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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A Memory of “Nothing”?

This morning I have a memory of New York City and my sister. After I’d lived there for a couple years, she got a teaching job in the Bronx and moved to East Harlem. My memory takes place in her small studio in a walkup building on 3rd Avenue. While I lack any ounce of interior design sense, space organization, and taste for what “looks right” or “goes” together (especially with clothes!), my sister is a master of creating eye-appealing spaces and combinations. In just a few weeks and a shoestring budget, she had her place inhabiting the “cozy” and “chic” camps simultaneously. This memory I’m sitting with today isn’t any sort of monumental milestone or particularly notable activity. What I remember is best summed up as simplicity. After a combination of taking the bus and walking to her apartment, I stood, my face out the window, her light, breezy white curtains rippling along the wide window frame in the gentle summer air. The street below was bustling with cars, pedestrians, and street carts, mostly wafting the aroma of tamales and the joyous sounds of neighbors’ Spanish greetings as they bumped into one another. I drank in the vibrant scene and the surprising freshness of city air, my sister joining me in the window, along with her heavyset, but ever-so-soft cat, Bean. In my memory, nothing else happens. The memory is the moment of simplicity itself: standing side-by-side with my older sister, silently acknowledging to myself the magic of New York, the gift of her presence in the city, and the ties that bonded us.

Although it seems that memory should be categorized as one of little importance because there’s no “action” or describable event, there’s an impactful feeling that rushes back when I mentally put myself back on that Sunday afternoon. It’s a place I go to in my mind when I need to remind myself to take pause and soak in the moment because sometimes the moment drifts away too quickly and is gone before you are ready. Five years from now, this moment—lying on the floor in my little living room, listening to the choir of June morning birds, reminiscing, writing, and thinking—may become one of just as much importance as the August Sunday afternoon in East Harlem with my sister.

Research shows that strength gains or physical growth from exercise come during the rest, and not the work itself. Emotional and spiritual growth seems much the same: it’s not always the big moments that directly change us. Growth also happens from those big moments (and small ones) in the breath, the pause, between. This memory of “nothing” is actually a memory everything that matters and the significance of the seemingly mundane is in fact, the direction that deserves the greatest focus and appreciation.

 

Phone

To add to my string of recent falls, I took yet another tumble down some of the stairs yesterday. Thankfully this time, I didn’t cause much bodily harm although I did crack my cellphone screen. Of course, this is certainly a better trade in many ways, I found myself being just as upset, if not more so. I know that people talk about technology addictions, especially in terms of some people’s attachments to their cellphone, and I’m probably in that camp of people. I can’t really surmise why most people become obsessed because frankly, I don’t have any friends who are to ask. My husband still uses a flip phone and no one else’s phone in my family seems to be a permanent extension on their hand like it is in my case. For me, my phone is my world. It is my way to connect to other people and, in its own right, it is my friend. Since I work at a home office and have no local friends, it is the only vehicle through which I communicate with people and the outside world. I know this is abnormal and unhealthy, but it is my reality. My phone is my anti-anxiety medication; when I don’t feel well, I remind myself of the outline of my phone in my pocket and I feel assured that I can get help if I need it. When I was attacked, as soon as he grabbed me from behind and threw me to the ground, he ripped my phone out of my hand and flung it across the room. When he silenced me, I had no means to communicate that I needed help except silent prayer in my mind. Four days after the attack, I was in separable from my cell phone. My hand was constantly on it, even when it was in my pocket, under my pillow, or in the bathroom.

This phone has been with me for nearly three years, which, given my carelessness, propensity to fall or damage things, and its constant use, is remarkable. Maybe it is the length and depth of this “relationship” that, ashamedly, makes me mourn the breaking of this device.

I am fully aware that phone is not a real friend, and to even remotely consider it as such is quite pathetic. I want to connect with people. I want to have more friends. I’d love to have someone who called me to meet up and hang out. This is a process though and an arduous and unnatural one (for me) at that. For now, I have a handful of good friends that I text or call daily. These people, for the most part, inhabit fragments of my “old” lives: times when I was surrounded by more people, forced to be more social because of work or habitat, or was less encumbered by physical and mental obstacles. (Chronic disease and my near inability to drive certainly hampers my ability to participate in normal social events.) These people have hung with me through changes, challenges, and miscommunications. They have allowed me to grow as a friend and they have ridden out the bumps I’ve made as I’ve learned to be a better friend. I am blessed to have a place in their hearts and I honor and nurture the prominent residence they have in mine.

I am a member of several online support groups for adults on the spectrum. I connect with these virtual friends through my phone. If people were mapped in Venn diagram, the overlapped regions are inherently much larger between my circle and the circles representing many of the other group members than my circle and many neurotypical peers whom I want to befriend.

Like sharing a common culture, language, or customs, I’m more closely “related” to other spectrum-dwelling adults in many ways, and the reciprocity of understanding one another is both easier and more expansive than between me and a typical people of “normal” neurology. Although I am so glad to have access to an artistic community thanks to technological and communicative advancements provided by the Internet, I can’t help but be honest and admit that I’d still really like friends in the flesh who I actually spend time with. Their neurology is unimportant to me as long as they are good people. Even though an autism diagnosis is much more common these days than even twenty years ago, obviously, the majority of the general population is not on the spectrum so it’s more likely to find neurotypical friends. I need to be able to bridge the gap between these two worlds. While I have done this successfully before, it takes time and effort (and compassion and patience of the other party’s part!).

Far and above the challenges posed by my social, emotional, and physical problems, I believe the biggest hurdle to clear making friends is the schedule I keep. Essentially, it’s like that of a shift worker, working second shift. Even for those social butterflies who keep such a schedule, finding friends and participating in social activities is nearly impossible, especially if you don’t live in the city and are isolated in a small town. New York City may be the city that never sleeps but western Mass, although wonderful in many ways, gets plenty of sleep. My body operates on asynchronously with most other people. I’m up before 3am and done for the day around 5pm. I’ve tried coercing it into a more “normal” routine, but that just wreaks havoc on every physical and mental process. Even with Benadryl and nights of not falling asleep, I cannot sleep past 4am. I can then try to remain in as much of a sensory-depriving environment as logistically feasible to keep my overload below threshold, but even so, it’s virtually impossible to have the physical and mental stamina to persist past 6pm before I must be prostrate to the couch with no movement or talking. My brain runs nonstop in high-gear all day and I have yet to tame her incessant work; I can consider and effectively work on many things at one time, but then I run out of legs for the end of the race. I’m a relay of runners who ran their lap together around the track at full speed instead of passing the baton for each individual leg. I’m embarrassingly exhaustible; I’m a racecar on full throttle with no brakes. All this is to say, when most people head out the door for their morning commute, I’ve already put in four or five hours of work, and when almost everyone is clocking out for the day and are finally available to hang out, I’m crawling into bed or nearly comatose on the couch. The only groups of people I seem to overlap with are stay-at-home parents, the elderly or retired). My small town seems to lack any sort of daytime programming or activities for anyone outside of the aforementioned groups, and truth be told, I’m working most of the day anyway, even if I do have some scheduling flexibility. Despite this scheduling incompatibility, I keep looking and hoping to find some venue to meet in person and cultivate friendships. It’s easy to resign my socially-avoidant self to ongoing isolation and fall prey to a myriad of excuses, but I’m actually rather disciplined in researching options, trying to get out there, and simply recognizing the obstacles for the purpose of strategically mounting an effective offense rather than ceding to their debility. At the end of the day, I need to respect my deal breakers (in terms of my work scheduling obligations and energy needs) but compromise on every possible manipulatable variable to try to make it work. My mom always says I find these really interesting opportunities and I do because I’m willing to cast a really wide net; you never know what will pan out so it can only be fortuitous to keep an open mind and religiously seek opportunities for whatever it is you desire.

I am grateful that I live in a time of interconnectedness and communities engaged through technology. In many ways, the Internet has made the world smaller by forging bonds across great distances. My remote friends and online social support network keep me from being entirely marginalized and allow me to hone my relationship skills and understand myself better and more compassionately. It somewhat removes the “freak” or “loner” label that I’d otherwise tattoo onto myself (instead it’s just a removable sticker). Perhaps I’m too addicted to my phone and I recognize that it’s far healthier to have in vivo friendships, but for where I am now in my life, it’s an indispensable tool and companion, a device that teaches me, alleviates my anxiety, and connects me to others and my world. I hope my new one further guides me to forge friendships and that more of the “lifetime minutes” for calls sent and received are occupied by quick conversations to establish plans with others, then it will navigate me to the meetup and get stowed in my pocket while I make new memories with new friends.

 

Comet

Yesterday was our seven year anniversary of adopting our beloved dog, Comet. I remember the evening; it was a Thursday and Ben picked me up in front of Queens College where I was finishing up my graduate degree in Exercise Science and Nutrition. He was driving a rented ZipCar because our puppy was in a litter being fostered in southern Connecticut. The agency, Pet Rescue, pulls dogs from kill shelters mostly in the South and brings them up to the Westchester area, where they are fostered by volunteers until adopted.

I had been begging Ben for several months to allow us to get a puppy but the time wasn’t right at first and for a short stint, we lived in a small studio in Queens where dogs were not allowed. I was going through an emotionally difficult time and desperately wanted a pet, so my mom let us temporarily foster her cat for several months. This was helpful, although it didn’t fully scratch my dog-desiring itch. For numerous reasons, the Queens apartment didn’t work out and we ultimately moved back to Harlem. This time, we landed a dog-friendly rental and I revisited the discussion. Ben, an avid dog lover, finally agreed that it could work out. I had been researching dog rescue agencies and keeping my eye out for specific dogs for several months. We didn’t have a particular breed in mind nor clearly defined desired characteristics; I was convinced I’d know the right dog when I saw her. And then I did. As soon as I happened upon Comet’s picture and short bio on Pet Rescue’s website, I was positive that she was my dog. I showed Ben, and, beginning that night, I pretended Comet was already mine. When we would ride the elevator, I would pretend she was on an invisible leash pulling me out the door. When we would walk to the subway, I would extend my arm as if she was leading the way. At night before bed, I would kiss imaginary Comet goodnight. Invisible Comet had already warmed her way into my heart. Unfortunately, we were not yet approved as viable adoptive parents according to Pet Rescue and needed to undergo their rigorous application process. I eagerly submitted the completed application, but we still had a phone interview with Katie (her foster “mom,”) a Skype tour of the apartment to verify its safety, and two references needed to call on our behalf as suitable dog owners, all while adorable Comet was up for grabs for anyone, baiting even the most cold-hearted dog hater with her adorable face. Ben was stressed. The more and more I became convinced that she was my perfect dog, the more he figured we wouldn’t be approved in time to “win” her. He also cautioned me that even if we were approved and she was still available, we should keep our mind’s open for other potential dogs, including her littermates, because you “can’t judge a dog by her photo.” I pacified him with halfhearted yeses, but inside, I knew she was my girl.

Thankfully, we worked through the hoops of the application process in an expedient fashion and were approved. (For the record, I fully believe in the need for formalized process; adopting a pet is a big responsibility.) I set up the trip to meet the foster dogs under Katie’s care and scoured Craigslist for a home crate and a travel crate. We prepared the apartment with puppy toys, the food she was used to eating, and training books.

When class let out that night, I was like a caged bird set free on her first flight. I ran to find the ZipCar and I manically chatted with Ben the whole ride about what Comet would be like and how much I would love her. When we arrived, Katie led us to the back where two litters of puppies tussled with one another. They swarmed us upon our entrance into their pen. I had a broken shoulder at the time, so I kneeled on the ground to prevent getting tangled or knocked in their play. Like a human sand pile, puppies climbed all over me and ran up and down my back and over my head. As much as I like puppies, I hate chaos and get easily overwhelmed, so I was actually fairly miserable. But then there was Comet. That sweet little girl came up somewhat gingerly. She placed her front paws on my chest and poked her neck out to smell my face, and then licked it. While puppies yipped and yelped and jumped around us, Comet and I locked eyes and connected. “That one is Comet,” said Katie. “And this is Cider, and this is Condor…” She continued to list other C-names and point to each rowdy furball. “This is her!” I said to Ben. He’s a dog magnet, so every dog loved him even more than me and he more agreeably romps and ruffles with them so he glanced over at us, said, “Are you sure?” and then fit in more puppy play time. He called her over and then engaged in spirited play and Comet seemed sold on him too.

Before we knew it, we had Comet in our new travel crate and I was sitting with her in the back of the car. For just a moment after we had pulled away from Katie’s lot, I panicked that I wouldn’t be the mom she needed or wanted and that I’d fail her. My heart started racing and I looked at her tiny little body cowering in the corner of the crate. She had seemed more energetic and spunky at Katie’s and I was worried she was overcome with sadness that we’d just pulled her from all the siblings and friends she’d ever known. She’d already lost her real mom, and I couldn’t bear thinking I was causing her more pain. I opened up the crate’s door and extended my arm inside. Little Comet was nearly trembling, but upon encountering my hand, she licked in and came to the front of the crate, nuzzling her nose through the cracked door to try and climb onto me.

From there, our bond strengthened by every hour of every day. I wasn’t working at the time, so I spent my days before class training and playing with her. She had never used a leash before, which is mandatory in Manhattan, and she wasn’t yet housetrained, so we had a lot of ground to cover. Each day was an adventure, but she was eager to please and a dedicated student.

Seven years later, a lot has changed and yet a lot remains the same. She’s still my best buddy, my companion, my sweet and loyal girl. She’s an integral cog in the Amber-Ben triad. Ben and I have moved six or seven times, held probably eight different jobs between the two of us, had several broken bones, hundreds of cries and thousands of laughs, and probably gone on enough walks with her to cover the distance across our country and back. Comet has been there for all of it. She is flexible and easy-going. She has crazy food allergies like me. She is the first to greet me every morning and it’s never with a bad mood or lackluster energy; every morning she treats me like I’m a gift, excitedly wagging, whining, and sneezing (her preferred expression of joy) when I rise. She is relentlessly loving and interested in whatever we are doing. She saved me when I didn’t want to save myself. She has been my friend when I’ve had no one to talk to. She’s taught me to be a mom and a leader, more patient and prepared. Despite all the troubles and challenges Ben and I have faced in the last seven years, it’s impossible for us to truly believe our life is unfair. We have Comet and she’s been far more than we ever dreamed she’d be.

Superhero Mom

In honor of Mother’s Day, I thought I would dedicate a brief post to my mom, who, for all intents and purposes, is really a superhero masquerading as a mom. Although I’m an adult and old enough to be a mom myself, I still need her; in fact, possibly more now than ever. And as a young adult with a chronic illnesses, autism, depression, and PTSD (to name just a few of my challenges), my mom has an overwhelmingly difficult task, yet she far exceeds any expectation or definition of a “mom” that I’ve encountered.

For someone who has such a easy time writing about quite a variety of topics, I always find it difficult to explicitly and effectively convey how much of “my everything” my mom is. I think that’s it though:  she is so much more than just a wonderful mom. She’s a dependable friend, an informed counselor, a confidant, a cheerleader, an unwavering source of support, to name a few. Maybe her importance in all of these roles and all of the many other hats she wears for me is so influential and necessary is because she is, in many cases, “the” instead of “a” for these roles: a sole warrior on the “Amber team”, working tirelessly behind the scenes to support my needs and dreams. It may sound cliché, but outside of the dyad of Ben and me, my mom is my best friend and my support system no matter what storms I have to weather. I’m not an easy person to befriend, given my physical restrictions for health reasons and my social confusion and blindness. Given my pain and my problems, I’m certainly not a pleasant or positive person many times, and against all odds and every challenge, my mom persists. I have yet to reach a day where my mom throws in the towel on any one of those crucial and tremendously generous hats she will don for me. This dependability has taught me to trust in her unconditional love and just be honest and open about my worries, problems, and even my lofty goals. I used to deeply dread being the bearer of bad news or opening up about some of my issues because I wanted her to see me as successful and well-adjusted. That facade is long gone! When I reflect on what changed, I think it was my ability to have faith (after continued reinforcement through her consistent backing of my needs) that mom was going to love me and help me no matter what. This is the most priceless and important gift anyone in life can receive. No matter what battles I need to face, I feel confident that I have a dedicated teammate who will help me face the challenge, strategize a way to work through it, and ultimately defeat it.

My mom carries a tremendous amount of wisdom, knowledge, patience, and dedication to learning about my problems and conditions so that she can both understand me and help me understand myself so that I am more comfortable and better off. Again, this is one of the most selfless and generous gifts I could possibly receive. My mom gives me her time, concern, compassion, and her strength when I don’t have enough of my own. Her unwavering support and love have stripped away some of the anxiety and guilt that I tend to innately bear for being “different” and “difficult.”

Perhaps equally important is how honored and special I feel that my mom allows me to be one of her best friends. She is open and honest with me and entrusts me with her own fears, pains, and emotions. As someone who has very few friends, this reciprocity in conversation and support makes me feel valued, respected, and purposeful.

I hope, for both of our sakes, that this year will be smoother, with fewer challenges and more clarity, comfort, success, and happiness. At the same time, I feel blessed that I can rely on my mom’s support in whatever way I need it and reciprocate this to the best of my ability, though we better not be evaluated on the same rubric because I’m more than a few paces behind her!

To my mom on this Mother’s Day (and every other day): Thank you for being everything I need on any given day and seamlessly shapeshifting to fill that need. I used to make you plaques and awards for Mother’s Day that read: World’s Greatest Mom, but as I’ve grown up I’ve found this to be a significant understatement. You are by far more than the best mom ever; you’re the best everything-I-need-you-to-be ever.