Now Is the Winter of My Discontent

It’s March 3, and I just came home from a walk with my dog Finn. The temperature is  12 degrees below 0, and piles of snow taller than I am line the sidewalk, so that this destination-less journey is like navigating a maze made of thick, cold, white walls. It is impossible to see what is around any corner; only the narrow path that lies straight behind and right in front of me is in view.  Everything looks exactly the same, and although I’ve been walking around this neighborhood for years, the overwhelming whiteness is disorienting, and I have to stop to think about where I am, about what turn I need to take to find my way home. I am invisible to the world, obscured by winter. The added treachery of glare ice hiding beneath the snow forces me to concentrate on each tentative step I take. My hands ache from cold, and inside my mittens, I  make a fist to warm them up, while I hold Finn’s leash in one hand, and a bag of poop in the other.  “Walking around in a cold alien world, carrying a bag of shit, going nowhere,” I think. “A perfect metaphor for my life.” Huge icicles from ice dams hang down from the fronts of some of the houses I pass, and I visualize lying  under one until it breaks off and impales my heart. A fitting way to go, since my heart is already split open, and symbolism matters. I survived the great blizzard of 2019, but now the roofs over my head are threatening to come crashing down on me, as schools and sections of schools are closed due to the danger of collapse.  My own roof is buried in layers left behind by storm after storm.  There is no forecast for a warm-up in the near future. I have dug out my mailbox for the third time in the last week. My arms are sore, and my will to pick up the shovel again is weak. I’m just so tired.

So now, back home, I’m listening to Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” on repeat, even though I am acutely aware that this is a pathetic state of affairs for a woman who is in her early 50’s, and not her early 20’s. I have decided, nevertheless, that I am going to allow myself to wallow a little in my sense of loss–the weather is conducive to isolation and depression, so why not go with it? In the past year and a half I have lost a husband to death and a new love to — honestly, I don’t know what.  This is not where I expected to be at this point in my life. I remember reading an article right before my 50th birthday about how the 50’s are the least happy decade in people’s lives. The article listed many reasons for this dip: aging parents, emerging health issues, high job stress as careers peak or low job satisfaction at dead end jobs, children leaving home, the list goes on and on. I was not excited about turning 50, but I did not take the article too seriously. I joked about it with friends. I had no idea what was about to hit me. At the time, my life was unfolding according to my plan. It was by no means perfect, but I had few doubts that I was in the right place, doing what I was supposed to be doing. Before I turned 51, Craig had his first serious motorcycle accident, and before I turned 52, he had another and was dead. I was devastated, but I thought, eventually, the joy and satisfaction I had felt in other areas of my life would return. After all, I had always considered myself to be resilient and optimistic. The thing is a year and a half later I still feel as if nothing fits anymore. And I feel selfish. I have great kids and grandkids, fantastic friends and family, a career I had always loved, ridiculously good physical health (that statement probably just doomed me to some rare fatal disease), and financial security, but none of it is enough. I feel oddly out of place in my own life. I’m practically paralyzed when it comes to making decisions, and I isolate myself from others and seek the safety and security of  home more and more. I often go an entire weekend without speaking to another person on a personal level, and it has occurred to me that if I died, it is likely that no one would notice until I did not show up for work. And we’ve had lots of long weekends this winter! I saw another article, this one in National Geographic, that described how dogs sometimes begin to eat their dead owners within hours of their death. Finn is very food motivated. It could be ugly.

Recently, I have attended birthday parties for two friends, one turning 50, and the other turning 60. Both were happy occasions thrown by spouses, and they caused me to reflect on my own life. I have tried to talk myself out of it, but the truth is I feel cheated, angry, afraid, and lonely. My relationship with Craig was complicated. He was not an easy person to live with, and I felt like I had given up parts of myself to make my marriage work. I did that because I loved him, and then one day, I said good-bye as I went to work, and never saw him again-alive or dead.

When the chance for love came to me much sooner than expected in the form of a dear old friend, I decided I had to take the risk, even though I was still working my way through the mourning process. I felt passion and tenderness and joy and hope with him. At first, I thought I might feel like I was betraying Craig, starting a relationship so soon, and sometimes I felt a little guilty that this man made me feel so happy, so whole again, but I never doubted the depth and sincerity of my feelings for him or my choice to hold nothing back, to give my heart over completely to him. For reasons I don’t fully understand, it doesn’t look like things are going to work out, and I feel intensely alone in a cold world of  seemingly endless winter.

I usually try to end these things with something uplifting, some positive nugget of wisdom that I have gleaned from my experiences, but I just can’t this time. The only thing I know for sure is that I’d rather have love than wisdom any day and I am sick of being cold.

 

 

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I’ll Get By with a Little Help from My Friends

Tonight I got together with The Girls for dinner. My Girls are a group of close friends who have been hanging out together and supporting one another for many years. We are not really girls; we are all women in our 40’s and 50’s, all teachers or former teachers from John Marshall High School. Over the years we have sustained each other through illness, injury, cancer, divorce, deaths of family members, parenting, broken hearts, and celebrated each other’s graduations, weddings, birthdays, pregnancies, promotions, and anything else that has come up. Anyone who has a group of friends like this knows how special they are.

We try to get together once a month to eat and catch up around a theme. Tonight was “Only What Annie Can Eat” night. Annie is trying a holistic approach to dealing with a chronic medical condition and has been eating a very restricted diet for the last several months, with a couple of more to go. She’s been discouraged and feels left out at social events, so we decided to dine in solidarity with her and all brought dishes that contained only ingredients she can eat.  The food was surprisingly good, but food is not really why we get together. Neither is the wine. It is the friendship that matters. Being a part of this, smart, funny, talented, compassionate, and strong group of women has been one of the great privileges of my life. I do not take a single one of them for granted.

Many of our adventures have taken place at Melissa’s cabin in Webb Lake, Wisconsin. She is gracious enough to have us up at least one or two weekends a year, and those weekends are always filled with laughter, games, shop talk (even though we always say we are not going to talk about school), walks, bean bag tournaments, pontoon rides, tubing, swimming and floating, Up and Down the Ladder, Catch Phrase, Jump in the Lake Yahtzee, way more food than we could ever consume in a weekend, and of course, Valerie’s Bloody Mary’s for breakfast. Sometimes there are personal revelations about long held doubts, fears, and desires. Sometimes there are tears. Sometimes we go out to the Cabaret, but most of the time we stay at the cabin with no make-up and no plans.

