Empty nester

Tonight I write with the winter ale, “Ursus,” as my companion. Ursus is a seasonal beer put out by a local brewery, Greenbush. This is a brewery that has known phenomenal success since opening just a few years ago, and has turned our tiny hometown into a destination. We have watched its’ growth in amazement, and hope the success continues. For craft beer lovers, (and foodies), it is pure pleasure. Ursus packs a punch at an 8.5% alcohol by volume. What this means for you, the reader,(and my husband) is that my inhibitions will soon take flight and I will probably need to do heavy editing later on. So be it, friends!

So now I have become a total cliche’ and am wincing at the thought. Our youngest son has been launched an hour away, at a community college, with new roommates, apartment, and a new routine. Of course, we have been down this road before with his brother, but it really was different with him. He was soooo independent, so irritated and chafing at the small time life here, that it was relatively painless seeing him off. So what if I kept the door to his room closed for weeks to pretend he was coming back? Eventually I opened it up so the cat could lay on his bed. And I just swallowed the pangs away. Probably with the help of the aforementioned local brews.

If you read one of my previous blogs about Danny, “The Road to Holland,” then you are familiar with our life’s path. It began with worry and I wonder if it will ever end. I worry that he is going to get cancer or a heart attack from eating processed food 24/7 and that he won’t wash his sheets for weeks and that he will give up on himself under the weight of demanding college classes and that his oddball roommate could possibly be dealing drugs. Did I mention there was a shooting in his complex? That was a nice bit of news to hear. My husband googled the incident only to learn we signed a lease in an area that is known to be a “hotbed of violence.” Great! I feel like I have thrown a newborn calf into a pen of wolves, although I know that is ridiculously dramatic.

He will be fine, though he doesn’t know it yet. His anxiety is palpable, and I must bury my own somewhere with those pangs I swallowed, lest his tiny seeds of confidence fail to take root. I have fought so hard for him to get to this point. I have to trust this growing process, let my Leo the late bloomer blossom as I always said he would.

He will be more than fine. The question I am asking now is, what about me?

Women my age are now in the prime of their careers, reaching salary peaks and desirable positions. My career is making his way in Nashville, and in western Michigan, while I sit and wonder if I gave it enough, or too much, and why couldn’t I do kids and a job like everyone else?

I did work in the early childhood field. But it’s always been on and off, and I never felt as if I could do a job and family well at the same time. Because when they were little and I tried to do both, I was a hideous, miserable multi-tasker. Upon further reflection, my husband worked long and demanding hours in those early days, and I was firm about not being an absentee parent. I have no regrets, and I had no qualms about knowing there was only room enough for one “career” in the house. Indeed, that career has been very good to us.


I really never thought about what would happen later. We tried hard not to be so child-centered that we neglected each other, and I think we succeeded in that. I don’t look at my husband and think, “who the hell are you?” No, now I am looking in the mirror and asking those words of myself.

Who am I, without “helping” with years worth of homework anymore? Without prodding and pushing and rescuing and morphing into a warrior for special education? And I torture myself thinking it was overkill. Did I neglect our older, so-competent son? Did I tell him enough how proud we were of him? What if boy number two crumbles like a cookie in the real world, because I didn’t teach him to rely on himself, instead of me? I pray feverishly this doesn’t happen. If I am truthful, which with Ursus’ help I will be, I will admit that this scenario scares me more for me, than for him. Because I will have the answer that who I am, is a failure. After all, from the minute they are born children are separating from us, and that is as it should be. We are supposed to be showing them how to become their own selves, not to glom onto them because we don’t know our own.

I know that what I am experiencing is a normal process and I will hopefully figure it all out sometime before I die. I have time to share and I am eager to serve. In the meantime, I just simply miss their boy presence around me, their boy smells and smiles, and I fear there is no amount of volunteer work that can fill the empty space of my heart.


The animals begin eyeing me warily as I chase them down for cuddles and comfort.

Humane Society, here I come.

Cheers to new beginnings, friends!





For all the holiday fairies

This post, like the previous one, is accompanied by coffee. But it is 8:00 on New Year’s Day, and I need it, because it’s not looking like I am going back to sleep. Ironically I did not have any beer last night. I opted for two lemon drop martinis, which were deliciously imbibed at the time, but could have something to do with a vague headache and rebelling bowels. And being up at 6:30. Ah…partying at 49 just ain’t what it used to be. Like a lot of things. And, that is okay. We had a nice dinner with good friends, and that is enough of a party for me these days.

I am horrifically late with this writing, but I will take the easy way of blame and place it squarely on the season’s shoulders. Truthfully, I love celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas…and give everything over to the decorating, the cooking and cleaning, and the gathering of those dear. But equally truthful, it takes a lot out of me. Every year I wrangle with supposedly twistable  evergreen garland, and every year a chain of obscenities escapes my mouth as I force the unyielding stuff into place. Mounds of storage bins to be transported flank my sides. I make yearly vows to Pare. It. Down.  Of course I do get help, but afterward I will stand there sweating and cursing basement stairs and wonder why do I do this to myself?

I bake batches and batches of yummy cookies, peering through my cookbooks for weeks ahead of time to plan my annual giveaway to neighbors. I work into the wee night making pies and other delights until my back and neck ache unbearably, and even my son asked me why. Since I had so recently asked this of myself I was ready. I answered, “because someday I won’t be able to. ” I also add to myself, “because the minute I don’t make grandma’s powdered sugar balls and corn casserole and my peach jello you will all ask where is so and so?” And, it’s true. Whether it will be due to failing health, memory, energy, or maybe all three, the day will come when I will probably opt for a little tabletop tree and someone else will be the hostess.

