Cadillac man shares his writing!

A few days ago, I wrote about my son, the Cadillac man. I call him this for his lifelong love of the brand, especially his grandfather’s 1989 Sedan de Ville, which was bequeathed to him. I wrote how the Cadillac man hates writing and only did what was necessary all through school, to my despair.

Sometimes the smallest things shift the universe in mighty ways. During my month-long daily Slice of Life Story Challenge, Cadillac man read my blog post from our dog Henry’s perspective and was inspired, for the first time in his twenty years, to write a story.

“I wonder,” he said, “if I can write a post from Nik’s perspective. To see if I can actually do it.” 

He DID do it.

Then he said, of his own volition (wonders never cease!), “Mom, you can put it on your blog if you want to.”

Here’s what you need to know: Nik is our very old dachshund. We got him as a puppy when Cadillac man was only four. The old man in this story is my husband (“WHAT?” my husband howls with laughter—he’s loud, all right—”Old man? Really?”). The boys are Cadillac man and his big brother. Then there’s me.

Note the recurrence of Darkness. Cadillac man says to tell you that for Nik, “the Darkness” is being confined to a crate, the worst thing of all to him. The “something wrong” is my husband’s diagnosis of ocular melanoma two years ago, resulting in the loss of his eye. 

Today, I celebrate my son’s writing. Again I say: When you finally show up for the writing, the writing shows up for you, and gets you through. 

Published with permission from Cadillac man:

Nik’s Perspective

“Nikolaus, get back on your bed!”

The old man was screaming again. This was nothing unusual. He always seemed to be screaming at something. Whether it was at the people in the glowing window, or in the box he holds to his head, he screamed at everything. I don’t even think he’s angry most of the time; he just seems to be perpetually screaming.

The difference now is that I can barely hear it.

In January, I celebrated my sixteenth birthday. Sixteen years of life, celebrated in one short day.

When I was born, the first Human I had was an elderly lady, not much older than me in human years now. I don’t remember much about her, but I remember the Darkness. The closed-in Darkness that haunts me to this day. I still have to endure it occasionally, but it’s nothing like it was. The Darkness was always there; it enveloped me and I couldn’t leave it until the mesh door was opened, and back then it was only open for eats.

My first vivid memory was when I met them. The loud old man, the (then) teenager, the (then) toddler, and her. Oh, how I loved her. She always filled my bowl just right, she always gave the treats I loved, and she was the warmest lap to nap on. She was also the one who took me to the white place, which was almost as bad as the Darkness. The white place was where these humans poked and prodded me and gave me the needle. But if I was a good boy, which I always was, she, the teenager, or the toddler would give me a treat.

Most of my time was spent with the two He’s, the teenager and the toddler. I vividly remember nights spent curled up in their arms. Those were the warmest places. I felt safe there. I’ve seen the teenager grow into a man, leave the home, make a life for himself, and come back. And I saw the toddler grow into his 20s. I saw him through every hardship, every death, every break-up, and every victory. I remember his long sleepless nights as he stayed awake holding me for warmth, as I am a very warm dog. I remember the sudden screaming at night that would scare me to death at first, but I got used to it and eventually learned how to wake him up when it happened.

I remember all the other associates I had over the years. Some left to find other families, and some left when their time down here was no more. There was Duke, the tough yellow one with whom I worked the first six years of my life, until heartworms took him way too soon. There was Toby, who came after Duke, who was a bit older than me. He was a great partner until he just didn’t wake up one morning. There was Phoebe, Godiva, Tex (I’m not convinced he was even a real creature of this earth). There was Natalie, whose tenure here was ended after an altercation left me with a bloody nose.

Then came the dark day. I don’t understand exactly what it was; perhaps I never will. All I remember was the loud old man coming home, looking defeated and unsure. I remember being in the big room with the glowing window, which wasn’t glowing at that time. I couldn’t understand what was going on, but suddenly the whole room fell completely dark, like the Darkness had gotten control of the Humans. I knew there had to be something wrong with the old man. I had never really liked him. He was loud and scary. But I knew I had to do the right thing. I spent that whole day curled up next to him, which I rarely did. He seemed so calm and so quiet that it worried me.

The old man is back to his old self again, with the exception that I don’t think he can see very well anymore. But for that matter, neither can I.

My only way of finding out where I am or who I’m with is by smelling. I can’t find my bowl on my own anymore, but every morning they still fill it just right, and I eat every bite. I can’t walk up the steps to the room where I sleep, but the toddler-now-20-year-old still carries me up there every night. There are two other associates who do most of the comfort and protection work for me. There’s Banjo, the loud boisterous one who stays outside and protects from intruders, and Henry, who stays inside with me and tries his best to make me stay in my bed, even if it gets on my nerves. They both will carry my torch of comfort and protection long after I’m gone, I have no doubt. The Humans are in good hands with these two.

These humans were my life. I spent years as their comforter, their walking partner, their protector, and their friend. They saved me from the Darkness that could’ve endured my entire life. And as I sit here, just waiting, all I can hope for is that I saved them from their Darkness, too.

