Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Blurry Images in Black and Gray

Shortly after my visit to the doctor to confirm my pregnancy, Steven and I scheduled our first ultrasound. We didn’t know what to expect. This was our first child, and it was still so early in the pregnancy. All the books I’d been reading said the baby was barely the size of a blueberry at this point, so I had a hard time imagining just what we might be in for. But we didn’t let that stifle our excitement. Like little children anxiously awaiting the promise of substantial loot on Christmas morning, we counted the days and tried to keep ourselves from bursting with anticipation.

Because of the ultrasound technician’s schedule, we had to set the appointment for a Wednesday afternoon in Casa Grande. Steve was able to flex his schedule to meet me at the doctor’s office over his lunch hour. We sat in the waiting room, making small talk and studying the anatomy and childbirth posters that decorated the walls around us.

The nurse called my name, and then led us to a small, dark room in the back of the clinic. There were several machines with green blinking lights sitting next to a half-chair half-table that was reclined and covered in the sterile doctor’s office tissue paper. A small, black flat-screen TV monitor was perched on the wall near the ceiling.

“How far along are you?” the technician asked.

“Six weeks,” I replied.

She smiled at us. “Your first?”

“Yeah,” both Steven and I replied.

“Well, congratulations! Just go ahead and lie back and pull your pants down below your hipbones, and we’ll see what we can see.”

I unbuckled my belt and slid my jeans down.

“This will be a little cold,” the technician said, squirting a small mound of cool, clear gel onto my skin. As she placed the small wand to my abdomen, the screen in front of us began to swirl with blurry images in black and gray. I held my breath and tried not to squirm.

After two or three minutes of searching, the technician put the wand down and wiped the gel away with a Kleenex.

“The baby is too small for us to see this way,” she explained. “Why don’t you go empty your bladder, and then when you get back, we’ll take a look at your baby with the vaginal probe.”

The tech turned and busied herself with the equipment, and I stole a glance at Steven.

Vaginal probe.

It took a moment for it to register. When the words finally reached the language center of Steven’s brain where they were interpreted and understood, his eyes widened and bulged, and his face darkened until it was roughly the shade of a Red Delicious apple.

I handed him my cell phone, wallet, and sunglasses so I could to head to the restroom. He leaned forward and whispered, “Um…do I need to leave the room for this?”

I smiled and squeezed his shoulder.

“No. Stay put,” I whispered. “I’ll be right back.”

In my mind, on my way to the bathroom, I imagined what might be going on in that dark little room in my absence. I could picture Steven, sitting there silently, cheeks still rosy, trying to act busy looking at his phone and nervously playing with the keys. I wondered what the technician was thinking, and I giggled out loud at the thought of her actually trying to have a conversation with my tightly-wound husband.

When I returned to the examination room, both Steven and the tech were in roughly the same positions as I had left them, though Steven had, in fact, opened up the internet on my phone and focused all of his attention on it. Even in the darkness, I could see the flushed red patches of his cheeks. I stifled a giggle.

The tech handed me a large, white paper apron. “Go ahead and undress from the waist down,” she instructed. “Then have a seat and drape this over you. I’ll be back in a few minutes, and we’ll have a look at your baby.”

“Okay,” I said, nodding.

She left, and closed the door softly behind her.

Steven sat, staring blankly at me. I could tell that he was thinking, trying to piece together the impending scenario in his mind. He opened his mouth, as if to say something. Then snapped it closed again, his forehead furrowing. When I unbuttoned my jeans and slid them off, he began to fidget, like a hormonal adolescent suddenly faced with the very real proposition of getting laid for the first time.

“Are you sure I don’t need to leave for this?” he asked again, as I folded my clothes onto the empty chair beside him and wrapped the paper apron around my waist.

“Don’t you dare leave me alone in here!” I whispered back. “You don’t want to miss seeing the baby the first time, do you?”