I remember when this moment came for my mother. One Thanksgiving as we were cleaning up, she stopped and said, “I don’t think I can do this anymore. At one point today I couldn’t remember what to do next. I couldn’t remember how to make the gravy…” her words faded away as tears threatened. “Do you think one of you girls can take over?” I hugged her and said of course, I would be happy to…and would have done so earlier if I had known. It hadn’t occurred to me to ask, as she seemed to so thoroughly enjoy all that a holiday dinner entailed. Not only was she a superb cook and welcoming of guests, she made it seem utterly painless. One has only to put on a simple dinner for a few, to know that even this takes work to do it well.

As a child, you take all of this for granted. Children are too busy dreaming of turkey and gravy and making up lists for Santa, or fretting about teenage breakups or college and getting jobs, to give much attention to behind the scenes action. Didn’t the long banquet table adorned with the finest dishes and the painstakingly wrapped gifts just appear by themselves? Well, no…but that is how it seems to them.

But children grow up, and then they see. They see that it takes more than a fictional holiday fairy or chubby guy in a suit to make it all happen.

My mother was not an emotionally expressive person. Relationships were difficult for her, often strained and tense for a variety of reasons. The family complaint was that she was a hypocrite, going all Norman Rockwell come November, when where was this person the rest of the year? Where was all the warmth and acceptance and elaborate planning that she threw herself into with such fervor?

The answer, of course, is that it was always there.

It’s just that it went into hiding for much of the rest of the time, I think  due to a crippling mix of depression and martyrdom. Unlike many whose depression skyrockets during the holidays, hers went underground until January. It was as if she then had permission to show us the love she had for us, through the Herculean efforts of cleaning, baking, and enough food for an army.

The truth is, it’s why any of us do what we do at this time of year. Not for Martha Stewart accolades, not to outdo anyone else, or to convince anyone that lookhowgreatIamIcanmakefourpiesfromscratch. We do it out of love for our families, and if we do it right it is without complaint and of free will. We are trying to create magic that escape us at other times of the year, even if the stress of  it all while juggling a job just might erase a few years off one’s life.

Through all my mom’s imperfections, even as a youngster I sensed what November and December meant to her. I couldn’t wait for them either, because it was as close to Norman’s paintings as we came. And I was going to take it, dysfunction and all.

I didn’t thank her nearly enough.

For the piles of homemade treats, the miracle of endless food made in a kitchen the size of a large bathroom, the invitations to those who had nowhere to go, the cleaning and table set up and re-organizing and the list goes on.

But I think from wherever she is, she knows, as she watches me try to make my own magic with the same traditions.

And so it will go, until the day comes when I look up and ask someone else to take the reigns, and the holiday wand. And I will be more than okay with that, because I will probably be tired. Until then…I will clutch my recipe folders and magazine clippings full of snowmen, reindeer and Santa cakes close to my heart. And hope I still have a few year’s worth of yuletide fairy dust to sprinkle.

Happy New Year, friends. And may all of your kitchens be bigger than your bathrooms.





Know Thyself? If you don’t, those silly quizzes won’t help you figure it out…

So today’s post, like the previous one, is accompanied by coffee. Gevalia brand, to be exact. No beer in sight…but there’s a good chance there will be later. I am trying to find the best time of day to squash my procrastinating writing ways once and for all, and it seems morning is better for me. This might mean I will have to try Founder’s breakfast stout after all, which has never sounded appealing until now. I sit in my son’s now unoccupied bedroom, at his old desk, and hope his creative aura still lingers enough to make its way into my words. I will try not to be sad at what is not here anymore, be grateful he is on his way to his own life. Our cat sits on my notebook next to me, covering up my chicken scratch post-its, and any sadness quickly evaporates. Aided by addressing the topic at hand, which is that of those ridiculous internet quizzes.

Yes, that’s right. Of all the things to opine about, I am choosing “what Disney princess are you?” and “what your favorite song says about you” nonsense, because if I see one more of these damned things clogging up my newsfeed I WILL SCREAM.

Mind you, these are only two fairly lame examples. Call me a glutton for punishment, but I checked out what seems to be at least one source of all this braininess: Buzzfeed.  I figured in all fairness I should do a little investigating, see if there was some more substantial stuff out there.

Um…not  so much.

The reigning subject that I discovered was that of all things Taylor Swift. Such as, “Which Taylor Swift album are you?”, “Which Taylor Swift lyric should be on your grave?,” and, “Which Taylor Swift BFF are you?.” Aaggghh!

Now, I understand there is a generational gap here. I find her music, persona, everything about her, incredibly uninteresting and bland. Sure, I no longer writhe in teen angst…but when I did I at least listened to Bruce Springsteen moaning about being down by the loveless river. (Now there’s a songwriter who has tombstone-worthy lyrics…and I wouldn’t need a quiz now or then to tell me which of his albums are “me.” Then again, the album I would’ve picked at seventeen vs. now would be totally different. Hey, this sounds like a quiz in the making! Which Bruce Are You? Jersey Girl era, or Born in the USA?

Wait! The aura may be working, because I have an idea…

Maybe this could be my big writing break. Instead of toiling for hours not getting paid and reaching about ten people, I could try to attract thousands of pubescent followers! I could make money telling them if their favorite toenail color is cornflower blue, it must mean they are a sympathetic friend, a PMS psycho, and that they hate McDonald’s french fries because it makes their skin break out. Oh, and they hate their parents 50% of the time, too. Meadow gold girls would be romantics who want to be swept off their feet by their dream prince, Justin Bieber! In between hating their siblings ALL of the time. Wow…this could be maliciously fun and insanely easy.

I think I might be a bit too churlish for the sweet innocents.

