On Appearances and Optimism

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes things are not what they seem. And that can be a good thing.

My kids and I hiked this past weekend, seeking the loons we had learned were migrating through the area. The path took us through the woods, and stretches of it ran next to the lake. Spring is slow in arriving this year. All around us were shades of brown and grey, broken only by a few red leaf buds in the dirt, scattered like confetti. The deer and sandhill cranes we spotted blended into this backdrop, though the blush of red on the cranes’ heads allowed us to notice them roosting on their nests. We found the loons too, thanks to their glossy white chests, though they were also difficult to see in the distance, unless they were swimming toward us. Along the path as the woods opened to fields, I noticed a milkweed pod. The cottony insides had long since been carried off by the wind, but the husk that remained bore a striking resemblance to a bird. I had to look twice to be sure. The image stayed with me, reminding me that things that have the shape and appearance of one thing can actually be something else quite different.

IMG_3033

For a long time, throughout the divorce year and in the aftermath, I tended to take a pessimistic view of this idea. As in, be wary and suspicious because things are not what they seem. Proceed with caution: people you care deeply for may look like someone you know but have somehow turned into different someones. I felt as if the world was waiting to trip me up and trick me, and that I perpetually needed to be looking over my shoulder to see what was sneaking up behind me and at the same time casting my gaze far ahead to see what might be coming at me next as I tried to escape what was behind me. I wore this pessimism like a cloak. I put it on and hid myself, but it wasn’t really my true nature.

Optimism versus Pessimism

As time has gone on and the urgency of caution has ebbed, as stability has returned to my life, I find myself becoming me again, the one who can see the flip side to the aphorism that things are not always what they seem. I can recognize once again that something that appears to be a normal, everyday thing, or even something potentially threatening, can actually turn out to be an amazing, wonderful thing. I discovered being alone wasn’t lonely, and later, that a random date with a stranger can turn into something unexpectedly perfect. Life can be delightful that way, when expectations are turned upside down and you discover something new.

Still, it has taken me a long time to move from pessimism back to optimism as a general mindset. Initially, it exhausted me to hear people say don’t worry, everything will be okay. I felt like nothing would be okay again, not ever. That way of looking at the world gradually evolved into to a different mindset. Everything might be okay. But only because I am working my hardest to make it that way. And what if I can’t? Things got better, in part, because I made them that way. But that effort built some much needed confidence and a sense of self-reliance. This was another unexpected gift of the ending of one life and the beginning of another, as the divorce year transitioned into a new year, and a new way of being. I began to trust in my ability to work through things, to handle situations I used to fear. Sometimes it’s still hard to tell the difference though, between fatigue and fear. Sometimes you get tired of handling things, but that doesn’t mean you can’t handle them.

I like to believe though, that one of the things that got me through the toughest of times was the awareness that the pessimism was something I could take off and cast aside when I was ready. I wanted to believe in my own positivity and sometimes wanting to believe is enough. It is a bridge that gets you to the next step.

Irrational Hope

In the course of my MFA work I was introduced to the writing of Clarice Lipsector, and I stumbled across this line: “It is possible that even then the theme of my existence was irrational hope.” This stuck with me, and I latched on to that idea of irrational hope, hope that even in the darkest of days, things will get better. Sometimes optimism gets a little suffocated by circumstances, but it is still there waiting for you, and I think this sense of hope is what kept me going, and continues to inspire me in good times and bad.

IMG_2940

It takes a conscious, mindful effort to see things this way at times. It’s easy to put the cloak back on when life gets stressful. It’s so simple to fall back into the trap of pessimism, so simple it seems like a relief. In a way, it’s familiar and safe, even though it’s a dark place to be. Stress—sometimes little, lowercase stress and sometimes all caps STRESS—can yank me back powerfully into a time where I felt like things kept falling apart, the world was out to get me, and I had no control over anything. The comfort in that, the reason it is so easy for anyone to fall into, is that in that space, there is permission to stop trying to make things better. But when stress sinks into me, I consciously remind myself, this is not that; I’m not back where I was, hiding under the cloak. We have to talk ourselves down from the ledge of panic sometimes. It might be only a panicky moment, or maybe we feel ourselves falling back into a habit of anxiety and worry. But then you go for a walk and see a milkweed pod shaped like a bird and it lifts you, it allows you to reprogram your thoughts and emotional responses. It allows you to remember who you really are.

Enjoy the path that you find yourself on today. Love, Cath

 

 

On Waiting and Letting Go

By Catherine DiMercurio

I woke on Sunday morning to the sound of raindrops pelting the window and the scrape of an ice-laden tree branch on the roof above my bedroom. All I wanted to do was pull the covers back over my head and ignore the worries about falling branches and icy roads. I braced myself for what was coming next—the assessment of whether it would be safe for my daughter to make the trip to Ann Arbor that she had planned for the day. And I knew that I had to let her decide for herself.

IMG_2999

My son woke up not long after I did. We drank our coffee and darted from window to window, noting the way the cars, fences, and tree branches were slicked with a layer of ice. The temperature hovered just about the freezing mark and it was unclear whether the pouring rain hitting the ice was building up another layer, or was melting it. The roads looked wet. A couple of limbs creaked free from tree trunks and crashed to the ground, the fine coating of ice shattering from the smaller branches, studded with leaf buds.

Risk Assessment

When my daughter woke up and I asked if I was still going to let her go, I avoided the question. I watched her retrace my steps window to window, taking in the same factors I had. On our phones we sought reports on social media from people who might have braved the roads already. We listened to the weatherman say that despite the rain, the roads could still by icy. My daughter suggests that she head out anyway, saying if things seem bad, she’ll turn around and come home. I know from experience that sometimes things don’t seem bad until you are already on the highway and the conditions are fine until they aren’t and you have to decide which is safer—proceeding to your destination or heading back the way you came.

I can’t decide if this is high-stakes parenting or not. Is her life at risk any more than any other time she gets behind the wheel, any more than mine is each time I brave a morning commute? Maybe it’s fine. Maybe it won’t get icier the closer she gets to Ann Arbor. Maybe some spots will be bad and doesn’t she have to learn to negotiate the conditions anyway?

It isn’t a stand-off we have at the front door with her making a plea to go and me deciding in that heartbeat whether to allow or forbid. We’ve had those before and this isn’t like that. I’m looking at an eighteen-year-old young woman who claims her readiness to handle changing conditions, and she’s looking at someone with a little more experience and some reasonable concerns about her safety. Significantly, I can tell she sees and respects this. “Be careful. Text me when you get there,” I say.

IMG_2995

Knowing that she made it there and back safely, that she was fine, in a way makes me feel that my heightened worrying was unnecessary. But I know the significance of the moment at the doorway, when we weren’t really sure how bad the conditions were, when she wondered if I would to forbid her to go, and when I didn’t.

