A different Nativity story

They loved decorating for Christmas, my in-laws.

My mother-in-law had bows and garland running all through the house. Candles in each windowsill and against the panes, wreaths hanging from long ribbon.

My father-in-law took care of the outside. He made a lot of what he displayed—a wooden Santa and sleigh, snowmen. Every year he added a bit more.

In the backyard, which is what people saw first as they entered the neighborhood, stood the Nativity scene. Large, colorful, lighted figures. My father-in-law made a wooden stable to shelter Joseph, Mary, and the Baby. He covered the roof with straw and rigged a star to stand over it.

One year, when my children were small, vandals climbed the backyard fence on Christmas Eve. They knocked the Nativity figures down, coated them with black spray paint, and stole the Baby Jesus. He was nowhere to be found when my distraught in-laws discovered the desecration on Christmas morning.

My father-in-law painstakingly removed all of the spray paint—I can see him in my mind, bending to his task, working gently to avoid doing further damage, until the figures were clean.

My mother-in-law, however, was afraid to display the scene again:

“Whoever did this came over the fence, awfully close to the house. I don’t want to invite them back.”

She asked her son, my pastor husband, if he wanted the Nativity. After all, he and I lived in the country, in a parsonage right beside our church. Seemed a fitting home for a Nativity scene—albeit one without a Baby Jesus.

So we took it.

And put it up in the parsonage yard the next Christmas.

Our youngest son, a preschooler, was fascinated by the scene. He’d put on his coat and go out into the yard to stare at it for as long as we’d let him.

One day, he asked: “Why doesn’t Baby Jesus light up?”

We’d supplied a little wooden manger and a doll in swaddling cloths (i.e., a tightly-wrapped blanket). We simply told our boy that someone had taken the Jesus that lit up; we didn’t know who had done it or why, so we had to use this one.

He accepted that. Furthermore, his fascination rested on Joseph anyway. For a year or two, he referred to the entire Nativity scene as “The Joseph.”

He loved it so much that once people at church heard about it, they began giving him all kinds of small Nativity scenes. He put every one of them up in his room. I told my husband: “It’s beginning to look like a Palestinian South of the Border in there.”

Our boy became interested in the Wise Men next. He identified them by their clothing: the Blue Wise Man, the Green Wise Man, and the Pink Wise Man. He learned that they carried gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Of those, myrrh captured his imagination most. I think it was the sound of it.

A few times I caught him out in the yard with a blanket around him, kneeling at the manger.

When I asked what he was doing, he replied, solemnly, “I’m the fourth Wise Man.”

I crept away to a respectable distance, marveling at his devotion.

Wondering.

Many Christmases have come and gone. My in-laws are no longer here. “Ma-Ma” died at the end of November last year.

But my son, age twenty-one and a music minister now, still sets out that very same Nativity on the day after Thanksgiving. When the wind gusts enough to blow the figures down, he’s soon outside, standing them back up. The wooden stable fell apart long ago, but “Pa-Pa’s” star remains.

Oh, and we now have a Baby Jesus that lights up.

See, when our makeshift, non-lighted manger and doll got too weathered to use after a few seasons, our elementary-age son improvised with a stuffed dog that our real dogs had played with. It was dirty and torn. He placed right on the ground in front of Joseph and Mary.

I shuddered, thinking, Is it disrespectful to have such a thing depicting Jesus?

Then I realized . . . isn’t it actually more symbolic? To have a Jesus that’s torn, battered, and stained?

I used this as an analogy in a Sunday School lesson.

That Christmas Eve, church members who had a Nativity scene just like ours came in the night to leave their Baby Jesus in the back of my husband’s truck. On it was a note to our little son, wishing him a Merry Christmas.

And that is what Christmas is all about, is it not.

Redemption.

Pa-Pa removing the paint. The people sacrificially replacing what was taken long ago.

Restoring what seems to be hopelessly beyond repair.

My son pauses by the window. The old Nativity is still standing there in our yard, lighting up this dark Christmas Eve night, as I write. My son goes up the stairs to his room, where he’ll work on his music for a while longer.

And I hear the strains of song, faintly:

With the dawn of redeeming grace . . . .

The star

The first Christmas that we were married, my husband and I bought a star tree topper at a drugstore.

That was over thirty years ago.

The star was silver then.

Eventually I sprayed it gold so it would better match ornaments on the tree.

Every year I have to reinforce it with hot glue and duct tape. And every year I say it’s time for this old star to go.

But it still shines.

