Last night, as on most winter evenings, I had a hankering for a cup of tea, so I reached into the cupboard and pulled out a bag of Yogi’s Lemon Ginger. I am a tea person, and Yogi tea blends make me happy–in spite of the fact that each tea bag bears an “inspirational” tag. As my cuppa brewed, I steeled myself and read the latest quote:
This is the same company who apparently doesn’t see any irony in printing, “Be happy so long as breath is in you” on a tag for medicinal tea aimed at cold sufferers. People who, incidentally, are probably not having the best experience with the whole breathing thing when they reach for this tea. No one is happy at all times, anyway, nor are we equipped to enjoy every moment of every day. Parroting such unrealistic expectations demonstrates not only a lack of genuine wisdom but also a dearth of empathy for those who are ill or grieving, and looking for the comfort that only a cup of herbal tea can provide.
Which brings me to the point of this post: why, exactly, I’ve been AWOL, off the grid, missing in blogging action recently. For the past eleven months, to be precise. It isn’t that I haven’t thought about blogging. It’s that blog writers are expected to cultivate this slick, witty, amusing tone, and I haven’t had the heart lately. To write well about Deep Thoughts and Life Issues, I have always needed a decent chunk of processing time. So while I have thought about blogging since my last post, something has stopped me. Perhaps I simply haven’t been ready to talk about certain aspects of my–our–life until now.
Quite a lead-in, eh? As you can probably tell, it was a rough 2014 for our family. First off, we lost Corona, our older dog, in July. She’d been declining for quite a while, but the end came suddenly, and even though Kris and I had agreed in advance not to take heroic measures for an old dog who was clearly not long for this world, we still struggled with the decision to have her put down. We finally decided to let her go gracefully rather than put her through abdominal surgery at age 15, and I know in my head that it was the right decision. My heart has taken longer to catch up, which is why I’ve been reluctant to write about losing her.
Guilt is apparently a common reaction to a loved one’s death, at least according to the World Wide Web and my therapist. But no matter how guilty I feel about the end, or about the fact that I asked my dad to walk Corona so that I could get to work earlier on what turned out to be the last morning of her life, it doesn’t bring her back. It also doesn’t change the fact that we had a great run with her, and she with us. When I called to share the news of Corona’s passing with the woman who rescued her from the wilds of Pennsylvania, she said, “You and Kris were Corona’s therapy.” A young stray initially hostile to people (men in particular) and addicted to running away, Corona became during her thirteen and a half years with us the perfect off-leash family dog.
During her first decade with Kris and me, Corona was one of only two babies vying for our attention. Back in Western Massachusetts, I worked from home on a flexible schedule. Most weekday mornings I would take Corona up to Mt. Tom or Mt. Holyoke, and we would run the trails in all kinds of seasons and weather—through the falling leaves, through falling snow, through falling rain, through air that was so humid you could practically feel it falling, too. In our prime, she and I swished through autumn leaves in picturesque New England, ran up moss-bedecked mountains in the Pacific Northwest, hiked snow-covered trails in the Rockies and the Cascades, swam in the Great Lakes and Puget Sound, and chased all sorts of critters across all sorts of landscapes. She visited 25+ states during her life with us, and spent much of her time where she loved it most—outdoors. I recently compiled a slideshow of some of my favorite photos of her, and I had such fun remembering the amazing places we visited together.
Right after she died, though, I couldn’t sleep for a while, and then I couldn’t get interested in going hiking without her. More than a month later, I finally asked Alex if she wanted to go for a walk at a local park I’d only rarely visited without Corona. Alex said yes, so we piled into the car and set off, the back of my Escape conspicuously empty. All I could think about was the night I’d rushed Corona to the emergency vet clinic and, hours later, returned home without her. Driving my car hadn’t felt the same since.