As I waited for her text, I had the sense that I’d probably done the right thing. I had to let her make the decision on her own, when the consequences could be significant—I see in my head the car accident on the icy highway, the one that doesn’t happen, the semi unable to stop—because she’s going to have to make decisions like that again and again when she leaves home in the fall to attend college. I know all the decision-making we’d negotiated to this point, whether through careful conversations or door-slamming shouting matches, all brought us to this point. And I know this hasn’t been the first high-stakes moment.

Self-Aware Parenting

The difference this time is that I’m aware, in the moment, that I’m surrendering the decision-making, that it is a conscious, willful act of love and trust. As parents our entire existence is predicated on the notion that we are preparing our children to not need us. It’s all part of the longest goodbye ever, from the moment they begin to crawl.

Just the day before, I’d been in the car with my son, who will be sixteen in a month. He’s trying to get enough hours in to take the second segment of driver’s ed. It’ll be a few months before he gets his permit. It’s raining and he’s doing great, though visibility at times is lousy. Does he see that stop sign? Do I point it out? The micro decision-making is just as hard as the macro decision-making. It’s parenting inch by inch, breath by breath. Sometimes it feels like I’m falling off a cliff, waiting for a moment, an hour, or years, to see if the decision I made was the right one.

Go, Go, Go. Stop.

It sounds like I don’t give them enough credit. They are bright kids, possessing common sense along with intellectual and emotional intelligence. I do trust that. It is what allows me to say go and what keeps me from saying stop. It is the comfort I take in the waiting. At the same time, I know what the stakes are, large and small.

I’ve always erred on the side of being overprotective. It’s the way I’m wired. It takes intentional self-awareness to step out of this habit sometimes. My thinking is that I want the kids to leave our home having known what it feels like to be nurtured and cared for, but also having learned how to nurture and care for themselves. I’ll always wonder if I’ve gotten the balance right, and I’ll probably wait years to find the answer. It can be confusing, parenting during transitions like these, as your kids enter adulthood. It’s like being caught between seasons, a tree in full bud suddenly coated in April ice.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath

 

 

Slowing Down and Breathing Deeply: On Time and Inflating the Ordinary Moment

By Catherine DiMercurio

There are times in our life where we are keenly aware of how swiftly time passes and we wonder, how can I slow things down?

I have had numerous conversations with friends about how, as our children get older, life increasingly seems to be on fast-forward. I feel hyper aware of time. When my children were babies, I wasn’t cognizant of how quickly their first year went by until it was over. Though I was waking up several times a night to breastfeed, I tried to be present during the daytime, aware of how quickly the children moved from one stage to the next. But, I was simply exhausted and a lot of those memories are fairly hazy. It is only in the looking back that I perceive how quickly that time flew by. But day by day, within that time, it didn’t seem as though I’d ever get to place were we were all sleeping through the night. Now, I have an awareness even while I’m living through this time that moments are disappearing before I’m through with them. They are footprints in wet sand, washed away before I’ve finished taking the next step.

Tick Marks on the Timeline

The easiest things to remember are obviously things that stand out as atypical, as outside of the normal routine and pace of life—vacations, events, illnesses, and griefs. Recalling the things we’ve deliberately denoted as significant is also a relatively straightforward endeavor. Parents do this all the time—first Christmas, first day of school, etc. All the other days, those that seem to be undifferentiated from one another, are forgettable time. They are the spaces in between the tick marks on a timeline. Yet those moments and days and years filling in the gaps between the firsts and the vacations and the tragedies are where most of our living happens and where much of our memory fades. The passage of that time is what makes it seem as though life is going by so quickly. It’s because there is nothing to grab on to. The current of time rushes along, and without any specific memory to fix upon, we rush past, and remark on how quickly that year went by.

pexels-photo-277458.jpeg

So, I’ve been wondering how to shake free of this mindset, of this feeling that I’m caught in a current. I want to somehow fill in all the spaces on the timeline, to deliberately draw a line and exist in each moment, each day, as though it matters as much as a birthday, or the death of our dog, or a trip to the beach, or the first day of kindergarten, or one of our camping trips. Because, doesn’t it? Doesn’t each moment matter?

Maybe it depends on how we define mattering. I’ve heard people say that it is in how we handle tragedy and crisis that defines who we are. Perhaps, though, it is in how we manage the mundane that shapes us more. How do we respond to all that is dull in a day, in the weeks and months and years that we work and save, trying to earn enough to take that vacation and “make some memories”? If we can’t find something to savor in all that we’ve deemed unworthy of memory-making, then how much our lives are we relegating to those empty spaces on the timeline?

Yoga Breathing and the Value of the Dull Day

When the kids were in elementary school and I worked at home as a freelance writer, I’d take time during the late mornings to watch a yoga program on tv that guided me through a daily practice. This particular program incorporated some philosophy throughout and a few ideas have stuck with me. One is that our lives are not measured in moments, but in breaths, so we should breathe mindfully, deliberately, and deeply.

I’m trying to combine these notions of living and measuring. I want to be aware of moments, of days that seem undifferentiated and somehow, to differentiate them. I want to expand moments, to fill them up the way my breath fills my lungs. I think, how can I make this ordinary day different, or memorable, or significant? If I park in a different lot at work, or take a break and go outside for a moment, will it make a difference? If I watch and listen for a new idea or notice a sparrow or hear someone laughing or sit with the morning sun on my face before I walk into my building, will it matter?

pexels-photo-929386.jpeg

Will I be able to remember this day as a specific part of my life? It might be easy to brush this idea off and say, why would you want to? Maybe some days aren’t worth remembering. Is there any value to marking just another workday? I’m not sure yet. I hope so. I hope that in a month, I’ll be able to look back and not feel like it went by so fast. I don’t want to rush through even the dull days. Even though on the surface it might seem as though I’m experiencing an unremarkable day of work and returning home to make an unremarkable dinner, it is another collection of breaths I get to have on this earth, another meal I get to share with my children. And perhaps if I’m seeking opportunities to find the remarkable within the ordinary, I’ll find something unexpected.

Soaking It All In

This past weekend, my children and I, needing some warmth in this frigid Michigan April, drove to the Belle Isle Conservatory in Detroit. This being something that is outside of the realm of our usual routine automatically makes the event something we’ll all be more likely to remember in the future. But I tried with more intention and deliberateness than usual to notice the details of the day, the blue of the sky beyond the greenhouse windows, the way the sunlight illuminated the large green leaves of a tropical plant, the shape of leaf shadows on the leaves below. I took time to appreciate the details my children commented on—the worm wriggling through the dirt that my son pointed out, the tiny gauzy white cactus sporting an even tinier magenta flower my daughter saw. We sat on a bench together and I closed my eyes and felt the sun on my face. I wanted to soak the moment in, to draw another tick mark on the timeline.