One place we have unwittingly visited quite a bit during our cabin weekends is the Spooner, Wisconsin, emergency room. I hear they recently remodeled, and I think we might have had quite a bit to do with their ability to afford the updates. I don’t want to say we were living under a curse, but for quite a while, it seemed like every cabin trip included a near death experience. The first trip to the emergency room was the result of a freak snowmobile accident. Valerie was driving, and I was the passenger as we cruised across the lake. We must have hit a ridge, and we went airborne. According to Heidi and Ann, who were behind us, we did a barrel roll in the air. That probably looked cool, but like the U.S. figure skaters in this year’s Olympics, we did not stick the landing. Both Valerie and I hit the ice and slid for what seemed like forever, and I think I remember seeing the sled sliding on its side as well. Time seemed to slow down as we propelled across the lake, waiting to slow to a stop so we could assess the damage. I kept thinking, “Oh man, Dan (Melissa’s husband) is going to be so mad that we wrecked his snowmobile.” When we finally stopped our skid, everyone came racing toward us, including a couple of fishermen who were out with their black lab. As I lay on the ice, with people telling me not to move, the fishermen’s dog squatted right next to my head and took a dump. It really wasn’t my day. I could see it out of the corner of my eye, and Ann said, “Really, don’t move,” as they all tried not to laugh. Since we were in the middle of a lake, I had to get back on a snowmobile and ride very slowly to the bank, trudge up a snow covered hill, and wait for the rest of the girls to go get the car to take us to the hospital. Oddly, they left Valerie and me alone at the fishermen’s cabin, while the fishermen went out to fish some more. Looking back, that might not have been the best move. Anyway, we arrived at the Spooner Hospital emergency room, and the staff did not seem happy to see us. The Packers had a playoff game that day. Still, we were laughing, making jokes, and taking pictures. I had a broken collar bone and many broken ribs, so Sandy had the pleasure of calling Craig (who was not a big fan of Girls’ Weekends in the first place) to tell him I was fine but would be returning home damaged. Then, after the x-rays and CT scans, she had to call back and tell him I would be arriving at St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester via helicopter. Things were a bit more serious than originally diagnosed. Valerie had a severely mangled pinky finger, which ended up requiring surgery as well. The whole episode got me a couple of days in intensive care, 6 weeks off work, some titanium hardware to hold my collarbone together, and a new respect for the power of ice. Still, as the girls came out to wave goodbye on the helicopter pad, (by then I was being pretty heavily drugged, I think), I kept thinking how bummed I was that I was going to miss Saturday night and Sunday morning fun at the cabin with the girls.

On another trip, a summer stay, we had spent the afternoon on the lake, being pulled in tubes, water skiing, and relaxing on our floaties. One of the group, Jody, who was not  usually with us at the cabin, announced that she was going to go up and take a shower. By the time another of us went back to the cabin, a fair amount of time had passed. Jody was not feeling well, and was lying down and not looking very good. By the time the rest of us got back to see what was wrong, her eyes were rolling back in her head, and she seemed to be losing consciousness. She managed to tell us we needed to get the epipen out of her purse. “Epipen! How did we not know that you have an epipen?! And which purse is Jody’s?” were ringing out through the cabin. We did manage to find it. Now as teachers, we have all practiced using the epipen on the school nurse, just in case such an occasion should arise with a student. Let me tell you, it feels much different when someone is going into anaphylactic shock in front of you. Annie took over and pressed the pen into Jody’s thigh, just like we had been taught, but in her panic, pulled it out immediately. “I think you have to leave it in for a while,” I said. “You have to put it back in.” So Annie poked her again. In the meantime, the ambulance was on its way. Eventually, Jody was loaded into the ambulance (One of the  EMTs was about 80 and was not the model of efficiency), and part of the group decided to follow the ambulance to the Spooner Hospital emergency room. Apparently, friends are not allowed to drive at the same speed as the ambulance because one of us who stayed behind had given her cell number to the ambulance driver. Before long, she got a call telling us to call our friends and tell them to slow down and meet Jody at the hospital. Jody had had an allergic reaction to the latex on the ski rope handles. It all turned out fine, but I do not think Jody ever joined us at the cabin again.

The next visit was a little less dramatic, but I think it had Melissa thinking we were cursed and wondering if she should invite us back. When we arrived at the cabin, it was clear that she wasn’t feeling well, but being a good hostess, she did her best to carry on and make us feel welcome. Finally, near the end of the second day, Melissa couldn’t take it anymore and we drove her to the hospital. She was diagnosed with Erlichiosis, a fairly rare in Minnesota and Wisconsin tick transmitted disease that can be fatal if not treated properly. So we have definitely helped support the Spooner economy and hospital with our cabin visits. As a matter of fact, a couple of years ago, Ann’s mother fell on the way to their own cabin, and she was taken to the Spooner Emergency room. The nurse thought Ann looked familiar, and Ann told her about the day of the infamous snowmobile accident. That nurse remembered us, and told Ann she thought we were hilarious, though they did not seem to appreciate our antics at the time.

We have not had any incidents for several consecutive cabin visits, so the curse may be broken. Why Melissa continued to invite us when we seemed to create havoc and disaster is beyond me. These incidents, though pretty traumatic at the time, have become part of the story of our friendship. They have become part of what binds us together, a shared history. Even in the most serious moments though, we found ourselves laughing and joking. When true friends are around, nothing seems quite as overwhelming and serious as when you are facing a problem alone. Over the years, we have all learned that lesson, I think–that we do not have to face hard times alone, and we will always have someone with which to share good times. It is a gift that I know not all women have.

I have always said I am going to write a book about our lives and how they have intersected–a kind of YaYa Sisterhood thing, but better, which would then be made into a fabulous movie. One day we were on the pontoon deciding who would play us in the movie. Melissa chose Sandra Bullock for herself, which makes sense. Melissa is a tall, pretty brunette. I could not decide who would play me, so unable to control herself, she blurted out “Barbra Streisand!” She was basing it on our noses, I’m pretty sure, and Babs is about the same age as my mom, so naturally, I objected to her choice. When the book comes out, I plan to take some poetic license with Melissa’s  Ehrlichiosis episode and put her in a coma.