“Well, no…but,” Steven stammered, weighing the possibilities. “But I’m just not…There’s not going to be anything gross, is there?”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “What do you think you’re gonna see here?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Steven replied, shaking his head. “That lady says she’s gonna probe your…your woman parts so we can see the baby. I don’t know what else we’re gonna see! We guys aren’t usually around for this probing business!”

I laughed even harder, tears beginning to form in the corners of my eyes.

“I’m not getting a full gynecological exam here, babe,” I said, wiping away the tears with a corner of the apron. “Don’t worry, you’re not going to see anything that’s going to scar you for life. It’s just going to be a regular ultrasound picture on the screen.”

“Oh, okay. Just checking,” he said.

I could tell that he was trying to sound calm, but he was still fidgeting. Steven is a compulsive tapper—always tapping his feet and drumming has hands along to whatever song happens to be in his head at the time. There are very few moments throughout the day when he is actually still. Driving with him in the car can either be terrifying or humorous, depending on whether one of his favorite songs happens to come on the radio while he’s actually driving down the highway (in which case I can only pray that we don’t blow a tire at the exact moment when both of his hands are off the wheel pounding out a Foo Fighters solo) or sitting at stoplight, where he manages to draw the attention and laughter of all the people in the cars around us as the steering wheel transforms into the snare drum, the dash into the toms, and my head into a crash cymbal. His nervous tapping though, somehow takes on a whole new level of energetic intent. To the untrained eye of someone who doesn’t know him as I do, it may appear that he is having a mild seizure.

The door opened, and the ultrasound tech reappeared, smiling at the two of us, before taking a seat in front of the machine next to me.

“Okay, now just go ahead and lie back,” she said, adjusting the stirrups for my feet. “You’ll feel just a little bit of pressure from the probe, but nothing painful. We should be able to get a good look at your baby this way.”

Black and gray blobs swam on the screen in front of us, looking more like television static than anything resembling a baby. The seconds ticked by. I squinted at the screen, but couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing. The room was silent.

I began to wonder if something might be wrong. We were still so early in the pregnancy, and I knew that many miscarriages happened before most women even knew they were pregnant. I wondered if something had happened to that little blueberry-sized embryo, and if we were suddenly going to be faced with the heartbreak of losing our first child before we even really got a chance to know him or her. I could feel my heart beginning to speed up and pound against my sternum.

Suddenly, there was a flash on the screen, a flutter of movement. Beside me, I heard Steven gasp. I reached out and took hold of his hand, which had fallen motionless on his lap. The ultrasound tech twisted the probe to get a better look, and the screen erupted with life.

“There,” she said. “There’s your baby. That movement you’re seeing right there is the heartbeat.”

The fluttering on the screen was fast and steady.

“Heart rate is about 160 beats per minute, which is absolutely perfect,” said the tech. Then she began moving the pointer on the screen to continue her explanation. “This shape here is your baby. Right now the arm and leg buds are just starting to develop, so you can’t really recognize any of that yet. This circle next to your baby is the yolk sac.”

“Oh man, I thought that was the head,” Steven said laughing. “I have no idea what I’m looking at here!”

“Me too!” I said.

The tech laughed. “Most people make that mistake when they look for the first time because the yolk sac is round,” she explained. “The yolk sac will shrink and disappear within a couple of weeks after the umbilical cord has developed and the yolk sac is no longer needed.”

I stole a glance over at Steven, but his eyes were glued to the screen and he was smiling widely.

“So far, everything looks perfect,” the tech said. “Your baby is developing and has a good, strong heartbeat. Let me get you your picture, and then you can get dressed.”

She removed the probe, and handed me a small, black and white photograph of the image we had seen on the screen.

“Okay, you guys are all finished. You can go ahead and get dressed and check out up front. Congratulations!”

“Thanks!” we both replied as the tech let herself out and closed the door behind her.

“Wow,” I said, handing the photograph to Steven. “That was the craziest thing I have ever seen! Did you see that heartbeat going a mile a minute?”

“Yeah, that was awesome!” Steven agreed. He squinted at the photograph in his hand while I dressed. “I gotta tell you though, babe. Our baby looks like Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo.”

