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.

Eating life

My friends and I spoke recently of family members in various stages of dementia and failing health.

Our declining ones hallucinate. They see children who aren’t there and can relate what the children are doing: running down the hall, making a mess with cereal, simply standing there in the room. They speak of loved ones long dead, as if they are well and visit regularly. Time is a viscous fluid in the brain of someone nearing the end of life; it is often hard to discern if the person is speaking of events that occurred yesterday, today, or fifty years ago.

Sometimes the visions are unnerving.

My father would visit Grannie, my mother’s mother, in the hospital. He’d help feed her. One day during their conversation, Grannie casually told my father: “I see Earline over there.”

My mother’s sister, who died of cancer years before. She never married and lived at home with Grannie.

Daddy, taken aback, asked, “Where is she?”

Grannie pointed. “Over there against the wall. Under the clock.”

There was a clock, in fact. High on the bare hospital wall.

Daddy said, “But . . . ”

Grannie cut him off. Looked him right in the eye: “I know she’s dead.”

Never one to tolerate fancies, my father asked, “Well, what does she look like?”

Grannie hesistated. Maybe grasping for words. “Kind of grave-y.”

A mere observation, without emotion or alarm. She may as well have been commenting on the weather or the hospital food.

I told this story when the topic came up with my friends, as we commiserated on watching our aged loved ones endure these haunting effects.

“It’s so strange,” said one friend, who has two relatives suffering with dementia. “Neither of them ever liked to eat eggs. Never in their whole lives. Now that’s all they ask for – Can you bring me some scrambled eggs? Run on over to IHOP and get me some eggs.”

I tried to recall if my grandmothers and mother-in-law made this request. But they’d all liked eggs; it wouldn’t have been unusual.

While my friends talked, I kept thinking There’s something to this egg thing.

It’s true that the tastes of dementia patients can change, that they sometimes develop cravings for things they never liked before. The answer could be that simple; eggs are a simple food.

They’re considered brain food. How interesting that a person succumbing to dementia should begin to crave them. Numerous articles on foods good for the brain reference choline, a nutrient found in egg yolks, that helps improve memory, brain cell communication, and even fetal brain development. Eggs are protein, the building block of the brain, the building block of life itself.

This is where I leap from the physical, the scientific, to the metaphysical. All around the world, since ancient times, the egg symbolizes life. In some belief systems, life-energy. An object small enough to hold in your hand, the egg represents the universe, health, nature awakening, new life about to emerge, immortality.

And hope.

They may sense it, they may not, those whose brains are slowly giving way. Perhaps it is the final rallying cry of the brain alone, this impulse to eat eggs, in an effort to hold on, to carry on.

Can you please bring me some eggs? 

Eating health, even as it ebbs away.

Eating hope.

They are eating life.

Divine appointment

Cardinal

Cardinal Singing Along. Don and Janet BeasleyCC BY-SA

Broom in hand, I descend the brick steps where moss has newly sprung. The sidewalk needs sweeping and I’ve only a minute. Must get to school early, to prepare for the day; the minutiae of all that has to be done circles round and round my mind. 

But I have to do this first. Oddly. Sweeping the sidewalk is not part of my morning routine. 

Hurry. Hurry.

All is still but for the light chatter of a few birds, waking. The sound of early spring. The sound of April. Of a new day. I pause, listening. How cheerful, how happy their bird voices are, even if to them it’s just regular conversation. My spirit eases, just hearing them. I note that the light is unusual. Against random trees and shrubs, the dawn gleams amber in patches. Everything else is a backdrop in half light. There’s an edge to it all, a starkness. The sky is moody. Altocumulus clouds, dark in their middles, gleaming around their rims, are gathered in bands or waves; this is what scientists call a mackerel sky, I think. Strange light.

—Time. Be aware.

Right, I must hurry.

Just as I put broom to concrete, I see it.

Over in the neighbor’s yard, in the shadows under the bushy, unpruned crape myrtle. 

The brightest spot of color I’ve ever seen. Red. Rosy, electric red, brighter than any neon light, as vivid as fire, glowing, but not burning. Just being. I blink. How does such a color even exist in nature? It has to be a cardinal but I can’t see the rest of him, just his plump breast. A half-memory from childhood stirs in my mind, of pretending I had a pet cardinal and spraying pine-scented air freshener throughout the house to create his forest, where he could fly freely— but for all my attraction to the male cardinal’s plumage, I’ve never seen it to the intensity and brilliance as right now in this capricious light.