To this core group of friends: Sandy, Annie, Ann, Valerie, Melissa, Sue, Cindy, and Heidi, and to all my friends and family-there have genuinely been too many to list them all: I do not know where I would be today if I did not have your love and friendship. Thank you for your unwavering support. I know that with the snowmobile accident, Craig’s first motorcycle accident, and his death (Geez, life has been kinda rough these past few years), I have surpassed the limit for delivered meals and help with domestic chores. Nothing I can say or do truly expresses how much you have lifted me up when I did not think I could manage everything that needed to be done. My neighbor, upon seeing the response when Craig died, pulled me aside and told me what good and amazing friends I have. I loved that she noticed, but I already knew.

No More Sleepless Nights: A Proven Program to Conquer Insomnia

“Never try to sleep,” ironically, is Rule #2

In this book whose sole purpose is to give tips and advice on how to improve sleep.

I am reading it at 2:38 a.m. so its advice is dubious at best.

When I was a child, keyed up and wide awake the night before the first day of school,

My mother told me to count sheep,

And the book gives the same advice.

Think of something repetitious and boring—

Like counting sheep.

Unfortunately, as a child I saw a cartoon character,

I can’t remember which one,

Counting sheep to fall asleep.

He closed his eyes and watched

A line of monotonous white sheep glide easily over a fence

He was just drifting off when, out of nowhere,

A black sheep appeared and refused to jump,

Standing stubbornly on the wrong side of the fence,

There is always the black sheep with his mocking face

Hiding amongst the soothing whiteness

Of the sheep who live under my eyelids

Waiting to appear, interposing himself

Between sleep and me.

Of course, the expert author also suggests

limiting caffeine and alcohol, eliminating cigarettes,

controlling the temperature, humidity, and level of light in the room,

Getting plenty of exercise at the right time of day,

Watching eating habits,

Following a bedtime routine or ritual

And reducing stress by taking control of your life — you know—simple things–

All while NOT TRYING to sleep.

I want to sleep. I need to sleep, to escape from the voltage

Buzzing through my brain coursing through my bones

Shooting out of my fingertips.

While you are not trying to sleep, the book suggests

Thinking of your body “as a sponge

Soaking up peace and tranquility from the universe around you.”

My imaginary sponge body reminds me of dimpled thigh cellulite,

which reminds me that I should get up early to run.

I reset the alarm, subtracting 40 minutes from my planned sleep.

And why haven’t I covered over the outdated sponge painting

on the living room wall? 

Peace and tranquility from the universe around you? Really?

It also suggests counting backward from 100 — picturing the numbers in a downward progression;

Imagining a quiet, relaxing scene;

And picturing yourself descending in some way, such as on an escalator;

Or floating, with water surrounding and supporting you.

I imagine myself on an air mattress in the swimming pool,

The water is warm and the crickets are chirping

As I let myself slip gently into the water that welcomes me.

I sink peacefully to the bottom,

Where I give in to its alluring promise of dark rest,

Rescued from the daily ritual and urgency of

Not Trying  to sleep.

“It’s Only Words”

According to several sources, “moist” has been #1 on the list of the most hated words in the English language for a number of years. There are a number of reasons for this, but for the most part, people hate the word because of its associations with bodily functions and the connotations that brings along with it. We do not have the same reaction to the word when it is used to refer to a delicious cake. I’m not a huge fan of the word, but over the course of the past few months, there are some words and phrases I have come to hate much, much more. “There’s a reason for everything” and “It’s God’s plan” are pretty high up on that list. A few weeks ago, while I was doing some work in my back yard, one of my neighbors, a delightful woman in her late 80’s brought her handy man, Charlie Brown–that’s his real name–over to meet me. She thought there might be some jobs with which I could use some help. That was fine; there may well be a few things I need some help with. I asked a friend the other day if she thought that I should get a chainsaw, and there was a long pause before she basically said (in a very diplomatic way) that maybe I should hire someone for jobs that require a chainsaw. The problem was not the idea behind the introduction, but the introduction itself. Goldie (my neighbor) introduced me like this: “This is my neighbor. She’s a widow too.” Goldie knows my name. She has a daughter named Laurie. But it was nowhere in the introduction. Poor Charlie Brown stood there awkwardly for a beat, while I resisted the urge to say, “Hi Chuck. Peppermint Patty here,” and then held my hand over the fence and said, “Nice to meet you. I’m Laurie.” That word “widow” landed on my ego like a 10 ton uranium bomb. (Uranium is the heaviest naturally occurring element. I looked it up. A writer does not typically explain her metaphors and similes in her writing, but I need you to understand. This word really crushed me, which I guess you could have gotten from the 10 ton part. Also, uranium is, of course, radioactive, which means it has devastating and long term effects. Just want to make sure, reader, that you fully appreciate the care I used in choosing this comparison)! I had jokingly referred to myself as an independent widow numerous times over the past months while I was changing a light bulb in the ceiling fan or dumping salt into the water softener, but I had never been introduced as though it were my primary identifying role in life.

“Widow, widow, widow, widow…” That’s all I could think about. I imagined myself being introduced to Queen Elizabeth: “Your Majesty, the Obama Family and the Widow Cassman…” (I’m not sure why I was in England with the Obama’s. Since Craig died, I get a lot of invitations I would not have gotten before because people do not want me to be alone. Michelle probably didn’t want me to miss Wimbledon and knew I wouldn’t go by myself.) As the night went on, I just couldn’t get over it. I lay in bed wondering why this harmless encounter and this two syllable word had felt so devastating. “It’s just a word,” I told myself. It doesn’t really mean anything, except that your husband died. But I am an English teacher, and I have spent a good part of my life convincing my students that words matter, that we need to choose our words carefully, that they are one of the few permanent and lasting ways we have of expressing our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs and of conveying our experiences to future generations. So the word infested my brain and would not let me think about anything else.

I started to over-analyze. I have a talent for that. Maybe the word had upset me so much because I had recently been told by a friend, who also happens to be the contractor I am using to have some home improvements done, that maybe I should consider selling my house and buy a condo or a town home. That had made me feel bad too. It’s not that I had not thought about that very thing myself. I had. This place requires constant upkeep, and it is about 50 years old, so there are things that need to be done. Plus, it’s much more space than one person needs. It’s just the idea that people are assessing my ability to take care of myself and my home and thinking I may not be up to the task that bothers me. It’s that word “widow” that conjures images of a helpless victim of fate, left to live out her days dressed in black and perpetual loneliness, or the sweet, asexual grandma with a really tight perm living to knit sweaters and bake cookies for her adoring grandchildren, or the sinister Black Widow luring men into her web for financial gain and then poisoning them, or the single-minded career woman who throws herself into her work, forsaking all emotions that cause feelings of vulnerability or insecurity. I am not, nor do I want to be any of those stereotypes.

That word “widow” has put me in a unique category to be pitied by others too, especially because I am pretty young to be a widow. Don’t misunderstand; I appreciate all of the empathy, the caring words, the support from friends and family. Sometimes though, I run into someone–an acquaintance–in Target, and they give me a hug and say, “How ARE you?” and they look at me as if they are thinking, “My life is pretty shitty right now, but at least I am not you.” I’m fine with feeling sorry for myself sometimes, but I really do not want to be the object of other people’s pity. When I say I am doing okay and tell them a little about my actual life, I often get, “You are so strong,” with that same “At least I’m not you” tone. Now, I don’t really mind people thinking I am strong, and maybe I am, but going on with life is not really a choice. The world keeps spinning, and my grief is not the focus of the lives of everyone with whom I interact on a daily basis. I had coffee with a friend whose husband is battling stage 4 cancer the other day. She gets that “You’re so strong” line a lot too. She has kids; she has a job; she has responsibilities. Carrying on is not really a matter of strength so much as necessity. We laughed about how “strong” people would think we are if they could see us curled up on the bathroom floor in the fetal position, suppressing our sobs into a towel and then coming out with a freshly lipsticked smile, ready to go to your kids’ football game or teach a history lesson. I’m calling it #Fakestrong. I think we should get rubber bracelets made. For all widows, I recommend waterproof mascara. It’s a life saver. Widowers, you generally don’t have to worry about running make-up, just one more advantage of being a man.

Widower, now that is a strange word. It doesn’t even make sense from a grammatical point of view. And it’s sexist. If a widow is a woman who survived after her husband died, why is a man who has survived his wife called a widower? Adding “er” to a noun makes it one who performs a task-takes control, rather than having an event (in this case, the death of a spouse) foisted upon him. Instead of a victim, it turns the male survivor into a man of action. A laborer does labor, a bookkeeper does bookkeeping; shouldn’t  that mean a widower does widows or makes widows? Even if the meaning is just that a widower is a person  who does “widowy” things, it still makes it sound like he is in charge of his fate, rather than subordinated by it. Why not use the same word for both? Or we could add “ess” to widow to describe women. I like that idea. From now on, I am going to refer to myself as a “widowess”–it sounds more like countess or princess–“Queen Elizabeth, I present to you the  Widowess Cassman.” Maybe it doesn’t matter, but widower just doesn’t sound as pathetic as widow, and in this #metoo era, I think it needs to be explored.

In addition to connotations of words, linguists believe the sound of a word can make it more deplorable. I don’t buy that theory. You may have noticed that I used the word “foist” earlier in this essay. I doubt that the sound of that word evoked any repugnant reactions from readers, even though it is only one letter away from “moist,” the English language’s most (also one letter away from moist) detested word. The word closest to widow is probably window–just add an “n.” They sound a lot alike. The word window, however, has mainly positive connotations. Windows imply vision, insight, clarity, an escape route, a pathway to opportunity. Maybe it seems so different because it has the word “win” within it, while widow automatically implies loss. “Ditto” and “Kiddo” sound like widow, but they do not make my stomach lurch. (Lurch is an ugly sounding word with negative connotations.) Whatever the case, widow is now my least favorite word. I’ve thought about redefining it, taking it back, like some rappers have done with the “N-word.” You know, I could go to a grief group and fist bump the other surviving spouses, and say, “Hey, my widow bitches, let’s go back to my crib and keep it 100 with some book club discussion and some mid-priced wine.” Or maybe not.

I’m not ready to embrace the word widow. I’m not willing to be defined by one word. I met Craig when I was 21 and married him when I was 22, so he has had a huge impact on who I am today. Yesterday, July 2, would have been our 30th wedding anniversary. I’ve always associated Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” when I thought of Craig and the complicated relationship that is marriage, and now the line “I hear your voice inside me. I see your face everywhere,” captures how he continues to be a part of my life. In many ways though, he already feels far, far away from me. I  have changed since last fall. In some ways, I have become more empathetic and  patient. I feel like I finally understand the disabling effects of anxiety and depression.  A few nights ago I came home late and took Finn out for a walk. When I was returning home at about 11:30, there was a police car parked on the street in front of my house. I was sure one of my kids was dead, and the policeman was there to tell me the details. My entire body was shaking, and I nearly threw up as I approached my house. I do not know what the policeman was doing, but my children were safe. In other instances, I am more cynical and selfish. There is an envious voice inside my head that I have to keep in check when I see happy couples and families. I even found myself being jealous of my friend, who I mentioned earlier. Her husband is battling cancer, but I caught myself thinking, “At least you get a chance to say the things that need to be said, to make arrangements, and to say good-bye if it comes to that.” I know how awful that sounds, and I check myself pretty quickly, but still, those thoughts arise.  Reading (something I have always loved) has been hard because I can’t seem to concentrate, and I have missed the pleasure I’ve always gotten from reading. Weirdly, though, I have rediscovered a love for reading poetry, which requires much more intense focus than pleasure reading, and writing this blog has become something I really look forward to. I have also turned more to music for comfort and as an outlet for emotion than I have since my teenage years.

I was forced to trade in the role of wife for that of widow. I know I’m not the only person to live through this, but no lie, it is damn hard some days. That word “widow” comes with a lot of heavy baggage, but it might also contain some positives: growth, self-awareness, endurance, independence, not having to share my cheese, maybe even optimism. So move over “moist” and “phlegm.” I am moving “widow” to the number one position on my personal list of most hated words. I make lists all the time to help me remember what I need to do, to be able to cross off completed tasks. Lists help keep things in perspective. I know I can never complete being a widow and cross it off my list by drawing a line through it or putting a check mark next to it-done! But I can put it in its place on a list of who I am and who I want to be, and trust me, it is not going to be #1 on that list. In the meantime, I will refrain from purchasing that chainsaw.

 

 

 

 

The Adventures of Huck Finn

I decided to go with a controversial and familiar title to up my readership for this one. Of course, I am aware that plagiarism is illegal, but Mark Twain’s quintessential  American novel is actually titled The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, so I think, from a legal standpoint, I am at least as safe as Melania Trump delivering a nominating convention speech. Besides, my story is about a dog who helps a woman navigate her way to peace of mind, while Twain’s is about a boy who tries to navigate the Mississippi River and a racist, morally ambiguous society on a raft. Also, my Finn would never dream of using the N-word, even in an accurate historical and appropriate literary context, mainly because he can’t talk, but also because he loves ALL people, regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation, although he does have a pretty strong bias toward anyone who will rub his belly for extended periods of time.

There are a few similarities between my Finn and Twain’s, however. Both are vagrants of questionable parentage, both are adopted by a widow, and both are willing to break society’s  rules in order to survive or to live by their convictions, or in the case of my Finn, to get what he wants. (As far as I can tell, Finn does not have any convictions, except that we HAVE to get up at 5:30 a.m., even if it is summer, and squeakers must be removed from all dog toys ASAP). To be fair, Twain’s character had very few convictions at the start of the novel; he developed them on his journey. Traveling with escaped slave Jim in the dark of night, Huckleberry Finn examines his personal beliefs in the face of society’s values and decides to live by his own principles (though he is figuring out what those principles are along the way and is far from perfect in adhering to them). Remember, my Finn is a dog. He does not have a philosophy to live by.

In late January, when I first saw the barking mop of a dog that is Finn, I felt as though I was also emerging from a journey through the dark. After spending months looking backward, thinking the best part of my life was behind me– looking forward to night because sleeping was the best reprieve from grief–I found a reason to look forward and hope for a happy future. It is somewhat ironic that, although I spend a good part of my day counseling high school students that making decisions based purely on emotion is generally not a good plan for life, I did just that for the past several months. So in a wave of optimism and elation fueled by new love, I spotted Finn (then Toby) on the Paws and Claws website and thought, “I should bring him home.” I tried to talk myself out of it and begged friends to reason with me, but they encouraged me instead! I had always planned to get another dog after having to part with Sara, our dog for 17 and a half years, right before Christmas, but I thought summer would be a good time to do it. After meeting Finn, with his one good eye and his Tigger-like exuberance, I was hooked. The humane society staff member did his best used car salesman imitation, telling me lots of other people were looking at him and he wouldn’t last long. He needn’t have bothered. I was all emotion-enthusiasm and anticipation-life was going to be happy again, and that required a dog. I filled out the paper work, and less than 48 hours later, he was mine.

Then reality set in. I had adopted an adolescent boy dog with boundless energy, no training, a stubborn streak, and and a penchant for chocolate and shoes. The bad eye should have been an omen. An English teacher should know that in literature a physical impairment is ALWAYS symbolic of a character flaw. I think it is fair to say we went through a “period of adjustment.” I had originally planned to name him Huck, but a good friend suggested Finn, and that seemed to fit him. It was the right decision, I think, because I did quite a bit of yelling his name as he ran away from me around the neighborhood (like Twain’s Finn, mine is an excellent escape artist), and I fear the neighbors might have thought I had developed late onset Tourette Syndrome if I were running around yelling “Huck!” into the winter air at the top of my lungs. The first few weeks were rough. Finn wanted constant attention, and if I was busy doing something else, he would nip me, bark at me, jump on me, pull on my clothes, hands, and feet, and make a grumbling noise that is a cross between a growl and a whine. I no longer use my laptop on my lap because he rushes up, and with his paws, violently slams the screen closed on my hands if he thinks I should be paying attention to him instead. Just keeping Finn alive was a challenge. The first time I left without putting him in his crate, I came home to find him standing on the kitchen table. Around him were the wrappers of several mini candy bars that I had bought for treats at school. A couple of weeks later I came home to find that he had gotten into the pantry, found the baking supplies, and consumed a full bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips, half  a bag of white chocolate chips, and some coconut. He was pretty sick. Another time it was a basket of potpourri.  Finally, while I was out shoveling the morning after a snowstorm, he swiped the scotcharoos I had made the day before. They were in a sealed Rubbermaid container, and I was only out for a few minutes, so I thought they were safe. By the time I came in, he had chewed the lid from the container, taken the entire container into the living room, and eaten a large number of them, leaving crumbs everywhere. Eventually, I learned to clean off the table, push in the chairs, and make sure the pantry doors were securely closed. Another concern was that when something he wanted, like a toy or my cousin’s dog, went down the stairs, rather than follow them down using the steps, he would save time by leaping through the spindles of the railing, landing wherever fate and gravity took him. I saw broken bones in his future. Once while we were out for a walk during a blizzard in below zero temps, he bounded from a snowbank and landed on a sewer grate, getting both front legs stuck in the gaps of the grate. It took us a while to get out of that one! A few weeks later, I had just removed the winter cover from the swimming pool, and the maintenance people had come over to administer the spring chemicals. I was out working in the yard while Finn was running around doing dog stuff, like digging up flowers I had just planted. I looked up to see Finn standing on the edge of the pool, drinking gross green algae water infused with a strong chemical concoction. As I yelled, “Finn, No!”  he was startled, slipped on the plastic frame surrounding the pool, and fell into the deep end. It turns out Finn is not a great swimmer. While he drifted farther away from the edge with his desperate dog paddle and panic-stricken face, it became clear that I was going to have to save him. I had to submerge myself in the murky mixture to pull him to the edge and scoop him out by his collar. If we disappear inexplicably for periods of time, we have probably gone through a Spider-man like transformation and are out fighting crime as Wonder-Widow and her trusty sidekick, Frog Dog.

I knew early on that I needed help. We enrolled in obedience training, where we learned heel, sit, down, stay, leave it, and a few other handy tricks, which Finn will happily perform perfectly at school, or if we are home with no other distractions and a pocketful of treats. Otherwise, he does not really see the point of this training. I have also recently realized that Finn is a materialistic dog. My friend Sean came over to see if we could form a love connection between his dog and mine. We thought if our dogs liked each other, we could dog sit for one another instead of leaving our dogs at a kennel when one of us goes out of town. It was not love at first sight, though the two did tolerate one another. We tried again when Sean came over to binge watch season 2 of Stranger Things with me. I told him to bring Sapa; maybe familiarity would make our dogs like each other. Finn spent most of the time gathering his possessions, so that he could show her how much stuff he owns, and to make it clear that he had no intention of sharing any of that stuff with her. He even pulled his blanket out of his crate, which he hasn’t used for several weeks, to show her he has his own bedding, which she would never be allowed to use. There were a couple of bright spots when they played together outside, so maybe there is still hope.

Through all of these trials and tribulations, something happened though. We began to form a bond. I realized that sometimes all Finn needed to be calm was for me to sit on the floor with him while he chewed on something, so that he could put a paw on my leg or rest his chin on my lap. He followed me from room to room as I did my thing around the house and became more content and less demanding. As the buoyancy I had experienced earlier in the year began to dissolve into insecurity and anxiety, he patiently allowed me to hug him and sob into his absorbent coat. He went on walk after walk with me, as I tried to find some peace and tranquility, some acceptance of the events of the past months, and some way to move forward alone, even as I tried to convince myself there was still hope for a new future I had imagined. It is difficult to describe the feeling I have had much of the time these past months since Craig’s death. Diminished, I guess, is the best way to describe it. It feels like I am less than I was, and by extension, everything I do, all of my established relationships, my passions and purpose feel shrunken. I know in my head that this is not true, and I do treasure my family, friends, career, hobbies, but it is difficult to find joy in people and places where I once found it so easily and naturally. And so, sometimes, even though I make plans, when it comes time to follow through on those plans, anticipation is replaced with a sense of dread. I just want to be alone in my house, not because I don’t love the people who love me (I absolutely do), but because I sense that I am not the person I used to be when I am with them, and they are waiting for me to return. I don’t want to disappoint them, and I know that I am never going to be that same person again. I jokingly told my cousin that I have to post everything I do on Facebook now, so that I can convince myself that I have a fabulous life. I was only half kidding. I think I am looking for myself in those posts now, trying to establish that I am still here and that what I do matters to someone. And so Finn only knows me as this new version of myself and still loves me in that unconditional way that dogs have of making a person feel loved, even though he is a dog, and the obedience school teacher would say I am humanizing him for my own purposes. When I wake up in the middle of the night, and Finn is sleeping on the window seat by my bed (so precious), when he jumps on the bed at 5:30 a.m. to lay his head on my chest and cuddle, and now, as he is curled up at my feet, wondering, I am sure, when I am going to put away the computer and play with him, I feel like, even though adopting Finn might not have been the most well thought out decision I have made, it was one of the best ones. He makes me laugh every single day and adds a bit of excitement and uncertainty to my largely predictable life. He is one of only a couple of things that has helped me feel less diminished and given me a sense of forward progress and development.

Finn is still naughty. He has greatly reduced my shoe supply, and most of the plastic handles on my window shade pulls have mysteriously disappeared. Yesterday, while I was refinishing the deck, he knocked a hole in the screen of the sliding door trying to get to me, and then went to the window across from the deck and tore down the curtains, rod and all, while he barked his displeasure with being left out of the home improvement project. I knew I should have put him in his crate before I started, but I didn’t want to see his sad face and hear him whine. Emotional choices are not always wise choices, but sometimes they are the only ones you are able to make. Screens can be mended, and so can hearts, I guess. Adventures with a mischievous dog can help.

(As I wrote this, I kept hearing a version of the phrase Lloyd Bentsen used to put Dan Quayle in  his place when Quayle compared himself to JFK during the vice-presidential debate: “I knew Jack Kennedy…Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” but in  my version it’s “I’ve read ‘Huck Finn’…Ma’am you’re no Mark Twain.)

 

 

Father’s Day

Father’s Day is just a few days away. My dad’s card is in the mail, and it might even get to Mandan before the actual holiday, which for me, is a small miracle. I believe in letting my loved ones think I forgot their special days by mailing their cards and gifts too late for them to arrive on time for the occasion. That way, when they finally do get their gift, it is the only one that comes that day, so it seems that much more special. Plus, it helps alleviate the letdown after the big celebration. “Look, another gift!” It has absolutely nothing to do with my being a procrastinator.

Last year Christian and I took Craig to the Surly Brewery for a tour and lunch on Father’s Day. That part was great. Then we went to the Stone Arch Bridge Art Fair in Minneapolis. We had a difficult time finding parking, we did not really know where we were going, and we were going to a craft show, all of which made Craig a little cranky, and then I got cranky because he was being cranky while we were just trying to make his day special.   Christian and I were glad to leave him sitting outside with his brother Wayne and Kevin at a restaurant while we strolled the art fair. Before we went home, he made us stop at yet another restaurant when we just wanted to go home. The service was slow and the food was terrible. Christian and I were irritated. So all in all, not a great day, but definitely 1000 percent better than this year’s Father’s Day will be. The year before, Craig had to work the weekend of Father’s Day, so we invented FaThursday, which I thought was brilliant. Bernie, Jeff, and the boys had just gotten back from three and a half years in Japan, and I know Craig was thrilled to be spending the day with them and Christian and Jordon.  We tried to make a big deal of Father’s Days. Craig liked to be celebrated. This year I am not shopping for gifts or making plans, and for some reason, this feels like it could be the most difficult of the “first year” holidays. I expected Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and Craig’s birthday to be terrible. Everyone said they would be, but actually, maybe because I was prepared for them to be terrible, they were not as bad as I thought they would be. Father’s Day, though, seems different.