IMG_2932

If our lives here are a journey, maybe each mile of the road trip is worthy of our attention. Notice the song on the radio, the sun through the window, the people with you. Get out and stretch your legs. Breathe deeply. Inflate the ordinary moment.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath

Learning from Memory: The Parable of the Kite

By Catherine DiMercurio

As a mother, I find myself coming back to the lessons my own parents taught me. Rarely though do these lessons filter through my consciousness in verbal form. Rather, some memories return repeatedly enough that I wonder, why this, why now?

A Father-Daughter Moment

Sometimes the memories are so strong and come from so far back in my childhood I feel as though I made them up, and they take on the power of parable in my mind. One of my earliest memories is of flying a kite with my father. I always thought that one of the reasons this memory was so striking was that it was just the two of us. I have two older sisters, a younger brother, and a younger sister, so most of my childhood memories involve some combination of siblings. My mother features prominently as well in most of those memories. She was more involved in the particulars of our day-to-day lives than my father was and it is easy to recall things like the day we went strawberry picking and had strawberry shortcake for dinner, or the time my sisters and I all had chicken pox and we got to eat on t.v. trays in our beds. There are lessons in here as well about the different ways we nurture one another. But, the memory of kite flying with my father stands out, in part, because it is an anomaly. We simply didn’t have many one-on-one moments.

IMG_5051

Running with the Wind

I remember standing in a muddy field on a grey day. I can see big clumps of soil and puddled rainwater. I don’t know if it was spring or fall but certainly it was chilly and damp. I was running along side my father, who gripped the white kite string, waiting for the kite to catch on the wind. He slowed, and handed me the spool of string, and showed me how to hold it. I remember my father telling me, “Cath, don’t let go!” I kept running. The wind slacked and the kite dipped. “Keep going,” he shouted. And I ran. I felt the tug of the kite at the end of the string as the wind buoyed it once again and my heart lurched with joy. And somehow, I let go. My father sprinted after the string, splashing through mud, trying to catch it. That’s where the memory ends for me. I never knew if he caught it. I don’t know why it never occurred to me to ask my dad about this sooner. Maybe I was afraid he wouldn’t remember, or that it never even happened and it was really only a dream. But this past Sunday, I asked him. And he remembered. He recalled the same details, the muddy field, and me letting go. As it turns out, he caught the runaway kite, though given that I never retained that portion of the memory, clearly it wasn’t the important part for me. He seemed pleased, remembering. He told me it was in the field behind our house, where we lived when I was about five.

pexels-photo-755041.jpeg

The Meaning of the Memory

Years later, I find myself drawn in my writing to kite metaphors. In a scene in which a thirteen-year-old girl experiences her first kiss and is developing feelings for a boy for the first time, I wrote: “Nora thought of the way Ben’s fingers curved around hers, wondered what her fingers thought as they leaned against his knobby knuckles. It was a relief to be here, connected to Ben. She felt like a kite on a string, and she felt like the string, too, safe within his grasp, yet soaring above him. At home, she drifted around everyone, but never felt anchored.”

For years, I thought that this was the ideal, to feel as though we are both kite and string, to feel both grounded and free. I think I’ve looked for this in my adult relationships, never realizing until now that I’ve been trying to replicate that feeling I had as a child, of being both safe and buoyantly free, the string securely held, the kite catching in the wind. And in the past few days, maybe simply because I talked with my father about the memory, I’ve realized something else: As a parent, this is what I’ve tried to create for my children—a sense that they are secure and safe and taken care of, and at the same time, that they are free to be who they are, to explore what are always becoming, that there is always possibility and joy, hope and freedom. It was what my parents tried to do for me and for my siblings. And because there was such a foundational sense of peace in that upbringing, not only did I try and create it for my own children, I also sought it elsewhere, perhaps where I didn’t need to. Perhaps even, where I shouldn’t have, that is, I looked everywhere else but within myself.

pexels-photo-633488.jpeg

I realize now that it is something I needed to be cultivating within myself all along. Perhaps it was only after my marriage ended, and after I tried to resurrect a relationship from the past, that I was able to finally begin to seek that sense of peace within myself. And in many ways, I have found it. Some days I might have to look harder than others, but now I know what I’m looking for. I know how to be the kite. I know how to be the string. Though I might feel untethered at times, I know the way back to myself. Though some days I can’t find the breeze, and can’t feel that joyful buoyant freedom, on other days I know I can get there. I know how to wait and when to run and how let joy take hold.

Listening and Learning

Perhaps learning this lesson is one of the reasons that the relationship I’m in now feels so stable and calm and exhilarating. It isn’t because I found someone who makes me feel like kite and string. It is because I am not looking for him to do that. I am free of the expectation that someone else will make me feel the way I want to feel. I entered into the relationship with a greater sense of wholeness than I ever had before, and with the knowledge that I am already enough. I can run fast enough and hold on securely enough to usually keep the kite in the air. And if I trip, or the wind dies down, I know how to fly, and that I can try again, in another moment or another day. Because he is in the same place, we are able to enjoy security and freedom, stability and joy, together, side by side.

The best part of all this is that we intuit these lessons even when we can’t always articulate what we’ve learned. I don’t think my father had a list of things he wanted to make sure he taught me before I left home. He and my mother were guided by their own experiences and did the best they could, as we all do. Sometimes, as we are running along, trying to hold on to the string and keep the kite in the air, we simply have to listen, to pay attention to the memories that bubble up within us and ask, why this, why now?

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath

 

 

 

On Work and Usefulness

by Catherine DiMercurio

It’s Sunday evening. We are gathered, the kids and I, in the living room, each with a blanket, a task, and a sense of wishing we’d had more time to do both things that needed doing and to relax together. I sip my decaf Earl Grey and look at my notes for this week’s blog. As the night wears on, we’ll all deal with small bouts of transition anxiety, each for different reasons, as we head into the week. For me, the strain of the workweek comes from stresses on the job, but mostly from pulling the weight of expectation and responsibility along with the heft of the monotony.

pexels-photo-734983.jpeg

Only a few short years ago did I became the primary earner, or as the IRS 1040 puts it, in all of its official elegance, the “head of household” – unmarried, earning more than half of household expenses, and with at least one child or dependent. The divorce necessitated I transition from freelance work to a regular full-time job with some haste. As I wrote about in earlier posts, I landed where I began, at the same company I started for in the early 1990s. I feel lucky to be there, as I’m not sure my years of freelancing prepared me particularly well for many other fields. At the same time, I do know people who seem to love what they do. When I graduated college, I hoped to find a job that allowed me time and energy to write, but I longed for meaningful work that engaged me, work that I looked forward to doing most of the time.