And then serendipity waved her wand: Alex and I found a stray dog on our way to the park. When I couldn’t reach anyone on either of the numbers listed on her collar, I invited her along on our walk, and she hopped into the back of my car, an unexpected participant in our adventure. It was a beautiful summer day, and the young dog reminded me so much of Corona she could have been related. Just like Corona, this sweet-natured dog loved being outdoors and disliked walking on a leash. Alex and I enjoyed her company, and near the end of the walk, her owner got in touch. We dropped her off with her family, who said they were glad she’d gotten out and about on such a lovely day.
It was like Corona was with you after all, a friend said when I told her the story. And it was. Of course, she’s with us all the time in small ways—I see her in the woods, trotting ahead of me and Alex on our way to the “fishing hole” in our neighborhood; I picture her in the back of my car, nose out the window as I run down to the market to pick up a gallon of milk; I see her swimming in the lake each time we take the loop trail, coughing whenever she accidentally inhales too much water; and I imagine her sleeping in the living room at night, watching over us. The first two weeks after she died, I couldn’t feel her anywhere. But then I got the call to bring her ashes home, and as soon as I placed the urn on top of the book shelf, I felt better. It was like she was home with us for good. And now, seven months later, it’s finally getting easier to think of her without crying.
Onward and… Well, Onward
The past year hasn’t all been rough, of course. In September, Alex started preschool, so we posted First Day of School EVER! photos on Facebook, and were excited to do so in an unabashedly sentimental, completely non-ironic way. Sorry, fellow Gen-Xers. That’s just how we roll. She also had her first soccer clinic over the summer, and naturally, she was a star—once I could convince her to relinquish her grip on my shirt/hand/knee. She had her first gymnastics class, too, in which she was really just ADHD every Saturday morning from 10 to 11am for a month, and then another month of Saturday swim lessons. She’s even sleeping most nights in her own bed without complaint! Admittedly we’re still bribing her with treats, and she still comes into our room to snuggle in the mornings, but fortunately, it’s getting light pretty late these days… For Alex, it’s been a year of milestones.
Eleven months constitutes exactly half of the twins’ lives at this point, so as you can imagine, the change in that time has been explosive. Language, motor skills, communication, understanding–they’ve grown exponentially in all of these areas. Although not at the same pace. One of the things I haven’t written about publicly is the developmental challenges we’ve faced with one of the twins. I’m not sure I even want to name which twin, for reasons of privacy. And yet, it’s not like we think needing some extra help (her and us) is something to be ashamed of. She’s our daughter, and she is who she is, and we love her. It’s just that the internet is forever, and she can’t tell me if it’s okay or not to disclose her personal information.
Let me just say, then, that we noticed some issues with one of the twins about two months in. After discussing our options with our awesome pediatrician, we enrolled said twin in a local early childhood development program. We currently have a coach who comes to the house every few weeks to help us identify issues and solutions related to our daughter’s mild developmental delays and her continued difficulties processing certain types of stimuli. It’s been a really encouraging experience. Kris and I feel like we’re being proactive and trying to help our child be the strongest, happiest, healthiest person she can be, and yet her issues are not extreme, so we feel a tad guilty using the resources being offered to us. Still, I don’t think we would have done it differently in hindsight. Watching our girl become more comfortable and engaged in the world, more sure of herself and confident in her ability to learn new things has brought some hope and inspiration to us in the face of other challenges.
In addition to Corona’s death, Kris’s health has been a major hurdle to our ability to Enjoy Every Moment. For some reason, her rheumatoid arthritis (RA) decided to amp way the heck up while she was off her meds during her pregnancy with the twins. We thought once she went back on Enbrel that her RA would go back to normal—i.e., moderately destructive rather than all evil and sh#%—but that, alas, has not been the case. Her doctors declared Enbrel a clinical fail a year ago, and then, just for fun, they took her off ALL medication for six weeks last spring to try to get her “healthy” enough to try a new biologic drug. Surprisingly, being without medication other than Aleve and Tylenol while a severe rheumatologic disease ravages your joints turned out to be pretty awful. So much so that we joke now that it’s a good day when Kris can dress herself.