I have a complicated history with fathers. My biological father was not interested in being my father, and growing up he was a name on my birth certificate, nothing more. We did not talk about him. To me, it seemed there was an air of mystery surrounding him…he was kind of like Voldemort, “He Who Must Not Be Named.” When I turned 50, I finally got up the nerve to write him a letter introducing myself and asking if he would like to share anything about himself. He responded positively, and we have since met. He has been kind, even sending cards and gifts for holidays and birthdays, but we are probably never going to be close. For my 51st birthday, he sent a card with $100 in it with a note that said he hoped I did not think he was trying to buy my affection or something to that effect. My daughter Christian read the card and quipped, “Wow! That’s almost $2 a year. What else could you possibly think?” It was mean, but kind of funny.

My Uncle Don was my first father figure. He and my Aunt Laura offered to take my mom and me into their home the day I was born, so that my mom did not have to put me up for adoption. For the first 5 years of my life, I lived as part of their family, not knowing that I was any different from my cousins, except that I had two moms. I don’t remember a lot, as I was pretty young, but I know that Don raised me and treated me as if I were his own and later I learned there were some nasty rumors about why he took me in. I do remember a few things about those years with Don…taking his shoes off for him when he came home from a day at his barbershop, sitting around the table with him at the head for lunch and dinner, and making popcorn in the evenings. I also remember camping and fishing trips in  the school bus converted to a camper, but that was a little later, I think. My last memory of my uncle happened when I was very pregnant with Christian. We were having car trouble, and I was driving my brother’s old Camaro. I went to pick my Uncle Don up and take him out for lunch, and he could not stop laughing as, round as a beach ball, I maneuvered the car’s clutch while trying to see over the steering wheel from the low sports seat. My Uncle Don was a  generous and kind man and left a big impression on me.

When my mom got married, my step-dad Tom became my father. He was very different from and far more boisterous than Don. I remember being a little scared while he was playing with me by chasing me around saying he was “Gonna get” me one of the first  nights I lived with him and my mom. Tom was and is the hardest worker I have ever known. He gets more done in a day than most people can do in a week. That is how he showed his love, through his relentless drive and work ethic. There weren’t a lot of hugs and verbal declarations of love in our house, but there was no question that we were loved. He was not a perfect father. He sometimes had a short temper, and as a rebellious teenager who was sure I was much smarter and more sophisticated than my parents, we had some pretty significant clashes. No matter how snotty and disrespectful I was though, he never failed to come to my rescue when I needed him. He was protective, especially about boys. I remember being invited to a dance at Bismarck Junior College on a Thursday night while I was a senior in high school. I was already grounded because I had come home at some early morning hour the previous weekend, as a result of my first encounter with this young man whom I had met at a late night showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. (Remember, Rita, laughing in your car the next day because our lips were so sore and chapped from hours and hours of kissing?) After several minutes of begging while my hand covered the receiver, my parents relented and said I could go as long as I was home by 11. Did I mention that I was a little rebellious? Of course, I had no intention of telling poor Ken (that was his name) that I was supposed to be home by 11. This was a college dance, and I wanted to impress him with my worldliness. So imagine his surprise when he dropped me off at about 2 a.m., to see my dad pounding on his car window, yelling at me to “Get in the house right now!”  I’m not sure what was said, as I was in the house, but the next time Ken called to ask me on a date, the first words out of his mouth were, “I took a chance your dad wouldn’t answer the phone.” We only went out a couple of more times after that, but he always asked me what time I needed to be home!

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I always felt like my dad could fix anything and solve any problem. That continued into my adulthood. He built Craig and me and our kids cherished furniture, worked on our houses and cars, and provided us with fresh garden vegetables and canned and baked goods. He showered my kids with love and affection — and Reese’s peanut butter cups. And somewhere along the line, we started hugging and telling one another we loved each other. He took care of me, and he taught me how to take care of myself.

And that brings me back to Craig. I know that Craig wanted to be a great father to his girls, and that often, he felt that he fell short. He wrote in a journal, “Being a dad is the toughest thing I ever did; sometimes I feel I just don’t know what to do. I love all my children even though I don’t know how to show it sometimes.”

He was very young when Amanda and Bernie were born–not quite 20 and barely 21. Of course, I was not there then, but I know he had many regrets about those early fatherhood years. When I met Craig, he was going to NDSU, and he and Bernice were both living with Craig’s parents. His mom and dad had come to get Bernie when he was in the Air Force and she was just a baby. Amanda had stayed with her mother. It became clear early on that any relationship with Craig would definitely involve Bernie. I think he brought her on our third date. When we got married, we really hadn’t talked about when we would have Bernice move in with us, but I assumed we’d have a few months together, maybe a year, and when he finished college, she would join us. Boy, was I wrong! About a week after we got back from our “honeymoon” (a trip to my hometown, where we stayed with my parents), I came home from waitressing at The Grainery to find that all of her stuff had been moved into our little apartment, and she was there to stay.  Also in Craig’s journal are many references to the lack of positive relationships with  his own parents, and I think that contributed to his difficulty interacting with his daughters at times. He did, however, work hard to do better than his own parents had. He could be impatient and rigid, and sometimes seemed to get upset about things that didn’t really matter. To this day, I think all of us are careful not to slam the car doors because he would scold us when we did, convinced that we would wear out some mechanism, and the doors would no longer work properly. I tended to be much more indulgent with the girls than he was, and sometimes he would say, “When I was a kid, I never got…” and I would have to remind him that we were not going to raise our kids by the same standards with which he had been raised.

Sometimes, though, he would amaze me with his protectiveness and patience. When Christian was little, she had a special rainbow pillow case that she took with her everywhere. She would suck her middle two fingers and rub the pillow case against her nose. Once when we were living in Jamestown, we were on our way home from a family Christmas party in Fargo. It was late when we left, and we must have been at least 50 miles outside of Fargo, when Christian realized she had left her pillowcase at Uncle Wayne’s house. I told her we’d have to ask him to mail it to us, but Craig did not miss a beat. He turned around in the median and started heading back to Fargo to get the pillow case, easily adding 100 miles to our trip. Similarly, when Christian was in first grade, she developed a bladder issue from being too scared to ask to go to the bathroom at school. We were on our way to Medora, and she felt like she had to go to the bathroom all the time. I do not think I am exaggerating a bit to say we stopped in every small town and at every rest area along the way from Mandan to Medora, only to have Christian not really have to go to the bathroom at all. It took us forever to reach our destination, but Craig never once showed any frustration. His commitment did not end as they got older. After Bernie’s first year of college, she decided to move into an apartment in Jamestown with a friend for the summer. We had since moved to Rochester, but Bernie had never really lived there, and I am sure it didn’t feel like home to her. When she called to say the apartment she was renting was horrible and pest infested, Craig did not hesitate. He said he was going to get her and got in his truck, drove to Jamestown, and brought her home. When we went to move Christian into her college dorm, it turned out that, due to a housing shortage, she was sharing a single room with another girl. There was absolutely no space for two people, and her roommate had arrived first and taken up most of the space that was available. I would have just told Christian to suck it up and wait for a spot in another room to become available, but Craig marched down to housing and insisted that “I know my daughter, and this is never going to work for her.” Amazingly, they found a single room for her. It cost us quite a bit of money to pay for a single room instead of a double, so that one might have backfired.

I think Craig’s single greatest regret in life was that he missed his daughter Amanda’s childhood. I have never seen him so happy as when they were finally reunited. He was thrilled that he got to help walk her down the aisle at her wedding. He was also there for the births of both of his grandsons, Zach and AJ, and was so proud of them, although again, he sometimes had a hard time communicating with them. Despite the fact that he sometimes had a hard time relating to his children as well as he wanted, I know they also shared many close moments.  I have no doubt that his kids knew how much he loved them, and he told them so often.

Over the years, when life would be hectic with kids, events, family gatherings, or other social functions, Craig would often look at me as things were winding down and say, “It’s never going to be just you and me, is it?  I want it to be just you and me.” Craig was an introvert and very uncomfortable around people he didn’t know well. He loved spending time with his kids and family, but he needed lots of quiet time. I, on the other hand, was a complete extrovert, who was happiest with lots of people around (that has changed a bit). I would resist the urge to correct his grammar (predicate nominative after the linking verb requires the nominative case pronoun I), and laugh and say that we would have like 40 years of just the two of us after the kids were gone and then he would be bored and sorry he had ever wished for such a thing. We didn’t get quite as much of that time as I had expected. This Father’s Day, while Christian is on vacation out West, Bernie and her family are in San Diego, and Amanda is in Ohio, for the first time in a long, long time none of us will be together for Father’s Day. So I will take some time to remember and appreciate the men who played a fatherly role in my life, and then, Craig, I’ll go to Glynner’s and order a burger and a beer for you (I’ll eat it, of course), and I promise, it will be just you and me (I). Happy Father’s Day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Have a Good Summer

Today, as I walked down the hallway toward the exit on the last day of school, I had the same bittersweet feeling I have had on that day for the past 28 years.  I had the same lump in my throat as I looked around, pushed open the door, and walked toward my car. It’s a strange feeling, knowing that after 9 months of spending most of my time talking to, working with, advocating for, and worrying about a group of young people, I am going home and will likely never talk to some of them again, and will certainly never have the same group dynamic that is such an important part of each class. Those kids become some of the most important people in my life, and then one arbitrary day in June, I give them a hug or a handshake, tell them to have a good summer and send them on their way. Even though some of them have been driving me BONKERS for months, when it is time to say good-bye, it feels like a loss. It is especially odd that I feel so conflicted, since I have been looking forward to this day with great anticipation since the middle of February!

This year, though, the departure has been especially hard. My students helped me through this tough year by providing me with a sense of continuity and purpose. They made me laugh, they frustrated me, they lifted me up, and they wore me out. They made me feel normal and needed. I felt the most like my old self when I was at school. This was my fourth year as the Academic Success Coach, so my seniors have been with me for four years, and they are like family to me. One of them finished his coursework to graduate at 2:45 today, working at my house Saturday night and three days straight in my office while the other seniors finished last Friday. Some of his friends came in to cheer him on, keep him focused, and provide companionship. Sometimes these young people absolutely amaze me. I am really going to miss those seniors.

I guess it is a good sign that I feel sad as much as happy on the last day of school. It means, I think, that I still love my job, even though I might not realize that as the kids are complaining that there is way too much work, they get bad grades because their teachers don’t like them, and, of course, they did not actually read the book about which they need to write a literary analysis paper. Oh yeah, and when are they ever going to use…insert whatever subject they are currently working on…in the real world? The thing is they also often say thank you for the help, stop in to proudly display their test and project scores when they do well, share stories about their personal lives, and place in me their trust and confidence. Just as I look forward to the end of the school year and then dread it, I have the inverse reaction in the fall, when I dread the end of summer vacation and then become re-energized by seeing and interacting with the students again. I love that about teaching. There is a beginning and an end. Every fall is a fresh start, full of possibility, and every summer is a chance to savor the accomplishments, reflect on the failures, and plan for the future. (And also to drink key lime martinis by the pool).

This summer scares me. Admittedly, summer has always made me feel a little dispensable, like who would notice if I didn’t even get out of bed today. This summer that feels amplified. After the first couple of weeks, when the flurry of yard work and cleaning are complete (because it takes a while to learn to relax again), I have always experienced some mild depression as I adjusted to a new schedule — or lack thereof. But this summer looms ahead, lonely and uncharted. The house is big and quiet, and the future feels very uncertain. School was a refuge for me, a place where my thoughts were occupied, and my contributions felt important. I’m not sure I can go on any more walks than I already do without my neighbors thinking I’m crazy. And Finn does not like the heat and lays down in the shady grass of people’s yards every few minutes to cool off, while I try to drag him along. I have never before wanted to go on more walks than any dog I have ever owned. When I ask Finn if he wants to go for a walk now, he runs for a toy instead.  My friends are very supportive, but they have their own families and their own lives to lead. Sometimes the weekends feel like eternity, so I am a bit worried about a 2 and a half month weekend. Lately, it feels like everything I do is just a way to fill time, instead of a way to fulfill my life. I guess for now I will just look forward to graduation, one of my absolute favorite events of the year, and figure the rest out from there. There is comfort in knowing the school year will start again, and the whole process will begin once more. So today the bitter is stronger than the sweet. My heart is heavy, but it is just the beginning and I will try to “Have a good summer.” I hope you do too.