I’m imagining I’m Christine Blasey Ford. It isn’t hard. I’m around the same age. I have the same hair style in old photos. I went to college with hard partying boys. I’m an east coaster who now lives in Palo Alto as a psychologist. I have my own #metoo moments. I could be her, life blown apart, regretful.
Because I’m not her, I can imagine something else. I want to tell her this. Your honesty, at such severe price to you, was NOT in vain. It didn’t serve the purpose you thought it would, but I have a feeling it will live on in history serving a purpose all its own. A clear, honest, forthright, completelybelievable, story of abuse that was told at great price to you in a way that served no advancement for any part of your life. It stands as the truth even though it did not have the effect you hoped it would have. It serves to tell abused people everywhere (men and women) that to stand and tell the truth, even in vain, is a more worthwhile endeavor than all the distraction and sleight of hand manipulations that those insular beltway types have talked themselves into believing is okay. You did the right thing and nothing and no misguided misanthrope career politician can take that away from you. You calmly and collectedly told your truth and you have no idea how many of us believed you, identified with you, hoped your words would make the difference.
They didn’t in this situation, but in the end, maybe that is not the point (you, and we, SO hoped it would be the point. But it wasn’t). History will show that your terrified willingness to stand up and tell the world what happened to you, and to tell it in such a credible, educated and informed way, is the thing that mattered to the women of the world. Not your fault that those privilege addicted white men were blind to your truth. Not your fault that allegiance to their tribe twisted their brains into outrageously ridiculous rationalizations for supporting such a subpar nominee (if anyone wants to look into the research on tribe, it might help, ever so slightly, to explain this inexplicable behavior).
It was truth.
It IS truth.
Nothing can take that away from you.
As you face a completely unraveled life, as you start to figure out how to recreate everything (we just moved and it almost undid our family – you are facing way more of a re-creation) please hold on to this fact. You are now an unwilling, unlikely, reluctant heroine for so many of us. You will never know the count. Maybe when you wake in the night with your heart racing and your brain fighting against itself to come back to calm (we psychologists have it the worst – we feel like we know how we should do it but life sometimes hands us such a challenge that we can’t, so then we lie there adding even more fuel to the fire, castigating ourselves for not using all our knowledge to help ourselves) you can remember that there are so many of us out here grateful for your courage. We are grateful that you stood there, in the spotlight, knowing the likely futility and backlash, but still willing to take the chance that it could make a difference. We are grateful that someone in that zoo that has become Washington, told a calm, clear truth, voice shaking but sure.
Sometimes the ones who really need to hear this kind of truth aren’t just the judges, the arbiters of the outside world, the voters-in of supreme court justices, but the uncertain, victimized, internal brains. The voice inside our heads that say maybe we were wrong, maybe we were complicit, maybe we shouldn’t have gone to that party, drunk that beer, worn that shirt. Maybe it turns out that we, all of us women who have been in your shoes or close to them, are really the ones who will benefit from your testimony.
Maybe your courage will help us come close to speaking the truth too, in our lives. With way less publicity and drama and consequence but, still, hard to do.
Your testimony was not in vain. Your careful expression of truth was a model of dignified courage and will resonate in many, many lives for years to come.
The outcome is not the proof of truth. The speaking of the truth is the thing. Those who could not hear it were, in my opinion, the victims. The people who could not bring themselves to face the clear and obvious truth you described are narrow and misguided and living in fear, which is its own victimhood. You, Dr. Ford, have risen above victimhood, because you told your truth and owned your life and everyone who has hid in shame for something someone else did wrong got it.
Having posted 34 Ways I Have Failed as a Mother it only feels fair (to my kids and me) to recognize that there are many ways I’ve succeeded as a mother. This is perhaps even more important than acknowledging my failures because in the typhoon season called adolescence it is easy to forget all the years of things we have done well as parents, and things they have done well as kids.
For instance, both of my children have been successfully potty trained for a number of years now (I know! I’m impressive). They have acquired language (lots of it! Some of it colorful), and know how to safely cross the street. They can put themselves to bed! (No long drawn out bedtime ritual, no popping back out of their rooms.) They know their own address, can find their way back home from all sorts of places, know how to unlock the front door (assuming they haven’t lost the keys, but even if they did they know how to access the lock box with the extra keys). It may seem that I am padding my list with these items but they are important, imagine if they couldn’t do them! Imagine still wiping their bottoms. The cost alone of buying star stickers for the potty reward chart all these years could be a tuition payment.
They can both roast a chicken Thomas Keller-style, make spaghetti sauce from scratch, grill a steak and stuff a turkey. My daughter can make beef stroganoff, my son veal picatta. They can clean a bathroom, clean their clothes, clean out the dishwasher, steam clean the carpet (I didn’t say they do these things willingly, or cheerfully but they know how).
My daughter can drive a car! Sure, she had four lessons with a professional but most of the rest of the time it was me in that car with her teaching her when to slow down versus speed up at a yellow light (me and God, I prayed almost continuously but we got that job done).
My son can change a tire (I’m taking credit for this because I encouraged him to take Auto at school). Years ago he and I assembled a Green Machine from a hundred parts so he knows how to follow directions and use tools. He knows how to tolerate frustration because we spent an hour struggling to figure out why we couldn’t get the wheel on only to figure out we were doing it backwards (that also might have been when he picked up some of that colorful language, so I get to take credit even for that).