And I can’t find another tree topper I like better.

It’s older than our children. It’s presided over Christmas for their entire lives.

It’s outlasted the gingerbread ornament that my youngest made in preschool. The sweet ornament crumbled after a decade or so—ashes to ashes, dust to dust, gingerbread to cinnamon and cloves. Spice of life, formless and void, fragrant fragments in my hand when just the Christmas before, it was whole.

The star shone on when other lights went out, one by one. Lights in my life, not those of man-made strings on the tree. This star glowed above me as I decorated, year after passing year, listening to a particularly poignant version of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring that pierced my soul. The haunting chords stirred an almost unbearable sense of loss. Of time, of people, of the inevitability of it all. For a moment, though, under that star, somewhere in the music, in the light, in the season, those who loved me were near again. Not visible, not tangible, yet present, perceptible. Very near.

It stands within its own circle, this star. I think of all that might symbolize. The circle of life. May the circle be unbroken. A wedding band, a halo, a covenant. Wholeness, holiness.

It is fragile.

It is old.

But the star hangs on. It still shines.

With Christmas grace.

Circle of light

Good fairy

The Fairy Queen. Shayariel TeardropCC-BY

I have a colleague, mentor, and friend who retired a few years ago but who remains tirelessly dedicated to supporting teachers as writers. I was about to describe her here as a small, lively lady but those words don’t do her justice; she’s a vivacious dynamo. Her bright blue eyes always sparkling with energy, she’s mission-minded, a visionary, able to discern and speak hard truths with grace, even humor.

This past summer, as we co-facilitated a teacher-writer institute in our district, my friend was constantly thinking of ways to empower our attendees: “You know, if we need additional assistance, she would be wonderful; she knows so much about teaching young writers,” or “We need to think about a way to get them to share their experiences as writers; more teachers need to hear this!”

Listening to her one afternoon, as she made more suggestions on how colleagues could maximize their strengths, an image formed in my mind: My friend garbed as a fairy, walking a twisting path through an ominous, dark forest, wand held aloft, casting a welcoming light, seeing the good that’s hidden, calling it to her.

“You’re like a good fairy,” I told her, “the way you see people and empower them to find and use their gifts. It’s amazing how you’re always drawing more people into your warm circle of light, no matter how dark the path might get.”

“Oooh, I love that!” laughed my friend. “With a frog on my shoulder!”

“You know I will have to write about this,” I warned.

“Okay, just don’t forget the frog,” she said, eyes twinkling, moving on to a table to give feedback to a teacher who was just beginning to see herself as a writer. I watched as tears flowed down that teacher’s radiant face.

I thought about how I wouldn’t have been here at this institute, wouldn’t have had numerous opportunities as a literacy coach and writer if it hadn’t been for this friend who tapped me almost immediately for the work. Nearly from our first encounter, she encouraged me to use my voice, to seize moments, to inspire others, to keep pressing on, and, above all, to WRITE.

How thankful I am for her circle of light, that she drew me into it. Greater than any candle, torch, or wand, the light of inspiration passes from one to another as we march onward in the journey of life, with its inevitable twists, unexpected turns, obstacles, and darkness. Sometimes we cannot see further than our own immediate, wavering circle of light. That’s when it’s most important to look ahead, to recognize those going before us like beacons, vibrantly carrying on. Whatever comes, my friend will always be there, shining bright, holding her light as high as she can to make the circle larger . . . her little frog riding on her shoulder.

 

The garden

“It’s finished,” said Cadillac Man, as we laid the headstone commemorating his little companion of sixteen years.

He’d chosen this spot months ago as he watched his beloved dog wasting away, day by day. And so we laid Nik to rest here in the shade of the crape myrtle our family planted when we first moved to our home. Nik was a year old then. Cadillac Man was five, soon to finish kindergarten; he’s entering his last year of college now.

The tree in its fullness marks the passing of time. It was young when my boy with black curls and his little red dachshund were young. I think of myrtle being an ancient funeral flower, how it represents love and faithfulness . . . never mind that a crape myrtle isn’t a true myrtle. The name association is enough; the symbolism perfect. As the pink blossoms collect here by Nik’s likeness, I recollect the bright spot of happiness he was throughout my son’s childhood, throughout the life of my family.

The statue is my doing. Cadillac Man drove me on a four-hour round trip to get it. “It’s just like him!” he exclaimed when he saw it.

Yes. For the garden is not here for remembering that Nik’s no longer with us after so many years, whenever we see it through the kitchen windows or as we pass by on our daily comings and goings. It is not for mourning, or to assuage our pain.