My laughter burst out, breaking the silence in the room. Steven raised his eyebrows and tried to remain solemn, but he couldn’t keep the corners of his mouth from curling into a smile. He held up the photograph.

“Seriously, babe,” he said, pointing to the image. “Tell me that little blob there doesn’t look like Mr. Hanky. You tell me that, and I’ll call you a liar!”

“What a terrible thing to say about your child!” I chastised playfully, taking back my cell phone and wallet and sunglasses. “I’m gonna tell our baby you said that.”

I’m gonna tell our baby I said that! And then we’ll go to the photographic proof!” Steven waved the photograph in front of my face and laughed. “It’s right here in black and white.”

We burst into the early afternoon sunlight and strolled across the parking lot, neither of us able to take our eyes off the blurry, black and white image for more than a few seconds at a time. When we reached our cars, we stood for a moment, and then Steven handed the photograph to me.

“I gotta get back to work, but why don’t you go home and scan this. Then you can email it to me so I can show everyone, and we can start sending it out to our families and friends. You know everyone is waiting.”

“Good idea,” I said, tucking the photograph carefully into my wallet. “I sure do love you, babe.”

Steven smiled and hugged me tightly. “I love you, too,” he said.

He kissed me quickly, and then we parted. I unlocked the van and climbed into the driver’s seat. Steven walked around to his car and unlocked the door, pausing for a moment before he opened it. He looked at me.

“So, I guess this is it, huh?” he asked, smiling. “We’re having a baby?”

I smiled back at my handsome husband and caught, for a moment, a glimpse of the proud father he would become. “Yep,” I said. “This is it.”

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Baby Blueprint

While some people scoff at things like intuition and gut instincts, I had to learn the hard way that there are often consequences to ignoring those subtle cues. Looking back on my life, I can honestly say that all of the good things that ever happened to me were the direct result of following my intuitive voice, while all of the horrible things were the result of my ignoring it, even when it was screaming at me to listen.

I do not believe that our lives are fully scripted, that we are trapped by fate or destiny to a predetermined end. Instead, I believe that we are all here to learn, to evolve, to do the best we can with what we are given, making the world just a little better for those around us in the process. I also believe that the Universe has a way of letting us know if we are on the right path, through that little voice or feeling or sign, called intuition.

All we have to do is learn to listen.

Steve and my decision to start a family was one of those decisions that had been left hanging in limbo. We both agreed that we were in no rush to have children, as we had just moved, gotten married, and were settling into new jobs. We had just taken the plunge and bought our first home, and soon after, our friend Foerth had moved into our spare bedroom, while he tried to settle into his new teaching job and find a place to live.

We realized right away that once you get married, the questions of, “When are you going to start a family? You want kids, right?” start immediately. In fact, I’m pretty sure that Momma Dawn asked about kids at least once before our wedding reception was even over. For the next year and a half, we fielded the questions (which slowly began to sound more and more like blatant demands) by smiling politely and cracking jokes and making excuses. We said we wanted to own a home, then bought one in July 2008. We said we wanted to wait until Foerth moved out, and he left in March 2009. By the time Steve and I got around to discussing our readiness to have our first child, it seemed that most of our die hard hopefuls were finally giving up on us.

I’d been taking birth control pills since just before our wedding, my doctors writing out prescriptions that allowed me to get refills for up to a year at a time. Steven and I sat down and did some calculating. My last refill before I needed to go in for an exam and get a new prescription would be in August. We decided that maybe it was a good time to just let the prescription run out and allow nature to take its course. I wanted to have our first child before I turned 30, and everything I read and heard said that it would take several months for my body to get back to normal.

So, we had a plan.

Now, I’ve always had a problem with plans. Not your trivial, “Hey, let’s meet at 8:00 and go get pizza” kind of plans. Those are easy. My issue has always been with bigger plans, life-changing plans, because those are the plans where I have had my intuition take over and suddenly hijack the road map, leading me down a very different path than the one I’d originally chosen.