“That’s not funny,” you may be thinking to yourself, or even saying out loud right about now. But pain and fear only get worse if you let them get you down. (Take that, Yogi tea tag writers.) My Minnesota wife has been trying to teach me this lesson by example for years now, but it hasn’t quite taken. I still whine more than I should about not having time to write, and I know I feel sorry for her and for the kids and for myself more than I probably ought to. She, on the other hand, has borne up impressively. I’m good in a sudden emergency. In a crisis that requires quick thinking and decisive action, I’m your woman. But for the long, drawn-out pain of an acute, chronic disease, my money’s on Kris.
The kids are a two-sided coin—on the one hand, they provide us with joy and unconditional love, with a reason to get up every day and keep pushing forward. But on the other, it’s exhausting to parent three kids under the age of four even without an illness like Kris’s. Thank God for the kids, we say as they prance around us during Family Dance Party, or when they run giggling between us, hugging and kissing each of us in turn. But then on one of the late nights/early mornings when not one, not two, but all three are wailing away in their separate beds, I do not feel even remotely thankful. Some nights I leap out of bed, ignited with a rage that I’m sure served some adaptive purpose in my Scots ancestors, back when it might have been advantageous to awaken instantly from a deep sleep ready to do battle. Other nights, I mutter things that are best left unwritten. As Kris and I have come to agree, what is said in the middle of the night stays in the middle of the night.
And then I get up in the morning and go to work, every day Monday through Friday, and I try to stay awake and I try to care about web pages and college students and alumni newsletters. But it’s not easy. This time will pass, I know, probably too quickly. I am conscious of my daughters growing rapidly, and I don’t want to feel relief for every milestone they reach because it means they are headed inexorably toward independence. I think that’s one of the hardest things about Kris’s illness—not always being able to enjoy our children’s early years because somehow, I am currently the only truly able-bodied adult in the family.
“Some day you’ll remember these days fondly,” one of my co-workers told me the other day.
Tears pricked my eyes, because I knew he was wrong. I won’t look back on these days fondly at all, and that’s the sad truth.
Doh, there I go again, pausing to think about our situation instead of pushing onward and upward. To be a writer requires self-awareness, the deliberate act of looking inward. And yet, to survive where Kris and I are right now requires constant movement. If I stop, I’m afraid I will fall and I won’t be able to get up. Lucky for us, our families have really stepped up. So has the university where I work. FMLA is a good thing for our family, thanks in no small part to the 2013 Supreme Court decision that found DOMA to be unconstitutional. My bosses also let me go down to an eleven-month appointment, which means I got to take all of August off and a few extra days at Christmas. Unpaid, but that’s okay. Kris applied for Social Security Disability last spring so that we could have help paying for a college student to come to the house when I’m at work, and SSD was granted at the end of last summer. At least her illness isn’t sending us spiraling into debt, which a lot of people both in the US and elsewhere experience. For that, we are grateful. We are so lucky, we tell each other regularly. Could be worse. Because, of course, it could.
So that’s my last ten or eleven months in a nutshell. Moments of joy, a heart overflowing with love, a spirit rising at times but mostly struggling not to fall. We lost Corona, which we always knew would happen, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Kris is strong, but in constant pain, and one of the twins still struggles occasionally with life in a chaotic world. Things are difficult–and yet not all the time. The cliché says that the hard times make the good times seem even better. I’m not sure I always agree, but I have hope. After many years of therapy, I know that distraction is an antidote to pain and fear (ahem, tea taggers). And so I will keep writing fiction and spending time with my family and working. I will continue to go for walks in the rain with Maggie, our remaining elderly canine companion. I will try to slow down and appreciate my children, though probably not in the middle of the difficult nights. And I will hold out hope that stem cell research will be allowed to flourish in our nation sooner rather than later.
But that’s a subject for another blog post. In the meantime, I leave you with this slideshow of some of our sliver-lining moments of 2014. Happy 2015…