It’s here to celebrate the gift of his life—a garden of gratitude.

It is complete.

*******

And so, it would seem, the Nik stories are complete.

The Nik collection:

Good-bye, mighty Nik

Cadillac Man shares his writing!

Dogged determination

Enriched

Coyote pups

Four Coyote Pups by Den. Colorado. nature 80020CC BY

As sixth grade ended, my teacher recommended me for a summer enrichment camp.

“You’ll love it,” she said. “Every day for two weeks, you’ll get to study drama, writing, and photography.”

I desperately wanted to go.

When I brought the paperwork home to my dad, he frowned.

“I don’t think so,” he told me.

“But, Daddy, it’s a special thing. You have to be invited by your teacher and I get to study drama and writing. It’s going to be so much fun. I can even ride the summer school bus to get there every day—please, Daddy?”

“It costs, you know.” He sounded tired.

The attendance fee, I think, was twenty-five dollars. Maybe thirty. It didn’t seem like a lot to me, but I knew Daddy worried about bills. My mother had ongoing medical expenses; my sister and I took weekly allergy shots. I knew not to bother Daddy when he sat at the table with the checkbook—I wouldn’t go near the kitchen at all, for then he wore a worse frown than the one he was wearing now.

No point in pressing him. I went to my bedroom, shut the door, and cried.

Later that day, or maybe the next, Grandma called. After chatting awhile with my father about news, how our all of our relatives were in their little North Carolina hometown and how everybody was there in Virginia, she asked to talk to me.

Daddy handed me the phone. It had a long cord—really long. From its wall mount, the phone cord reached the floor. It would stretch from the kitchen down the hall to my room, where I could sit on my bed and talk in private.

“Hi, Grandma.”

“Hello, Dear,” she said, the warmth of it like June sunlight bursting through a break in the clouds.  “I just wanted to hear your voice.”

My tears welled again. “I miss you.”

“Is something the matter?”

I told her all about the camp, about Daddy saying no because of the cost.

“How much is it?”

I told her.

“I’ll pay for it,” she said, uncharacteristically crisp. I could almost see the lift of her chin, the flash in her blue eyes. “I believe children should have the chance to do some things they really want to do.”

“Thank you,” I sniffled into the phone.

“Let me talk to your Daddy.”

And so it was that I went to the summer camp on the benevolence of my greatest advocate, Grandma.

Riding the bus with high school kids having to attend summer school in order to pass their grades was an adventure unto itself, but beyond that, camp was a laboratory of creativity.

I encountered pantomime for the first time, communicating story with the body, without words. I wasn’t especially good at it but some of my fellow campers—aged eleven, twelve, thirteen—were astonishing. One boy mimed being closed in by a shrinking box so well that the box was virtually visible. I watched, holding my breath, enthralled.

The drama teachers grouped us into fours, gave the groups four words, and challenged us with writing cohesive skits with these four words embedded in dialogue. My group’s words were—to the best of my memory—lion, clock, heart, flies. We were timed on the writing of the skit and the rehearsal of it, including the creation of minimalist props out of construction paper. My group, with me as scribe, wrote a farcical story of a doctor having to treat a patient who was attacked by a lion and who got away by throwing a clock at it, to which the Groucho Marx-esque doctor remarks: “My, how time flies!”

We entitled it “Dr. Heartbeat, Dr. Heartbeat” after a TV series that none of us really knew much about except that it seemed weird and therefore perfect: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. 

We performed last for our fellow campers, to a standing ovation and teachers wiping their tears at our over-the-top slapstick antics. Yours Truly played the hapless doctor.

We studied fairy tales; we wrote and illustrated our own, to be “published” in laminated books we could keep. I wrote “The Littlest Mermaid,” having long been captivated by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” Ages before Disney brought us red-headed Ariel, my pink-haired mermaid battled jealous bullies. When I wrote The other mermaids hated her, the writing teacher said, “Hate is a strong, terrible word. Do you think it belongs in a story for children?”

I revised: The other mermaids didn’t like her. 

Ever since, I’ve thought about the power of one word, and when is right or not right to use it. And audience. And whether children should be shielded from the word hate, and when are fairy tales just for children?

In photography class, we campers built cameras from shoe boxes, learning about light leaks and timed exposures. I was able to produce a picture of a basset hound (they don’t move a lot) and my classmate sitting in a tree. The teacher explained that we were “photojournalists”—we’d write about the process of building and using our cameras, what worked, what didn’t, and why. He then encouraged us to write stories about the images we took and developed.