Steven, on the other hand, is the type that desperately needs a plan. Without one, he tends to go a little stir crazy. How his uber-organized personality has been able to mesh so well with my chaotic existence is something of a natural wonder. While the figures may not add up on paper, there has always been something about the two of us together that just makes sense.

I can’t quite pinpoint when my feelings about our carefully crafted Family Plan began to change, but it didn’t take long for the subtle whisper to become a constant, nagging whine.

I wasn’t sure how Steven would react to my sudden request to modify our Baby Blueprint. Honestly, I expected him to protest the four month amendment, that I could only justify by saying, “I don’t know, but I just have a feeling it’s time.”

To my surprise, Steven just laughed and shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s up to you. If you’re ready, I’m ready. And it will take awhile for your body to get back to normal, right? So, no big deal.”

We didn’t breathe a word to anyone about our plans. Part of me was afraid that my years spent abusing my body with an eating disorder might have caused irreparable damage, and I knew Steven was wrestling with his own concerns, because he kept making jokes about us getting ourselves all geared up when we didn’t even know if either one of us was actually fertile. Neither of us really wanted to get our own hopes up, let alone anyone else’s, so we kept our secret to ourselves.

On April 20, 2009, I took my last pill and started my last cycle, and that little voice that had been nagging so mercilessly fell suddenly silent.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Time to get this started again...

So, this blog has officially been neglected. Hell, let's be honest, all my writing has been neglected lately! Yet, bad as I feel about allowing it to slip by the wayside, I haven't been able to muster the wherewithal or conjure up enough energy to do anything about it.

Everyone smiles sympathetically at my lethargy, telling me that I'm supposed to be tired. After all, I am 9 weeks pregnant, and the first trimester is often the most draining. I have had a hard time excusing my lack of ambition and chalking it up to a side effect of the tiny life now growing inside me. Instead, this new adventure that Steven and I have embarked upon should be a great source of new insight, and seems a logical place to start getting myself in the the habit of writing regularly again.

And hey, who knows, one of these days I might even be able to finish that memoir...

Thursday, April 30, 2009


If there was ever any doubt we adopted the perfect dog...

I guess she's a bookworm like me.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Steven vs. the Birds

As a rule, Steven usually leaves the house in the morning an hour before I do. Sometimes he will text me throughout the day, to revel about a project he completed, or to share random insights that he deems too important to wait until we get home—theories about the latest episode of LOST, updates on Nebraska football recruiting, how some crazy lady cut in front of him and then flipped him off when he stopped at the 7-11 to get a Slurpee during his lunch hour. One of the things I love the most about our relationship is the fact that we never run out of things to talk about, and we always seem to be able to find a way to make each other laugh.

Generally, I don’t hear from Steven for several hours after he leaves in the morning, but every once in awhile, he will call me if there is something urgent, like the times he has had to have me search for his wallet after he arrived at work and realized it wasn’t in his pocket. This morning, I was in the middle of making my coffee when my phone started to ring. I answered, already preparing myself to be sent on a scavenger hunt for something he mistakenly left behind.

“Hel—” I said, but Steven cut me off before I had the chance to finish my greeting.

“Oh my God, I am going to hell!” he gushed, breathlessly. “I mean it. I am going straight to hell!”

“Wait. What?” I asked. “What are you talking about? Are you okay? What happened?”

“Oh man,” Steven continued. “Feathers and guts! That’s all I saw, just feathers and guts!”

What the hell is he talking about? I wondered. I could almost hear the squealing of the gears in my brain as they began to turn. I’d barely been out of bed for twenty minutes, and had no caffeine in my system yet. It was taking me a few extra moments to catch on.

“Honey, slow down,” I said. “What are you talking about?”

“Okay,” Steve said. I could hear him taking the deep breath that always preceded his stories. “So, I’m driving past the dairy. You know, the one I pass before I get to the college?”

“Uh huh,” I said, visualizing his maroon Lumina cruising by the McClintock Dairy, Steven behind the wheel, drumming along to whatever song happened to be playing on the radio.

“Okay, so you know how there are always a lot of birds by the dairy? And there are always birds in the road, but they get scared and fly away?”