Pulling with Patience

So how do I make sense of the way things have played out? How to I reframe the narrative that sneaks up on me when a day on the job feels more like a toppling pile of tasks to manage rather than meaningful work to do? I understand the value and dignity of doing the work no matter what it is, of honoring my responsibility to earn, to be the head of the household. I think of a poem by Marge Piercy, “To be of Use.” She says, “I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart, / who pull like water buffalo, with passive patience, / who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward, / who do what has to be done, again and again.”

pexels-photo-247512.jpeg

Sometimes, in my quest for sense-making, I see success and reward and engagement in the work that is done in the margins of my employment/commuting life. In the margins is where I get to be a mom, where I write, where I spend time with my boyfriend, where I catch up with a friend over coffee or on a walk, where I snuggle my dog at the end of the day, where I try out a new recipe, or watch my kids’ games and competitions and performances. The margins are the places where life happens, but it is in the recognition of this too that things can seem out of balance.

As a society, we tell our kids that they can be anything they want if they work hard. It’s not that the message is bad, but it is an incomplete message. You can be things you want but you’ll give up other things to be them. You can be anything but you can’t be everything. You’ll be some things you want some of the time. You may work very hard and it might not seem like you achieved what you set out to do, but you achieved other things, in different ways. There is always more than one way to be happy, and not working at your dream job won’t be the end of the world. You may find yourself in a grey cubicle, sitting for too long under fluorescent lights looking at a screen and wishing your brain or your heart were engaged differently, more fully. But you’ll remember that you are doing the hard work of showing up every day, and earning the paycheck, and being responsible. Your job is as important as anyone else’s. You will shrug it off when someone says to you, “I could never do that. Sit at a desk all day.”

There is value in putting one foot in front of the other every day. There is honor and dignity in whether the paycheck is earned by intellectual, physical, or creative toil. On Sunday night as I write this draft, that is how I frame it, what I tell myself to remember. I don’t have to love each task to make it all feel worthwhile. Does it matter that this is not the job I went to school for or what I dreamed of as a child? Maybe. But does it matter more that the mortgage is paid and that my children’s lives are stable and secure enough that they can begin to imagine what they might want their adult lives to be like? Probably.

The Sunday Night Anxiety Club

The other thing that admits you to the Sunday Night Anxiety Club is the self-induced stress regarding balance. A friend once reminded me about that balance is about movement. Think of a yoga pose or simply standing on one foot. Muscles make micro adjustments to keep us stable. The act of balancing is more in the shifting than it is in some sort of state of perfect equilibrium. I used to think that balance meant that equal portions of my time every day or week were allotted to the categories I valued. And some days I still feel as though balance was achieved if I wrote, and went for a run, and after work had some quality, non-rushed time with the kids. But every day can’t be like that. And every Sunday night there are the reminders to myself that the week ahead will be filled with road blocks—hours at work where I try and figure out how to stay engaged and focused, a bad night of sleep that gets in the way of my writing the next morning, some issue of scheduling that disrupts the chance to work out. And balance will be about pivoting, and peace will be more about reframing than about the proper amount of calm every night before bed, though that is still something to reach for.

Right now, on Sunday night, the three of us are sitting here, making our concessions, our retroactive assessments of balance. Did we get enough done, did we honor our obligations, did we take time for each other? We stumble. Some days more than others. Some times I can’t help but wonder how the hell I’m supposed to juggle it all. It helps to remember the grander-scheme balancing act I’m trying to perform, that I’m trying to teach my son and my daughter that a good work ethic does not mean that you will be happy every moment of performing various tasks, but that you take pride in the fact that you worked earnestly and with the intention to do the job well. That living well is not truly an equation, where the moments of each day yield a result that always looks and feels like happiness. You should not feel as though you failed to live up to your youthful expectations of yourself, or society’s expectations of you, if you don’t go to bed feeling blissfully happy every night. Happiness is a strange alchemy of peace and joy and contentment. But there is wisdom in recognizing the richness of experiences that do not come to fruition in that way.

blue-glass-flower-decoration.jpg

Piercy’s poem ends with this revelation: “The pitcher cries for water to carry / and a person for work that is real.” Sometimes that work happens in the workplace and sometimes it happens in the margins. I think it is the great task of our lives, one of the most important parts of our journey, to learn what fills us up and to work at those things, whether it is the work we are paid for, the work of being a parent or a partner or a friend, something else entirely, or a combination of all of these.

I do need to step back sometimes, often on a Sunday night when the prospect of the week ahead seems daunting and out of balance, and reframe the conversations I have with myself about the work that I do in the workplace. I need to remind myself that it has a meaningful place within the context of the rest of the work I set my energy to in life. So as you embark upon the journey of your own week, I hope that even in moments of dread or drudgery, you are able to find the meaning there as well.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath

 

 

 

 

 

The Age of Compromise: On Aging and Surrender

By Catherine DiMercurio

This is a moment of surrender. Or, at least, a movement toward that moment. This weekend, I sat in a high school classroom, listening to my children playing a duet—my son on the cello, my daughter on the violin. As a graduating senior, my daughter was performing at her last state solo and ensemble event. It was also the last time the two of them would be performing a duet together in this context. I often close my eyes when I listen to them play and for a moment, Beethoven’s Sonatina drifted through memories, picking up images that hung for a moment in the melody so I could see them, images of the two of them as children, playing together, kneeling in the grass, heads bent toward one another, communicating in the deeply familiar and private way siblings often have.

pexels-photo-164821.jpeg

Now, they sit on black chairs in this sunny room, communicating differently—with the interplay of cello and violin, trading the melody—heads still inclined toward one another, almost fully fledged and ready to fly. It is difficult to think about the journey of all those years, to think about how much my son and daughter have grown, without considering the impact of my own accumulation of years.

I have an uneasy relationship with the notion of aging. I’ll be 48 later this year. It isn’t the number itself that gives me any trouble, but rather, the undeniable signs that this is happening. It’s different for everyone, the collection of symptoms that pile up, that make you notice them not as individual random things but as parts of a pattern. At some point, it all adds up and you realize that getting older—which you were fine with—means you are actually getting old.

Distance and Pain

Did you notice what happened there? That slip from first person into second person? Writers sometimes do this with a first-person narrator as a hint that the topic is so difficult or painful for the speaker that they—consciously or not—slipped into speaking about it using the more distant, generalized “you.” It diffuses the pain. An example: Hemingway does this with his (autobiographical) narrator at the end of A Moveable Feast when he’s discussing the affair that ended his marriage to his first wife, Hadley. Hemingway describes the progression of the affair from something “stimulating and fun” to “truly wicked.” He speaks of the way “You lie and hate it and it destroys you.” He doesn’t say, “I lied and hated it and it destroyed me.”