I want to see him better but I dare not move. 

I think I’ve quit breathing.

Could I, maybe, get a picture? If I’m stealthy, can I make it into the house and back with my phone? 

I have to try. I have to capture this image.

I watch him as I ease toward the house. He moves a little, hopping in the dappled grass.

As soon as I reach the steps, out of his field of vision, I race through the front door to the kitchen, grab my phone, turn, shoot back through the door, take the steps without making a sound, stop, and creep to where I can see the crape myrtle.

He’s still there! I can’t believe it!

An astounding spot of color, radiating an otherworldly light.

Holy.

I aim my phone and zoom in . . . 

On the screen I see the thin myrtle branches up close. The grass, the shadows, the sunlit patches. —Where’s my bird?

I look away from the phone back to the scene, to get my bearings . . . don’t know how I could have missed, I aimed right where he was standing . . . .

Gone.

He is gone.

In the second between my sighting him and my lifting the phone, he vanished. Without a sound or any perceptible movement. He was and then he was not. Just like that.

Nowhere to be seen at all.

I stand frozen, phone in hands, an inexplicable feeling sweeping through me. 

The moment passed and nothing remains of it. Stunning, that spot of fiery color like no other, in the shadows under that tree. One glimpse of glory. He was so beautiful and I never even saw all of him. Even if I do see him again—and I’ll try, at this same time tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after—it will never happen again, not just like this. The clouds will not be the same. The position of the sun will be slightly different. It can never be again exactly as it was. 

I so wanted to capture his image, the holiness of it, to keep it forever, and I could not.

But I hold it in my mind. I cling to every breathtaking detail. 

I write it before it leaves me, wondering at the tears burning behind my eyes over this one bird, this one moment, why it should be so significant, to make me feel so much.

I was just there, unexpectedly, and so was he.

For one shining moment, we just were.

Blowin’ in the wind

Yesterday, while outside with my old dachshund, Nikolaus, I saw this old dandelion.

It stood trembling in the soft spring breeze, holding its seeds tight under its parachute sphere, and I thought Any second now they’ll be blowing in the wind.

Which reminded me of the song.

When I was a child my parents had a stack of record albums, and in it was Peter, Paul and Mary’s In the Wind. Only now do I wonder which of them purchased it, for my young father and mother seemed more representative of the fifties than the sixties. No beads and long hair or tie-dye. Daddy wore a crew-cut all of his adult life. My parents were . . . just parents. Pretty mainstream. I don’t know how old I was when I first heard the album, but as a child I played it over and over on the old stereo, a huge, bench-like piece of furniture on four legs that took up half the length of the living room wall.

Bob Dylan’s “Blowing’ in the Wind” was one of my favorites, mostly because Peter, Paul, and Mary’s harmony was as haunting as his lyrics. But it wasn’t the song I loved most on the album.

That was “Stewball.”

It’s about a racehorse, the underdog, and how a man laments betting all of his money on “the gray mare” and “the bay,” how he wishes that he’d bet on Stewball, who somehow managed to win the race.

The ballad’s content is mournful—Oh, the hoot owl she hollered, and the turtledove moaned, I’m a poor boy in trouble, I’m a long way from home—but the instrumentals jingle along, almost incongruous with the words. Perhaps not as incongruous as me, less than ten years old, swinging as hard as I can, round and round on a tire swing that Granddaddy hung from a pecan tree in the yard of my father’s childhood home, singing at the top of my lungs: Oh, Stewball was a racehorse, and I wish he were mine, he never drank water, he always drank wine . . . .

So long ago.

Funny how songs can weave their way through chapters of our lives, as they do through movies. There are stories to be told about the poor choices of adults, and the consequences, with “Stewball” playing in the background.

Nik the dachshund makes his way back to me, staggering in the grass. At sixteen he’s unsteady on his feet and blind; he plows into the old dandelion. Instantaneously the perfect white sphere dissolves, the seeds go airborne.

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind

The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Maybe it’s answers I seek.

Maybe they’re seeking me.

I do not know.

But I do know that ideas are everywhere, blowing in the wind; I sense them and I know they’ll land, somewhere, sometime, that they’ll take root and grow. If I write them, they’ll spawn more and more ideas.

I gather Nik in my arms, careful of his old, fragile bones, and go back inside the house, humming.