“Yeah,” I said. I was finally beginning to realize where the story was going.

“Yeah, so one didn’t fly away like it was supposed to. All I hear is this THUD, and then feathers and guts are flying everywhere!”

“Aw, Stevie, that sucks! I’m sorry!” I said, trying to be supportive, but I could feel the giggles beginning to build. I felt bad for the poor bird, and felt bad for Steve hitting it. Yet, imagining Steven’s reaction in my head was enough to make me choke with laughter. Steven’s passionate intensity, his tendency to make seemingly simple situations transform into grandiose, larger than life events, has always been one of the things that I love most about him. The ability to make even the most mundane situations exciting is a rare talent, and I have to say that Steven has damn near perfected his craft.

In my mind, I could see the events as they unfolded. Steven would be driving along drumming on the steering wheel to some AC/DC or Rolling Stones song on the radio, singing along in a loud falsetto, as he drove the long stretch of empty highway. Rounding the corner by the dairy, he would see the birds on the road in the distance. He would keep on cruising, trusting that the birds would fly away in time, as they had a thousand times before. He would be so certain of it, that he wouldn’t even notice the one still sitting there, until the bumper of the car was closing in. But, by then, it would be too late. As the car struck the bird and obliterated it, Steven’s eyes would grow to roughly the size of golf balls, and he would begin to yell.

“Aaahhhh! Jesus! Bird! WHAT THE HELL? Out of the road! You’re supposed to get out of the road! WHY DIDN’T YOU GET OUT OF THE ROAD!?”

Steven’s voice on the phone brought me back to reality.

“I mean he’s just sitting there in the road with his little friend—” he continued.

“Oh no, there were two little birds!” I cried, unable to hold the laughter in any longer.

“Yeah, there were two. And they were both sitting in the road, just minding their own business. His little friend flew away, but the poor sucker I hit just exploded. Seriously babe, I don’t even think there is enough of him left for his little friend to come back and identify him. All I saw was feathers and guts. Just feathers and guts, everywhere! I don’t even want to look at the front of my car!”

“Oh honey,” I choked, but I was laughing so hard that I couldn’t offer any more support. I collapsed on the couch and giggled madly. Electra planted herself at my feet and stared at me quizzically, her head cocked to the side in confusion.

On the other end of the phone, Steven was still talking, but I only caught every few words between my guffaws.

“Damn bird...stupid...feel so bad...freakin’ of feathers...”

I took several deep breaths, and finally managed to get myself under control.

“Oh, Stevie. I’m sorry,” I said. “That must have freaked you out. Was that the first animal you ever hit?”

“Yeah! The rest of ‘em always got out of the way!” Steve yelled. “I mean, seriously! What was going on in his little bird brain? He just sat there! He had no chance. I mean, I annihilated him, babe!”

“Aw, Stevie!” I giggled. “At least he didn’t feel anything. It was a quick, painless death.”

“How would you know?” Steve asked? “Have you ever exploded on impact?”

“Well, no,” I admitted. “But I’m pretty sure that exploding guarantees a minimal amount of suffering. I mean, you blew the little guy apart. I think his pain receptors were probably destroyed on impact.”

“Oh, God! I am seriously going to hell,” Steven moaned. “What a way to start a day!”

“I’m sorry, babe.”

“Yeah, it’s okay. I just hope his little friends don’t come after me,” Steven said, beginning to laugh himself.

“Oh man, no way!” I squealed. “I want no part of that Alfred Hitchcock craziness! You better hit the car wash today and get rid of the evidence. If it gets hot, your car is gonna stink.”

“Damn! I didn’t even think of that! Alright, I gotta go. I’ll see you tonight.”

“Okay, Stevie. I love you. And drive safely!”

“I’ll try. Love you too.”