So perhaps, it’s more accurate for me to say, “At some point it all adds up and I realize that getting older—which I was fine with—means I’m actually getting old.”

This progression from getting older to becoming an old person might be an easier journey if our society esteemed old age in any way. It doesn’t. The daily toil endured to be productive, tax-paying members of communities, the sacrifices made to raise children, the wisdom gained through the trial and error of living and loving and being human and making it to your 60s and 70s and beyond, are all frequently overlooked by our American society collectively, and by many of us individually on a day to day basis.

The Fine Art of Compromise

For me there are clear, outward facing indicators of my age I’m not comfortable with. I used to be regularly told that I looked younger than my age. I don’t hear that too much any more. For a period of time I read every article I could about the way stress—particularly some of the deep, long-lasting, chronic stress of divorce—ages a person rapidly on a cellular level. Though this idea was upsetting, it helped me accept some of the changes I was seeing and feeling. The grey hair, the bouts of insomnia. Sometimes it seems unfair, as if I thought I could cheat aging because I’ve focused on healthy eating for most of my adult life and tried to stay active since the kids were small. My lifestyle should at least yield healthy and productive later years, but I’m not naïve enough to believe there are any guarantees.

img_2786.jpg

I also find myself reading articles about the benefits of slow running. I ran two half marathons the year of my divorce. Running helped me purge a lot of the toxins I felt seeping into the tissues of my body. I felt like stress was devouring me breath by breath and I needed to burn it off the way fever kills infection. I’m not an efficient runner though and in the years since, long runs seem out of my reach. It’s hard to make peace with that. At the same time, I want to keep running. I’d rather do a few short runs, and some long walks, every week and be able to maintain that routine for the next twenty years rather than try and rack up mileage the way I used to and risk injuring myself to the point where I can’t run at all. My late 40s seem to be The Age of Compromise.

These are all small things. I feel good, really good, most of the time. I don’t wake up with aches and pains. The insomnia gets bad sometimes but I found that not eating after 7 pm really helps. The grey hair feels personal. I know it is a superficial thing. It is hard to find a vegan hair color that really does the job. I have researched articles on the best ways to go grey. I’ve pulled up pictures of Ann Bancroft in The Graduate and thought, maybe just let those streaks come in?

All of this research, these thoughts, these little allowances, are part of a movement toward surrender. Yet I remain unwilling to stop fighting the idea of growing older. I suspect that when I embrace it, a lot of things will fall into place. It’s worked out that way in other arenas. But right now I don’t even know what surrender and embrace look like. Is it when I decide to stop coloring my hair? Is it when I stop reacting so angrily to articles with headlines like “The 40 Things Women Over 40 Should Never, Ever Wear”? Maybe acceptance gets feathered in at the edges and you simply start noticing that you really don’t care about such things anymore. It’s possible that even thinking of it as embrace or surrender is to suggest I’m still fighting. Maybe it all happens organically, quietly in its own way, like when you remember that thing on the tip of your tongue finally, hours after you stopped trying so hard to catch it.

Whiplash: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

The flip side of all of this—of watching my children grow into adulthood, of making little deals with myself about how to shift the way I think about my age or changing my eating patterns—is that being honest with myself about aging means I also have to acknowledge that my parents are aging. I think now of that sonatina again and the memories shift. It’s my sisters and me—before my brother was even born and long before my baby sister was born. We are huddled in the fort made by the arching branches of forsythia bushes, speaking almost a private language, breathing in the delicately scented air under the first yellow blooms of spring.

Maybe my parents watched from the window. Maybe, as their little girls were graduating from high school, they thought about their own aging, and now, with their grandchildren graduating, they are simply living it. They are in their seventies. They deal with more doctor appointments than they used to, but they are active and happy and healthy. Like the good parents they have always been, they are modeling for me what aging can look like. They are simply living their lives, enjoying their journey, and dealing with obstacles along the way as they have always done and taught me to do.

So what am I so afraid of? Maybe it’s simply that the transitions in life are the hardest, and once we make our compromises, make our tweaks and our peace, we adapt and get on with it. It seems that every time I think this road is familiar and I know the way, the scenery changes and I get a little lost. Usually though, once the fear subsides I find I can relax and enjoy the adventure. I hope aging is like that.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath

On Film, Families, and Foxes

By Catherine DiMercurio

Most people who know me are aware that I’m an introverted homebody type. I prize coziness. After a long week it takes a lot of motivation for me to get excited about going out, at night, among people. But when your daughter—who within months will be moving to campus—says hey, we should do this Wes Anderson costume party thing, you get motivated. My daughter, my son, and I all enjoy evenings at home spent watching movies, reading, and hanging out together. The fact that my almost-sixteen-year-old son, my eighteen-year-old daughter, and I truly enjoy each other’s company is a source of continual joy for me. I know going through the divorce, as hard as it was on all of us, brought us even closer together in a new way. Oddly, we are sometimes gifted with healthy, joyous by-products of trauma, like superheroes who come by their powers via spider bites or extreme exposure to gamma radiation.

IMG_2758

My first Wes Anderson film was Rushmore. I remember watching it in my living room and thinking about how much it reminded me of two of my favorite films, The Graduate and Harold and Maude. I was hooked. My daughter was thirteen when Moonrise Kingdom came out on DVD and I let her watch it after she repeatedly asked if she could see it. My son sat in on subsequent viewings and they both responded to Wes Anderson’s quirky storytelling, his spot-on casting, and pretty much everything about his cinematography, even though they didn’t articulate their enjoyment in those terms. Over the years, they got caught up on his body of work and Wes became a shared obsession.

A Recipe for Wes Anderson-Level Awkwardness?

When my daughter suggested that we attend the Wes Anderson party, it was her idea that we invite my boyfriend, who is also an avid fan, as well. The party was an all-ages theme night at a local bar, and my son was on the fence about whether or not he wanted to go. He eventually declined, though he would have made an excellent Max Fischer. A few days before the event, after all costume-related items had been procured, I wondered about the potential awkwardness of the evening. There was the generalized social anxiety I typically experience before going out. And there was the more focused anxiety about heading to such an event with both my boyfriend and my daughter. This was new. The four of us—my kids, my boyfriend, and I—have spent time together as a group on a number of occasions, but we’ve explored this territory cautiously over the past year and a half, a strategy that has worked to our advantage. Nothing has felt rushed or forced. So, though I had no reason to believe that our interaction for the evening would be anything less than relaxed and enjoyable, I let the idea of it, the labels, get in my way. Me, boyfriend, teenage daughter. This might seem weird to people. Was it weird? Surely this mix went awry for lots of people. But, he wasn’t some random guy, and she wasn’t simply a stereotype of a teenage daughter. And even if it was weird that the three of us would socially interact in this way, as a friend of mine pointed out: this would be the way Wes would want it.