 

 

Like Superman

Superman

Superman. Ian HarveyCC BY-SA

I’m seated at the old computer table, listening to second-graders read. Poetry conferences, we’re having. Revisions and final edits before their teacher sends everything off to publish a class book of poems.

“Is it my turn? It is it my turn?” he keeps asking me, from his seat in the middle of the room.

Actually, he’s not on my list of students that his teacher asked me to meet with. So I say, “Not yet. Not yet.”

He manages, somehow, to sneak between his classmates. I look up from notes I’m making to find his impish face beaming up at me. His tiny body wriggles in the chair beside me.

“My turn!” he insists.

I call across the room to his teacher, who’s also conferring with students: “May I PLEASE work with our friend here?”

“Yes, sure!” she answers. “I’m about to meet with him, but if you want to  . . .”

If I want to?

How can I say no?

“Okay, YOUR TURN! Read your poem to me,” I tell my exuberant conferee.

Grinning, he shoves his paper over to me.

There’s nothing on it. Not even his name.

“What, you haven’t written anything yet?”

He shakes his head. He’s still smiling. “No! But my English is bigger!”

He remembers.

At the beginning of the year, I assessed his reading. Just as I was about to console him on his having missed all of the words, he patted my arm and said, “You have big English. Me”— he patted his chest— “little English.”

His perception of everything around him is astonishing.  Whether he has all the words for it or not.

I’ve noticed, in the hallways, that he doesn’t greet me as Haley! anymore. Now it’s Hi, Mrs. Haley. That when I say How are you? he says, I’m good.

“Yes,” I say, “your English is a LOT bigger. That’s for sure. Now, this poem. What do you want to write about?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know.”

“Well, what do you like?”

His face lights up. The response is immediate: “BASEBALL!”

“Okay, so, what do you want to say about baseball?”

I take the paper and pencil.

“I like baseball,” he says.

“Perfect.” I write down the words. “That’s your first line. What else?”

“I like hitting the ball with the bat.” He acts this out. He’s a boy full of endless energy.

“Great. That’s your second line.” I write it down. “What else can you say about playing baseball?”

He thinks, gets excited, garbles his words. Something about running . . .

“Wait, slow down. Did you say running?”

He nods, bouncing in the chair. “I run like SUPERMAN!”

Superman . . . 

The first time I saw him, over a year ago, when he came to the United States, to our school, he had no English at all. Unused to a school setting, he frequently had outbursts because he couldn’t communicate his wants, his needs, his questions, his feelings, anything.

He was a frustrated, forlorn soul.

Wearing a Superman shirt.

My first words to him were, “Hey, you’re Superman.”

I pointed to the on his little shirt.

He didn’t understand, but he smiled.

Now, he understands.

Within five minutes, the poem is written. I point to every word, reading to him, then he points to every word, reading back to me. I watch him bounce away to his desk to copy the poem over in his own handwriting.

So you run like Superman when you play baseball.

Maybe you really mean that you fly

because you do

because you ARE Superman.

We shall stand marveling in your wake

it’s a bird, it’s a plane

it’s you.

Supersonic.

*******

For an earlier encounter with my little friend, read Big English

For the record, poetry is an excellent way to help English language learners—really, any student—write more. Poems can be brief with less emphasis on conventions. Energy can go freely into capturing images, ideas, emotions, and building vocabulary.

Relics

Mom's empty room

Mom’s empty room. The_DoodlerCC BY_SA

So many stories 

in every room

in every thing.

A lifetime packed

tight in every closet

in every drawer

for even in the time

of abundance 

the memory of deprivation

remained.

A lifetime of love

recorded in cards and letters

all saved 

even poems 

I don’t remember writing.

The photos of my children

so carefully preserved

growing up all over again

here in my hands.

Their father captured 

as a  little boy

in black and white

long ago.

His own father in uniform

smiling, alive

his olive-green dress hats

sealed in a bag 

on a shelf 

deep in her closet.

The ghost of holidays past

pulled from the attic 

with childhood toys

long forgotten.

Tarnished silver in the kitchen

and a fine layer of dust

on the crystal. 

Cookies in a jar

grown stale 

maybe in hopes of

grandchildren coming.

Things with no explanation

only wonder 

as to what they are

and what they’re for. 

So many stories

in rooms once beautiful

in every thing crammed

holding on, holding on

in the hidden places.

A lifetime packed

with living

and loving.

Decades of

acquiring

prospering

overcoming

remembering

all dismantled 

and disposed of

in the space of

a single afternoon.

Last times

To commemorate my last post of the month-long Slice of Life Story Challenge with the Two Writing Teachers community—this is my second year of completion—I write about “last times.”

Yesterday I shared the “first time” heart map template from Georgia Heard’s Heart Maps: Helping Students Create and Craft Authentic Writing. I use these templates when I lead professional development for teachers in writing; it’s astonishing how often I hear teachers say, “I used to love writing but I don’t do it anymore.” More frequently, I hear: “I’m not good at teaching writing.”

The first step is simply to start writing.

The first and last time maps are excellent guides for this, and, furthermore, when teachers have taken these back to their classrooms, they tell me they’ve been amazed at what they learned about their students: “One of my boys wrote ‘the first time I rode a camel’. The class was so intrigued that he had to tell the story right then! We never would have known this if we hadn’t used the first times map.”

On to last times . . .

Here are mine, maybe to be spun out into full stories, one day:

The last time I walked through my baby’s nursery before moving. My older of two sons was born when my husband was in his first pastorate. The parsonage where we lived was a former sea captain’s house, built in 1915 (the year my grandmother was born), two blocks from the Chesapeake Bay. The congregation was mostly elderly; there hadn’t been a baby in the church, or the parsonage, for a long time. I was just twenty-two when my husband and I moved in, and I got to choose the wallpaper for the bedrooms. For the room that adjoined the master bedroom, I picked an ivory paper with little muted-red hearts between dusty blue stripes. A year later, I bought ivory crib sheets and bumper pads along with coordinating quilts and wall decor all adorned with these same little rustic hearts, teddy bears, and rocking horses. Our son was three when we left the Eastern Shore of Virginia to serve a church in North Carolina. I walked through the empty nursery last, where the only the little hearts remained on the walls; I stood there, running my fingers over them, and wept.

The last time I had really long hair. From kindergarten and first grade, when my hair was cut in an assortment of horrible shags, not to mention my cowlicks, I wanted long hair. By fifth grade, it was finally beginning to happen. In sixth and seventh grade, my hair reached down to my waist, was parted in the middle and as straight as a stick. In eighth grade I had a crush on a boy in my algebra class. He sat behind me. He’d speak to me occasionally, sometimes asking for help (which shows what dire straits he was in, to ask ME for help with algebra). I decided to cut my hair solely to get this guy’s attention . . .

The last time I played kickball. That was about a week ago! Due to a series of unfortunate events, there was a shortage of substitute teachers at my school on fourth grade’s quarterly collaborative planning day. I found myself taking a class to recess. It was a sunny, first true spring-like day, and the kids produced a kickball. “Mrs. Haley, will you pitch for us? Pleasepleasepleaseplease?” I haven’t played kickball since I was ten years old . . . but I was good at it, so . . . I took my place on the pitcher’s mound. My beginning teacher in kindergarten, walking past the game with her class on the way to the gym, stopped to gleefully take pictures.

The last time I quit a job I disliked. I’d had enough. I told the employers so and walked out. I never went back. Better things came along. Since then, when colleagues and friends have spoken of how much they detest their jobs, I’ve asked: What are you going to do about it?  Life is too short to be spent doing something that makes you miserable every day.

The last time I performed in a play. I was in my second year of college. I planned to be a theater arts major, having performed in numerous high school productions, and I’d just auditioned and been accepted to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. This really sounds like a story of beginnings, doesn’t it? To stay immersed until I left on this huge new venture, I performed in community theater. At the audition for the very next play, after receiving my letter of acceptance to the Academy, I walked in, saw the handsomest man I’d ever seen in my life . . . and got married that summer instead of going to acting school.

The last time I went to my childhood church. My husband and I attended the service honoring my retiring childhood pastor, who’d become mentor to my husband, the last of over fifty young men my pastor ordained into the ministry. The church building was large; I remembered how, as a child, I’d occasionally run upstairs—there were flights and flights of stairs, some of them not adjoining; I’d have to run across some entire floors to pick up other staircases—and I’d go as far as I could, up to a little door with a dark window. I tried the doorknob. It was locked. I wondered: What’s behind there? Can I go any higher? Is God on the other side, somewhere? Who keeps the key?

The last time I spoke to my grandfather. He was dying of lung cancer, at ninety-two. He stayed at home with hospice care and refused morphine. From his years around loud equipment in the shipyard, Granddaddy was notoriously hard of hearing. He never talked on the phone for this reason, but one day when I called to see how he was, he answered the phone. Grandma had stepped outside. I talked to him for just a few minutes, almost shouting into the phone so he could hear me. He understood every word. I said, I love you, Granddaddy. You’re safe in God’s hands. He said, emphatically: I love you, Honey, and there’s no better place to be.

The last time I saw my dad. It was the week of July 4th. I’d come home with my boys to stay a few days, as Daddy wanted to take us to the shipyard to see the fireworks. He was retiring at the beginning of October, after almost forty-one years as a security guard, so this would be the last time, the only time, we’d get to do this. There’s a lot to the story that I’m not up to telling, even now; maybe one day . . .  so we went, my boys and I. As I sat there in the dark, watching the sky explode in lights over the vast, beautiful river of my childhood, sipping the ginger ale Daddy brought to share, I thought: Surely this is the beginning of better times. Daddy’s going to have more time to spend with us now. In my heart, I celebrated for him, that his working days were just about done, that soon he could take it easy and enjoy life . . . I could never have imagined it would be the last time I’d see him.  In September, just three days before he was to retire, he died with a massive heart attack. In uniform, on his way to work.

Writing about last times can be so hard, so hard, so hard.

But not always . . . as my workshop participants tell me, there’s that last car payment, that last mortgage payment, causes for celebration, indeed. Maybe even a step toward health, as in the last time someone smoked a cigarette.

So I close my thirty-one day writing streak, celebrating that I made it to the last post, celebrating my fellow Slicers who did the same, who wrote alongside me, who walked a part of the journey with me every day. Here’s to writing, friends. Here’s to sharing each other’s stories as long as we can, though perhaps not daily until next March.

Thank you all.

Here’s to your first and last times, to what’s in your heart, and to life.

Keep trusting.

First times

Georgia Heard’s book, Heart Maps: Helping Students Create and Craft Authentic Writing, has been out for a couple of years now, but when I facilitate writing workshop training for teachers in my district, many still haven’t heard of heart maps.

Since the first step in being an effective writing teacher is to write, I show teachers how to use this tool for themselves first.

The photo is of Heard’s “First Times” heart template. I’ve filled in many of my personal “first times” which can be spun into stories. Such as . . .

The first time I had a serious injury. I was in the fourth grade, on the playground, standing on a tire cemented to the end of a pole (two of these poles would be used to hold up a volleyball net; this pole was lying down, and I was standing up on the tire’s edge) with the intent of jumping and grabbing hold of the tallest chin-up bar. I missed. I broke my left arm. When I get around to writing this story in all of its gory detail, I must also include my dad, who came to take me to the orthopedist. He brought me an old, smudged doll that I didn’t play with anymore. It was humiliating, but at the same time, seeing him there, holding that bedraggled doll I’d outgrown, his face pinched because of the pain I was enduring, I understood that he was trying to help in the best way he knew how. Yes, I’ll need to write this story, one of these days.

The first time I directed a play. I was a high school senior and my drama teacher was  asked to send two students to the elementary school to lead a small production for advanced learners in the fifth grade. I was chosen to direct the play and a classmate was chosen to teach the students some of the tech, such as scenery and lights. One little boy in the elementary group was painfully shy; I gave him the role of the bad-boy motorcyclist and, well . . . I need to write that story.

The first time I cried over a book. Fourth grade again. The teacher read Charlotte’s Web to the class. Later in the year, she read Old Yeller to us. I didn’t think I’d live through fourth grade (broken arm notwithstanding).

The first time a teacher praised my writing. Fifth grade. The class had written “All About Me” books and the teacher complimented my description of the allergy medicine I had to take. Until this moment, I had no idea my writing had any real value.

The first time I felt sorry, really sorry, for my father. When he got paid at the end of the week, he would cash his check and go to the store for our family’s groceries. Once the shopping was done, he’d put the rest of the money in the bank. One day, when I was a young teenager, Daddy got in line with his loaded cart, reached for his wallet to pay the cashier—and discovered that his wallet was missing. Along with his whole week’s pay.

So, I walk teachers through the process of brainstorming their own “first times” for writing inspiration, before we ever talk about how students might use the heart maps.

And the teachers write. Some stare off into space, thinking; others smile. There’s not a lot of tears when we write about first times.

Those tend to come when we write about last times.

Thirty-four words

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“Teaching Practices That Position Students Closer to Reading and Writing Excellence” presentation, Kelly Gallagher, NCRA, 03/19/2018.

When Kelly Gallagher gave the keynote address at the North Carolina Reading Association last week, he cautioned educators about overwhelming student writers. He said: “Start off small when modeling. Use high-interest models.”

Before students write an essay, for example, they might write a 100-word memoir after the teacher models it.

Gallagher doesn’t begin there. He starts even smaller.

He shared the example of the “34-word story” he uses to inspire his students—that of Olympic speed skater, Dan Jansen, as seen in the photo above. Gallagher plays this Visa commercial at the outset of the lesson, to illustrate the impact of these few words:

He knows what he’s doing, Kelly Gallagher.

As if the hearts of the audience members weren’t pierced enough, he then shares this “34-word story” written by one of his students:

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“Teaching Practices That Position Students Closer to Reading and Writing Excellence” presentation, Kelly Gallagher, NCRA, 03/19/2018.

The absolute power of words.

Just thirty-four of them.

*******

Challenge: What would your “34-word story” be? I experiment with my own. . . .

A teacher once told me, after seeing my performance in a play: “I didn’t think you had it in you.” Guess what, teacher? There’s a lot more in me, too. Including the last word. 

I asked a friend to read my first blog post for feedback. She said, “What’s your niche? You need to target an audience.” I said, “I write for humans. My niche is the world.”

When all’s said and done, and my time here is over, I will go celebrating these things: I lived. I loved. I was loved. I got to write about it all. Thank you, God.

Secret rendezvous

One morning, as I brush my teeth, out from behind the mirror comes a little spider.

It sits there on the wall as if watching me.

I am not a spider fan, generally.  But I don’t kill these little wanderers (sudden inspired quote: Not all those who wander are lost. Hmmm. Interesting point, Tolkien).

No, usually I capture the creatures and put them outside. If they’re small. I am getting someone else to deal with them if they’re large.

This spider is tiny.

And  . . . I don’t know . . . friendly. I  know exactly what my husband would say: What, you think it’s Charlotte, right? 

I just don’t have the heart to bother it. It’s not bothering me, so I let it be. Right there on the wall by the mirror. I finish getting ready for work, turn the bathroom light off, and call, “Bye, Spider. Have a good day.”

I think no more of it until the next morning when I am brushing my teeth, and out from behind the mirror comes my new friend.

We begin meeting this way every morning.

“There you are!” I say as my spider emerges later than normal one day. “Sleeping in? Have a late night?”

I swear if I can find a cup tiny enough, my spider would have coffee with me. I imagine it holding a miniscule newspaper. What our conversations would be:

What are you going to do today?

Oh, just stalk some prey. The usual.

Great. Get the gnats, will you? They’re on my last nerve. I don’t know where those things come from.

Sure thing.

Then comes the day the spider doesn’t show.

And the next.

And the one after that.

I begin to be sad. Seriously. Surely no one in my family has . . . no. I won’t think like that. I haven’t told any of them about my daily morning rendezvous. They can’t know, then, that I have a relationship with this spider, so. . . .

But no one has mentioned seeing a spider, so I don’t, either.

After another week, as I am dressing in the morning—lo and behold!—what should I see but my tiny friend there on the floor by the garden tub!

“Where have you BEEN?” I cry.

“What?” calls my husband from down the hall.

“Uh . . . never mind!” I call back.

I grab my phone and take a picture, because, well, that’s what you do with friends. You take pictures to remember them by.

I bend close. My spider comes nearer to me.

“Listen,” I say. “I missed you. I’m happy to see you’re well and all, but when I’m not here you really need to stay out of sight, okay? Other people just won’t understand.”

My spider takes this in. I can tell. I’ve looked him up and I know he’s a jumping spider and that they are very intelligent. They have cognitive abilities. They can be trained . . . after all, doesn’t he know where to find me each morning?

In other parts of the house, I hear my family bustling about, getting ready for school, for work.

“It’s not safe at the moment,” I tell my spider. “When everyone’s gone, you can come back out and do whatever it is you do during the day, but for now. . . .”

I slide a bit of paper towel under my spider.

He hangs on. Doesn’t protest.

I tuck him gently behind my fuzzy gray bedroom shoes.

“There,” I whisper. “That’ll do. Until later.”

I turn out the light.

“Bye, Spider. See you in the morning.”

I feel certain, from his sanctuary behind my bedroom shoe, that he’s waving a tiny leg.