Abiding images

Last week I spent several days on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, studying writing with teaching colleagues from across the state.  This extraordinary opportunity was provided to us by the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching – heartfelt thanks to you, NCCAT, for your support of teachers, and for inspiration at a time when it is needed more than ever.

Ocracoke is, in the words of our faculty advisor, who’s native to the island, “a windy, sandy, watery place.” It’s also tiny and breathtakingly beautiful. One of our assignments was to capture abiding images from this idyllic locale in our writer’s notebooks.

Abiding images are symbols with deep personal meaning to us, often recurring, according to dream analysts. Abiding images are part of us, shaping our lives the way the wind and the water continuously shape this island. To poets and writers, abiding images come from a wellspring inside us – stories, dreams, conscious and unconscious memories – each as unique to us as our own fingerprints.

Our task was to walk in this brine-tinged breeze, under the moody sky, without speaking to one another. We were to walk alone, searching for the images that speak to us.

I prefer to think of it as being called by the images that wish to speak to us.

The long beach grass rippled like hair against the ground; the sea, shimmering and calm on the Pamlico Sound side, flowed ceaselessly from left to right like words across a page. Come, was the inherent, compelling invitation. Come. Listen to me. I have stories to tell.

I filled seven pages with abiding images and took pictures of a few.

There were the pink wildflowers, startlingly bright against the beach grass. Marsh pinks, they’re called. Sabatia stellaris. Our advisor said for anything to survive on the island, it must be hardy, yet here were these delicate flowers with perfect yellow stars in the center, as if painstakingly hand-painted by an artist. Incongruous. Surprising. Hopeful, somehow, for these flowers carry the mark of the heavens in their upturned faces.

I came across some shells by a small hole in the sand, out of which grew a thin, solitary blade of grass. No other grass stood anywhere near this one long, lonely strand, this one hair from this one follicle. There are secrets in the sand, the advisor told us. So much more goes on in it and below it than we really know. 

This curious wisp of grass shivers, nods.

I walk farther and discover the ivory-yellow skeleton of . . . something. I don’t have a frame of reference for it, other than knowing it’s a bone, something once alive. It worries me. I want to know what creature it was and why it’s here in such pristine condition, with no other marks in the sand near it in this isolated spot. How long has it been dead?

I learn later that it’s the skull – just the skull, although it’s the size of a chicken – of a red drum. North Carolina’s state fish.

I still don’t know why it was lying there all by itself.

The last of my abiding images is at the marina in front of the NCCAT building, which used to be the old U.S. Coast Guard lifesaving station. As I turn to go back inside, I encounter a rusted handle quite suddenly in the sand near the marina’s edge. It’s sticking upright, clearly attached to something buried there, and it’s obviously been around a long time. What’s THIS secret hidden in the sand? I don’t tug on the handle, although I want to; I imagine pulling it and a door coming forth from the sand to reveal an opening with stairs leading down to . . . anywhere. A bunker, a secret gathering place, another world, another time. Oh, the stories this strange handle evokes!

Perhaps I will write one of them yet.

For now, the images abide in my notebook and in my mind; they shape me, even as I shape my thoughts about them. I carry them with me while I leave a piece of my heart, perhaps a piece of my soul, behind with them.

We belong to one another. That’s what I think as the sun goes down over the Sound, as I hear boats over in the marina rocking as if they are waking from a long sleep, coming back to life.

We abide.

 

Sunset Pamlico Sound

Sunset on the Pamlico Sound.

In reading and in writing, our instructors told us, “Setting is everything. It drives the story, drives the characters’ actions.” 

Song of invisibility

I sit straight up in bed. “Oh dear.”

My husband jumps: “What’s wrong?”

My brain can’t form thoughts yet. I was dreaming about . . . something. Whatever it was has already melted away.

He repeats: “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. I am – startled.”

My husband sighs, turns over, goes back to sleep.

I can’t. I lie there with my heart pounding.

I’ll write for a while, I decide.

The predawn house is dark but for a nightlight in the hallway. I creep around, wraith-like, to avoid waking the three sleeping dogs. Heading toward the kitchen, I hear it, loud and clear, as if it’s on the front porch, trying to find a way in:

Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will . . . .

My favorite onomatopoetic sound in all the world. I’ve not heard a whippoorwill that close to the house before.