-Nikolaus Haley, expert red dachshund

The writing shows up

While I—er, I mean Henry, our dog—composes his own blog post, my younger son (the Cadillac man) drifts through the kitchen.

I pull up a previous post on my phone and hand it to him:

“Here, read the comments about you and Pa-Pa’s Cadillac.”

He reads, smiles. He’s pleased but says little. He’s a man of few words.

He won’t ask, so I tell him what I—um, Henry—is working on: “This is the next post. Henry is writing it in response to one I wrote about him interrupting my writing.”

“Hmmm,” replies the Cadillac man.

“Want to read it?”


So the Cadillac man sits down at the table and takes my laptop. He reads Henry’s post-in-progress.

“I like it,” he says.

He sits for a minute.

Then: “I wonder if I could write from Nik’s perspective.”

Nikolaus is our sixteen-year-old dachshund. We got him as a puppy when my son was four.

As I take my laptop back, I say, rather airily, “You should try it.”

I don’t expect him to.

He hates writing.

This is a big, jagged stake in my heart.

His older brother loves writing and even maintained a blog for a while, long before I started this one. But the Cadillac man has gone all the way through his academic career cracking books only when he had to, writing only when forced for assignments, and utterly exasperating me with his lack of interest. He didn’t struggle with reading or writing. He just didn’t care about any of it.

At all. Ever.

He’s a brilliant musician, however, and a powerful vocalist. He’s loved music all of his life. At age seventeen, two weeks after graduating from high school, he was hired as a church music director. He’s working on a degree in that field. He’s adapted songs, composed a little—”just the music, not the words. I don’t do words”—and coaches others as they try playing instruments new to them. He speaks beautifully before a crowd, did so at Ma-Ma’s funeral despite not having any notes, because . . . he hates to write.

So, when he mentions writing about Nik, I think he’s just wondering out loud, nothing more.

He leaves the room. He comes back to the kitchen table with his new Chromebook.

“Do you have homework?” I ask.

“No, Mom, it’s spring break, remember? I’m going to write a story from Nik’s perspective. To see if I can actually do it.”


The first time in his twenty years that he’s chosen to write a story.

I feel like the floor under my feet is shifting, that the Earth itself hangs in the balance. I have to leave the room.

I can’t stand it. I have to know.

I creep back into the kitchen.

He’s typing away.

“How’s it going?” I dare to ask.

“Pretty good.”

“Is it . . . fun?” I hear my voice quaver.

“It’s sad, really,” he says.

He finishes, lets me read it.

We know Nik won’t be with us much longer. He’s old. Frail. He’s going blind; his eyes are turning milky. My son’s words show Nik making his peace with all of this, that he’s satisfied he’s served his family well, and how he knows our other two dogs will “carry my torch of comfort and protection long after I’m gone.”

The attribution reads Nikolaus Haley, expert red dachshund.

My throat is tight. Nik and the Cadillac man have been together almost their entire lives. Every single day. They wear a matching red-and-black checkered friendship bracelet and collar.

“It’s a powerful story,” I manage.

“Thanks,” says my son, softly. He gets up from the table, gathers Nik, who’s been wandering aimlessly around the kitchen this whole time, and takes him upstairs to “the lair,” as we call it.

I read the story again and again.

Thinking how he said to see if I can actually do it.

I think he meant getting in Nik’s head to write from his beloved dog’s viewpoint, rising to meet a challenge he set for himself.

And then I think how, when you finally show up for the writing, the writing shows up for you, and pulls you through.

Henry writes

Dear Readers,

First of all, hello.

I didn’t realize you were out there. Apologies.

I was only sniffing around to see what She is doing all the time on this, this . . . annoying Electrical Thing. I am forced of late to spend a great deal of time sitting on the kitchen rug by her chair instead of on the sofa where She will cuddle with Me. Granted, I can cuddle with a He (there are three from which to choose), but, as She has the warmest lap, She makes the best pillow.

I cannot figure out what’s so compelling about this Electrical Thing, other than, as I’ve just discovered—having inadvertently hit a movable part—there being a story here about ME.

Well. I don’t know what to think. And that accompanying photo of me-! I am aghast.

Do not tell Her this but I tried getting rid of that unflattering story. I confess that I don’t know how to make it go away. But I am, if I don’t say so Myself, a quick learner, as you can see, although it is taking Me a while to tap this out with one nail.

I do have stories, some that you might need to know, and others from long ago that—well, I prefer not to talk about long ago when I was found living on the streets. It brings a shudder even to this day. If I seem, ahem, needy [air quotes], there are reasons: I have loved, lost, and been lost.

-Hang on. She’s supposed to be sleeping. Must check. Be right back.

[clickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclick . . . 


Gracious, how loud My nails are on the hardwood floor when the house is quiet! I’ve been in trouble yet again for biting them, but, HELLO, it’s time for a pedicure, if Anyone cares.

In the interest of time, before They All wake up: Rest assured that I will be vigilant about policing what is said about Me here, as vigilant as I am over what that abhorrent, slobbery yellow monster out back is doing, the foul fiend that She talks to so nicely in the voice meant for Me and ONLY ME, that incessant barker, copious shedder (My own hair, very, very fine, just comes off in wee, hardly perceptible amounts), that, that ANIMAL whose story has, unbelievably, won some kind of recognition, if My ears didn’t deceive me whilst pretending to be asleep during recent conversations.