The Way We Connect to Character and Theme

This comment opened things up for me, and in particular, got me thinking about the costumes we had chosen. The Facebook event page exhorted us to dress up as our favorite Wes Anderson character. My daughter chose Suzy Bishop from Moonrise Kingdom, a teenage girl whose parents seem like they are on the verge of divorce. Suzy follows her heart and embarks on a wilderness adventure with the boy of her dreams, her record player, and her cat. My boyfriend, one of three brothers, chose Francis Whitman, one of three brothers, from Darjeeling Limited. Francis is organized and focused and attempts to re-bond with his brothers after the death of their father.

IMG_2761

Throughout the film, Francis sports a bandaged and bruised face and walks with a limp, these injuries having resulted from an accident brought on by the deep grief he experiences after his father’s death. And I chose Felicity Fox, from Fantastic Mr. Fox. Felicity is strong and tenacious, loving and realistic. At one point, she tells Mr. Fox “I love you, but I shouldn’t have married you.” She rightly bristles at being lied to by her husband, and lashes out after his dismissive comment that he is, after all, a wild animal. She points out that he is also a husband and father. A fierce and protective mother, Mrs. Fox is perhaps most deeply hurt by Mr. Fox’s deceit because it has put their son, as well as their nephew, in danger. This gives you a sense of Wes, who is able to develop nuance and emotional depth even in a stop motion animation film based on a Roald Dahl children’s story.

Wes returns again and again to themes related to absent or deeply flawed fathers, troubled relationships between siblings, and mothers that are present and protective but in many ways distant, or alternately, decidedly unavailable. Despite the recurring nature of these themes, the characters rarely become monochromatic archetypes. Even when Wes’s settings seems outlandish or far away—a fox hole or a train rattling through India—the way his characters relate to one another with regard to family dynamics is, I believe, what draws people into his stories.

So a Teenage Girl, a Fox, and a Bandaged Man with a Cane Walk into a Bar . . .

. . . and had a relaxed and enjoyable time. We sat and talked about our favorite Wes Anderson films and moments, we struck up conversations with those around us about Wes and other directors, other films. We people-watched, admired others’ costumes, laughed together, and congratulated ourselves on leaving the house and being social. We were home just after 10 pm.

IMG_2759

Later in the weekend, I happened upon a Facebook conversation about Lady Bird, a film I have not yet seen. Whether or not it was well liked by the people discussing it, the film clearly sparked introspection about parent-child relationships, perhaps in the same way that Wes Anderson films do, a little through humor, and a little through darkness. We come at these stories through our experiences as children, parents, and siblings. Sometimes the portrayal of families in film resonates with us in a profound way and sometimes it leaves us feeling disconnected, almost as if we are being left out of a private joke.

This left me thinking about Max Fischer, in Rushmore, and his desire to tell stories through theater. In the end, Max’s theatrical endeavors aren’t about the subject matter of the plays he writes, but really, about the fact that he writes plays as a way to remain connected with his mother, who died when he was young. It was his mother who supported his art, who gave him his typewriter after he wrote the play that got him admitted to Rushmore as a child. In fact, it was his mother’s act of submitting the play to Rushmore that got the young Max into the private school. Max’s connection to his deceased mother is at the heart of his relationship to Rushmore Academy and to his art as a playwright. And throughout the film, we see Max searching for connections and meaning, undoubtedly as a way of coping with this deep sense of loss.

This is why writer’s write, why movies are made, and why people seek art, whether it be on film, in print, on canvas, or molded out of clay. We all have concrete or ambiguous losses, pain that shifts in form and intensity as we get older. Whether we make art or consume it or both, the art-person relationship is as much about mitigating loss and seeking connection or empathy as it is about entertainment. These desires are also at the root of our often very strong reactions to film or books: I loved that book. I hated that film. It spoke to me. It left me feeling disappointed.

I talk about “the road” a lot, as it is a metaphor that endures in its ability to help me make sense of life. And I think attempting to make sense of it all is what we are called to do as artists and what we seek as consumers of art. We simply want to make sense of this often confusing and painful journey and to feel a little less alone, to be in on the joke.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath

Failure, Rejection, and the Road to Nowhere

by Catherine DiMercurio

This is the blog post I keep running away from. The reason? I can’t find perspective. I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about it, what insights to draw from it, because, to be candid, my writing life is filled with frequent rejections and persistent failure. My relationship with my writing is messy in a way that I learn to live with every day but don’t fully comprehend.

pexels-photo-243625.jpeg

I have written since I was about ten, when I began composing angsty tween poems, before being a “tween” was a thing. You were just ten, or eleven, or twelve. Then you were a teenager.

I often say that I love writing, which is true, but as with most loves, there exists a complex array of emotions for which the word is merely a cipher. The things we truly love cannot be separated from who we are.

Trying to Avoid the Pull of the Road

This identity-centric love happens to be a thing that many people have been able to monetize. Many people have found channels with which to share their work with others. It becomes expected that if you write, you do something with it. When I began my freshman year at U of M, I was interested in genetics. After I took my first science class though, and received the first C I’d ever gotten in my life, I wondered if maybe there were other career paths more suited to my strengths. I didn’t know what those were, however. I knew I liked to read, and I liked to write, but the whole point of college was to prepare myself for an actual job and I knew I didn’t want to teach. I’m sure if I’d had a little more confidence in myself I could have successfully pursued the career in genetic counseling I thought I wanted. Later, I would get a C in a poetry class and it didn’t slow me down one bit. In the end though, I sat with an advisor in a little room in Angell Hall. It was time to declare a major. He did the best he could with one more unfocused liberal arts student and told me I should do what I loved, because that was the most important thing, and things would fall into place. I’m still not sure if this advice was sound, but the idea was reinforced throughout the years after I graduated. I feel like for a decade or so the message many Gen Xers received, a message amplified by talk show hosts and self-help books, was do what you love.

Embracing the Longest Road Trip Ever

I declared as an English major that day. Still, I was afraid to take a creative writing class. I focused on literature, and I loved writing about it. A friend pointed me to a creative nonfiction class my senior year, and I was so engaged by it, I began seeking out the professor at her office hours to talk about writing. She encouraged me to write a story and submit it for the Hopwood award, a prestigious writing award at the University of Michigan. I did write. I did submit. I did not win. But the act of writing that story was a beginning for me. Something in me unlocked.

pexels-photo-371954.jpeg

After graduation, I landed a job as an assistant editor with a reference publishing company, hoping for two things: one, that the job would allow me time to keep writing, and two, that maybe it could lead to some publishing connections.