Is that what woke me? 

And then I start thinking about symbolism, so while my coffee brews, I look up whippoorwills on the laptop. Chilling stuff. Harbingers of death, disasters, impending trouble. Being visited by a talking Raven might be more desirable.

Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will . . . .

Okay, it’s a captivating sound, more enchanting than haunting, I think, pouring cream in my coffee. I’ve loved the call of the whippoorwill since I first heard it, the summer after I moved to rural North Carolina. It dominates a warm country night, an energetic, compelling song rather than a plaintive one. It makes me want to stand still and listen for a long, long time. I continue my online reading, how the whippoorwill is referenced over and over in story, song, and poetry. Folks, it’s really a mating call. That bird isn’t going to be lonely for long.  

And then I read: A group of whip-poor-wills are called a “seek” or “invisibility” of whip-poor-wills.

My imagination takes flight. Those are magical words.

“Seek” implies “seeker,” someone on a quest, not to mention Quidditch. Few words have greater magical connections than “invisibility” – it’s a coveted power. Granted, in this context invisibility and seek define a homely, nocturnal bird that is rarely seen and which is simply  seeking a mate with its fervent night song, but still . . . could there be something more?

I’d awakened with a sense of imminent danger, bolting upright in bed. Oh dear, I’d said, just as I crossed the line between sleeping and waking (this a hypnopompic state; I looked it up just now).  While I cannot remember a dream-creature – or any shadow-people, for the true paranormal enthusiasts out there – attempting to do me harm, I do wake sometimes because of a dry, rubby cough, thanks to the flu earlier this year and my latent asthma. I wonder if irregular breathing is the root of this.

What an unromantic notion.

Whatever the reason:  Suppose the whippoorwill arrived at my house not as a portent of doom but as a protector, a preventive force. What if it knew to sing its song – because, let’s face it, that song is all about life and reproduction, not death – to wake me at the very moment before disaster struck? Exactly what, then, did it seek to drive away or undo – and why? What did my evaporated dream have to do with it?

Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will . . . .

Ah, here are better words to describe the call: Ethereal. Otherworldly. 

A little bit of magic in the still of the night from the seek, the invisibility – although I always hear only one.

I sip my coffee, smiling at my flight of fancy.

Although it could be something more . . . .

slice-of-life_individual

My book bag

Bookbag

Everywhere I go, my customized book bag is a topic of conversation.

First of all, it’s literally a BOOK bag, sending the message “I’m a reader.”

Then people realize what the “book” is about. A play on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, my book bag bears the title “Magical Worlds and Where to Find Them.”

Opening a book, for me, is akin to Newt Scamander opening his suitcase – we step in and walk through magically expanded worlds. Whatever the book, it’s a passport to the minds and souls of other people, where I find myself reflected not always as a writer or thinker but as a fellow human being on the common, complex journey of life.

That’s the message I want to send to my young students, who are frequently in raptures over my book bag: Read. Expand your world, your mind.

My book bag actually sends more than one message:

Bookbag spine

It’s an homage to my favorite fantasy writers and the worlds they created, old and new.

Much is written and debated, perhaps, on the importance of reading fantasy. Here’s a favorite quote on the subject:

The problem with people who are afraid of imagination, of fantasy, is that their world becomes so narrow that I don’t see how they can imagine beyond what their senses can verify. We know from science that there are entire worlds that our senses can’t verify. 
-Katherine Paterson

The magic is a draw, certainly – in regard to Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, who wouldn’t want to experience singing stars and merfolk, a centaur, talking animals? Who wouldn’t want a chance to feel the tingle of the box of dust from the lost island of Atlantis and ride on the back of a huge owl? Truth is, the bigger, deeper exploration is not the mysteries of the magical world but the real workings of the human heart – we read fantasy to escape our world, to live in another for a time, and all the while we’re looking into a mirror. This is where our thinking truly broadens – in understanding self, then in pushing the parameters of possibility.

Dr. Seuss said:

Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.  

The lines between the fantasy stories we love best and the world we live in are much blurrier than we realize. It’s where the impossible and possible merge – who’s to say where all the boundaries really are?

Which is fun, sometimes even comforting, to think about.

So everywhere I go, I carry a little fantasy, a little magic, with me.

Via my book bag – a messenger bag, indeed.

Bookbag back

slice-of-life_individual

The storm passes by

Church after tornado 6-18-13

Our phones are popping at the same time:  “Take cover immediately . . . .”

Outside, the wind gusts; objects are striking the building, the windows.

We quickly gather the children who’ve come for Vacation Bible School – there’s about seventy of us in all – and they get down on the floor, balling up with their heads against the painted cinderblocks of the main hallway.

The wind is roaring now. The electricity goes out. The emergency lighting flashes on, bright as spotlights, adding a stark, garish quality to faces and bodies. The fire alarm goes off, a deafening blare, as it’s right above us. A boy with hearing aids rips them out of his ears.

The children are still, silent, as heavy objects strike windows in classrooms – will the windows shatter? For a split second I am tempted to look out and see if Miss Gulch is riding through the air on her bicycle just as she morphs into the Wicked Witch of the West.

Instead I kneel over several children as a shield, leaning my head against the cool concrete wall.

These walls are solid, I think. Safe.

But just around the corner in the fellowship hall is a hutch with a large, framed photo of the church when it was nearly flattened by a tornado twenty years ago.  

Minutes are eternal when destruction is banging on the door.

If we die, I think, at least we are in church.

My husband, the pastor, prays aloud.

The wind soon abates, dies away.  

We go outside to find long strips of vinyl from someone’s home strewn in the parking lot. Big pieces of plywood from who knows where are lying against the building. Shingles are scattered about like fall leaves. The trashcans are way across the graveyard – we trek over to fetch them and we see the gap in the woods where the tornado came through. It cut a path through the cemetery, knocking down a line of gravestones. Silk and plastic flowers, little angel statues and other loose memorials left by families for their loved ones are blown everywhere.

The children retrieve and replace them.

Parents begin arriving, alarmed. Others in the community come to see if everything’s okay.

Just as we are leaving, I turn back toward the church – “Look!”

Arcing up from the woods across the street to the woods behind the cemetery, in the sky directly above the church, a rainbow gleams.

All is well.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

Courage (part two)

The surgery took longer than expected, but the surgeon came to the waiting room at last.

“It went well,” he said. “Your husband’s eye is removed and the implant is in place, covered by membrane and attached to the muscles as it should be, if he were to get a prosthesis.”

He paused.

If it went well, why is he pausing? Something’s not right.

He continued: “I had to remove a lot of extra tissue, as it was dark and there’s no way for me to tell if it’s just natural pigment, or bruising, or melanoma.”

I was shaking. “What does this mean?”

“I took all of the dark tissue but he may never be able to wear a prosthesis, as there may not be enough support for it,” said the surgeon, gently.

I nodded. How are we going to tell him?

“Pathology will send the eye to Wills Institute in Philadelphia – they’re the best. They’ll analyze the tumor, whether or not any cells have spread . . . .”

 I closed my eyes as he spoke, not having considered this possibility.

I recalled the oncologist’s words when we consulted him: By the time it’s found, it’s usually metastasized. Radiation and chemotherapy are ineffective. It’s nasty.

That doctor had treated five patients with ocular melanoma in the last two decades.

All five had died.

Please, God. Please let those cells not have spread.

And then I went to recovery to hold my husband’s hand.

He squeezed mine, hard.

Half his head was bandaged. When an eye is surgically removed (enucleated), that side of a person’s face bruises badly. A conformer, a clear plastic piece like a huge contact lens, is put under the eyelid to hold its shape during healing so a prosthesis will fit.

The pain is intense for the first few days.

When the bandage had to be removed the first time for the application of antibacterial ointment, my husband said, “Get me a mirror.”

I handed it to him.

“Dear God,” he said, looking at his reflection.

It was the only time he cried.

After that, he never complained, not once – all of his energy went into healing.

The first night back home, when he went to bed, my husband said, “I see a light.”

“There isn’t a light,” I said. “I just turned it off.”

“I see it with my . . . what used to be my eye,” he said. “A bright light at the floor. Then it sort of swept up to the ceiling.”

I thought about amputees who still feel rings on fingers that are gone, or sensations in legs that are not there anymore. Phantom pain.

“I think it’s a phantom light,” I told my husband.

 He saw it for a few nights, this ghost light, the optic nerve trying to adapt to not seeing anymore. And then it stopped.