They know how to ask for help in a store, and from a teacher. They each have done the family grocery shopping by themselves. They can use debit cards and have savings accounts. They know to save at least 10% of every bit of money that comes in and they know about compounding interest. They know another percentage is for sharing. They know I give money to homeless people because I’d rather be scammed once in a while than walk by someone in need.
They know to always stop at a kids’ lemonade stand, and always buy the Girl Scout cookies. They know how to be kind to many people (not each other, the Arabs and the Israelis could learn how to prolong a conflict from these two).
Then there is an entire list of ways in which my kids are each succeeding as people independent of anything I (or their dad) have done. My part in that success is just noticing what they are doing on their own and not screwing it up by trying to get my grubby hands on the controls. My daughter has a wittiness that catches me by surprise so often, it is sophisticated and hysterical and can make me even laugh at myself. My son asks to go on walks with me and explains deep philosophical theories that just astound me. They both are so creative and curious and every age has made them more fascinating to me.
Although there are many things my kids have each learned on their own, the list of things I taught them is long. Every single thing on my list took time and effort from me (and of course, my husband has his own list, I’m not a single parent, except for baseball season, then I’m most definitely a single parent). If, like the scouts, I had a badge for everything I have taught them over the years my sash would be too heavy to wear. Thinking about this is helpful on the days where my failures are so robustly and continuously pointed out. On the very worst day, when my meal is criticized and my movie selection derided and my need for glasses to read anything on my phone is met with contempt, I can watch one of them come out of the bathroom, the sound of a toilet flushing behind them, and congratulate myself on not being needed in that endeavor at all.
Let’s be honest, there are more than 34 but the full summary would require several volumes. However, I can offer a snapshot of my failures, which fall into three categories: Things I Forgot, Things I Did Wrong, and my favorite, My Basic Personal Flaws. Lucky for me I have not one, but two kids who are very committed to helping me correct all these flaws.
Apparently, I forget… a lot. I forget to keep their favorite clothes clean at all times, I forget to sign permission slips that I’ve never even seen, I forget to remind them to take PE clothes even though I will never master Even vs Odd days (oh how I love you, block schedule). I forget that I’m not supposed to sing along to music in front of people. It’s been pointed out that I forget to season the meat, I forget I should learn how to cook ethnic food, I forget to buy good snacks. In fact, I forget to have anything good to eat around here at all.
The trouble my forgetfulness causes is equaled only by the things I actually do wrong. I have incensed my family by falling asleep during movies, failing to telepathically discover I am to buy 36 solo cups for today’s football dinner, by mistakenly purchasing the wrong student card for school events. My lunches are apparently not tasty, no matter that it is challenging to make a lunch for two people whodon’t eat sandwiches and prefer a hot lunch, but not the hot lunch provided by the school, those are disgusting. It turns out that I talk too loudly into my car blue tooth speaker (I’ve been told you can hear it outside the car!). I buy the wrong cereal and the wrong root beer. My salmon selection is all wrong too, I have a knack for buying only the salmon that tastes fishy. I showed up too early for the JV football game. I spoke to my son in public. I pointed out a cute boy to my daughter. Some of these border on the unforgiveable but I’m blessed to have children who have hearts big enough to still eat my boring meals and begrudgingly find a different shirt to wear when the favorite is dirty. They’re the best.
And then there are the personal flaws. I’m so grateful to have these pointed out so I can work on them! Apparently I’m too restrictive, I worry too much, I have way too many rules (more than any other parent!), I am uptight. I’ve been accused of being no fun, of not caring about my children, of not even knowing who they are. It also turns out I care too much about hygiene, I have this weird obsession with chores, and I’m too preoccupied with being on time. My eyesight is a continual annoyance (“you should just get Lasik surgery! Stop always looking for a pair of glasses.”). Until I had children I didn’t even know that I don’t throw a ball well or that I run appallingly slow. All those years of dance class did not pay off, resulting as they did in embarrassing dance moves. Luckily my texting skills are such a source of entertainment.
I know I am a work in progress and I appreciate their moments of patience with me. But I am proud of one thing, I did not fail at producing expressive kids. Future spouses and bosses, you are welcome!
P.S. I’d love to hear other mom fails in the comments!
We are in a period of history in which the meaning of ‘truth’ is being cheapened, but really, the concept of truth has been a source of conflict since people could talk to each other. The world has been telling people who to be forever. Tribes (family, schools, culture) tell you what to do to belong, what you should think and do and be. What they tell you doesn’t always fit with what you know and it can be a lifelong struggle to let that truth out.
Is it amazing how hard it is to get rid of a kitchen table. A long ago Ikea purchase, it was not expensive to begin with. It was well used enough that I painted the top to freshen it up – painted it with black chalk board paint in an uncharacteristic fit of whimsy. It turns out it doesn’t work in our new house.
And so begins the end of life journey of the table (and it’s been a journey!).
I tried to find an organization to donate it to, looked online for a group that would pick it up. Found one, sent a picture, they gave me a quote of $250, which is more than the table cost new.
I called a couple other places, nothing easily arranged.
I finally realized I could fit it in the back of my SUV with all the seats down and drove it to Goodwill.
They didn’t want it.
They gave me address of a Salvation Army in San Jose. Found the time to drive it there.
They didn’t want it.
I spent some time feeling a bit offended that the table we had used daily until now is so decrepit, no one else wants it. Not even the places that take almost anything else. They took my used pillows but not this table?
In for a dime, in for a dollar. I was already half way to the dump so I drove the additional ten more miles with the table banging around in the back of my SUV. I was tired of trying so hard to get rid of this table, I had a million other things to do. But I wanted it gone. So I end up on Guadalupe Mine Road and start winding up a hill. And winding and up and winding and up. Get to the top and wait in line of cars.
Waiting in line to get rid of stuff. We are such an abundant country, we have so much stuff, that we have to wait in line and pay to get rid of it.
I am told it will cost me $55 to drop this table off. It’s a deal. The attendant hands me a new yellow safety vest, it’s required before you step out of your car.
So not only is it this challenging to get rid of something, it is also apparently dangerous.
He says, ‘you can recycle this, it’s all wood. Go to the bottom of the hill, just follow the signs.’
I am relieved that it will be recycled. I had been feeling guilty that it would just get added to the landfill, that something with life left in it will not get life. Guilty that our trash footprint might get bigger.
I pull away.
Just dirt roads, winding around. No actual dump to be seen anywhere either. Just hills and dusty roads.
I follow them clear to bottom. Nothing here.
I follow the road back up and down another hill. Nothing there.
I am laughing (while noticing how dusty my car is now, a definite car wash in our future). What force of nature will not allow me to release this table?
I almost hit a family of deer. Deer at the dump? What planet have I landed on? This place is isolated and eerie and looks like a place you could dump a body, not a table.
I finally go back up the hill and find the recycling center (still no signs but the massive pile of wood remnants clues me in).
I see a van with two men in it, also in spanking brand new neon vests. I get out and say ‘this is recycling?’
They nod and gesture to the pile.
I unload the chairs first and set them by the pile. One of the men runs over and picks it up. “This is good!” he says. I can tell he wants it, despite all the signs posted everywhere saying ‘No scavenging or dump privileges revoked.’ (Now there’s a punishment.)
Then he sees the table come out and gets even more excited. I see him eyeing his van, it would definitely fit. He exchanges a look with his buddy. They look around. We are the only people in sight. I secretly hope that they take the table and chairs and give them more life as a table and chairs, not just firewood. I’m grateful someone still sees them as useful, feel proud for them after their humiliation at the hands of both Goodwill and the Salvation Army.
I give the guy the nod and he gives me the two fingered peace sign.
I drive away, hopeful that the exchange meant what I think it meant, that he will take the table and chairs. And yet, the image of the table and chairs, still intact, next to a pile of nothing intact leaves me sad.
I feel emotional and have to hunt around in my head to find out why. I’ve been trying for weeks to get rid of that table. I’ve driven that table too many miles already and want it gone. It doesn’t fit anywhere in our house and I’m anxious to get all the extra stuff out so that the house feels organized and clean and soothing. There is so much extra stuff, too many books and boxes and bathroom supplies and Tupperware containers. Our old life had too much in it. I’m looking forward to simplifying and streamlining and hanging onto only the things we use and need.
But as I wind down the hill the pictures of our family at that table start floating by. How I chose it for it’s exact fit in our old kitchen. How I strapped booster seats to the chairs for the kids when they were little. How I painted the top with black chalk board paint so they could draw on it. Watching them do homework on it, eating countless dinners on it. There were squabbles across that table, and secrets told and manners learned (hopefully). There was artwork composed and milkshakes spilled and board games played until their explosive ends (our family is competitive).
That table represents a big chunk of our lives as a family, it was the place we circled around and fed our bodies and fed our souls. And of course we have a table in the new house and of course we can do those things in other places, but it was this table that holds all the history.
And I just left it at the dump. It feels wrong, like I abandoned a family pet.
I resist the urge to turn around and go rescue it. It’s time with us has passed.
But it stays with me, this melancholy that seems greater than the loss of a table. In looking for the picture to go with the story I end up going through hundreds of pictures from when my kids were little and I end up pinned to my chair with an unnerving wistfulness. I haven’t spent a lot of time looking backwards as a parent. Too much focus on the demands of the now, too much worry about the near and far future. But looking at these pictures of my little ones unsettles me. Usually when I see old pictures of them I am so happy. They are so cute! Look at the 18 month old swinging a bat at the ball on a tee. Look at the one year old smashing cake in her face. But now, maybe it is the emotional upheaval of a move, maybe it is having two kids in high school, maybe it is menopausal hormones, but now the looking backwards is swamping me with nostalgia.
Two days later, I figure out why.
It is more regret than nostalgia. More of a regret that I didn’t fully live each of those moments with my kids. Oh sure, sometimes I did. And I enjoyed them, no doubt. But there were many times I was too consumed with taking care of them. Consumed with their schedules and immunizations and play groups and sports sign ups and keeping them from running into the street.