In a way, though it would take many years, it did both. I was only able to finish a novel after I left the company. I began freelancing, and with the power to structure my schedule differently, I was finally able to focus the way I wanted to. I wrote a novel and sent out dozens of query letters. The rejections piled up and the message I internalized was that the work simply wasn’t good enough. Perhaps all I needed to do was send out hundreds instead of dozens of letters. Perhaps I needed to get better. Later, still freelancing, and now raising two children, I tried again with another novel, and sent out query after query. The company I freelanced for had purchased a fiction imprint, and I was able to acquire the name of an actual person at the imprint to whom I could submit my query. Amazing Disgrace came out in 2006. The print run was small, but my foot was now in the door. I’d even contacted my former professor, who was still teaching. She came to one of my book signings and invited me to her class to speak. I couldn’t believe it; I finally had some momentum.

That momentum slowed and dissipated, a little ripple dying in the wet sand at the water’s edge. I wrote another novel. I revised that third novel over and over again and kept sending it out. Eventually I put it aside and focused on my freelance work, which now involved a lot of writing. Writing about literature. I was good at it, and I had a lot of jobs coming in. But, the work started to dwindle. At the same time, my marriage began to unravel. In the middle of it all, I applied to some MFA programs, thinking that maybe the reason I wasn’t getting published was because I needed to learn how to write better. It was a victory to be accepted into the Vermont College of Fine Arts creative writing MFA program. I felt like I belonged. I even did a post-grad semester so I could continue to work on my next novel.

When Things Don’t Add Up

All of the writing, the submitting, the rejections—each act is a lesson in vulnerability, in open heartedness, in loving the work rather than the reward. It would be a lie to say that the rejections don’t break my heart. They do. I imagine myself as a starfish, able to regenerate the necessary body parts to keep functioning. For the starfish, limbs; for me, my heart.

starfish-sand-beach-sea-56610.jpeg

Here I am now, two years post-MFA. I’m working full-time again at the same reference publishing company, squeezing in my writing time in the hours before or after work. In a way, I’m back to where I started. Currently, I have two short stories I’m submitting at various literary journals. They are getting rejected. But many of the rejection letters are detailed, positive notes that praise the work. I feel like I’m close, that soon maybe I’ll find the right person at the right time at the right journal. I also have several queries out for what is technically my fourth novel, and I’ve begun work on a new short story.

I wonder every day if the work is good enough, and if I’m trying hard enough. I’ve failed a lot and have seen so few successes. I lose sleep so I can write. I’ll be paying back student loans for the MFA for a long, long time. I have asked myself if it is worth it and all I know is that it doesn’t seem to matter. Converting the experience into tangible value in order to deem it a sound investment is like saying 2 + circle = purple. It doesn’t add up. I seem to be on a road that meanders in no discernable direction, and I’ve paid to be on it. So where do I go from here? Maybe onward is the only answer.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath

The Alchemy of Experience

By Catherine DiMercurio

Walking down South University in Ann Arbor with the U of M tour guide, our group of admitted students and their parents files past a row of children, who have descended from their yellow school bus to the sidewalk. Parent volunteers and a teacher herd the youngsters into a straight line. They are perhaps second or third graders—small, wide-eyed, wearing brightly colored jackets, the reds and yellows bursts of color like poppies against the grey streetscape. And here we are, another group of parents shepherding our children, trying to keep being what we are—a presence that can still shape and guide and protect them—though within a few short months they won’t even live with us anymore. It’s easy to see how fast it goes.

We all knew it, how quickly it was happening. We did what we were supposed to do, and didn’t take anything for granted, and cherished every moment, good and bad, every first and every fever, every struggle, every tear, every belly laugh and broken heart and broken bone. We still couldn’t will time to go any slower.

IMG_5489

 

I’m here with my daughter, the focus of our attention all day—how are you doing? are you excited? maybe this is where you’ll live—and my son, and their father. It’s been a long while, since the four of us have spent any amount of time together, and that isn’t lost on any of us. But the day unfolds pleasantly despite its potential for awkwardness, and more than once I think, look how far we’ve come. I wonder if the children think about that, or if they relax and accept this as a new normal. Before the divorce, the four of us visited Ann Arbor on many occasions. It is where our story began, where my ex-husband and I met. Now, what is equally prominent in my mind is how many other stories began when I attended U of M as well—friendships that remain an important part of my life, that buoyed me through dark times, and quite simply, my own story. When I started at U of M, it was the first time in my life I’d truly been away from my parents and siblings, the first time I began to see myself as more than a part of that family unit, as someone whole and separate.

IMG_5490

After we pass that row of children, part of my mind remains fixed in two pasts. It is as if being here has unwound several threads in my brain. I follow myself down one path, remembering myself as a freshman. And I also recall parenting my daughter when she was a second grader, spirited and smart and seemingly always eager for whatever was next. I look up and see she’s gotten ahead of me. Glancing past the little ones, I spot her French braids and her black windbreaker and I manage to move myself forward into now once again. But the day’s journey into the past isn’t over. Before long I find myself in my old dorm, Mosher-Jordan. It’s been renovated, but much of it still looks like it did in 1988 when I first moved in. The building is an old brick one, warm and inviting. Oddly, it is when I see the staircase that a flood of memories come back to me—specifically, traipsing up and down the tiled steps to the cafeteria where I worked. I know that living in this dorm was transformative for my ex-husband as well. Though we knew each other when we lived here, we didn’t date until long after we had both moved out of the dorm. I suspect that he is coping with a flood of memory as well. He, too, made life-long friendships here, and I can appreciate that like me, he’s probably recalling what it was like to be eighteen and at the beginning of it all.

For me, being at the beginning of it all meant discovering what it meant to be me without all the qualifiers—sister of, daughter of. It was incredibly difficult to leave my parents, my sisters, and my brother. I honestly did not know how I was supposed to do it. Though I remember feeling exhilarated, I was also so incredibly sad and terrified. And now, my daughter is preparing to make that same transition, and I’ll experience it from this side of the mother-daughter relationship. I’m sure I’ll probably call my mom and sob and ask her how she did it. How do you leave that dorm room? I console myself with the fact that I have a few months to get ready.