The bruising absorbed in a week or so and the eye – what do you call an eye that’s not an eye? A non-eye? – didn’t look as alarming as one would imagine. Just a pale orb, sort of like sclera without an iris. Not frightening at all, nothing like a hallowgast from Miss Peregrine.  Just different.

And every day we wondered about that pathology report.

Three long weeks went by before the surgeon called:

“No rogue cells in the tissue around the eye! The timing couldn’t have been better – the tumor was in the early stages.”

We threw our arms around each other; we could get on with living.

It wasn’t all that easy.

At first my husband wore a black eye patch to shield the removed eye. Everywhere we went, little kids called out, “Look, a pirate!” My husband just laughed and waved at them. An eye patch, however, is quite convex. It bumped against the lens of his glasses, which he had to wear all the time now for his remaining eye, as it was becoming strained.

He tried adhesive bandages designed for eyes next. Our grown sons said, “Dad, the eye patch looks better than those Band-Aids. A lot better.”

My husband sighed. He decided to try wearing a contact lens in the real eye, doing away with glasses so he could go back to the eye patch, which worried all his doctors:

“You only have one eye now – you can’t afford an abscess or corneal infection,” they told him.

He tried it anyway – and learned that in order to put a contact in, you really need two eyes to see what you’re doing.

At last he resorted to tinted lenses and gave up on coverings altogether.

He had trouble with depth perception, driving after dark, merging onto the highway. He was startled by people approaching him on his left side, because he couldn’t see them coming.

He bumped into things, hard enough to leave bruises.

He had trouble reading, which worried him more than anything else – he’s a minister, and reading is the foundation of his life’s work. He got a magnifying glass to be able to study his Bible.

He became restless, quiet.

At an appointment for his strained eye, the neurological ophthalmologist asked: “Why haven’t you gotten a prosthesis?”

“The surgeon said with all the tissue he removed, there may not be enough support for it,” answered my husband.

“Hmmm,” said the ophthalmologist. “How long has it been since your surgery?”

“A year.”

“I think you should investigate it. Here’s the name of the ocularist. He’s only about an hour away.”

We called, and learned that the ocularist sets appointments in the morning. If the patient is a candidate for a prosthesis, he makes it in his office that day and the patient leaves wearing it.

My husband hung up the phone, his face alight with hope.

“What if . . . ” I struggled, “what if you’re not a candidate?”

“Then I tried, and that’s all I can do.”

I worried the whole trip about how the idea buoyed his spirits, fearing that we’d be sent away, and how would that affect him?

Our younger son drove us. The three of us sat in the office together as the ocularist examined my husband.

“Oh, that was a lovely surgery,” he said. “Lovely. Great movement of the implant. Let’s get to work.”

“Do you mean,” I hardly dared to confirm, “that he will be able to wear a prosthesis, after all?”

“Sure – not a problem.”

I sat there watching as the mold was made of my husband’s non-eye, then as the resin was poured into it to create the prosthesis, thinking, This is like a cross between a medieval apothecary and Lemony Snicket. It might have been downright gothic, except that the room was sunny and cozy, being part of a house converted to an office.

The last step of the process was painting the prosthesis. We watched this man, this artist extraordinaire, open his set of paints and create his little masterpiece. He held the prosthesis up to my husband’s eye for comparison: “You have a lot of ocher in your iris. I have to add more.”

Back to dabbing paint he went.

As long as I live, I do not expect to see anything like it again – it was nothing short of a miracle when the ocularist placed the prosthesis over the implant, and my husband looked at me with two big, beautiful brown eyes.

My mouth fell open.

So did my husband’s, when the ocularist handed him the mirror.

We arrived at 8:00 that morning.

We left at 3:00 that afternoon, with the new eye.

On the porch of the office as we were leaving, in the bright the afternoon sun, my husband said, “Tell me how it looks.”

A perfect match – one would not know which was the real eye.

“It’s unbelievable,” I said. “Amazing.”

“It looks great, Dad,” said our son.

“I feel like myself again,” said my husband. A grin spread across his face.

“I just wonder how long it will be before someone asks if I can see out of it,” and he dissolved with laughter.

That was just three weeks ago.

He hasn’t stopped smiling since.