For a final writing adventure, the writing teachers invited us to look through a stack of glossy, full-page photographs. I chose two: One of a single coyote standing in a canyon, the other of four little coyote pups. I was taken by the animals’ beauty and the warm, reddish colors of the rocks.

Trouble was, I knew nothing of coyotes beyond the Road Runner cartoons. The animals in these photos were unexpectedly magnificent.

Thus began my first real foray into research. It began with place: Where do coyotes live? I needed to know. At home that night, I cracked open a dusty encyclopedia from the bottom shelf of the living room bookcase. After poring over the coyote entry, I chose Pueblo, Colorado, for my coyotes’ home. And having learned, somberly, that man is the coyotes’ worst enemy, I had an idea for a plot: Survival. After the mother or the father coyote is shot, the mate takes the pups on a journey to a new home. I also encountered the word ravenous for the first time . . . and when my teachers asked me to read my story for the gathering of families at the program on the last day of camp, I mispronounced it, saying that the coyotes ate ra-VEEN-yus-ly. “I wish I’d heard you read it aloud first,” a teacher apologized. “It’s RA-ven-ous-ly.”

Alas. Reader’s vocabulary.

It was decades and decades ago, but the richness of the camp is with me still: Every day an adventure, with something to discover, to explore, to synthesize into something new; an extension of myself, what I love, who I am. A wealth of learning compounded with interest, over time.

That Grandma made possible, because she believed it was important, even necessary. I later learned how much she wanted to take piano lessons as a child and her family couldn’t afford it. A charitable young preacher’s wife eventually taught her how to play.

And, ever the angel wielding the sword on my behalf, Grandma was willing to take a piercing in return; she sent me to the camp even though she knew it would shorten the time I’d spent at her house that summer.

Because, for some investments, the payoff is incalculable. Grandma understood this.

And even then I understood that I was, in so many ways, enriched beyond measure.

Kilroy

He flew back to me from long, long ago.

My memory of him is dim, fleeting. I can only see partial scenes, the way a migraine sufferer is unable to look directly at objects because of a big gray spot but can see things around the periphery.

In a summer writing session last week, my co-facilitator challenged participants with quick-writing a bird story—for “everyone has a bird story.”

I have quite a few, some of which I’ve already written.

I looked at the page, waiting, my thoughts circling like birds themselves, tiny dark things against a whiteness, when suddenly there he was, crisp and clear, his black feet gripping the black perch, his crested blue head tilted, white face gleaming, a bright, black-rimmed eye regarding me with curiosity.

Oh, I breathed in my mind, I’ve been wanting to write about you! I’d almost forgotten.

He blinked, ruffling his beautiful blue, black-striped feathers. He watched me expectantly.

Kilroy.

*******

Aunt Jack’s house is different from anyone else’s. It’s full of stuff but not messy. I feel a strangeness here. Maybe it’s the animals. A big, speckled brown bird with a white ring around its neck and long tail feathers stands on a hunk of wood. “A pheasant,” Grandma explains. Aunt Jack is her youngest sister. The deer heads mounted high on the wall watch me with their big, soft eyes. I am scared of the bear head and its disconnected feet with sharp claws up there. On a shelf stands some small cat creature, the color of sand with brown spots. I think its mouth is open and its teeth are showing but I look away and hurry past.

I’m in a zoo of dead animals. Stuffed. Someone killed them all.

I do not know who or why.

Aunt Jack is small with a white, heart-shaped face, always smiling. She has brown hair almost to her shoulders and brown eyes as big and soft as the deer. She’s always moving, even when she’s sitting. I like to listen to her talk; her voice is like music, her words quick notes skimming through the air like stones tossed over water, or sunlight flickering through tree leaves on a summer afternoon. As much movement in her light voice as in her slight body.   

She’s always happy to see me, hugs me, says my name in her pretty, musical voice, and I remember how I have the same name as her father. Because it’s also Grandma’s middle name. It’s a special thing. 

I follow Grandma and Aunt Jack from room to room. When we go back through the living room, I see him.

On a tall, black perch, in front of the backside of the sofa.

A blue bird with a white chest and black stripes on his body.

I think he’s stuffed, too.

But his crested blue head tilts; a bright, black-rimmed eye regards me with curiosity.

“Oh!” I say, coming to a dead stop.

Aunt Jack laughs. I think of wind chimes.

That’s Kilroy. He won’t bother you, honey.”

“He’s your pet?”

Yes. I found him on the sand by the river when he was just a baby, so I brought him home.” 

Kilroy blinks, ruffling his beautiful blue and black-striped feathers. He watches me expectantly.

I take a step closer. I have never seen a bird that wasn’t in a cage inside a house before.

A living one, that is.

“Hi, Kilroy,” I call in my friendliest voice.

—Squawk! 

I jump. He sounds like Grandma’s screen door opening.

Grandma and Aunt Jack just laugh.

Kilroy smiles.

I swear.

*******

I don’t know how long Aunt Jack had him, or how many times I saw him. He was free to fly around the house, and I don’t remember any droppings. If I remember correctly, he stole shiny things like pens, rings, and coins, and hid them, sometimes behind the refrigerator, and he liked to crack nuts open and eat them.

I try to imagine my great-aunt walking on the sandy riverbank by her home, discovering the fledgling, carrying him to the house, feeding him by hand. Kilroy was devoted to Aunt Jack. The most enchanting part of their story is how he’d wake her in the mornings by walking on her chest.

Aunt Jack couldn’t have children. I can only guess how much she loved Kilroy, the living spot of color and joy amongst all those dead, unblinking creatures.

The grayness overcomes my memory here; only a little bit’s left around the edges. I can’t recall if Kilroy was allowed to fly in and out of the kitchen window. Maybe. But I’m not sure. It’s too far away, too dim. The memory, like gossamer, disintegrates when I try to touch it.

What I do know is that one day he flew out of the window and never returned, although Aunt Jack went out, calling and calling for him.

And that she still felt his little bird feet walking on her chest every morning, long after he was gone.

Blue jay feather

Blue jay feather. Robert NunallyCC BY

My last remaining aunt tells me that Aunt Jack did leave a window open enough for Kilroy to come and go as he pleased. He’d peck on the window when he wanted her to open it. When Aunt Jack was outside, he’d fly to sit on her shoulder. Remembering Kilroy piqued my interest in blue jays; I had to look them up. They can live twenty-six years in captivity and usually around seven in the wild. And they aren’t really blue. The color is produced by their feather structure scattering light— if a feather is crushed, the structure is ruined and the blue disappears. The feather is dark brown or black. Blue jay feathers, then, are illusions of light. 

No illusions, however, about blue jays symbolizing energy and vitality—Kilroy embodied it, in all his blue glory. As did Aunt Jack herself.  

 As for the dead creatures: The stuffed bear and wildcat are apparently from another early memory that’s merged with this one over time, but my last aunt says there were definitely stuffed birds on Aunt Jack’s mantel. I opt to leave the bear and the cat in the story with apologies to Aunt Jack, who’d be delighted, I think, that she and Kilroy are still remembered.

The horse

Secretariat

Secretariat. Charles LeBlancCC BY-SA

They’re gathered at the kitchen table—Daddy, Mama, Grannie, Earnie— as Mama shuffles the cards. With a riffling “flflflflflflflflflflt,” she makes the cards fall in a fancy bridge finish. I don’t know how she does it. They’re playing Canasta. Cigarette smoke hangs thicker than fog in the close kitchen; Grannie is the only one who doesn’t smoke. I sometimes think that the white cloud pouring like an upside-down waterfall from Earnie’s lips straight up to her nostrils looks kind of dragonish. I wonder again why she’s not married, being my mother’s older sister. My sister and I almost never call her Aunt. She’s just Earnie. 

I can’t stay in the kitchen for long. The smoke stings my eyes and makes me cough. I watch cartoons with my sister for a while on TV, then drift back to my room to look at my at rock and mineral sticker books, until I am thirsty and come back to the kitchen for Kool-Aid. The grown-ups pay me no mind; they’re into their game. I pay them no mind as I get my drink from a pitcher in the refrigerator.  

Until I hear them saying a strange name. One I’ve heard on TV.

A lot. 

It sounds like “secretary.”

Earnie is a secretary. For something called Sybil Service. For the Army, I think, but she doesn’t wear a uniform. She can write in shorthand. I have seen her notepads and her little squiggles look made up. How can those little curly marks mean anything at all?

But they’re not talking about a person. I can tell by the way they say the name that there’s something very important about it. 

“Who is Secretary It?” I ask. I gulp my Kool-Aid. 

Secretariat,” Daddy says, enunciating clearly, frowning at his cards. “He’s a racehorse that just made history. He won the Triple Crown—ran so fast that he left all the other horses behind like they were just standing still.” 