If I could go back I would really relax into more of the moments. I would truly be present. Clichéd but true, that living in the present moment is a richness beyond measure. I’m sad that I missed so many opportunities to just relax into those moments with them. Sit and watch them color instead of being glad they were entertained while I made dinner. Sit in the grass and watch them scrawling chalk designs on the driveway instead of cleaning the garage while I kept an eye on them (that one really gets me, that garage never got cleaned up!). Give myself over to the moments more often.
The irony is not lost on me. In this very moment, I’m doing it again, longing for the past instead of living in this moment.
And there are so many riches to this present. Watching movies together, walking/running together, laughing at dinner together. Riding in the car as my daughter drives. Really listening as my son tells me a story about school.
The gift of the table is that I am recommitted to living these moments. A lovely legacy given that these moments are with teenagers who are bringing their own hormonal contributions to the house (stomp! door slam! sullen silence!). But I want this! I want all the intensity, I want to live the moments that are up but I also want to live the moments that are down. Not desperately try to escape the lows but live them all together. Be present in more of the moments I have left in these last years before college takes them away.
So the table lives on as a reminder. And in my optimistic moments, I’m convinced those guys looked around, saw no one could see them, and in a blink loaded up the table and chairs before taking off in a cloud of dust. In my optimistic moments, I’m sure the table lives on.
Noun: any place of residence or refuge, a heavenly home
Nautical Adverb: into the position desired; perfectly or the greatest possible extent: sails sheeted home
We are getting ready to move and it is making me think a lot about the meaning of “home.” For 18 years we have had a wonderful life in this home, in this town. This is where my children were born, this is the yard where they stumbled around learning to walk, that is the tree I hung a wiffle ball from so my son could take his first swings with a little plastic bat. Here is the stepping stone they made with ‘jewel’ stones, the Japanese maple tree that has grown at the same rate they did, the one the plastic porpoise swing hung from when my daughter still allowed me to put a bow in her hair (I didn’t know yet that she is not the bow type).
This is the pool that went from floaties to floats to canon ball contests off the diving board, to “Mom can you just stay in the house while we’re out here?”
This is the house where sports started with soccer and t-ball and moved through basketball, baseball, softball, flag football, cross country, lacrosse, track. I think the equipment from every single sports season is still in our garage, waiting for me to purge and redistribute it.
This is the house that welcomed two children, two dogs, a series of turtles, a disappearing crayfish. A blur of playdates, a whirl of book clubs, family BBQ’s, a carousel of babysitters. Where we went from bubblegum flavored toothpaste to Scope. From Leapfrog to Playstation to Xbox 1. From Pat the Bunny to The Hunger Games.
This is a house that was made into a home.
The feeling of home, it is so visceral, we feel it in our very bodies. Home is the same thing as ease, as comfort. Feeling ‘at home’ somewhere is the ultimate compliment. Where you can be your real self, not the curated one you show the world. Where you can relax your vigilance, that animal instinct to scan for danger, enough to rest, to sleep even.
When hard things happen, when the day is going badly, you just want to be home. You go away and feel homesick, literally sick in your body to not have the familiar, the comfortable. After a brutal trip to Disneyland years ago (we all got so sick we renamed our room ‘the toxic cave’) all I wanted was to be home. I literally knelt down and kissed our none-too-clean carpet when we finally made it back.
Home is where we make our mess, untidy ourselves. Where the bra comes off, the sweats come on, the fuzzy blanket waits on the couch. Where you can wake up with smelly breath and messy hair and still walk around.
Home is where Mom’s arms wait when you didn’t make the team. Where Dad’s humor cuts away some of the sting of a breakup. Where your dog nudges you with his snout for the ten thousandth time, ready for a pet on the head that turns out to soothe you even more than him.
Home is where the rituals happen, the repetitive actions that weave a group of people into a family. Every year the red wreaths on the front door signal Christmas. The pineapple cake with the cream cheese icing means it’s a birthday. Every morning the smell of coffee and the ‘time to wake up’ whispered, then yelled, into bedrooms. The calm and not so calm reminders to ‘put your stuff away.’ The ‘I love you’ to each as they exit every morning, regardless of the level of grumpiness.
All the things that say ‘a family lives here,’ in all its messiness and love.
Because home can be a crucible, too. It is the hot arena where siblings battle and parents disagree and homework nightmares last deep into the night. Where hopefully the survival of the battle, the disagreement, the homework, ultimately prepares you for the outside world instead of weakening you. Where you learn to forgive, over and over, because we feel most betrayed when the wound comes from inside the house.
So what does it mean to move?
Is it even possible to make a new place feel like home?
My son walked in our new place (we are lucky enough to have the new place to visit before we leave our current home) and said “I don’t like the smell here, it doesn’t smell like home.”
It didn’t smell bad, it just didn’t smell familiar.
I understood in an instant what he meant.
Every home has its own smell. And the sense of smell is so linked to emotion, to memory. When we were kids my brother used to take his comforter to our grandmother’s house and leave it so that it would absorb the smell of her house. And he could then take it home and feel wrapped in my grandmother’s love, sleep with that smell all around him.
So I told my son, “I can make this homey.” That once we cooked there and used our soaps and cleansers there and sprayed our hair products there and used our laundry detergent that it would start to smell like home. That once our favorite stuff was there, the books, the pictures, the Xbox, it would feel more familiar.
And that I know the other touches that make a house feel like a home.
Home is where someone paid attention to what you need and what you like. The bubblegum flavored toothpaste, the cupboard of school supplies with the exact kind of book cover your middle school requires, the original flavored goldfish. And where someone cared about the house itself. Had an eye for the accented throw pillows, the arrangement of candles on the dining room table, the whimsical cookie jar. The lavender pump hand soap, the bedside lamp placed to throw just the right light to read a book in bed. The line of framed family photos up the staircase wall. These are the details that bring a house to life because they come from someone caring.
I love this house, I love the memories that were made here, but I also know that while this house has been home, it is not the physical structure that made it home. The love and fighting and forgiving and toothpaste preferences are what made it home, and we can take that show on the road.
People often say “Rest In Peace” when a loved one dies but that’s not how I’m thinking of Homer. He’s at peace but he got enough of resting in his last couple of weeks. So instead of Resting in Peace I’m sure he is Frolicking In Joy, chasing baseballs and snitching tacos off the counters of heaven, delighted at the return to vigorous activity.
We had many great moments with Homer, some of the most poignant ones within the past week. I know he felt loved by my almost constant presence, by sitting outside together, by sitting in the hospital together, by me sleeping beside him the last two nights.
Here is Homer, resting against me as I read the hundreds of beautiful stories people posted about their own beloved pets in response to my Loving Homer blog piece. Story after story of love and pain and healing enough to do it all over again. Picture after picture of adorable dogs and horses and cats. Reading the stories was so soothing to my raw heart, knowing how many people have felt exactly like I feel, and have not regretted it for a moment. Social media can be criticized for being a time suck or often superficial but one of its great uses is connection. To find other people in a similar situation, to feel not alone in your experience, to feel close to and understood by other people, this is technology at its best.
Homer got extraordinary care, IV’s of fluid, medications to combat his GI bleed, three infusions of blood, three generous dogs and their owners (two of whom work at the hospital) doing their best to keep him going.
In the end, it wasn’t enough.
Who am I to decide how long a good life is? Maybe he lived the exact right amount of time. Maybe this was a perfect life for him, rescued from Taiwan, four years with a family who loved him. Somehow we all get an idea of what is enough of a life. But who is to say long is better? Maybe a well lived shorter life can be perfect.
Each person in our family dealt differently with saying goodbye to Homer. There is not one right way to deal with a pet at the end of life and my husband and I wanted to make sure our children each did what was comfortable for him/herself.
Eventually it was just me sitting with Homer for that final step in the journey.
I sat with Homer’s head in my lap as Dr. Nurre injected first the anesthesia to make him sleepy, then the euthanasia meds. He slid his stethoscope under Homers chest and we sat in silence, tears running down my face, until he softly said, “his heart has stopped.”
And then I sat alone with Homer until I knew it was really just the form of Homer left, knew that Homer’s soul was not in this body anymore. I’m typing this through blurry eyes because I am still crying.
But I know this. Homer doesn’t have to be here for my love to go on. He was here and he was loved and that doesn’t have to end. Even though he is not actually lying beside me while I type anymore, I will never stop loving Homer.
I just stress-ate a cold McDonald’s hashbrown. I wasn’t hungry and it didn’t help with the stress but then again, it didn’t taste awful either. I’m headed to the Vet hospital to visit my dog Homer who has been admitted because the chemo that so quickly shrunk his massive tumor has wiped him out and he is not eating or drinking or even moving around very well. When a ten year old Golden Retriever is too sick to retrieve it is time for lots of loving care and that is exactly what Homer is getting.
I am worried and I am sad, thinking about whether Homer is in the home stretch. But I am also feeling a sense of amazement and love because I’ve been spending a lot of time at an extraordinary place, East Bay Veterinarian Specialist and Emergency, and have witnessed love in all its rawness.
On the first day I arrived with Homer, I looked around the waiting room and saw a mix of people and pets. Dogs and cats and young people and old people and prim ladies and tattooed teenagers.
The owners of hurt pets are chatty, they connect with each other, recognizing fellow tribe members. “What’s his name?” “What’s going on with him?” Easy trading of stories and sympathy. People sitting in this waiting room are all there because they care about their animal and can recognize other people who feel the same way.
Everyone in this waiting room has a pet who is hurting in some way and everyone here has opened their heart, made themselves vulnerable to pain. Because, unless your pet is a tortoise, your pet is going to die before you. These people know this and yet they have opened their hearts anyway. These are the brave ones, the ones who are sharing their hearts knowing those hearts will be broken. These are the people who are brave enough to LOVE. I look around and I realize, this whole room is filled with love. This room is filled with people who have said, screw it, I’m putting my heart out there onto this little being who can’t even talk to me but who I feel so connected with I’m going to empty my bank account to get another month with him.
[The only other time I felt this kind of easy connection was the first time I went to a writers’ convention and was stunned to find so many other cranky creative introverts all forced out of our holes by the common bond of this agonized path called writing.]
My daughter, watching me cry about our dog who might be at the end of his life, said, “is it worth it?” And she meant that in a completely honest and curious way. She was aware that after losing our last dog, Beau, she didn’t quiet open her heart as much to Homer. She was sad, a combination of empathy for my sadness and a regret that she didn’t love this dog more. Her question was actually quite profound.
What she was really asking was, “is love worth it?”