I have sympathy for them, though. I get the appeal of these quizzes for the teen set, because at sixteen you are frantically searching for any shred of identity clue you can find. So how does one explain the explosion of quizzes on Facebook, where the majority of my friends are middle aged? Shouldn’t you kind of know by now if you are a dog or cat person? Acoustic or heavy metal? Missionary or on top? Organizer or hoarder? Founder’s Two-Hearted Ale, or Miller Lite? Bonus points for you if you picked Founder’s….chances are you’re not sure what it is, but you know you don’t like anything that tastes and looks like pee.  So, see? You know more about yourself than you think.

I’m pretty sure my peeps are not doing the Taylor Swift quizzes, but a zillion variations of, “what decade are you really from?, movie and media characters that reveal hidden traits, what city/country/type of house do you really belong in? to, “which pinklady from Grease are you?” Yes, it’s all there, along with results that are teeth-grittingly, annoyingly cliche’, and comments like: “Whaatt? This is sooo not me.”  Followed by a different, more desirable result: “Oh yes, this is sooo me. Spot on.”  Seriously. Some hack is probably looking up horoscopes and old Star magazine issues to make these questions up, in between taking hits off a joint, while fragile self-esteems hang in the balance.

Dear friends, please don’t get offended if you are one of these test-takers. I would be bummed if you unfriended me, I really would. I understand that completing the quizzes is likely “just for fun,” and that you are probably (I hope) not taking it seriously. But I have to say, if you spend more than one millisecond analyzing what the “results” mean…you have problems. In the insecurity realm, and toomuchtimeonyourhands kind of problems.

And now, I am one of those who have too much time on their hands, because I trolled until I found a suitable quiz to take. I surmised I had to, so this little piece would be unbiased. I settled on, “What kind of Sexy are you?”…thinking my husband might get a chuckle or two out of my outcome.

I knew immediately I was still in the inappropriate age category by the second question, “What is your secret fantasy?”

One of the choices was: “getting it on while his parents aren’t looking during their next holiday bash.” Even back in the day when this could have been a feasible option, I wouldn’t have found it a thrill. Fumbling, four minute sex? No thank you. So, I picked mile-high club. This is because I think at some point in the distant past, before I had ever seen that an airplane lavatory has enough space for an eight year old child, I thought it sounded fun. Now when I try to visualize it, I just picture Ebola germs and getting sucked down into that little bowl from the air pressure when you flush. Not exactly setting the mood.

After plodding through more unlikely scenarios, I anxiously awaited my results. Here is what it said: “You are Sweet Sexy! You romantic sentimental, you…you are the TAYLOR SWIFT go-to girl! Own your adorable-ness…it lures them in!” I swear to God, I am not making this up. It had to be the “What bra is your spirit animal?” question that did me in. I picked plain, unexciting white over black lace. I don’t like that scratchy stuff, even though it appears to drive men wild. Guess I have to own my adorable-ness to lure him in…lucky for me he’s an easy (and worthy) catch.

And now, the stress over being compared to the horribly dull Ms. Swift is driving me to crack open that Founder’s. Maybe I can drum up a quiz that could tell you which craft beer drinker you are, even if you aren’t. Now THAT would be something actually worth taking, with a result you could depend on. And trust me, your life would be vastly improved. Stay tuned…









What is really being lost in the “free” U2 album controversy…

So I guess I should have tried to fit coffee in my blog title, along with the pints reference, because I chug caffeine and enjoy it just as much as beer. And I am a coffee snob in much the same manner as beer…meaning, there are some kinds I like MUCH more than others, but am I ever gonna turn it away if its not my preference? Probably not. I have found this out through those nameless coffee packets with machines they leave in hotel rooms. I will usually drink this when I want to be alert at 430 pm, a bad idea on most fronts. It’s pretty much brewed swill, but I choke it down anyway, and wait for the words to flow. Here we go…

You may or may not have heard that recently Apple and the music group U2 collaborated to offer their new album, “Sounds of Innocence,” for free to all ITunes accounts. Of course, technically Apple bought it from U2, so it wasn’t free for them….but whatever they paid is minute in their big picture. So if you had your iphone setting dialed to automatic download, the album appeared with all your other music…no obligations. Sounds good, right?


My first reaction to hearing about this move from U2 was, gee, sales must be bad if an iconic band with years of success has to give their music away. And in general CD sales have hit record lows in recent years. But there is more to the story, as there usually is.

I started to hear about a backlash over this seemingly generous move, that it was an atrocious invasion of privacy and how dare Apple and U2 force this upon people? So I did a little more research into what people were thinking. What I discovered took me by surprise, and it made me very sad. Here are actual comments from various folk across the Internet:

“I’d rather have food poisoning on Christmas than to listen to this,”

“U2 virus, is more like it”

“insipid crap fronted by a washed-out egomaniac”

“a scourge,”

“heavy handed, inappropriate”

“conceited arrogance”

“how do I get this gobshite off my phone?”

“really, really rude”

And, this from a Washington Post staffer: ” like contracting streptococcus,”

Hmmm. To be honest, the media did its usual overplay and gave the negative outcries more attention than to the appreciative audience. I also found many rebuttals suggesting people get over themselves and their fake outrage, that it is a pitiful world in which we love to complain. There were plenty of accusations that anyone bitching about getting something free are just crybaby whiners, that those same invasion- of-privacy protesters post every bowel movement on the anything goes world of Facebook. I tended to side with them, but I will say this: it could have been handled better. We Americans will fight to the death our right to have choice, and to many it seemed like a Big Brother kind of move. The truth is, big corporations like Apple just want it to seem like you have a choice about things, as they pull the strings and watch you move. To believe it is any other way is hopelessly naive.

There has also been some backlash from those in the music industry, and I found their commentary interesting. In an interview, Iggy Pop talked about how musicians who had previously suffered at the hands of record labels and execs who had taken their profits, now were penalized by the digitally empowered public. “We are exchanging the corporate ripoff for the public one, aided by power nerds, computer Putins, who just want to get rich. It has forced the biggest bands (such as U2) to give away music in an effort to stay huge and that kind of sucks.” And I think he is absolutely right, that does suck. And “computer Putins?” What a great line.

What it also does is paint a very sober picture for the average Joe singer/songwriter. He or she is slugging from one honkytonk to another, trying to scrape enough money to pay band mates, pay for studio time, possibly pay a manager for promotions, production, and all that is involved in getting their music out there. It is no cheap endeavor, in fact it runs in the thousands of dollars. No wonder musicians resort to operations such as Kickstarter for funding. It is also no surprise that these same enormously talented people drop out altogether and maybe become useless lawyers. They have to eat, as one songbird with an angelic voice told me.

Bono, in response to the criticism of how his giveaway could affect the rest of the working masses, said no one places more value on music than U2. “We thought this was to be like a gift to ITunes users, who do pay for music…and we were just looking for a way to reach masses of people who had not heard our music.” He also went on to say this was a deeply personal album that felt like giving birth to a baby. And in this aspect, he has a commonality with every songwriter out there…paid or not. This, to me, is what disgusted me the most about all the naysayer muck.

Because writing and performing meaningful songs involves a lot more risk than ringing up groceries at Walmart, mowing 20 lawns a day, or filing paperwork. Musicians are putting themselves out there, on the line, and it doesn’t matter if they are millionaires like U2 or if they’re the coffee shop offering. They are writing about things that matter to them, and they are hoping it will matter to you, too. So, imagine if you were to read comments like “insipid crap” about your life’s work for the past 5 years…with that being a milder comment. I just find it so disheartening. Maybe it’s because I’m the mama bear whose cub is out there, whose words, whose creations are up for crucifixion after months of editing and re-takes. And isn’t just me. I thought his dad was going to punch the judges of a recent songwriting contest in which our cub did not win. He is still growling about the injustice 2 months later.

Of course, U2 has had years to develop a thick skin, and develop it you must to survive in this industry. I also kind of think their next album might have a different delivery.

The takeaway from all this? Here’s what I think:

Nothing is really free…get some perspective on real problems…read fine print in Apple user agreements…and…respect the artist. Buy the music.

And here’s some advice that kind of goes off subject, but is still relevant. For the love of God, pay the cover charge and fill up the tip jar. Listen to original songs from a band with the same fervor you listen to cover songs. Buy their CD for ten bucks, even if you don’t think it will make your playlist. Don’t yak with your neighbor in the audience as someone is on stage, straining to be heard. Because if you don’t…

There’s a touchy bear family lurking nearby you really don’t want to encounter.








dearly beloveds

Tonight’s post is accompanied by an unnamed beer…that is to say, we have a good friend who home brews, and generously shares his labors. His way of keeping track of them is to use barely distinguishable symbols, (usually numbers scrawled in permanent marker), on the bottle cap. Sometimes, it is just a dot, or two dots, and that is the name of that beer (one dot). I have expressed my dislike for this not very creative method, and he nonetheless continues. So my unknown beer’s name at the moment looks like a shadow of the number 19.  And, it is quite drinkable, though I can’t quite categorize it at the moment.

I wrote  something a few years ago, around the time we had to put one of our cats down.  I never did anything with the piece. Didn’t submit it to any publishing format at all, and I don’t know why. I have re-read it and find it is still worthy, though lengthy. i have added some editing updates. I hope that it resonates with readers out there.

My Dearly Beloveds

The woman’s boss had called me to confirm her employee’s arrival would be at 6:00 pm, with my package in hand. Her name would be Maria or Mary, some M name that escaped me. “M” promptly arrived, and I opened the door to a woman whose face had “I’m sorry” stamped upon it. She wore a denim shirt with a pocket patch that read, “Faithful Companion Pet Cremation Services.”  In her arms was a little bag that held a little wooden box, which in turn held the remains of our sweet black kitty, Chewbacca. Or Chewy, for short.  M was kind, and I didn’t envy her the job of simultaneously collecting payment and delivering remains. She left in a graceful manner, while I managed to remain stoic until reading the unforgivably cheesy “Rainbow Bridge Poem,” included in my bag.

For those not in the know, this poem is about meeting up with all the pets you ever loved after you have departed from this earth. A comforting notion, indeed. With a deep sigh I took the box and put it next to two other tins labelled “Buddy” and “Allie.” This little moratorium corner had officially become depressingly crowded.  I gazed upon their shelf and felt deep sadness envelop me, and I lay down on the couch and did not move for what seemed like hours.

During this semi-comatose state,  I thought of the many fur friends that had decorated my life. As a child there was so many assorted guinea pigs, hamsters, dogs, cats…all loved on as they passed through. But the pet memories I probably treasure the most are those I have had since reaching adulthood. Their presence captured who I was in sweet moments of time that would otherwise be forgotten.

So back in the day, there was Buddy, a grey and white tabby I got for my then-boyfriend, now-husband. John was lonely away at Purdue, and he needed some company. Buddy certainly fit the bill, lounging on his owner’s chest and putting his paws up around his neck as they both napped. I would drive for hours from MSU presumably to be reunited with my love, but Buddy probably got scooped up first. He romped around and then would fall into an exhausted slump, as did I. In those eager-to-please days, I was the frisky little kitten always ready to play.


Then there was Allie, our loving, loyal, golden lab mix. Allie represents the misguided, idealistic me who thought nothing of mothering a four year old, a newborn infant, and a 6 week old puppy all at the same time. Allie bore the brunt of my formative parenting and dog training years, which is to say…she survived my innumerable mistakes. She doted on us nonetheless, ever forgiving. We could not have asked for a better family dog, although the UPS man might have argued that point.

Months after saying goodbye to Buddy, we went to the shelter to pick out a new feline. We brought the now arthritic Allie along for a meet and greet in a separate room. We must have handled at least half a dozen cats, my shoulder becoming somewhat shredded as they seized up at the sight of the dog. Then Danny brought in the silky, long-haired black cat who kept making these guttural sounds that were so cute. We set him down and he sauntered over to Allie like he’d known her his whole life, weaving in and out of her legs and rubbing up on her side. No hissing, no biting, just pure, unadulterated pleasantness. Of course, those noises and his long hair necessitated that we name him Chewbacca. It was a seven year love-ever-after affair for the whole family. And now, he was gone.

The question I thought about was, which “me” did Chewy represent?

I think Chewy represented the “finally knowing what really matters me.” The mother of teenage boys me, feeling lost and unneeded.  Well, Chewy needed me. So what if it was to remove mice, poop, and hair balls? The truth is, we all needed him. His soft black belly cradled more than one household head as the tears flowed from one crisis or another. And through it all, he would extend a paw to a face, in assurance that all would be well. How desperately I would need that assurance when unexpectedly and quite painfully, I became the motherless me.

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Over the next few days as I looked around at Chewy’s empty food bowl and empty bed, empty is how I felt too. I had been through this before, none of it a walk in the park. But there was something different this time, and during one of my couch relapses, it hit me. Chewy had died very much like my mom had the year before.

It was kind of eerie, the similarities. Save me the protests that a mother’s death and a pet’s are not the same. I know this. What was getting to me were the parallels of the two losses. From the time I suspected Chewy was ill and through the aftermath, I kept seeing these comparisons to when my mom was sick. This could have been because it hadn’t been that long since she had passed, and I kept searching for commonalities in order to make sense of her death. Give it the proverbial meaning, so to speak. It was a long time before I realized sometimes things don’t make sense, and they never will.

When I sat in front of the vet and felt my face contort helplessly at the words, “Your cat is dying,” it was like a sucker punch of deja’ vu. Let’s see, where have I heard this? Well, it started with the diagnosis process.

Vet: “The blood tests are coming back normal, but he’s a little anemic. I am not sure why he’s not eating. Bring him back next week.”

Her doctor: “Your mom’s tests are all coming back negative. We don’t know what’s wrong. Come back in a week.”

Time confirmed that the dreaded cancer was growing in both of them. Surgery in both cases proved futile and painful, showing the masses had metatisized. And not that much longer came the horrendous decision to end a life. With Chewy, it meant insertion of an IV drip, and with my mom, the removal of one from an arm that had become so bloated as to be unrecognizable. Woven in and out of these surreal moments  came the guilt, threatening to choke me like a weed slithering about a plant. If only I had noticed earlier my fur baby wasn’t eating well…why didn’t I DO something when mom told me she was sleeping 14 hours a day? When preparing a birthday dinner for me was clearly a heroic effort? If only I had taken time out of my useless, silly life to realize they were wasting away before my very eyes…maybe, maybe, maybe, I could have saved them. Of course, in all likelihood I couldn’t have. But rationality does not stop the flow of what ifs.

The helplessness I felt only added to the guilt that was festering. On the day we learned Chewy had numerous tumors, the vet had asked if we wanted to see him before injecting him one last time. We said yes. Danny and I went into the surgical unit and there he was. A lifeless Chewy was  spread-eagled on the operating table, outstretched with a tube stuffed down his tiny throat. It was a jolting picture, and it almost did me in. All the love you gave, and it’s reduced to this, my brain screamed. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry please God let him know. After it was over, I asked the vet to take the apparatus out so that we could say a proper goodbye. I did this more for my heartbroken, trying-to-hold-it-together teenaged son than anything else, but we both were overcome with gut-wrenching sobs. The kind of tears that leave puffy purple streaks all over your face, and you can’t even breathe.

The vet agreed to my request, and we stepped into the hall. When we were ushered in again, I gazed upon his still form and felt utter sorrow pierce me once again. I couldn’t help but notice a tiny circle of blood that was pooling under his side, where the vet had quickly stitched him up for our sake. In a moment’s notice my mind’s eye was back in a hospital bed not so long ago. I squeezed his frail little black paw, the same paw that never again would nudge my husband for a morning pat. I leaned in and whispered that I was sorry. The same words I had whispered to my mom as she was leaking blood too…from the fruitless operation to remove her cancerous kidney.

We were told it was the only way to determine if the cancer had spread. I had railed in private against the procedure, thinking it would kill her because she was so weak. And it helped, of that I am now sure. But we didn’t know what to do, and my father was not one to question doctors. My mom didn’t even really know what she was signing for on the consent form. I will forever regret that I did not challenge the decision to go ahead with the surgery, because it would have been obvious within days she was dying. That did teach me to never back down to someone who thinks they are smarter than you, though. So thanks, Mom.

It wasn’t long before we withdrew life saving measures, as was her wish.

Soon after this, her remaining kidney shut down and left no way for her body to eliminate the fluids that were accumulating. So her skin essentially began weeping them out…mixed with the blood from her weakened incision. I would look at her puffy hands, my eyes overflowing at the same rate she was. I told her over and over again how sorry I was, and hoped she could hear me in the depths of her coma. I could not shake the feeling of playing God and failing miserably at the role. I hated having to play the role again at the foot of a veterinary table, failing once again.

My couch called often during this time, and I went willingly. I had a tailspin of feelings to work through, and it finally dawned on me his death had released much within me. Namely, many things I had put on hold or repressed when Mom was sick. Like Scarlett Ohara, I would just think about that tomorrow. That tomorrow became today when Chewy left us. It just all came to the forefront, and forced me to deal, to move on, to just feel. It was his final gift to me.

My heart has healed of course. It is now four years later, I can think of my mom without instant tears, and there have been a few more pets in between. We got our border collie mix Guinness, who almost died within days of coming home from the shelter from kennel cough, and Huckle, a beautiful quiet grey kitty. Guinness has thrived, but sadly Huckle did not. Literally, a month after we got him home, the vet told us he had kidney disease and would need saline drips. Shades again of my mom. We did the IV’s for 6 months until an emergency vet visit led to a tumor discovery.

I didn’t know if I could do this again. This animal phase must have represented the latent nurse in me. If so, I felt I was a lousy one.

We now have a healthy ginger kitty, and a dog that worships me. I have thought about what is the meaning behind all that I have written here, and it’s this: be more like your pet. Learn from them. Naturally, we can’t all lay in beds for 14 hours, waiting to be fed or walked, but we can do the big stuff. We can love without thinking, without  wondering what we will get in return. We can learn to accept that joy and sorrow co-exist, and go with it anyway. We can look upon our loved ones as they come through the door with the same euphoria our dogs show when they see us.

I’m still waiting to see what the lessons will be with the current animals. The dog basically drives me nuts because he is extremely smart, does not listen, is overprotective, and snarls at bigger dogs than he. We are obedience school drop outs. He is, in fact, worthy of a separate post. Murphy, our ginger, probably deserves one as well. Like us, they are leaving their legacies every day. Maybe one of the most important legacies we can learn from is a line taken from the Rainbow Bridge poem: “…a faithful friend is never forgotten.”

Be that person your dog thinks you are. Be the faithful friend.







How to get out of a comfort zone, part two

So if there’s anywhere that you can get a drink 24/7, it’s the airport.  And that is where I am, presently sipping on a Stone IPA, and it is just right. Not too grape-fruity, which many IPA’s are. Not that I need a drink 24/7, I just find it interesting that it is so readily available in this setting.

I’m sure all the varying  time zones have something to do with this, as well as arriving anal-retentive early and having hours before one’s flight. Not that this is us, mind you. Still, I am thinking the  phrase, “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere ” had to have originated in an airport.

And now to take up where I left off, with my buddy Loren. I neglected to add previously that when his mom was hospitalized, she never left. Loren wasn’t sure exactly how she died, since it seems there were many complications. And I wasn’t going to press.  I was already invading his space, after all. I could already feel my composure slipping when we touched upon this subject.

“My mom died too, 4 years ago. I miss her, just like you probably miss your mom,” I said. He got quiet, and looked away. “Yeah. You know, she tried to do her best. You know something really bad? I had a baby brother, he was a mongoloid, or something, some long name that I forget. Well, my father, he took him after he was like 2 years old, and took him to a home. And my father left him there, and then left us too.”

I stared at him. “Do you mean your brother was put into an institution?” He shook his head. “Naw, not really. People adopted him. But my mom tried to get him back. We never saw him again.” I expressed my sympathy, which he brushed off. ” He stopped talking and looked at me. ” You don’t want to hear all this, do you? I’m tired a talking about myself. ”

I hurried to reassure him. “Please. I really do want to hear. Tell me more.”  And so he started talking again, and I studied him behind my sunglasses. He was neat and clean, comparatively speaking. And he was considerate. He said, “you don’t smoke, do you?” I said no, but I knew his question meant that he did. I told him to go ahead. He said, “But if I do, the wind will blow it right in your face the way you are sitting.” I smiled.  “Loren, I used to tend bar back in the day. Do you know how much second hand smoke I inhaled back then? It’s fine.” He lit a cigarette, but kept it tucked down in the gate so it wouldn’t drift up in my face anyway.

I never asked him about jobs, or his work history. He told me of his own accord, and his voice was tinged with shame.

“I used to do janitor work a while back. Then I got fired because I had to miss work to take care of my mom. Then, I helped a guy deliver newspapers for a long time. He quit doing it so I kinda had to, too. And now, for a while I been having these leg pains. To where they buckle from under me, and I get dizzy, and I just about pass out. Nobody is gonna hire somebody who is always about to pass out.”

Not surprisingly, doctors are not a favored group either. When I asked if he had been seen, he said: “Ah, hell. They did a bunch of tests on me and it didn’t show nothin’. Even a neurologist saw me. He said I had some kinda seizure disorder, but he wasn’t sure. They wanted me to take this one medicine, but I said no. If they can’t tell me what’s wrong with me, why should I take it? And I was afraid of side effects.”

I told him he had a valid point, and I wouldn’t take it either if it couldn’t be explained.  I asked him if he remembered the name, thinking it might be a schizophrenic drug. The homeless are well known for going on and off meds, exacerbating problems. He said he couldn’t remember. We talked about whether he might qualify for disability benefits, and he said some other worker had broached it with him. This process also involves a doctor’s diagnosis, and Loren said since they couldn’t find anything wrong with him, that was that. I am fairly sure there is a lot more to this that he either doesn’t understand or isn’t willing to offer up, so I say nothing and just listen. Who am I to say anything, anyway?

Interspersed in between all these admissions, I asked him about the books laying next to him. He said, “Yeah, that makes the day go faster. But I can’t read very good. In fact, I just learned to read in 2008.” I said, “Wow! That’s great. Did you have somebody help you, or did you teach yourself?”  “Well, kinda both. A lady at St. Vincent’s helped me, and I kinda picked it up little bits here and there. Like I said, I’m slow and some words I don’t get. I did real bad in school, ya see. But mostly I can figure it out. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have my books.” I asked him how he obtained them, and it seems “book people” visit the streets once a month, usually a man and a woman. And they just hand out paperbacks to anyone who wants them. Loren thought they were from a church.

I asked him if the nearby churches helped him, and he said yes. “I take a shower and stuff once a week at St. Vincent’s, and church people run that, I think. They have food, too. Sometimes, I sleep there. I been through some bad stuff in my life, but I do believe in God. When I get to feeling bad, I give it to God. And that helps me.”  I said I was glad for him, and asked him about living in the shelter. He made a tsk tsk sound, shook his head, and said, “Man, I’ll tell you what. I just can’t do it, because they don’t have the same rules for everyone. You know, they let these tattoo-ed guys who are drunk or high stay there, and that’s against the rules, but some of ’em, just look the other way. And me, I don’t do that stuff. I don’t drink or do drugs, and I don’t do tattoos. See?” He held his arms up to me as proof, and not a needle track or trace of ink could be found. I nodded approvingly. He went on: “And one time a lady who was drunk, she started yelling at me, and I’m the one who got kicked out. Can you believe that? So I just don’t stay there no more.”

I agreed that didn’t seem fair, and then he said, “Now, that’s enough about me. Are you from San Diego? What are you doing here, just tryin ‘ to kill time?” I replied I was here because of my husband’s work, and no, I wasn’t just trying to kill time. I said, “I noticed you a couple of times, and I wanted to know a little of your story.” He made a kind of noise. “Well, I don’t have many good stories to tell, as you know. Don’t you want to do a little shopping, or something? There’s a mall just 2 blocks from here. Or if you wanted to see a movie, I could tell you where.” I laughed and said no, I had done enough of those things. I said, “Okay. Fair is fair. What would you like to know about me?” He asked where was I from, and did I have kids. I told him about Michigan, and our bracing winters.  Then I said, “Would you like to see pictures of my sons?” He said he would. So out comes my iPhone and I show him my two red headed jewels. He smiles obligingly and comments of my eldest, “Oh, he looks like you. You have the same smile. The same pretty teeth.” I say thank you, and he looks down. “I don’t have good teeth,” he says casually. I tell him I had a dentist who took care of me when I was growing up, and I had braces to make them straight. I change the subject by asking to see pictures of his mother, if he had any.

Loren brightens up a little, showing me his few crinkled photos in his wallet. I ooh and ahh at what a beautiful young woman his mom was, and I am not lying when I say this. She had lush, dark brown hair and eyes…kind eyes. I blink back tears thinking of her life. No partner, one son taken away, one on the street with her, a daughter that didn’t speak to her, and suffering from what sounded like dementia and God knows what else.  There was one thing she could be proud about though, and there are probably many people, maybe even extremely wealthy, who couldn’t say it about their own families. She had a son who had loved her, who tried to do his best to help her.

This is the human element, the commonality, that gets to me the most. The huddled figures under the bridge or the crazies muttering to themselves, they were all children  upon a time. Were or had been someone’s child, as ill-equipped for parenting as they might have been.  I think about their dreams, the dreams every parent has for their child. And I wonder what went wrong, and I wonder if anyone cares what went wrong.

I tell him then that I like to write, and did he mind if I wrote about him, and took his picture too. He took a few seconds and then said, ” That would be fine.” So iPhone again in hand, I take one with his glasses on. He thought that was too dark. I take another without the glasses, and he says, “yeah, use that one.”

Even among the hints of mental illness, (or should I say, including, because who isn’t on the wacky spectrum in some way?) Loren’s politeness, his awareness of me, and his gratefulness when we parted convinces me more than ever that we are more alike than we are different. He is my brother. And in these moments of time, I’m not going to “change” him. I’m not going to lecture (only once do I get preachy, and that’s when I talk about food), or push my beliefs on him, or cluck cluck about how can anyone live like this. It is what it is, or so it goes. Even if it’s just for this morning, I want him to feel that what he has to say is worth listening to.

The sun is beginning to encroach upon us, and Loren says this is when he usually retreats to the park’s cool shade to read his book. I take this as my cue, and I get up creakily because the metal grate I was sitting on was uncomfortable as hell. And,  nearly 2 hours have flown by. I look at the thin piece of cardboard he is sitting on, the only thing separating him from the hard slab of cement. I say to him, “Loren, before I go, I want you to tell me of some things that you really need out here to make living easier. Physical things, like toothpaste, or whatever. And I want to give you some of these.” He hesitates. “Well, I got enough of that kinda stuff, the mission gives that stuff a lot. But, the one thing that I could really use, if you don’t mind, is some neosporin. Because if I get a cut, I don’t like it to get infected.  Oh, and baby wipes.”

He held out his hands and said, “I don’t like it how my nails get dirty, and those wipes help me keep clean in between showers, see. But, that stuff is awful expensive. Are you sure?” I say, yes I am sure, and thinking of that grey concrete, ask him if he could use a pillow. I panic momentarily, wondering if he said yes, where the hell in downtown San Diego would I find a pillow. The streets are lined with boutiques and restaurants, not exactly a magnet for home furnishings. He shook his head. “Naw, it’d just get dirty. Besides, I just use my roll-up pad or some sweatshirts.” I nod, and say, “Okay, I’ll be back in just a bit. You’ll be here, right?” He said again that usually he went to the park about then, but that he would wait till I got back.

I practically sprint the 2 blocks to where I know there is a CVS store, as well as a used book store. I had asked him what kinds of books he liked, and he said westerns. I pick out 2 that seem to have a simpler story, and take off again. I go fast because I am afraid he will leave, and the sweat is pouring down my back. I needn’t have worried; he is still under the tree. I give him the items and I can tell he is embarrassed. “That was a lot of money,” he says. “But you needed them,” I say, “and here.” I tuck another bill into his hand. This is where I allowed myself to get preachy. ” Now, I want you to get something GOOD to eat. Not fast food.” He started to protest, but I say, “C’mon, treat yourself. Please.” It did occur to me to just ask him if I could take him somewhere, but I knew he wanted to get to his park. He said that maybe he’d have a carne asada later, at a burrito stand down the block. They were cheap, about 6 bucks, and that was his favorite place when he had extra money.

I left him by shaking his hand, telling him how much I had enjoyed his company. I wished him luck and he even gave me his phone number. “A worker gave me this phone to me for when I need to make appointments and stuff. But I can text a little. I’m not too good at it though.” I said I didn’t mind, and he thanked me profusely.  “God bless you,” he said at least twice. Yes, that he has, Loren. More than you can know.

And, this has been a very long post, friends…but I couldn’t make it any shorter. And who knows, there may even be a part three in the future. I hope you have enjoyed meeting Loren as much as I did.  Cheers!

















How to get out of a comfort zone, part one.

So, my drink of choice along with my post for this evening  was a west coast IPA from Greenflash, and it was pretty good. Fittingly named, because I am on the west coast as I write this. Specifically, San Diego, which claims home to 93 craft breweries in San Diego county alone.  I have been here for 4 days, accompanying my husband on a work conference, and it is a sweet place. San Diegans like beer, the beach,  dogs, and they go to mass in flip flops. I have been sitting poolside, reading and relaxing.  What’s not to love?

But yesterday, after mangling my wrist in an uncooperative 100 pound wooden chaise by the pool and almost becoming impaled by a swinging umbrella, I figured I had better not tempt fate again. So I thought I’d venture out and about.

I am a person who when vacationing, and maybe in general, cannot overlook disparity. When lying on the clothing-optional beach in Jamaica, (yes, I did it, much to the delight of my husband), I was thinking about  the miles of slums we passed so that I could lay topless.

In Cancun, I fretted about the non-living wages of the resort workers. They were like colonies of honeybees. Tireless, industriously sweeping non-existent sidewalk dirt, incessantly blending tropical drinks. All for what probably amounted to 2 bucks a day. Notorious over-tipper that I am, my amigos were probably happy to see this gringo coming their way.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise I feel pangs at the sight of the homeless. And there are many here, no doubt in part to the temperate climate. They are laden with their cardboard, overflowing shopping carts and greasy backpacks, all guarded ferociously.  I hate averting my gaze as I walk by. I want to look at them, have conversation with them, and so I decide this morning I will do exactly this. No dumping the money and running, which is what I have done in the past. Even that, some will criticize as dumb. Those people will just use it to get a fix, get drunk, blah blah blah. I don’t think about these things.

Don’t congratulate me just yet though. I have the usual biases. I don’t like bad smells, grody teeth make me cringe, and I am worried about lice. But I decide nonetheless, I want to hear someone’s story. And, I want to write about it, and them. I exit our hotel’s doors, and I don’t have to look far for a candidate. I have passed him guiltily several times over the past days, and I remember his cardboard: “anything will help. God Bless.” He is reading a book cross legged, not stretching his arms out to beg as some do.

I sit and observe for a minute. One, because I am gathering up my nerve, and two, because I am sort of sizing him up for any interactions with passerby. Dozens go by and he remains there, looking down at his book. I start to sweat a little bit. I know enough about the homeless to know that most of them suffer from a mental illness, and what if this guy starts shouting out obscenities at me or something? The introvert in me is not liking this possibility, but I stamp it down and charge ahead.

I stop in front of him and figure I’d sweeten the deal with a deposit in the tin cup.  He said thank you, and I held my hand out and told him my name. He seemed surprised.  I asked him his, and he said, “Loren.” I asked him if I could sit down next to him, and he said, sure. His favored spot was under a sparse little tree, and I sat upon a metal grate to his right. I think he thought I was an outreach worker, at first, because he had been holding papers regarding insurance. He began by saying he was trying to enroll in Obamacare and he didn’t understand what was being asked of him, and this went on for a few minutes. I asked him if he needed help and he said no, he was going to stop at so and so’s and they would help him.

He might have been a little nervous, but if he was, it didn’t last. I didn’t really even ask him much at first, he just started talking. And he was quite lucid, except for just a couple of times. Once, when he was describing where his mother was from.

“Yeah, she was from Conneticut, but before Conneticut was a state. You know, way back then.” I nodded understandingly.

He told me he had been on the streets for awhile, and until a year ago, his mom was with him. Together they had faced many troubles, and he said, “I’m not doing so good alone. ” She became ill, and had to be hospitalized a few weeks later. It appeared they had lived in a trailer park years before this, where he had taken care of her. There was a dispute with the landlord which ended up with their eviction.

Some more not-so-lucid moments:

“I am telling you, that man was poisoning us with stuff you put on the lawn. My mom was sicker than hell, she was coughing and I wasn’t feeling so good either. That man was pure evil, he wanted us out and put us out. I tried calling the cops, I said we was being poisoned, but they wouldn’t help us.”

Loren wasn’t fond of the police. At some point in his dealings with them, he had been put in some type of restraint, and that didn’t go well. He said, “they’re all liars, and they don’t want to help us (homeless). They just shuffle us around and tell us we can’t use the bathrooms of places unless we are customers.”

The theme of people being liars kept resurfacing, as well as being betrayed. It became apparent to me that he (and his mother) suffered from at least a mild type of  paranoia, and I said, “it must be hard to trust people out here. Do you have friends? ” No, he did not. There were a few he said hello to, and that was it. During this exchange, a haggard looking woman came over and asked him for a cigarette. She gave him a quarter for one. I said, is she a friend? No, oh no. Just a trading thing. This was how he saved up quarters for laundry…

And there is more, my friends, which I will finish soon while it’s still fresh. Stay tuned! Cheers!