I’ll Never Be Ready for This Goodbye

Our family dog, John, is winding down and approaching the end of her life. She’s an unthinkably sweet, loyal yellow lab who has been a member of the family for nearly fourteen years. While she’ll always be the “family dog” in my mind, she’s been under my mom’s care since my parents split up about ten years ago and my sisters and I have all embarked on our own lives.

I remember getting John, although, although back then, we called her Rory, short for Arora. She’s a girl, yet has been called “John” for probably all but two of her years, after I decided that’s what she was to me and it stuck. We all started calling her John, or Johnathan when she’d get into some large pile of food and drag it to her “den”-a fort formed between the arms of the couches-and gobble it up. Trays of homemade granola bars, a family-size bag of blue corn tortilla chips, wrapped sandwiches from our lunch bags carelessly stored near the front door to grab on the way out: John is a natural-born scavenger and always a stealthy acquirer of human food. The more bites into a feast she would get, the faster her tail would wag, as if each morsel gave her windup toy tail a quarter turn.

John has always lived for pure joy and found love and delight in everything. She has such a command over true happiness that we’ve all always found her presence to be truly enriching. She loves the woods, retrieving sticks and swimming in the water, going for epic walks in Amethyst Brook Nature Area, and playing on the floor.

John has been a lap dog and a snuggler since the day my mom and sister brought her home. Of course, then, she was under twenty pounds, at least seven of which must have been loose and floppy fur and big feet to grow into. Now, at nearly sixty pounds, she still comes rushing over when one of us sits on the floor and forms a lap: she wants in, though, it’s more like on and over our whole bodies now.

When John was a puppy, I was a junior in high school, obsessed with running fast, getting good grades, and securing a prestigious college admissions spot. I remember nights in the study room, my parents heading up to bed while I sat in front of the computer screen, working on one of many assignments. Johnny, still Rory at the time, was a tiny puppy. She’d come ambling into the study to sniff and explore any crumbs I had dropped below me. As if a pull-toy dragged by a string from her nose, she’d wag and wiggle her way around the whole room directed by just her nose and imagination. Eventually, she’d paw at my shins, pushing my wheeled office chair back from the screen. Up, up! Moments later, she would be cradled in my arms, belly up, as I stroked her ears and gave up on work for the night. Like a baby, she would close her eyes and begin gently snoring, folding completely into my arms, her own muscles fast asleep.

Johnny and I bonded quickly. She liked my energy, my kid-like tendency toward play, my engagement with her on the floor or with toys, or running around the house as her mouse in a game of chase. She immediately earned and filled the perfect spot in our family and soon, it was nearly impossible to remember how it was we got along before her.

Nearly fourteen years later, John has seen and been part of many adventures, changes, heartaches, fights, milestones, and memories. Her companionship has help weather deep pain and sadness, loneliness and hurt. She’s been there in every ordinary day too, reminding us about the simplest gifts of daily life: the rising in the morning of your loved ones, the deliciousness of breakfast and the excitement of eating, the desire to play and explore outdoors. Her love for each of us never seems to tire or fade. She’s just as excited to see you after months of absence as she is when you return from the bathroom after showering; it’s always an enthusiastic reunion and a reminder that you’re special and not taken for granted. She reminds me, at least, that life is enjoyable, even in the mundane, and that happiness is found everywhere that family is.

As John’s health continues to rapidly decline, I know that day when the most painful goodbye to be spoken is coming. I tell myself I’m ready because I know it is her time and death is part of her mortal life, but it’s also painfully difficult to imagine her no longer being with us. She’s been a mainstay, a reliable constant in our ever-changing lives for nearly half of my life. When I think about Johnny dying, it calls to mind the many times my mom would bring her down on adventure-filled weekends to visit me in New York City.

I’d always beg my mom to stay longer and our goodbyes were always tearful; I clutched on to my mom’s tiny frame in an embrace I never wanted to end. As mom packed her last few things in the car and commanded Johnny to jump up into the back, I’d squeeze John’s neck and say, “take care of mama for me.” Through blurred eyes, I’d watch as my mom would drive completely out of sight, engulfed by the cars of outbound traffic, the whole time watching Johnny’s fixed gaze of my diminishing waving silhouette, her eyes saying, Come home with us. Why have you left, my friend? and mine saying Don’t go, Johnny. We will play this same silent dialogue as she leaves this world, my eyes begging her not to go. I will swallow the basketball-sized lump consuming my throat and feign a brave face that tells her it’s okay to let go and that she’s far surpassed her job here. This time, my eyes will need to reassure her that I will take care of mom for her, and relieve her of her biggest responsibility and honor in this world. I don’t know the extent to which she can read my mind, decipher my words, and understand my heart, but if I have one wish for John, it’s that I hope she knows she’s been the stable rock in our tumultuous lives, the ever-burning beacon of love, and the very friend each one of us has desperately needed each and every day she’s been here with us. While I adore Comet and am confident I’ll love other dogs in my life as well, Johnny will always occupy this very precious place in my heart, one that is entirely irreplaceable and one I will forever honor. For however many days we have left that are blessed with her presence, I hope they are filled with peace and her acceptance of all the gratitude we have for her.

 

John, I will never be ready to let you go. I can’t imagine how to say goodbye to you, but please, please know for as much as I will surely fall short, you’ve been far more than anything we ever dreamed you’d be. Please continue to watch over me as I grow up and I promise to keep your spirit alive, for I cannot help but conjure up the sweet image of your face whenever I hear the word “family.”

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Hot

It’s 8:18am and already 84 degrees. Many people hate it, but I love summer weather, up to about 100 degrees, where my body’s desire to melt kicks in and the sweltering temperatures are no longer invigorating but rather depleting. Maybe the fact that I’m a late July birth, my poor mom suffocating in her pregnant state in stifling July air, programmed my DNA to enjoy summer weather. I’ve mentioned before that I thrive on the Sun; my body and mind are like solar panels, restored by radiant energy. It seems to evaporate some of the mental and physical pain that normally colludes my mood and must be contended with as I soldier through the demands of my daily life. The added energy in my fuel cell and the hot sticky summer nights are the only significant challenges the summer weather imposes on me: Wrestling with my pervasive insomnia is exacerbated as I toss and turn with restlessness and discomfort. I must be cold to fall asleep. In the winter, I open the windows. There’s no equivalently viable option in the summer and yet my body longs to be that chilled.
I remember hating the sticky July weather as a teenager because my priority far above all others was running, fast and long, and that is considerably less comfortable and hindered on extremely hot and humid summer days, the ones that get everyone making weather small talk at each interaction. Today’s priorities are different; happiness and a sense of comprehensive wellbeing top the list, and for me, summer weather seems to usher in these sometimes-elusive, yet precious, feelings.
So today, it’s particularly easy to feel grateful and happy, and I’ll take it. Things in my corner have been trying lately, so it’s nice to ride the wave of goodness while it’s here, acknowledging its blessing and relishing in the genuine joy it carries.

The Power of Attitude

As a young child, I was remarkably upbeat, happy, optimistic, and hopeful about my future and that of the world. Anything seemed possible and I had wholehearted confidence in my ability to transpire my dreams into my reality. Mostly, I credit my parents for fostering this attitude of wonder and self-assurance; they provided me with ample opportunities to explore the world and my capabilities and never set boundaries or limitations on what I was capable of, even if they had their own (realistic) doubts. I certainly had my fair share of physical and emotional falls and fails, but they never seemed to set me back with much permanent or lasting impact. I had a lot of behavioral problems, particularly in my first years of school and in social situations that my older sisters never displayed, and to say that I presented more of a parenting challenge throughout my entire childhood is a gross understatement. In hindsight, it’s clear that much of my misbehavior, rambunctiousness, and hair-pulling frustrating confusion was a product of my undiagnosed autism and sensory processing disorder. At the time, my hyperactivity, finicky-ness, and even “bratty and immature” behavior was attributed to ADHD and my position as the youngest of three girls. Needless to say, the routine misdemeanors, punishment, timeouts at school, less-than-stellar report card marks for behavior (and penmanship) did little to curtail my mojo and I remained a spunky, relentlessly positive kid.

Something began to shift in the months before my tenth birthday. As if double-digits inherently ushered in the cessation of innocence, verve, and faith in oneself and the world, my mindset and affect began to dramatically shift. In the manner in which a windup toy peters out as the duration of its chatter and clatter lengthens after the initial spinning charge, my zest, vigor, and sunny outlook faded in favor of a restrained, timid demeanor.* Doubt replaced hope, worry and anxiety trumped my carefree nature, pessimism extinguished optimism, and my self-esteem plummeted. Within a few months, depression clouded out the very happiness and joy that had previously bestowed upon me the nickname “the happiest girl in the world,” used lovingly, but earnestly, by my dad. A switch had been flipped and my internal world, which colored my external one, changed.

As with most things which are rarely black or white, solely good or bad, some changes brought on by this metamorphosis were beneficial: my behavior, now so reserved, no longer landed me at the back table or time-out position at school, instead, teachers remarked that I was well-behaved. The more I restrained my body and physical hyperactivity and conformed to the expectations and qualities of a mature and “good” student, the more wildly and feverishly my brain ran. There was a constant barrage of anxieties, questions, troubles, fears, and even panic. Sure, there were also hopes and constructive thoughts, mulling over things learned in school, observations made out and about, and intellectual curiosities much like those that characterized my kid brain, but it became harder to hear these over the sheer volume and strength of the pessimistic thought reel. Little did teachers know that as I sat there studiously at my desk, the littlest one in the class with a big brain and bright responses to assignments, I was filled with internal angst, confusion, and sadness. My “proper” behavior was actually just paralysis induced by depression devouring my energy and ubiquitous pensive concerns. Shortly after, I developed an eating disorder that proved to be a formidable foe for the next eight years. The depression and anxiety fueled the anorexia, which in turn, sunk me into more severe depression and calamitous anxiety.

I wish I could say that some other momentous birthday or other occasion caused the same radical about-face in my outlook as did turning ten, but truthfully, nothing had been as exorbitantly formative in changing me. With that said, particularly in recent years, I have found a better balance and allowed some of that positivity, hope, and verve to weasel its way back into my psyche and shine through the constant cacophony of worries, bleak and dispirited thoughts, and emotional pain. My inner strength and confidence have mounted as I’ve triumphed over difficulties and become a curious and dedicated student of myself. For me, self-awareness has had an instrumental role in increasing self-compassion. I’ve even surprised myself in the authenticity of my mental fortitude and strong drive to seek and recognize the silver linings in spite of some tremendous adversities I’ve faced in recent years. I’m proud of things that I’ve overcome and the resilience of my positive attitude when it would be so understandable to completely crumble.

Some days, in accordance with the idiom “fake it ’til you make it,” the optimism and emotional fortitude is somewhat of an act, a tiring attempt to feign stability and tenacity. Although exhausting, there does seem to be some payback from this practice, but thankfully, sometimes the attitude is genuine. My foot injury is an example of the former turning into the latter. After it seems like surgery was in evitable, I experienced slight improvement in the pain and swelling after weeks of nonexistent progress. I have long heard that having a good attitude through illness and injury is scientifically proven to improve healing and perhaps my desire to avoid surgery was so primal and deep that I truly convinced myself that my foot was healing. It’s not. I have objective evidence from imaging studies that fail to demonstrate an iota of progress; it’s exactly the same as it was four months ago. At first, I couldn’t believe the results; I was so assured it was physically healing because my conviction in maiming a positive outlook became so powerful. I cancelled the postponed surgery date in favor for the conservative route.

Once the initial shock delivered by the MRI’s report on the stagnant state of my foot, I sat with my feelings. In the quiet of the predawn hours where all my clearest thoughts reside, my pride and optimism stripped away, I felt the throbbing pain, the familiar ache from the initial months of injury. The pain had not just returned, it had never really gone away. I had just become committed to silencing it in hopes of encouraging my body to actually resolve it. It looks like I will need the surgery after all.

Of course, I am very disappointed I will have to have the surgery and because I have medical anxiety, I am certainly anxious for that day. However, although I was mad at myself a couple of days ago for my inability to honestly assess the pain and progress of my foot, I choose to remain proud. It’s not easy to be hopeful and positive in the face of a bad injury, let alone the larger obstacles I have faced. As the sands of hopefulness and confidence ran out of the hourglass that ushered in age ten, I lost so much more than just the innocence of childhood. It’s taken two decades to build back some of what I’ve lost and so I will honor and admire all of the positive attitude triumphs, enthusiasm, and growth mindset moments that I can cultivate.

 

*The reason that turning ten served as an impetus for such change is complicated and I’m not sure I fully understand it, but I will attempt to evaluate it at a subsequent time.

Web

I have chronic nightmares. Sometimes they are so realistic and frightening that my brain won’t let my tired body go back to sleep afterward for fear of being transported back into the horror. Usually, they include pieces of my trauma or at least feelings or phrases that I had or heard during the attack. It’s surprisingly hard to get someone’s evil words out of your head even when they treat you utterly inhumanely and you don’t respect their opinion. Not every nightmare necessarily includes my attacker, even if it does include reminders of the attack, and even still, not every nightmare relates to that. My therapist says that this type of gross sleep disturbance, even long-term, is normal in these situations.

The other night, my sleep brain had me in the familiar supine position with the feeling of a suffocating body cracking down on my ribs. I couldn’t see his face, but I had the knife blade and choking sensation. Thankfully this time, unlike in real life, I was being tortured over something that now seems comical: that I had never read Charlotte’s Web and didn’t know the story. I woke suddenly in my usual gasping-for-air panic, relieved that it was unrealistic enough to know it was just a bad dream and that I wasn’t going to live through another torturing just for failing to read an iconic children’s classic.

Still, I decided perhaps this was a subliminal message that I should read the book; after all, I’d give anything to make the real memory go away, and since I can’t seem to do that, I can try to resolve the petty issues in some of the less-severe nightmares.

As unpopular of a sentiment this likely is, I generally do not enjoy reading literature. I’d venture to guess that 49 times out of 50, I gravitate towards a nonfiction book over fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, or any type of creative literature. I seem to really struggle to imagine things that are not portrayed extremely realistically; even then, if the context of the book is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in at least some tangential fashion, it’s frustratingly challenging for me to relate to or get into. Luckily, perhaps due to my strange empathetic skill, I do seem to possess a strong innate ability to see similarities in many superficially different topics. Many struggles have the same universalities.

For the record, there certainly have been many great literary works I’ve enjoyed, but the ease, speed, and appreciation with which I enthusiastically devour nonfiction pieces far and beyond outshadows this number. I think it has something to do with the fact that I am essentially unable to picture anything I’ve never seen. I can listen to the most detailed description of something and absorb all of the words and their essence, but be completely blind to conjuring up a mental image of that description. Consequently, it’s hard to develop relationships with the characters or storyline. I imagine that my substantially challenged ability to read facial expressions and understand people also gets in the way of bonding with or at least following the thoughts, emotions, and decisions of characters. When discussing my evaluation results with the neuropsychologist, he said this can be a challenge for those on the autism spectrum; it’s not a complete lack of creativity, but more of a difficulty imagining a different reality. You’d think then that I’d be fine watching movies since the ambiguity is removed or the guesswork is taken out of imagining how things look, but I mostly only enjoy documentaries, food TV, or shows where you get to know the characters so well over time that their mannerisms, expressions, motives, and language, become more understandable. In any fantastical book or even fictional storyline, I find myself completely lost. I’m unable to follow the plot or keep track of the characters in most cases because I’m missing crucial pieces of information.

I don’t know if this is the reason that I’ve never read or seen Charlotte’s Web. Since the library had it on the shelf and it looked short enough to squeeze in between various obligatory readings, I figured it was worth a shot.

I liked it. I was astonished at how much. As I suspect most people do, I cried when Charlotte died. In retrospect, perhaps this is the reason my parents didn’t encourage me to read this book when I was younger. Although it’s presented as a children’s book, it not only deals with many adult themes, but it also is emotionally mature. Ultimately, I think that’s what makes a good piece of literature: it has a lasting impact on a person and it can be universally understood across the ages or types of people (even if it’s fictional!). I was overly sensitive and emotional as a child-which, apparently is a quality that I have not shaken-and after physically throwing my body on the floor and flailing my limbs in a fitful tear-filled meltdown after the dog dies in John Reynolds Gardiner’s Stone Fox, I’m guessing my parents steered me toward more soundly upbeat stories. I guess I wasn’t ready for the pain and sorrow of reality…

Charlotte’s Web deals so beautifully with the themes of friendship, sacrifice, the circle of life, ingenuity, love, loyalty, and growing up. Despite the significant need to suspend disbelief and buy into the conversations and relationships between the animals themselves and Fern, I found it surprisingly easy to relate to the different characters and imagine it enough that I could follow the storyline (it helped that it was basic enough because it’s intended for children!). I wonder if the fact that I seem to understand animals better than people in real life played to my advantage as well!

While I found many powerful quotes in the book, particularly pertaining to friendship (and one depressingly relatable one from Wilber about unhappiness and loneliness) my favorite of all was delivered by Fern’s pediatrician, Dr. Dorian, after her mother asks him if he had heard that the spider was spinning words in her web.

He replied: “I don’t understand it. But for that matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.”

How true on so many levels. For me, it was a reminder to appreciate the small things—the magic in the mundane—and to not always be chasing something bigger and better. Sometimes, the very best things are the things we easily take for granted and it isn’t until there’s a blatantly clear sign of something miraculous that we pause enough to consider that the simple act itself—the thing that’s been there all along—is something wonderfully special as well.

(Nature is amazing.)

Summer Screen

It feels like a summer morning. It’s just past 4:00am and I finished my meditating so I’m lying on the rug in the living room. It is still dark out but all of the windows are open in here and the birds are serenading each other. Our house, admittedly, usually has an unpleasant vegetal smell from all of the vegetables we cook, but with the breeze coming through, it smells sweet like budding trees, dewy grass, and what I call “summer screen.”

This term has its origins back when I was a young kid. On summer nights, my mom would open my bedroom windows. We never had air conditioning and while sometimes I had an ineffective fan somewhere in the room—a tag sale relic or duct-taped old dinosaur from grandma’s house—I was usually way too hot to be comfortable. My bed abutted a window that looked out to the side of the house, where, incidentally, I observed squirrels and documented their “mysterious behavior” in my “science sleuth” journal, a small yellow spiral-bound notebook that sat in my windowsill among the dust and dead bees.

On hot nights, I’d drag my pillow, a pillow-shaped lion, from its position on the mattress and into the window sill gulley so I could put my face right up to the window, drinking in as much of the fresh summer air as I could. While an ineffective way to cool down (especially on stagnant nights), it distracted me enough from the sweltering humidity that I would stop rapidly flipping every which way on my mattress to try and find a cool spot (which only made me hotter), and just slowly breathe in the nature around me. I’d listen to the concert of cicadas, crickets, and toads, and crane my neck to try and spot the moon or the North Star through the trees. Whenever I found it, I felt like a ship navigator, finding a stable beacon to lead me home (of course, I was home). I’d narrate everything to Lion, the pillow, and explain to him the night’s story: what the insects were singing about, where our “ship” was returning from, and what the neighbors (“the enemy pirates”) were doing making noise, if they were around. I would press my nose so forcefully against the wire window screen as if trying to break through with my face to join the outside world. It felt cool and I’d put my hands on it too, and wiggle my fingers, as if making snow angels with them on the mesh. And that’s the smell of summer screen: the faint metallic wire of an old window screen with the warm summer air of a New England summer night.

I catch myself even now putting my nose right up to the screens in my new house in the early morning hours. It’s not quite summer and it’s not quite the same sweet mix of smells from my childhood, but it’s enough to remind me of those nights as an imaginative, happy kid full of wonder and possibility and take a pause in my current struggles to realize part of her magic is still in me.