And through my tears I said, “for me, absolutely.”
But I also told her it is a question that each person has to answer for him/herself. It is not something anyone else can answer for you.
Only you know the stretchiness of your heart, how much pain it can take.
But pet owners, these brave people, sitting around the waiting room with their three legged dogs and angry shaved down cats, they’ve answered that question.
These are my people, willing to cry as we mop up the pee of an incontinent dog, willing to get blood on the car seats as we drive to the vet, willing to empty the bank account, willing to weave that dog into our heart knowing it will unravel that heart when it when it goes.
And when the treatments have all been given and the beloved pet is gone and our trampled hearts have somehow smushed themselves back into a sort of heart shape, we do it all over again.
We sign up all over for a new dog, knowing we will watch the same play, the same ending, the same unraveling of our heart.
Because the gift of loving that deeply is worth it. That wagging tail when you walk in the door, that head on your knee on a mundane TV watching Thursday night, that jingle of dog tags in a dark middle of the night that reminds you that you are not alone.
And isn’t that what love is for? Knowing you are not alone.
It is perhaps a larger question, love. Not just love of a pet but love generally. Who among us truly opens his heart to love? Who is brave enough to open it knowing it will be stepped on and yet knowing it is really the only reason we are here. To take the chance and connect.
We are not here to tiptoe carefully to the grave. We are here to open our hearts, to love and be hurt and love again and nothing makes that more apparent than loving a pet.
I’ve been at the hospital five days in a row, both in the waiting room and then back in the treatment area and here is just a sample of what I’ve seen.
A couple with two young boys and big chocolate lab blew in the door. The boys were small enough that their baseball uniforms were baggy and their hats too big. One of the boys had a bright green cast on his arm. The dog had apparently just eaten rat poison and the tech immediately took the leash and headed back into the treatment area. The mom turned around, harried but laughing and, looking at the boy with the casted arm said, “we are an accident prone family!” That family, like so many of us, had enough love for kids and their dog. There is always enough love.
I watched an older man come in and say to the receptionist, “I’m here to pick up Missy.” The young woman behind the desk said, “of course,” very sweetly and then walked around from behind the desk/counter and handed him a small wooden box with a design or picture of some sort on top. He took it in both hands and kind of bowed his head towards it and said, “oh, it’s pretty.” And she nodded, “yes,” and then he turned and walked out slowly, with great dignity, with the ashes of his pet.
And I thought of the young family, who seemed at the beginning of it all (the lab looked just out of puppyhood) and the older man, whose pet was at the end of it all, and it was the whole circle of life, right in front of me. It made my place in that circle seemed okay, just part of what life is.
Then there is the staff member whose own dog donated blood for my dog’s blood transfusion. She tells me this as she expertly loads up another syringe to be pushed into the IV Homer is getting. Homer now has a bit of Hank in him and the tears that seem permanently at the edge of my eye start falling, again. I’m overwhelmed with the generosity of a dog owner who would give her own dog’s blood to a hurting animal. I never even knew this was a thing, blood donation from other dogs.
And the nurse/tech who came in and cheerfully cleaned Homer’s behind when he couldn’t control his poop. In such a friendly way she told me how great it is that they have waterless shampoo, as she carefully cleaned each bit of poop out of Homer’s fluffy tail (and then they wrapped his tail so it wouldn’t be a poop collector, and shaved around his behind to make it easier to keep clean. So thoughtful this group).
And the nurse/tech who brought a selection of foods to see if we could tempt Homer to eat (he didn’t), and then offered me water, coffee, Kleenex, and Purell (the Purell battled with the Kleenex for most favored status, lots of crying, but sitting on the floor with an oozing, pooping dog, also lots of germs).
Eventually Homer is kept in the x-ray room, off the big central treatment area and as I sit with him I have a chance to observe the goings on. I am so struck by the loving professionalism of the entire crew (and there seem to be so many of them! At least 15 on a shift that I could count). They are relentlessly kind and upbeat. As they expertly take off casts and clean out wounds they use calm and friendly tones. They aren’t just calming the animals, they are calming me too.
I’m still worried and sad but it feels like a place I can be worried and sad in. Other people are taking care of Homer, my job is to sit with him and let him know he is loved and not alone. To rub his head and tell him we have loved every minute of his time with us. To thank him for his companionship, the way he moved room to room with me every day when I went about my work at home. After the kids are off to school I head upstairs to write at the computer and Homer would plop himself beside me and stay there until the end of my work was signaled by the turning off of the lamps. Only when he heard the clicks would he stretch himself and get up and follow me to the next home work location. At night Homer would insert himself into even the smallest spot on the couch, nudging his way between anyone sitting there, confident he belonged right in the middle of the family.
Homer is the most social dog, you can tell he believes his place is in the middle of the pack. When we have guests and people are congregated in the kitchen, Homer splays himself out right in the middle of the floor, letting people step over or around him, not moving no matter how crowded the kitchen gets.
So I thank Homer for all his love and his quirks and tell him it is okay to rest. His breathing gets slower and more regular, he is asleep. And then I shift my legs (the floor is hard but the lovely tech/nurses have brought me a soft blanket to sit on) and Homer’s eyes pop open. His puts his paw up on my leg, like a hug, like holding hands. He leaves it there and drifts back to sleep.
In this moment life has become very simple. There is no thinking about dinner or carpool or cleaning or even writing, this moment has distilled down to me and a dog.
We, the enlightened, know. We know that chasing perfection is a recipe for stress at any time, but a guaranteed killer during the holidays. Right around Thanksgiving we take a deep breath, stare ahead at the holiday season and vow that this year it will be different. We will stay in the moment and appreciate the true meaning of the season. We won’t run desperately from computer to brick and mortar and back to find the perfect presents at rock bottom prices. We will be joyful and relaxed.
What’s the saying, though? ‘We all drift in and out of enlightenment.’ And never more than when there are so many demands on our attention. Delightful Christmas parties with people we truly enjoy. Church live nativity scenes and cookie exchanges and putting up the tree. The work holiday party, the caroling, the teacher gifts. The enlightenment drifts away and we narrow our eyes at the To Do list. We can relax when it’s done! Yes! Let’s get it all done a week early this year and then just revel in the season.
And like that, the perfection addiction creeps back in.
But Life will have no such perfection, no, She will make sure our hubris is punished.
She will remind us there is no such thing as perfection.
Just look in the front yard where twinkle lights are slowly dying on the two reindeer. Keep meaning to get out there to fix them, but never quite make it. Remain bothered by it, though.
And there’s no perfection to be had when your combined oven and microwave unit dies Dec 5. (No oven. No microwave. Process that.) Not when the home warranty company takes a full month and three sets of technicians to decide it should be replaced (it was Jan 8 before it was replaced). So you decide to cook the $200 prime rib in a plug-in roaster. And maybe test out two of the seven ribs a couple of days before, which leads you to discover the roaster takes four times as long to cook the roast. So you do the math and you wake up at 3:00 a.m. Christmas morning to put the roast in so that it will be done at 3:00 p.m. and then you go back to sleep.
At 8:00 a.m., right before letting the kids come pounding down the stairs in search of their gifts you check the roast and find that it’s done. More than done. For a middle of medium rare the temperature should read 130 but it reads 180. That done. Seven hours early.
You beg the kids for five minutes to go meditate and calm your agitated brain before they tear into their gifts. Must return to the state of mind where you remember the real reason for Christmas. The birth of Christ, time together with family, a family who is very accepting and will not be angry at all about the meat. Breathe in and out, calm the blood pressure, try not to focus on the fact that you just ruined five of the seven ribs. Remember that you have nice rare leftovers from the tester ribs. Remember that your identity is not defined by cooking prime rib in a roaster. Banish the thoughts of how much money the roast cost.
Notice again that the two reindeer in the front yard are only partially lit. Consider going out to fix them but decide to focus on the excitement of kids getting presents.
Enjoy the day, the abundance, the warmth of time together with grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles. Realize that you have room for sampling the twelve desserts since you didn’t fill up on prime rib. Realize most of the people in attendance like well done meat (or are very good actors).
Take the day after Christmas to clean up the house and pack for Tahoe. Ignore the bickering of kids, ignore your outrage that they aren’t perfect angels after so much money was just spent on them. Pretend your house isn’t drowning in stuff. Old stuff, new stuff, boxes and wrapping from the new stuff, desserts, leftover prime rib, bags of rolls, an explosion of ski wear.
Worry about Tahoe – there isn’t much snow. Can we even ski? Are we wasting our ski budget? Decide it is the only time the whole family can go and go anyway.
In Tahoe find enough snow, sort of.
Come down with bronchitis and spend the second night shivering on the couch, unable to get warm despite a big puffy jacket, blankets and a fire.
Push on the next day to ski with daughter right up until she falls and concusses herself. Ride down the mountain with the ski patrol and find the medical building. Remind self that you are too tired to ski anyway. Banish thoughts of how much you just spent on lift tickets and rentals for one and a half runs.
Decide to go home early and rearrange car to ride in back with suffering daughter. Try not to cough on her too much, try to keep shivers to a minimum. Reassure her she won’t die if she falls asleep (thanks ski patrol guy for mentioning that, that’s not even a thing anymore, is it?).
Take a long detour off of highway to find Chick Filet for the boy. Calm husband with reassurances we are not almost to Fresno but mere miles from route 80.
Feel the tension in the car of four worn out people, a mom who has given up on perfection but still feels the disappointment of not feeling our family has really connected with each other this holiday. A constantly hungry son, a work preoccupied dad, an exhausted bronchitis-enduring mom, a concussed daughter. Can we just get home already?
Where’s the Christmas magic? It seems like just enduring one not-great thing after another.
And then the tech-savvy dad puts an interview with Kevin Hart on his phone, running it through the speakers in the car. And we all laugh. And then he puts on one of his favorite comedians, Gary Gulman. And we all laugh some more. Improbably, the magic arrives and it is in the word ‘all.’
In a family with two teenagers, an often rule-bound mom and a dad in a new time-consuming job there hasn’t been much ‘all’ lately. Someone is always irritated with someone else, it seems.
We laughed the whole way home, listening to one Gary Gulman recording after another, we laughed together. All my rushing around and planning and organizing and paying for stuff is not the thing that brought us together this holiday season. Oh how I like to believe I am the one who drives the fun and energy of our family. And yet it was the unplanned, by chance playing of something my husband enjoys that was the magic. So perhaps the great enlightenment of the holiday for me was realizing that there are forces beyond me that bring joy to our family, that I can just relax and do my part and sometimes that will be the important part and sometimes it won’t.
