes, I want him with me. No, it’s not what’s best for him. He’s in very good hands with his dog sitter who lets him sleep in bed with her and who met him at the door this afternoon with treats and a hug. He was fine when I dropped him off and he ran to play with the young dog who lives there, but me…not so much. I sang my heart out on the way home, but even still I may have even sprung a few hives, which I know seems ridiculous.

Then I went to work and just about lost my footing when my first appointment slot was empty, leaving me with extra time that I would have used differently had I realized it. I had a few errands to run, so did that, and even navigated a small repair on my car. It was just aesthetic and I used double-sided tape to do the job, so I’m not exactly a mechanic, but I still threw myself a small “You go, girl!” because. Yep, just because.

Massage work is wonderful for a number of reasons, among them the fact that for an over thinker like myself it is a mental vacation. I’m constantly doing nine million things at once, but when I go to work I make a concerted effort to forget it all and focus on the one thing I have to do: give my clients the attention they deserve. Despite a mile-long todo list, work was a blessing in disguise today, and I was even surprised by Soph, who dropped by to give me a care package. She knew. It’s amazing how our friends know.

Every bit of the package was meaningful and came with a note. One part was a bag of goldfish crackers that we’ve used this summer to coax Lucky into coming to hang out with us. Even though we go to the river “together,” he usually waves goodbye at the car and tells us he’ll catch up in a few hours. He does his rounds, hunts, scores carcasses in the woods, and is so cute that strangers give him Doritos and friend chicken. We coined the goldfish “Lucky bait” and Soph’s note said, “Lucky’s always with you!”

And she’s right, as spot-on as it gets.

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It was so sweet and thoughtful it nearly killed me, but it’s funny how the things that elicit that response also fill our sails with air. Unfortunately something else struck me, something that Soph most likely realized before I did. Not only am I taking this trip without my kickass co-pilot, but I’m driving a familiar route, a route that I took almost three years ago when I left for an adventure that was mostly unplanned and that took me on the ride of my life.

I didn’t know how it would feel to live and write in that remote cabin in New Mexico, or to retrace my roots all over New England, or to shack up with my mother and grandmother for a year of caretaking that was the hardest things I’ve ever done. I didn’t know I’d leave Lucky for three months and spend the summer in Spain, or that when I was in Rome—making my way slowly back to New York—that I’d wake up one morning knowing I had to put a plan in place to get back to Montana. I didn’t know how, but I did it. The not knowing is sometimes the best part of the journey.

I didn’t know that shortly after my arrival home from Europe Lucky would eat the rat poison. Prior to that day I didn’t know if I could carry him, but when he couldn’t walk that’s what I did. I carried him out of the house, into the car, into the vet’s office, and then down the long hall wondering if I’d be coming back down that hall with an empty collar in my hand. I remember exactly how I felt in that moment, how I didn’t cry, how I told myself that I didn’t imagine him going out like that but we’d had a solid run.

In the moment I was fine. Not great, but fine. I was appropriately emotional, but not crippled by it. I was strong, and not only because I was carrying my big dog. Most of my friends say I’m great in a crisis; I’m the one you want around when the shit hits the fan. It’s not the moments I’m afraid, of; it’s the anticipation. The anticipation gets me every time. That lesson is still in progress, but damn it: I think I am getting there.

A few months ago I may have jumped the gun a bit. I got a tattoo on my left wrist that says “luck.” I’d been pretty solid on the placement for a while, but wasn’t sure about size or font. I wasn’t sure if it was wrong to memorialize my guy before he dies, so I opted for “luck” instead of “Lucky.” I used my own handwriting, which I practiced, and I love it.

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This is hands down the only tattoo I could get that wouldn’t piss off my mother.