IMG_5487

 

For a long while, the question that percolated through much of my writing centered on the question of whether we become more or less who we truly are as we accumulate experience. Do we start out as our “true” selves and lose that identity along the way, or does what happens to us in life continue to add on to who we are. For some time, I’ve been trying to figure out what felt wrong about that way of looking at things. Something occurred to me though during this last trip to Ann Arbor. I realized: I’m not the sum of all the emotions and experiences that have brought me here. It isn’t about addition or subtraction—I didn’t become more me or less me because of things that have happened to me, or how I responded to them. I have become, and continue to become, who I am in each moment. It’s not math. It’s more like chemistry. Life is transformative and in many ways nonlinear, and there is mystery and magic to it, so maybe it’s more accurate to say that the process of identity-shaping is more like alchemy than anything else.

Love breaks your heart and mends it and breaks it again in a different place. Sometimes in the same place. Parenting makes it feel as though this process is happening with each heartbeat. By some alchemy our hearts remain completely whole and completely broken at the same time and we continue to love and grow, though each breath is another goodbye. But I wouldn’t change a thing.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath

 

Dog Days and Heart Breaks

By Catherine DiMercurio

When my dog Oslo was first diagnosed with cancer, I developed the notion that it was my fault. His diagnosis came about a year after my divorce was final: lingual malignant melanoma. The timing did not escape me. I knew somehow that Oslo had, on a cellular level, absorbed all the malignancies of my heart—all my grief, all my rage, all my fear. He had been at my side, as always, but especially during that really bad year when I cowered in a heap after the children left for school. I sobbed into his smooth brown fur and when I was exhausted and tried to rest, he curled up next to me, pressing the curve of his spine into the backs of my knees. That was the kind of support I needed during the divorce year, and Oslo knew just what to do.

Puppy Love

He was five at the time of the diagnosis. We got him when he was a smooth-bellied puppy, about five months old, according to the estimates of the shelter. They say he was a beagle-lab mix, but he did not look like his siblings, who were all beagle-sized but with the coats of black Labs and yellow Labs. Oslo was bigger. His brown fur was flecked with black, and the tip of his tail was black. His face had a sweet, beagle expression and he possessed the strong wide chest of a stout, muscular dog, most likely a pit bull, though no one wanted to write that on any official record of his.

IMG_2568

Just before the diagnosis, he had become excessively drooly and his mouth smelled foul. I presumed he had some sort of tooth decay, so I scheduled him for a cleaning. I assumed they’d have to remove a tooth. When Oslo’s long tongue hung from the side of his mouth as he panted anxiously during the examination, the vet discovered a walnut-sized tumor on the back of Oslo’s tongue. The results of the biopsy came back positive, and the vet recommended an oncologist so that we could discuss his prognosis and options. My vet tried to be optimistic, but he did tell me how aggressive this cancer was. I didn’t even know there were oncologists for dogs. At the appointment with the oncologist, they x-rayed his lungs, which were clear still, somehow. But that was pretty much the only good news. There was more—talk about the tumor that was removed, and margins, and lymph nodes. Basically I was told he had 30 to 60 days. DAYS.

Beating the Odds

But Oslo kept being fine. He was happy and eating and playing with the children and with our other dog, Phineas. For almost another two years, he was his sweet, normal, loving, devoted self. In that time, life around our house improved considerably. The initial trauma of the divorce and all of the life changes that came with it had evened out. Everyday life was different now for me, my daughter and son, and our two dogs. It was calm and predictable once again. Once your life isn’t being shaken up like a snow globe, the simplest things fill you with joy. Completing a task like getting your oil changed or going to your job and coming home, or being able to call the dentist to make an appointment and attend parent-teacher conferences on the same day was cause for celebration. I did two things! In addition to going to work! It sounds silly maybe, but after turmoil, there is such unbelievable delight in normalcy. And Oslo loved normalcy as much as I do. I think that kept him going. And maybe he needed to make sure we were going to be okay.

Meanwhile, the cancer was all still spreading within him, seeping from cell to cell and turning his body against him. An x-ray in this past fall confirmed it had spread to his lungs. His lymph nodes became enlarged. His eye began to swell with the pressure and became infected. He started to slow down. Once his breathing began to sound labored I knew we didn’t have much time, and the morning after a sleepless night for both of us was the morning I knew we didn’t have any time left at all.

My children are eighteen and almost sixteen. We’d talked very openly about all of this during the past two years, about everything that might happen and when it might happen, so they were as prepared as anyone could be, and none of us wanted him to struggle. In a way, then, we were ready. But, it really isn’t like that at all when you walk into the building with your family and realize that not all of you are walking out.

Goodbyes

There were lots of hugs and tears in that room that Sunday morning. A nice comfy, clean dog bed took up a considerable amount of floor space, but Oslo refused to get on it. So we all sat on the cold, tiled floor around him. He wouldn’t lie down, but finally at least he sat. The image that keeps returning to my brain is how he slid to the floor after he was administered the heavy sedation, known by anyone who has been through the process of witnessing a pet being euthanized as “the first shot.” The second shot is the one with the lethal medication that stops the heart. After the first shot, as Oslo slid to the floor in a deep, heavy sleep, I had the sense of time slowing. I keep seeing that long, slow slide and I remember trying to hold him and gently easy him down. In that prolonged moment Oslo was still with us, but not. We all had our hands on him, all three of us weeping with as much restraint as we could muster until the vet left the room. You can feel it happen, life leaving a body. You can feel your sweet, loving friend leave this world.

My missing of him is aggressive and sharp, like the taste of very burnt sugar in my mouth. It eases sometimes and I’ve stopped expecting to see him walking into the room. Mostly. Some days I still try to put his food in his bowl before I realize his bowl is no longer there.

Crying to a friend about losing Oslo, I extolled his virtues. I talked about how devoted to me he was, and how he followed me around the house, needing always to be wherever I was, and how he was always there for me. She reminded me of something else: I was always there for him. Even though I mourned the fact that I should have done more with him—more walks, more dog park, more treats, more attention—she said his life was better than it would have been because I adopted him and not someone else. I hadn’t thought of it that way before. I hope it’s true.

Doing Things That Break Your Heart

When I originally envisioned this blog, I thought of it as a series of “Twelve Things That Will Break Your Heart and Why You Should Do Them Anyway.” I didn’t know how to work that in but I knew it was in this context that I would be writing about Oslo. Loving a dog—adopting from a shelter, taking in a dog that someone needs to “rehome,” fostering, volunteering at a shelter—it doesn’t matter how you come at it. But it is one of those relationships that our language does not have the right words for. I didn’t mother Oslo in the way I mother my children, and I didn’t own him the way I own a pair of shoes, and I didn’t care for him in the way that I care for my friends. The way dogs and their people love each other doesn’t fall into any of the people-people or people-object categories. We don’t have useful, loving, warm words for interspecies companionship. For some of the most important relationships in our lives, language truly fails us.

Last week, I talked about being on the road, of recognizing and appreciating where you are and whom you are with. I hope your company includes someone like Oslo.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath