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.
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.
It turns out I have more to say about Mazi. I thought I had done my bit with my first blog post trying to capture the experience of painting ‘Mazi’ on the town rock and then going on about the business of private grieving, but it isn’t over. I can’t stop thinking about him and the fact that he is gone from this form of interaction (I suspect there are other forms, beyond this earthly existence, but not knowing for sure I feel sad right now).
I don’t what the exact definition of something online going ‘viral’ is, but I know that my blog post about Mazi has gotten way more traffic than I usually get.
It has been read over 1600 times.
It has been read in 32 countries.
I know this is not due to my writing skill because up until the Mazi post my readers were in the high single digits at most (I was so under the radar my own mother didn’t know I had a blog).
Mazi knew a lot of people.
The 14th Dalai Lama said, “One family can influence another, then another, then ten, one hundred, one thousand more, and the whole of society will benefit.” It is as if he was talking about Mazi Maghsoodnia. The family he and Lida created is the best way to understand what a great man he was. They are his legacy, are loving and generous and full of life and fun and dancing, just like their dad. Mazi greeted everyone with a hug and a smile that made you know the world was going to be okay and his family is doing the same thing.
In the midst of the most painful experience of their lives they are doing this.
This family influence, this love, is literally spread throughout the world – I know this when I look at the map of where the blog piece was read. Everywhere from Iceland to Kenya to the Phillipines there are people who shine brighter from knowing Mazi.
I have had people contact me to ask where the rock is so they can go see it. I got a message from one person who reported her family ate dinner at one of the restaurants below the hill so that they could look up at Mazi on the rock while they ate.
It is as if we all want to be close to him again and are using the rock as a proxy.
Eventually someone will paint their own message on that rock and I’m already angry at them. Angry at those self-centered insensitive teenagers (see that? They don’t even know who they are yet and I have already made them villains. Excuse my reaction to teenagers. I have one. A new one. And maybe like baby rattlesnakes the new ones have the most venom?).
I started planning another bit of midnight mischief to take up a little sign to post by the rock. Something explaining who Mazi is and asking these future delinquents to paint the smaller rock to the left, the one we left alone (you can only carry so much paint up those hills). I keep driving past the rock to make sure the bright white ‘Mazi’ on its red background is still there.
And then it hit me, even once it is painted over Mazi will still be there.
No one strips the paint off the rock before painting it, they just paint over it. So he will be there, forever one of the layers of the history of this town. Just like he will be for the rest of our lives, there, inside us when we do something kind, feel God’s love shine through. As Antoine Saint-Exupéry said in The Little Prince ‘what is essential is invisible to the eye.’ And the essential Mazi will never go away.
When I look at the map of people reading about and remembering him I know that just like his name is forever preserved on the rock, the name Mazi Maghsoodnia is forever written on the world.
I love reading the work of spiritual leaders and the consistent message, from Thich Nhat Hanh to Charlie Brown, is love and kindness. So I meditate every morning. I invite God’s lovingkindness into my life. I vow to be patient and kind and right up to the point my children wake up I am bursting with love and kindness. It gets a little sticky after that. They are my teachers, and I love them so much, my precious teddy bears, that I keep trying, over and over, to learn how to pass that lovingkindness along even when I have to ask, again, to please, please, please for the love of Buddha, stop leaving Otter Pop wrappers on the family room floor.
They are just younger versions of my imperfect self and we are all trying our best and there is a lot of love and goodness in each of them so I will keep imperfectly trying to teach them how to live in this civilization, or at least this family. They are still moldable, they still respond to love and the occasional phone confiscation. I demand stuff (hygiene, please!), they demand stuff (food, food, food), but the love flows in both directions. When they are not in a death match over the TV remote I really enjoy their company so it is worth the effort to help them become good people.
I’ll tell you what is not worth the effort. Most of us have probably run into someone who sucks up all our love and kindness and gives nothing back. We think we are getting something back because this person talks a slick line of love, s/he just doesn’t walk it. You can identify these people by the confusion you feel in their presence. He says he loves you and would never hurt you but your heart and gut (and maybe bank account) says the opposite. She says she respects and admires you but you always feel anxious in her presence. There actually is no love or kindness coming back at you, not by any real definition of love and kindness.
Many of us who are on this love and kindness path think if we just show this person enough love he will stop hurting us. And sometimes this is true. Sometime the love and kindness of even one person can guide a person back to the right path. But sometimes this is not true. Sometimes we pour all our love and kindness onto a person who cannot change her hurting ways. And this is where we need to realize that hugging a rattlesnake will not turn it into a teddy bear. In those situations our work is to face the fact that this is a rattlesnake for crying out loud, and put some boundaries between ourselves and that rattlesnake. Set him free into the wild or, if the person must stay in your life, put him in a cage. From a distance, bless him on his snakey path of life, maybe give a respectful Namaste (remembering that God has a purpose for all his creatures), and then go find something truly soft and cuddly to love. Something that returns your love. Something that won’t strike and bite and leave toxin in your body when you pull it close, but instead will give you what any good teddy bear gives, warmth and love and safety. And you’ll know you have found the real deal when you wake up one day and realize there is so much love coming from your teddy bears that you don’t even mind stepping on sticky Otter Pop wrappers.