Happy to make your acquaintance, however. Until next time, I leave you with a far better image of Me, bedecked in My holiday finery:


HRH (Henry Rollins Haley)

Paterfamilias, Dominus, Master of the House

Why I DON’T write


I think this picture says it all . . .

I took it while trying to write a blog post.

This is Henry.

He belongs to my older son. Who’s back home for a while.

Hmmm . . . thinking of all those pets I foisted on my dad . . . is this poetic justice?

I type a few words, then stare, unseeing, trying to capture the elusive idea, drawing vague images out of the shadows, turning words and phrases around and around for the right rhythm, my mind miles away. I am not even in the world at the moment . . .

A nudging at my lap. The worming of a furred head between me and the laptop.

I am pulled back from wherever I was.

From my lap, two brown eyes look up at me, unblinking.

The images recede, the lovely phrases fall apart in chunks, the idea skitters away.

“What, Henry, WHAT?”

Wagging of tail, perking of ears.

He runs to the back door. Does a dog-dance to go outside. I call it his reindeer dance, because that’s what he looks like, back feet stationary and the front part of his body springing upward, repeatedly.

He’s out there for forty-eight seconds before he’s barking to come in.

He needs his treat.


I settle back at the laptop. What was I thinking about—? Oh yeah . . . 

I type, oh, five or six words.

A nudging at my lap.

I ignore it.

A warm head worming its way between me and the laptop.

I am NOT looking at him. I am WRITING.

He finally withdraws his head. Good. He’s giving up. He’s going to to the living room to get on the couch, thank heaven.

But no.

A soft whine.

I don’t look. I reach over, pat his head. Tail thumps. I am going to finish this post . . .

A low grumble.

Then a louder, longer, much more rumbly one.

“Henry. STOP.”

I make the mistake of looking . . . and take the picture to prove why I don’t write.

He needs to be loved right now. That’s all he wants, to be petted and to snuggle. For me to give him my undivided attention.

It’s my own fault. I’ve spoiled him. I cave, but it gladdens my heart. His fur, especially the white patch at this throat, is silky-soft; he arches and rubs against my hand as if he were a cat.  He exudes comfort and luxuriant well-being. Henry could be a therapy dog; it’s impossible to be sad, angry, or troubled in any way when he’s leaning against me or lying with his head on my feet or even while he’s devising clever ways to get petted. He craves being touched, responds to it with absolute bliss, wriggling, writhing. The words I say to him most often are Sweet boy. Sweet sweet boy. 

He intrudes on my writing. He’d say my my writing intrudes on him.

One day I’m going to put Henry in a story. It’s a really important role; I’ve got it figured out.

I guess I’ll have to teach him to write it, because he’s certainly not going to let me do it.



“Waiting …” jmcmichaelCC BY-SA

When I write personal narrative, memoir, and even realistic fiction across elementary grade levels, I usually give students choices of topic for the writing I’ll model. Many times they’ve chosen for me to write about my dad not wanting any pets when I was growing up, despite my desperate begging for them.

Students rejoice when I overcome my dad to get a dog or a cat.

One of the things I haven’t fully explored with the children is why my dad didn’t want pets. Truth is, it took years for me to fully understand . . . 

That’s where I’m going today.  

To set the stage, here’s a modeled excerpt, the scene when my mom, my sister and I have brought not one but TWO puppies home from our neighbors’ house across the street. It’s getting time for my father to arrive from work, and he has no idea we have these puppies:

“Will he make us take them back?” my sister whimpers. She has her puppy, Bagel, wrapped in a pink doll blanket. She cradles him in her arms like a baby.

“I don’t know,” says Mom. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

She sort of sticks her chin out when she says that.

The three of us sit in the living room, waiting, and when I hear the car door slam, I jump. I hold my puppy, Onyx, so close I can smell his puppy breath.

He’s home! What will he say? Will he yell?

I can hear his work shoes coming up the steps. I watch the doorknob turning . . .

Here he is, in his blue uniform with the white hard hat on his head, his big, gray lunchbox in his hand. He looks at us.

He sees the puppies.

He wrinkles up his face: “What in the . . . ”

“Surprise, Daddy!” yells my sister, holding Bagel up high in the air. “We got you some puppies!”

Suffice it to say the man knew when he was outnumbered. And defeated.

Bagel, the collie-colored, long-haired dachshund mix, was still with us when I got married.

As was Moriah, my black cat: 

Free kittens.

Take one.

The sign stood on a chair beside a disheveled guy leaning against the wall at the college bookstore entrance. This guy—another student, I guess—held a cardboard box in his arms. Kittens! I hurried over to look inside.

Only one dark, little shape huddled in the box.

“Is that the last kitten you have?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he replied. “No one wants her because of her tail.”

“What’s wrong with her tail?”

The guy scooped the kitten up and showed me her backside. She didn’t really have a tail, just a stump.

“What happened to her?” I wanted to know.

“She was born this way. The only one in the litter like this.”

The tiny black kitten looked up at me with her big yellow eyes.

She meowed.

She rode on my shoulder as I drove home wondering exactly how to approach Daddy.

“Please,” I said, clasping her close to my heart, where she purred against me. “No one else wanted her. I’ll keep her in my room.”

You’re allergic to cats!” he thundered. “Find somewhere for her to go!”

I didn’t, and once again, my poor father was defeated.

Moriah developed an endearing habit of running up the leg of my jeans and my shirt to my shoulder, where she liked to ride while I walked around. 

 One day, my father roared from the bathroom: “FRRAAAANNCESSSS!”

My whole first name. 


Had to be something really bad.

I flew down the hall to find him hunched over the bathroom sink. He’d been shaving. White cream all over his face.

When he shaved, he never wore a shirt.

Moriah, watching him, had decided his shoulder looked inviting.

She ran up his leg and his bare back to his shoulder, where she was now hanging precariously by her nails. Embedded in Daddy’s pink skin.

GET-THIS-CAT-OFF-OF-ME!” shouted Daddy. His blue eyes, reflected in the mirror, blazed at me. (Note: He actually said a few  more words than this. I’ve chosen to censor.)

I extracted my cat and we hid for days, until Daddy’s scratches healed.

Two years later, when I was about to be married, the apartment where I’d be living had a no-pet policy. I couldn’t take Moriah.

The night before the wedding, I handed her collar to my dad. “She’s yours now, Daddy.”

Here’s the crazy part: He looked pleased. He kind of half-smiled. 

Weeks afterward, my mother told me on the phone: “Your dad buys turkey at the deli for Moriah. He tears it up in tiny pieces and puts it in a dish for her.”


He did it for Moriah until she was gone. Then he said, “That’s it. The last of the pets.” 

Until my mother brought home a little Shih Tzu. She named her Bridget.

Daddy grumbled for months, but was soon buying deli tidbits for Bridget, too. 

When I was expecting my first baby, I came home for a visit, and Daddy told me this story: “When you were born, your mom and I had a cat. A big, orange tabby named Tiger. He kept getting in the crib with you and we worried you’d suffocate. I ended up having to take him to the pound. It was terrible. I swore I’d never do that again.”

I looked at his face, this face that had frowned about pets all these years, saw the pain-shadow cross over it.

All this time, I thought he was just being hardhearted. 

One night, Mom called. “Bridget died today,” she said.

“Oh no. Are you okay?'”

“I’m all right. Your dad buried her underneath his camellia bush.”

A pause. Then:

“He cried like a baby. I’ve never seen him sob like that before.”

My throat wrenches. Tears burn like fire.

Oh, Daddy. Daddy. I’m sorry for everything.

And there was one more dog to come, yet another that my mother brought home without warning. A Corgi.

Daddy sighed, complained, vented for weeks on end.

He named her Foxy.

He taught her tricks, played with her every day after work. Foxy knew when to expect him; she sat on the back of the sofa, watching through the picture window, waiting for him to come home.

Maybe it’s a case of saving the best for last, for, out of them all, Daddy loved Foxy best.

He never had to give her up, suffer her loss. 

She suffered his. 

For weeks on end, she sat at the picture window, watching for him. Sighing, whining. Day after day after day, waiting, forever waiting, for him to come home . . . 


To dream, to write, perchance to connect


“Connection” by Dylan O’Donnell

Henry is sound asleep on the sofa, his head on two throw pillows, snoring like a middle-aged man.

He is my family’s  endearing, shamelessly-babied Lab-Pit mix. Three years old and in his mind, he owns this sofa. It exists solely for him.

We don’t tell him otherwise.

Within moments, Henry’s breathing changes. His smoky gray body shakes; his white paws twitch. He whimpers at a higher pitch than he ever does when he’s awake.

“He’s dreaming,” we humans say to each other.

That whimper. It sounds puppy-like. Afraid. Vulnerable. Nothing like the rumbling from deep within his chest when Henry “talks” to us (translating to “Hello, I want something, so drop what you’re doing, pronto, to do my bidding”).

Which leads me to wonder: What is he dreaming about?

He is a rescue dog, found wandering the streets. He was timid for a long time before attaining his current level of confidence (and world domination).

Is he reliving a scene from his early life? Was he mistreated? Abandoned? Did something frighten him badly when he was a puppy?

Do dogs really dream like humans do?

The answer, according to Live Science, is yes: “Dogs likely dream about waking activities much like humans do.”

I am the one chasing a rabbit here: Captivated by the article,  I keep on reading beyond dogs to rats to flies—yes, says a cognitive scientist, even flies may dream in some form.

Sounds like something straight out of fantasy . . .

You may visit the site to read about the rats and flies yourself, if you like, but here are the article’s big clinchers for me: That sleep “adds something” to the process of learning and remembering, that sleep is “a sort of categorizing of the day’s activities” and a chance for the brain “to explore in a consequence-free environment”:

The idea is that, in sleep, the brain is trying to find shortcuts or connections between  things that you may have experienced but you just hadn’t put them together.

Cognitive scientist Matthew Wilson, “What Do Dogs Dream About?” Live Science

Categorizing of the day’s activities . . . yes, this often happens to me as I fall asleep. Reliving moments, subconsciously archiving them in specific mental folders for future retrieval as needed. A subliminal attempt at order and organization—how I appreciate that. The brain is an indescribable marvel, the ultimate computer. I envision lines arcing this way and that along a grid, an image of our brains actively searching, reaching, connecting and grouping things, while we rest.

My uncle once told me he could sleep on a problem and before he woke, the solution would materialize in his mind. Some mornings, in the transition between sleeping and waking, I can “see” the day’s events before me, and a detail or an approach will offer itself in a way I hadn’t thought of before. This has a name: liminal dreaming. 

But as I am awake, here is where I very consciously, intentionally, connect some psychological dots.

As Henry lay dreaming, prompting me to wonder about his background and the stuff of his dreams, I happened to be reading Ruth Ayres’ new book, Enticing Hard-To-Reach Writers. It is a must-read for educators, whether one teaches writing or not. Ayres has a lot to say, from firsthand experience, about the brains of children who’ve suffered extreme trauma and neglect. She also has a lot to say about the power of writing, of story, to heal and to save . . . I cannot help thinking now of the thirteen Turpin children in the news and the discovery of  their “hundreds of journals” which officials speculate may have helped them survive the unimaginable at the hands of their parents. If this is true, we’ll soon know.

But as for my dog, his dream, a website, the book in my hands . . . they all converge on the work of the brain:

When I write, I realize new ideas. I make connections. I figure out what I need to do next. When I write about what’s happening . . . something significant happens: I begin to see things from a new perspective. This is how learning happens. This is how growth happens. 

-Ruth Ayres, “Writing Always Gives More Than It Takes,” Enticing Hard-To-Reach Writers

To sleep, to dream, to subconsciously categorize, make connections, problem-solve . . .

To wake, to write, to consciously realize ideas, make connections, problem-solve . . .

Revisit the child in the photo at the top of this post. He’s immersed in water, a symbol of life, an expression of contemplation on his little face. He’s absorbing the experience. The world is big. Sometimes alarming. Not always fair. When he lies down to sleep, what dreams may come? Will they haunt or heal? Hold him back, or help him overcome? He is at the mercy of his dreams. As are we all.

But to wake, to write, is to immerse in thought, to gain unexpected perspective, to remain open to questions, to answers, to possibility, to wonder, to hope.  Dreams, in all their mystery, come and go at random; their meanings and value often elude us. When we write—an equally mysterious process—we actually take hold of meaning. We continually unfold it, one layer of thought leading to another, branching off in directions previously unseen. To write is to go both deep and wide, to actively broaden the scope of one’s own world, to expand one’s sphere of interest, to explore what’s within to better relate to what’s without  . . . to connect.

I mark the page in my book and reach over to rub my quivering dog.

“Shh, shh, Henry. It’s okay. I’m here.”

At the touch of my hand he eases. He lifts his head, regards me with bleary eyes. His tail thumps. He readjusts, curling himself into a tighter ball there on his sofa.

He sighs.

The sound of satisfaction, of being connected, of being safe.

Making adjustments

Poor Banjo

Poor Banjo!

Banjo is my family’s 18-month-old yellow Lab. If he can be summed up in one word, it’s exuberant. If two words – wildly exuberant. He is a force to be reckoned with, ninety-one pounds of raw energy barreling toward us at top speed in hopes of 1) eating something or 2) having us throw a ball or stick for him to retrieve. Endlessly. Banjo goes into a frenzy if he thinks we’re about to stop throwing said ball or stick, the bodily equivalent of shouting NONONONONOPLEASEPLEASEPLEASEPLEASE!!!! His beautiful gold-green eyes (sky-blue when he was a baby) go pink around the rims; he often leaves us humans coated in a layer of frothy slobber, prompting us to quote Bill Murray’s line to Dan Aykroyd in Ghostbusters: “He slimed me.”

During attempted walks on the leash (key word: attempted – these walks are more like trying to restrain a steam locomotive), Banjo’s mouth foams to the point of looking rabid, unnerving to anyone who might recall a certain story about a big yellow dog exposed to hydrophobia. I mentally push this horrible connection away the instant it comes to mind. Managing Banjo has become something of a Herculean challenge, to say the least. Twice he’s escaped from us, running, barking and foaming, through our neighborhood, causing one woman to run into her house and giving young men chase. I corralled him once myself and got him safely to our fenced backyard. The other time my older son chased him for forty-five minutes, while Banjo had the time of his life ripping through neighbor’s yards and swimming in the pond across the street from our house. In disgust, my son gave up and stormed home, at which point Banjo, sopping with pond water, bounded back up the driveway.

Banjo escaped from the backyard recently, having dislodged two slats of the wooden fence by repeatedly jumping against them with his considerable weight. Looking at the slats, presently secured with bungee cords until we can nail them back properly, my husband said, “If we can’t contain him, we’re not going to be able to keep him.”


Despite all, I love this wildly exuberant dog. He’s been with us since he was seven weeks old, a ball of yellow fuzz that slept in my lap or on my feet. Banjo’s presence represents hope and survival, his own as well as my husband’s during a dark time;  I wrote about it in The unplanned baby. How can I just give him up? Yes, he’s one giant mess. Sure, he sheds copiously, enough hair to make a whole other dog. Yes, he dug up the pipe leading from the propane tank by the back deck until the stench of gas frightened us all, giving us visions of the whole place blowing at any moment, until we buried the pipe again and built a small wall of cinder blocks around it. Banjo barked at these blocks nonstop, all day, every day, for about a month.

But when he goes into his crate at night, he looks at me with those golden-green eyes and waits patiently for me to reach through and rub him for a minute. When I do, he leans his head against my hand, closes his eyes, and savors every second – the sweetest, most loving of creatures.

If only he would stay this calm more often . . . .

It was inevitable, of course, and past time, really. It had to be done.

We took Banjo to be neutered.

We did not know until we picked him up that he’d be wearing a cone to keep him from interfering with his surgery site until it healed – for seven days.

“There’s no way,” I said, watching Banjo writhing, twisting, and jumping, trying to rid himself of this horrid thing around his head. But after a few minutes, he sat still, with his head hanging down. Subjugated, submissive, maybe even dejected, Banjo seemed to be contemplating this new, unfortunate turn of events.

In the subsequent days, he simply made the necessary adjustments.

He learned that he had to put the entire cone opening over his food and water bowl to eat and drink. I laughed at the sight. He looked like something straight out of science fiction, a vacuum-headed suction creature from another planet. He ran through the backyard, as exuberant as ever, with his cone pointed toward the sky like a morning-glory flower. He wanted to play so badly that, despite the cone, he managed to drag a five-foot pine limb thicker than my arm to me in hopes that I’d throw it for him.

He still waited for me to rub his head when he went into his crate to sleep.

“I am so sorry about all of this, Banjo,” I said, working my hand through the bars and past the cone.

He shifted his head to help me reach him, leaned against my hand, and closed his eyes. So accepting and forgiving.

I rubbed him an extra-long time, tears stinging my own eyes.

My husband and I took the cone off after four days. We couldn’t stand it anymore.

Banjo is healed now, running unfettered again in the backyard each day of this glorious, sunny spring. He never fails to lift my spirits, this big, beautiful, messy boy. He reminds me that setbacks are temporary, that whatever pain and hardships come, there’s something good waiting just on the other side. Accept, make the necessary adjustments, carry on – cheerfully.

Just another of life’s lessons from an exuberant yellow dog that will hopefully be calmer now.

Regardless, here’s the truth about Banjo: He doesn’t belong to me. I belong to him.


Reflection: What are the necessary adjustments must you make in your own life, currently? Think acceptance, forgiveness, healing, moving beyond. What’s the something better that might be waiting on the other side of the struggle, the pain? Write your truths.


Oh, Henry

Henry playing dead

Henry, playing dead.

Henry is the latest addition to our family.

He belongs to my oldest son, who’s come back home to live temporarily.

Henry is a Pit mix. His coat is a shiny, smoky gray with white markings. He has a tiny underbite, as bulldogs do. His eyes take in everything – he is incredibly perceptive of moods and every move we humans make. If he thinks someone is angry, he creeps over to his crate and goes in.

He is meek, the gentlest, most affectionate dog; he never seems to get enough belly rubs. He puts one paw up on your arm when you pet him. He is always ready to play – he brings tennis balls to us and drops them in our laps. If we’re too slow in responding, Henry nudges the ball closer to our hands.

If we fail to give Henry the attention he wants, he lies in the floor and plays dead. Poor neglected creature!

On the second night home, Henry hopped up on my husband’s and my bed, where he settled himself Sphinx-like, quite majestically, looking at us as if to say: “This is where I shall sleep henceforth. This is my place.”

And so it is. Henry snuggles deep between us every night, often sleeping with his head on my leg.

My husband tells our son: “Henry is our dog now.”

Our son rolls his eyes. “Yeah, sure, Dad.”

Henry has been used to living in an apartment, so having a big backyard where he can run around is an absolute joy to him. He’s in dog paradise.

One morning our son went to call him back in and Henry was gone.

Someone had left the gate open.

A stab went through my heart – I could hardly breathe. This is our boy’s beloved dog, he brings him here, and we lose him. 

Our son had adopted Henry from an animal shelter.

He was a stray.

“HEENNNNNRRRYYYY!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. I ran outside in my pajamas, not caring if the neighbors woke up to see. “HEEEEENNNNNRYYYY!”

After a couple of heart-wrenching minutes, our son found Henry on the front porch, looking guilty. Once inside the house, Henry slunk over to his crate and lay down, looking at us with the whites of his eyes showing.

Oh, Henry.

We are so thankful that you’re here.



Henry making himself at home.


slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer







Dogged determination




What comes to mind when you hear the word perseverance? Perhaps it’s The Little Engine That Could. Or Jim Valvano.

I think of Nikolaus.

He’s a dachshund, and if you’ve ever owned one or read E.B. White, you know that the breed tends to be stubborn – as my eastern North Carolinian father would say, “hard-headed.”

Nik came to us when he was three months old. My boys, ages twelve and four, had been begging for a miniature dachshund after they puppy-sat one for friends on vacation. They knew exactly what they wanted: A little chocolate female. So when another friend called to say that her elderly mother had this very creature but could not take care of it, and if we wanted this puppy, we could have it, my boys were elated.

On the much-anticipated day of arrival, we opened the crate door and out strutted Nik. He was tiny, weighing maybe five pounds.

Within sixty seconds, these things developed:

“Mom, she’s not chocolate,” the older son observed. The puppy’s glossy coat was deep red, nearly crimson.

“Mom, she’s peeing on the carpet!” squealed the younger son. A remarkably large puddle, I might add, for a bladder so small.

“And she’s a boy,” I noted, running for the paper towels.

Just sixty seconds to an inkling that This Might Not Be What We Imagined.

Nik looked at us lovingly, wagging his tail.

He was, I decided in the weeks and months following, completely untrainable. He could not control his bladder. He wet the carpet, sofa, beds, everything. He would not “go” when we took him outside. Crate training did not work at all – he eliminated in it immediately upon entering. Exasperated, I asked the vet: “Why isn’t this working? I read that dogs don’t like to mess up their dens.”

The vet shrugged. “With some dogs, it’s just a behavioral issue.”

Great, I thought. It did not occur to me until much later that he’d been crated a lot as a puppy because his elderly owner could not keep with the demands of caring for him. He cried loudly the whole time he was in the crate. Nik, I learned, never wanted to be confined.

The futile attempt to housebreak him reached its zenith when we moved to a new house two years later.

“Boys, I don’t know what else to do. I’ve tried everything. I can’t housebreak Nik. He hates his crate, I’m going to work full-time, and I can’t let him mess up everything. Maybe it’s time for him to go to a new home.”

The younger son began to sob. “No! We can’t give him away. He is ours. We’re his family.”

My husband, not Nik’s biggest fan by a long shot, melted: “Shh, don’t cry, son. We won’t give Nik away.”

I glared at him.

“Nik can stay in my room when we’re all out,” offered the older son. “I’ll clean up if he has an accident.”

I thought of the new carpet and sighed. “All right, then. This means everyone is going to have to look after him. EVERYONE.”

The strange thing is that Nik seemed to know about this, because, on moving into the new house, he was instantly, miraculously housebroken. Whenever he needed to go, he went to the back door and waited to be let out. Just like that. After two years of abject failure.

The boys taught this untrainable dog to “sit pretty” for a treat, which meant that at every meal Nik was by one of our chairs, holding his pose like a groundhog, in hopes that we’d give him a bite. I taught him to roll over, so if sitting pretty didn’t work, he’d roll over to get his treat. That’s his entire repertoire: Two tricks.

Nik follows me everywhere in utter devotion, and when he was younger he’d jump into my chair to wedge himself between me and the chair back when I was writing. He is wary of my husband – they are in competition for my attention – but as soon as my husband leaves the room, Nik flies over to curl up in my lap, as if claiming me.

The boys say, “He loves you the best.”

Nik’s intense gaze seems to say the very same thing. He watches my every move.

A couple of years ago, we thought we were about to lose him.

My husband and I heard him fall on the landing of the stairs leading to the upstairs bedroom, which we dubbed “Nik’s lair,” as Nik was long accustomed to staying there during the day when the family was out. He’d also go up whenever he was tired or ready to go to bed for the night. By this time the older son was grown and gone, and the room belonged to the younger one, who was not home at the moment. On hearing Nik fall, my husband and I rushed to find him crumpled but conscious on the landing.

My husband began to cry.

“Stop it! You, of all people, crying about Nik! Don’t tell me you’re attached to him after all!”

“It’s the boys,” sobbed my husband. “Having to tell them that Nik … that he might …”

I picked Nik up as carefully as I would a newborn baby. “I’m wrapping him in a blanket. You’re driving us to the vet. Stop crying.”

The trouble was two kinked-up vertebrae, which the vet easily pointed out. He dispensed medication and sent us home.

I made a pallet for Nik in the living room and covered him with the blanket. For two days, Nik didn’t walk. The younger son slept  on the couch to be near him at night. Nik did not eat nor do anything when we took him outside. He just looked at us with big eyes and never made a sound – when he’s not crated, Nik hardly ever makes any noise.

In the wee hours of the third morning, I woke up and decided to check on Nik. My son was sound asleep on the couch. Nik’s blanket was still tucked on his pallet, but Nik was nowhere to be seen. He wasn’t on the couch with my son. I started searching, growing increasingly alarmed. He’s crawled off away from us to die. That’s what animals do. He wasn’t in the kitchen, under the chair where he likes to take his treats.

I woke up my son: “Where’s Nik?”

“He’s not on his pallet?” asked my groggy teenager.

“I can’t find him anywhere!”

I woke up my husband: “Nik has disappeared!”

“How is that possible?” He and my son looked again in all the places I’d just looked.