Secretariat. Secretariat.

The name is as strange as Earnie’s shorthand. It uncurls in my head like a wisp of smoke. The way Daddy says it is the way people speak in church before the preacher preaches. When the music is just beginning. 

Part of me suddenly envies this horse who can run so fast, who’s so strong. I can’t run. When I do, I can’t breathe; my asthma is as heavy as a horse sitting on my chest and all I can do is wheeze until it passes.

But another part of me tastes something sweeter than Kool-Aid when I whisper his name.

Which I do, over and over.

Secretariat.

*******

I don’t remember seeing him run or win the Triple Crown in 1973. I didn’t know he was the first such winner since 1948, that he broke records with his times, that he won the Belmont by 31 lengths—so much that when I look at the old footage now, the other horses aren’t even in the frame with him. I didn’t know anything about horse racing at all, nothing about the big money, or betting, or odds.

But I remember the awe, the utter reverence, with which his name was spoken. His image, a magnificent, glossy red horse with three white-stockinged legs, soon became familiar to me.

What I understood instantly, the day I learned of him, is that he was the stuff of legend. His name tasted of rare glory, of something almost otherworldly. It’s possible that Secretariat was the beginning of my love of things fantastic.

I celebrate Justify’s recent Triple Crown win. I pulled for him all the way, holding my breath, tears flooding my eyes when he crossed the finish line, another beautiful chestnut horse excelling at exactly what he was born to do.

And I marvel at my weepiness, at my need to go back and watch the clips of Secretariat, to read about him one more time. It’s a longing born of wonder, of the crystallized moment that this big red horse with the strange name seeped into my heart like the red Kool-Aid stain above my lip, sparking something magical in the little girl that I was.

img_4952-4

 

Of calluses and rings

My older son showed me his hands this morning: “Look, Mom.”

He has tiny calluses across both palms from working out.

It causes me to reflect on why we labor hard enough at something for the friction to wear such places on our skin. To my son, the weight training is worth the effort for his physical well-being; he is dedicated to his regimen. His hands pay this small price for the health of the rest of his body.

In the photo above, a man’s ring has worn a callus on his palm when he forgot to remove it before a mountain bike race. It draws me because I have a similar, very faint callus on my own left palm from my wedding band. As I hardly race mountain bikes or use my hands in intensive manual labor on a daily basis—and I don’t even wear my rings while at home due to contact with soaps, cleansers, and detergents—it’s a bit mysterious as to why this hard little spot exists on my hand. I’ve decided that it’s occurred over time, over many, many years of marriage.

Therein lies the rub, so to speak. The ring, over time, has worn the callus. Might it be symbolic of marriage friction? For, let’s face it, no two people can live under the same roof for long without some earnest element of friction. But in a strong marriage—in any strong relationship—the labor of love is worth it; you keep at it. As long as your hearts don’t become callused (and your attitude callous) toward one another, the relationship protects itself against the friction. That’s what a callus is, a protection-against-the-friction place.

Last Saturday, my younger son, Cadillac Man, showed me the huge callus on his own palm. It’s from the shovel he used to dig the grave for Nik, our sixteen-year-old dachshund. This little dog was his daily companion since he was four and saw him almost through college.

If you’ve ever raised a dachshund, you know about friction . . . .

But the callus on Cadillac Man’s hand is a labor of love.

And worth it, for while his heart (and mine) are presently more sore than his hand, we expect more calluses yet, for we’re going to make a memorial garden where Nik is buried. A beautiful callus on the earth, if you will. A protection-against-the-friction of having to let him go, a working toward healing by building up a place of strength. The pains of creating our little memorial will be insignificant compared to the expected result.

It happens to be Memorial Day weekend. I think of men and women wearing wedding rings given by spouses who’ve died in service of the United States. Of families and friends marking the losses of those they loved. They’ll bear the scars of it on their hearts always. I think of those who fell, in this generation and all those before, believing that, if they must pay the price of their lives for the well-being of others, the outcome would be worth it.

Labors of love, protection-against-the-friction.

The story of sacrifice, sometimes complete, often beautiful, lies in the hard places left behind.

 

Good-bye, mighty Nik

Nikolaus, 2004. Age 2. 

Dear Nikolaus,

I write to celebrate you and your long, long life.

To thank you for the joy you brought and the love you gave for so many years.

To ask your forgiveness.

When you first came to our family, we were elated.

April 2002. Age 3 months.