*******

(Note:  Just before the surgery, when we didn’t know what would happen next, we made the seemingly insane decision to adopt a seven-week-old Lab puppy who needed a home. If you are interested in the puppy’s story in relation to this experience, here’s a previous post: The unplanned baby.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

Follow the light

Hermit crab

Hermit crab. Jessica DiamondCC BY-SA

Daddy has a story to tell this morning:

“Last night, a sound woke me up.  I got out of bed and listened.  A steady clinking was coming from the bathroom. I thought: What in the devil could be making that noise in the bathroom? I went and looked around – didn’t see anything. I bent down to look at the pipe under the sink. Nothing. The noise was much closer, though, almost right in my ear . . . I turned my head and there on the sink leg was that hermit crab, crawling up. His shell was hitting against the metal leg – that was the clinking.”

I look in the glass bowl where my pet crab Shermie lives. He’s completely inside his black-and-white shell now, obviously sleeping off his late-night adventure. 

“He got out of his bowl and went that far? Why would he do that, Daddy?”

 “I guess he was following the light.”

The bowl is in the living room. I look at the hallway. The bathroom is at the end, around the corner on the right. That’s an awfully long way for a little crab. I imagine him crawling along the hardwood floor past the bedrooms in the dark. It’s a good thing none of us got up and stepped on him. 

Shermie’s stalk eyes peek out of his shell and I wish I could ask him: Why were you trying so hard to get to the light?

Maybe it wasn’t the light. A quick skim of the Internet reveals that hermit crabs are nocturnal creatures which often climb out of cages at night, when they would normally be in search of food and water; in the wild, they do this in droves, traveling for miles. When a pet hermit crab escapes – apparently quite a few do – the experts say to check the bathroom, as the crab might be seeking the humidity of its natural habitat.

In the days before the Internet, however, we didn’t know all of this.

For years I thought of that tiny creature and the Herculean task of climbing out of a wide, smooth glass bowl – how, I do not know to this day – to make his way, alone, through the dark toward the only light in the house.

And I would think: If Shermie could figure out where the light is, then so can I. There’s a light to follow out of this darkness, somewhere. I’ll find it. I’ll climb out.

slice-of-life_individual Early Morning Slicer

 

 

Crossing the bay

cape-charles-beach

Chesapeake Bay, Eastern Shore, Virginia. Ken LundCC BY-SA

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
   Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
   Turns again home.

-Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Crossing the Bar”

I walked the little beach many times in the five years I lived in Cape Charles. With the ebb and flow of the tide, tiny periwinkle snails bury themselves in the sand. Gulls hovering overhead cry in their piercing, lonely voices. Storms churn the Chesapeake Bay, stirring its hidden contents so that afterward, treasures can be found on the shore – sand dollars, whole and unharmed, prizes to a beachcomber. I collected many.

I was alone on the beach the day I saw the old train coming to the end of the line at the harbor. I’d never seen it come through – Cape Charles is a tiny railroad town that almost didn’t survive the loss of the industry.

Where’s that train going? I wondered. Has it gotten on the wrong track? There’s nowhere to go – nothing but the bay ahead of it. Will it turn around, somehow? Or back up? 

Is it going over the edge, into the water? 

The train kept rolling forward, slowing to a stop at last.

I relaxed.

And the train began to float away from the land, as if by magic, as if it were Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, sprouting a flotation device.

It’s on a barge!

I watched, marveling, as the train sailed out into the bay, a majestic, most rare sight. I imagined visiting fishermen looking up from their bait and tackle to gawk as the train drifted by their boats.

There was something poetic about it, both grand and poignant, filled with awe and tasting of sadness. The gulls cried; a salt-tinged breeze caressed my face. I watched as the train grew smaller and smaller on the bay, until I could see it no more, and turned again home.

slice-of-life_individual

 

Around the bend

white-peacock

Rezervatia de zimbrii Dragos Voda. Cristian Bortes. CC-BY 2.0 

I live in the country.

Long before daybreak, a rooster crows for all he’s worth, a passionate, guttural cry signifying that the dark night is ending.

My kitchen bay window faces east, catching the first glimmers of pink in the sky.

A short drive on the winding road by my home carries me past weathered stables and tobacco barns, abandoned unpainted houses from a bygone era, and fields where farmers still make their living.

There’s a horse or two in the pastures, innumerable goats, and the occasional delightful donkey, silvery-gray and calm. I have learned that donkeys keep coyotes away – how extraordinary.

One day, along a bend in the road, beside an old gate overgrown with brambles, a peacock strutted, the morning light electrifying the brilliant blue of his body. I slowed down, wishing I could see the long green train of his feathers fan out, but the peacock was skittish and went back through the gate via some hidden hole. Surely he should not have been out by the road, although the sight of him made me grateful to be alive. From then on, I looked for him.

Until the day I rounded that same curve and there, in the middle of the road, stood a white peacock.

I could not believe my eyes – I never knew such a thing existed.

But there he was, gleaming like some divine messenger, standing right on the double yellow lines. I slowed to a stop. He looked at me through the windshield; I hardly dared to breathe. He took his time heading back to the lush bank by the brambly gate, as if he owned this road, maybe this entire world, his long white tail feathers dragging behind him like a bridal train or a king’s ermine robe.

I watched him go, oblivious of everything around me except the sheer splendor of his presence.

I have learned, then, that every day is new, that there are unexpected wonders waiting just around the bend. In the middle of the familiar and mundane might be something rare, glorious, breathtaking.

Be watching.

slice-of-life_individual

 

Born musician

piano-window

Piano & window. Alan Mayers. CC BY-SA

Years ago, a woman – tired, seven months pregnant – sat in the front row of a church. The morning sun shone through the stained glass windows, casting jewel-tone light on the baby grand piano, a soothing sight to the weary woman whose busy child was churning her insides. The pianist took a seat and began to play the prelude.

The baby stopped moving. He or she didn’t move again until the prelude ended. After the final notes, the child resumed the high activity.

The baby hears the music, thought the mother, marveling. It was the first of many times she would notice the unborn child’s response.

Around age three, the boy frequently hummed a tune to himself. His mother recognized it: “Amazing Grace.” When he was four, the child started playing cassette tapes of gospel music that had belonged to his great-grandfather. After his fifth birthday, his mother stood in the doorway of his bedroom, watching the boy making tally marks with a dry erase marker on a whiteboard easel.

“What are you doing?” she finally asked.

“I’m counting the syllables,” her boy replied, with a serious expression on his little face. He continued his business, listening to the tape, steadily making marks.

It’s the beats, the mother thought. He’s counting the beats.

When he brought home his “All About Me” book on finishing kindergarten, his parents smiled at this page:

when-i-grow-up

“When I grow up, I will be a qiur drekctr (choir director).”

When he was seven, watching him tinker occasionally on his great-grandmother’s upright piano in the living room,  his mother said, “You love music so much – why don’t you take piano lessons?”

The boy shrugged, something of a disappointment to his mother, who expected he’d be excited. She took him to lessons anyway.

He wouldn’t practice. The lessons were abandoned before long.

His mother was sad.

In middle school, the boy decided to play alto sax in band. He began tinkering with the piano a little more. Then one day, when he was fourteen, he said, “Hey, Mom, listen to this.” And he played a medley of Christmas songs on the piano – both hands, all the parts – as if he’d been doing so all of his life.

His mother stood marveling, knowing, tears in her eyes.

The boy played the medley on the baby grand piano for the prelude at church on Christmas Day, to the astonishment of the congregation.

He played alto and bari sax for marching band throughout high school; he developed a love for jazz. Few of his friends knew he could play the piano as well. None knew he could sing. One of his teachers did, however. She sought him out when she couldn’t find sheet music for a song she planned to perform at Senior Awards Day.

“This is a version of ‘Perfect’ by Pink – do you think you can play it?” she asked the boy.

“I think so,” replied the boy.

He had two days to prepare.

The result:

One week after graduation, he was hired as the director of music programs at a church, fulfilling his childhood desire of being a choir director.

The rest of the story remains to be written, as it is still unfolding.

I am excited to see where the music takes you throughout your life, Son. Keep learning and reaching.

Much love –

Your infinitely proud mom.

Reflect: Few of us know what we are meant to do so early in life. It’s never too late to find out. What are your dreams, the things that bring you the most fulfillment? Pursue them! What are your gifts? Use them to benefit others. Encourage them to do the same.

 

Dogged determination

nikolaus

Nikolaus

 

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?