Then I thought, No – surely not – I don’t know how he could …

The upstairs bedroom. That’s where he’d want to be, if …

My heart pounding, and dread deepening with every step, I climbed the stairs and opened the bedroom door. I turned on the light.

No Nik. Normally he’d have jumped on my son’s bed and gone to sleep.

But he couldn’t jump now, not with his back … very carefully, I lifted the dust ruffle.

A tail thumped in greeting, and two eyes looked out at me as if to say, I just came up to bed like I always do.

I cannot envision how he did it, how he dragged himself all the way from his pallet, up the stairs to his favorite, safe place. Knowing he could not jump, he contented himself with sleeping under the bed instead of on top of it.

I do not cry easily, but I did then.

He recuperated, and it happened again a month ago. This time Nik could not walk for a week and a half. The vet – a different one now – called to see how he was faring.

“He’s not any better,” I said into the phone. “No change. He knows us and wags his tail, but he can’t move.”

“It may be time to think about the quality of life,” the vet said, gently.

We tried to talk about it, the boys, their dad, and I.

“But he knows us still,” I said. “He doesn’t seem to be suffering, except for not being able to walk.”

“Yeah, it’s not like he’s in a coma,” said the younger son.

“If you make that decision, I want to be there,” said the older son, who’d come by on his way home from work. He rubbed Nik’s head.

Nik looked at us lovingly.

Another day passed, and another. He still did not walk.

My younger son and I took turns bringing Nik’s food and water to him. Nik ate and drank – good signs. I carried him out several times a day – he obediently did what he needed to do, lying in the grass. I carried him back inside, put him in his beloved new dog bed, and covered him with a blanket.

More days passed.

And one day when I carried him out, I felt his back legs press against my side. When I took him out, he stood. By himself, he stood, for a few seconds, on his old white paws, looking at me lovingly from his little white face, before his legs gave out and he flopped down.

Each day after, he could stand for a bit longer at a time.

He is fifteen now, turning sixteen in January.  He runs from room to room again like he did when he was a puppy, still begging for treats although he can’t sit pretty anymore, or even see his treats as well as he once did, but he gobbles them just like always.

And every night, one of us carries him upstairs to his favorite, safe place to sleep.

Reflect: Who – or what – represents perseverance to you?  Why? What have you learned from this person or situation, and what have you learned about yourself?




The unplanned baby

Banjo 8 weeks

Banjo, 8 weeks old

He was born on a Sunday in early November, during the first freeze. For some reason, his mother didn’t seek shelter. She delivered nine puppies out in the open on that bitter night; before they were discovered, five of them died.

Getting a puppy was not even a thought when my husband and I stayed with his sister on her Virginia farm near the turn of the year. Our minds were consumed by the purpose of our trip: consulting with a surgeon on my husband’s rare form of eye disease. Following the appointment, burdened with the confirmation that my husband would soon lose his eye, my sister-in-law drove us by the old hay barn where her son was working:

“Let me know if you hear of anyone who wants a puppy. They’re pure Labs but this litter was unplanned, the second this year. I just want them to go to good homes.”

I was halfway paying attention from the back seat of the Suburban when she rolled the window down and called out: “Go get the big one.”

My nephew slipped into the barn. He returned momentarily with a fuzzy yellow ball, walked around to the passenger side, and placed it in my husband’s arms.

Two sky-blue, baby eyes looked round at me from a face that seemed a hundred years old.

He came home with us, of course, this unplanned baby that cried at the top of his surprisingly powerful lungs the entire three-hour journey back to North Carolina. We’re insane, I thought. We have a surgery to contend with and the surgeon said recuperation would be rough. We don’t even know what the long-term prognosis will be. There’s no puppy stuff at home, he’s going to shed like crazy, a big dog in the house, there’s the whole ordeal of housebreaking, we already HAVE a dog, that’s really enough, dear Lord, listen to this crying, we will never sleep another night…

Our college student/musician son was waiting at the door when we pulled up. He nestled the puppy against his heart and named him Banjo, not after the instrument, but the video game he loved as a child, Banjo Kazooie.  Baby Banjo slept in the bed with him and, incredibly, never made a peep that night or any night thereafter.

It was our darkest winter. Through snow, ice storms, surgery to remove my husband’s eye and his painful recovery, Banjo was the bright spot, an endearing and comical diversion, exactly what we needed. He radiated life, healing, and joy; he drove the bleakness away. His very presence represented survival. Turns out that instead of coming at the worst possible time, the unplanned baby came at the best time of all.

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis, the characters sail into a darkness where nightmares come true, with no obvious means of escape. Just as the nightmares begin, Lucy whispers, “Aslan, Aslan, if ever you loved us at all, send us help now.” An albatross appears in the darkness, circles Lucy, and whispers to her in Aslan’s voice: “Courage, dear heart.” Within minutes, the darkness begins to lift; the characters find their way out.

For the record, Banjo looked so like a lion cub that we briefly thought about renaming him Aslan, until we decided that it would be utterly impossible ever to reprimand a creature with that name.

Reflect: When has your life or work been interrupted by something unplanned? Where in that experience might there be an unexpected gift? What chances are you willing to take to find it?

If you’d like to read more about Banjo: Making adjustments