You see, we’d been looking for a little dog because we had a little boy who wanted one so badly. Big dogs frightened him.

But you were perfect.

April 2002. Nikolaus age 3 months. Cadillac Man age 4.

And so you grew up together.

You weren’t always easy, but you were always, always loved. Despite the countless accidents in the house and that time you snuck a chicken strip off of little Cadillac Man’s plate and ran for all you were worth with your booty. Not to mention how you figured out a way to climb on top of the furniture to get the boys’ Valentine and Easter chocolate. And ate it all, leaving only the wrappers behind. More than once. How did you do it and not get sick?

We began to think, all things considered, that you might be immortal. After all, you outlasted legions of other pets. The boys began to joke about you plotting the demise of every other dog, for they came and went throughout the years, but you remained. No one questioned your alpha status. Not even the dogs seven times your size, when you took their rawhides and their pillows for your own. They just sat, blinking in respectful disbelief, at your Napoleonic powers.

There’s so much to say, for we shared so much together. I am thankful for my special place in your little heart. How, when you were young and strong, you’d jump up on the couch to curl up beside me or to crawl in my lap. For the hours I spent working on the computer and you were snuggled behind me, between my back and the chair. I loved you and your deep, abiding warmth, always near, just being. Just together.

How the boys loved you. How they laughed as we tried to teach you to roll over, to sit and beg, the two tricks you’d pull off multiple times in succession just to get one treat.

How much comfort you gave them when they were hurting, from boyhood to manhood. They held you in their arms, but you, well—you were holding their hearts all along.

January 2017. Cadillac Man, age 19, celebrating Nik’s 15th birthday with a car ride.

Time is no friend, is it, old sweet Nik. Not when it takes your youth so that you can’t jump anymore but have to be picked up and carried. Not when it turns your face and paws so white. Not when it takes your sight, your hearing, even your ability to understand exactly where you are and what’s going on.

Here’s what I marvel over: That you tried to run through the grass like always, even when you couldn’t see. That you could still find me in bathroom getting ready for work each morning. That you never forgot where your treats were, or that you should get one after coming in from outside, even when it had to be broken into small pieces for you to chew. I knew you could only find them by smell; that’s why I put your broken-up treats on the kitchen rug, so you wouldn’t push them all across the floor trying to get them into your mouth.

I marvel over your ever-voracious appetite, how you ran for your bowl every morning, even if we had to guide you just a bit.

And I worried when you started losing weight.

May 2018. Age 16. 

The vet said your blood work was amazing for a dog of your age; never saw the like. Said your heart was strong. Said things like cancer can make a dog lose weight despite plenty of food, and it wouldn’t show in the blood. Gave you the pain medicine which made you sleep but also tore your bowels up so that we couldn’t give it to you anymore.

And still you rallied, although every day you got thinner and thinner.

Cadillac Man watched you staggering and falling in the yard.

Mom, he looks like a skeleton. He’s just going in circles. 

Mom, it may be time.

Mom, I just got on the scales with him. He’s under seven pounds.

Three weeks before, you were about nine pounds.

When you were a young dog, you were nearly twenty pounds.

On Saturday, when I gave you your last bath, I could see every vertebra on your back, could feel every knob on your tiny tail. For the first time in your life, you sat in the bathwater, too weak to stand.

When we wrapped you in your “Happiness is a Dachshund” blanket to take you to another vet, I didn’t know it was going to be good-bye.

I didn’t.

I thought maybe another medication would help. Or another suggestion. You’d made it so far, so well, until then. The regular vet said your heart was strong, so . . .

The new vet said:

I can’t fix the blindness.

I can’t fix the deafness.

I can’t fix the severe cognitive impairment.

You can run tests to see why he’s losing the weight, but it would only be for academic purposes. Just to know. He’s a very old, weak dog.

Cadillac Man looked at me, holding you in his arms:

Mom, there’s hardly anything left of him.

How to let you go like this, when you’d been so utterly trusting and loving your entire life?

You looked at me with your tired, cloudy eyes, and I wasn’t sure what you were seeing. Maybe me. Maybe not.

I couldn’t know how much pain you felt; you never complained. You just kept going, for it’s all you knew to do.

I loved you. I struggled then, I struggle now with the decision, but I believe the boy—the man—who loved you best knew what was best.

And so we stroked your sweet head when you breathed your last—one tiny sigh, of contentment, of resignation, of release—utterly, utterly peaceful.