And when we pulled into the dark driveway I saw the half lit reindeer but even missing part of the lights you could make out the full shape of the reindeer, and I realized that when you have laughter together, an imperfectly lit life is enough.
The first car my husband Dave bought was a 1991 Honda Accord, a proud purchase of a new car to accompany a proud new job as an assistant baseball coach at Stanford. Over the years the car took him to work at Stanford, and then to work at Pepperdine as head assistant, and then for 18 years to work at UC Berkeley as head coach. At some point early in the Cal years another car was added to the family and he rotated between the new car and the Honda. There were increasingly longer spans of time when the Honda was more of a driveway adornment than a mode of transportation. And then he’d drive it to work to keep it running, the team would win, and he’d keep driving it to keep the streak alive.
That kind of superstitious behavior happened during one of the most dramatic coaching years in his life, when the Cal athletic department announced they were dropping five sports, one of which was baseball. It was announced in the fall of 2010 that after the current year, baseball would no longer exist at Cal. This was a sport with a long tradition at Cal, it started in 1892, and in 1947 the Cal baseball team won the very first baseball national championship against Yale, with a little known player named George Bush senior playing for Yale. During that supposed last season Dave joked that he was simultaneously trying to ‘run a program, save a program, and dismantle a program.’ Even as he was training players in hitting and pitching and fielding he was sending them out on recruiting trips to other schools. He wanted to make sure each one of them had a place to land but he did joke that ‘it’s like letting my wife date.’
The players who stuck around (and all but 3 did) had a fierce sense of purpose. They were going to go out in a blaze of glory. Part way through that season Dave drove the Honda to work. They won. He kept driving it. They kept winning. The car became a superstitious talisman. A symbol of not quitting, ever. Keep doing the thing that got you here, even when people say ‘here’ won’t exist after June. Keep driving the thing that got you here, even though it has over 200,000 miles on it. Sometimes that is all you have to offer when life gets challenging. Keep going. Keep doing what you know to do, sometimes just a minute at a time.
Ultimately, passionate alumni raised 10 million dollars in a matter of weeks to save the program and the baseball team played their hearts out clear to the College World Series. Dave drove his Honda to campus, flew to Omaha and was driven to TD Ameritrade park on plush buses with a police escort and cheering crowds along the way. To the surprise of nobody but Dave, while in Omaha Dave was named the 2011 National Coach of the Year. The team took a private jet back to Berkeley where the newly anointed Coach of the Year climbed in his battered Honda and drove home, the same person he was before the College World Series.
Sometimes a car is just a car, just a means of getting from point A to point B. But sometimes a car can take on greater meaning and I suspect the Honda has been this for Dave. It is a symbol of him. It is a well built, long lasting, solid machine. It has been kept in good condition by his mechanic father. It is workman-like, as is Dave, as are the family from which he comes. Like its owner, it is modest, it does not ask for attention, it just accumulates miles and continues to do its job without fanfare.
It is perhaps an emblem of level of expectations or entitlement. Dave has never acted entitled, not one minute in the 22 years I’ve known him. He expects to work hard for everything. He does work hard for everything. Even for the things that come easy, he expects to keep working hard (which is the recipe for success if you ask Carol Dweck, she of the ‘Growth Mindset’ theories). He is a masterful coach, he is a skilled leader, he is an almost effortless speaker, so it is not that he lacks confidence, but he has never strayed far from the humble man who drives an old Accord.
And here comes his opinionated wife, someone a little more comfortable with spending (okay, a lot more comfortable with spending). Someone not attached to cars (but definitely attached to him, and wanting him to drive safely). I must have seemed insensitive to him, not respectful of what the car means. Too eager to toss out the old. For years I’ve tried to get rid of the Honda. It seems too old and rickety to me (there are no airbags, for one) but he resists. The car is in its 26th year of life, literally twice as old as our son. What will be the deciding point? What will happen for him to let go of the car? It isn’t going to be that it stops working, his dad has made sure of that. Peeling paint off the top? Nope, been like that for a couple of years. Hardened crusty upholstery? Nope. Faded everything? Nope. Busted radio? Nope. Been replaced at least four times over the years.
So many things in life come and go. Players, in the natural order come and go. Assistants come and go. Jobs come and go. And the Honda has been there, all along, longer even than me, his wife. Maybe it is hard for him to think of it as something that comes and goes. It came, and now the ‘go’ part, well, he’s resisting it.
But lately, the car seems to have gone downhill, like a person at the end of life ready to transition. Even Dave agrees it has deteriorated rapidly in the past couple of months. To me, it looks like a car that has fulfilled its mission and is waiting for permission to be done.
In June Dave was hired as the new head baseball coach at Stanford. In all the excitement of the new job his nice car, the one only five years old, picks up an odd sound in the engine so his dad takes it to work on it. Just like that, he is back to driving the Honda. And there it is. Full circle. From a young assistant coach at Stanford with his proud new car, to a not as young head coach with his loyal old car. The Honda has brought him the whole way around. It has brought him home and it is proud and now it can rest.