And I take comfort where I can find it. When I read about euthanizing suffering pets, when I talk to others who’ve been there, I don’t question the logic. Of course no one wants to watch their beloved endure prolonged suffering. When I think of your ravaged little body, I know you couldn’t bear much more. Your determination, your will, was astounding. That’s where I struggle. That’s why I write. It’s a matter of the spirit, see.

I write to celebrate our long run together. Sixteen years.

I write to thank you for your unconditional love, and to tell you that mine is just as unconditional. I love you still, even now that you’re gone.

I write to thank you for the joy you brought to two young boys for so long. You’re indelibly written on their hearts, as long as they live.

I write to say I’m sorry. For all the times I lost my patience, for the times I could have made more time, for being part of that last, anguishing decision. But if you were going to go, I was going to be there with you, all the way.

And I ask your forgiveness, because the weight is so hard to carry. But old age and sickness are hard to carry, too, aren’t they.

For something so little, you are so mighty, Nik.

I imagine you always will be.

Roses in the smoke

Red rosebud

Rosebud. Jan SoloCC BY-SA

By the chain link fence of our backyard, a rosebush grows. 

It’s really growing in our neighbors’ backyard, but, according to my mother, there’s an agreement that the roses hanging over into our yard are ours, and the roses on the neighbors’ side are theirs. 

So, early one Sunday morning, my mother ushers my sister and me out to the fence. In one hand my mother holds pair of shears. In her other hand is a cigarette. Salem. Menthol Fresh.

“Pick out the rose you want to wear,” she says. “From the ones on our side.”

The roses are vivid red with a hot pink tint. Some are wilting. Some are big and full. Velvety. Their fragrance is heavy in the air. 

“This one!” says my sister, pointing to a large bloom.

That one might fall apart while you’re wearing it. Find one that’s not all the way open yet.”

Why did she tell us to choose?

We finally select tight rosebuds that my mother thinks are acceptable. She puts her cigarette in her mouth and clips the two buds. Then she clips a third one that’s partially open.

“Why are you cutting three roses?” I want to know.

My mother blows a cloud of smoke into the air. Menthol and tobacco mingle with the scent of roses. “One’s for me. Grannie is living, so I’ll wear a red rose to church for Mother’s Day, too.” 

She has three straight pins in her sleeve. She removes one to pin my sister’s rose to the front of her dress. 

I am thinking about Grannie. Her mother is not living. “What color rose will Grannie wear, then?”

White,” says my mother, pinning my red rosebud to my dress.

I am sorry for Grannie, her mother being dead, having to wear a white rose. One day my mother will wear a white rose on Mother’s Day. The thought floods me with sadness. The colors make me wonder—why?  Why red for living mothers and why white for dead mothers?

Is red for the blood?” I ask.

My mother, in the midst of pinning her own rose, leans in. She can’t hear well. Sometimes she doesn’t catch everything other people are saying. “What?”

Do people wear red for living mothers because they still have blood in them and white for dead mothers because when they die there’s no more blood?”

My mother frowns. An upside-down V appears between her eyebrows as she looks at me. I can tell she heard me and that she doesn’t understand the question. Before I can try again, she says, “All right, we’re ready. The bus should be here any minute. Let’s go wait out front.”

We ride the bus to church because my mother doesn’t drive. She never learned how. And Daddy is asleep because he’ll be getting up to go to work while we’re at church.

We stand out front, my mother, my sister, and me, wearing matching dresses that my mother made, with our three red roses pinned on, waiting for the church bus. It’s really an old school bus, now painted navy blue and white. My mother lights another cigarette. My sister plays with her necklace—a tan-and-white rabbit’s foot on a piece of yellow yarn around her neck—and I think about colors. Red and white. Living and dead. Blood and no blood.

Good thing we have our own red rosebush for Mother’s Day, or what would we do?

It would be many years before I wondered what color rose a person might wear for a mother in an altered state. As in the case of, say, addiction. As in, if the relationship had disintegrated because of it, because the mother is consumed. Because it happens, somewhere, to somebody, every day. What is the color of dysfunction? Of existing, but not really living? Surely not a blend of red and white, for pink is too cheery. Gray? Does a gray rose even exist in nature? If it did, why would anyone wear it as homage to a mother?

One would just not wear any rose at all, rather than wearing one the color of ghosts, of shadows, of clouded memories, of the mists of time, even if the sun occasionally breaks through to shine on what was good, as on a rosebush blooming along a chain link fence and a bud like a drop of blood on a little girl’s dress, even as swirling smoke envelops it, before the ashes fall.