Still chuckling, I hung up the phone. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee began to fill the air, as I headed to the bathroom to shower and get ready for work. Steven was right. It was quite a way to start a day—Steven Romano 1, Birds 0.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Sometimes people just really suck

I’ve always fancied myself an easygoing person. Most everyone who knows me agrees that I am one of those people who just sort of rolls with the punches and doesn’t let trivial matters get under my skin. I learned a long time ago that life is too short to spend your time feeling angry or frustrated by things you cannot change. Life is a series of circumstances, and our success is determined, not my always being triumphant in the face of adversity, but by learning the lessons that life teaches and becoming more compassionate and humble human beings in the process.

But if there is one thing that truly sticks like a thorn in my side, it is the way people can treat each other so badly. As humans, we have an endless capacity for both incredible kindness and unimaginable cruelty. Sometimes it’s as if we suffer from temporary amnesia, forgetting that we are all made of the same stuff beneath our myriad exteriors.

It’s no surprise to me that our world is in a state of crisis these days. More than any other time in history, we are living a self-centered, egocentric existence. We are all so worried about ourselves, our lives, our possessions, our own goals and desires that we are willing to annihilate anyone who gets in the way of our own personal happiness. We have stopped caring about each other, stopped recognizing each other as human beings. What many of us don’t realize is that, in the end, all of us will suffer.

Two weeks ago, my friend Erin invited me to go to the movies to celebrate her daughters’ birthdays. Milan had turned three, Brooklyn six, and instead of trying to plan the traditional cake-and-ice-cream-at-home party on Easter weekend, Erin gave in to the girls’ request to invite friends to the new Hannah Montana movie.

When Erin stopped by my house to pick me up after work, she confided that Brooklyn and thrown up earlier that afternoon when Erin picked her up from school. Like many children on their birthdays, Brooklyn had fallen victim to too much excitement and too many sweets. In the back of the car, she was dozing, her head resting back against the seat. She still looked a little pale, but she had assured Erin that she felt better and was looking forward to watching the movie with her friends.

Erin, her husband Ervin, a friend and fellow co-worker Coleen, and I ushered the children through the doors, stopping briefly at the snack bar before making our way into the theater. We walked up the stairs and settled into our seats, about halfway to the top. There were about two dozen other families scattered throughout the theater.

Brooklyn took a seat between her mom and Coleen. I settled in between Coleen and the seat Milan vacated to sit in her daddy’s lap. Erin realized that the girl from the snack bar had forgotten a few of the items on the order, so she excused herself and made her way back to collect them.

We still had about ten minutes to wait before the previews would begin. Coleen and I were chatting about work, and our realistic expectations for the upcoming movie. At first, I hardly noticed Brooklyn getting up from her seat and shuffling slowly in front of Coleen and me, her hands clamped tightly over her mouth.

“Daddy,” she whimpered.

“What’s the matter, baby?” Ervin asked, leaning forward to get a better look at her. “You gonna be sick?”

Brooklyn nodded.

“Here Milan,” Ervin said, gathering her up from his lap. “You stay with Lori, okay?”

Before I could reach for Milan, Coleen stood and took Brooklyn by the shoulders.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I’ll take her. C’mon Brooklyn.”

Coleen gently turned Brooklyn and tried to guide her around us and out of the aisle. Suddenly, Brooklyn’s stomach heaved. I heard the splatter of liquid on the floor, and felt a sudden warmth on my leg. Brooklyn stared at me, her eyes wide and full of tears.

I smiled at her. “It’s okay, Brooklyn,” I said. “Go on with Coleen.”

“Here,” Ervin said. “I’ve got a bag.”

Brooklyn continued slowly through the row as Coleen turned to grab the bag from Ervin. I stood to follow, taking a moment to gather my jacket and Coleen’s purse together on my seat and away from the mess on the floor. By the time I made my way to the stairs, Coleen and Brooklyn were already gone.

I exited the theater just as Erin was leaving the snack bar. I waved to get her attention.

“Hey, what’s up?” she said.

“Brooklyn got sick,” I replied. “She and Coleen are in the bathroom.”

Erin glanced down at the wet spot above my knee. “She got you?”

“Yeah, just a little though. Most of it went on the floor.”

I pulled the bathroom door open and held it so Erin could go in and assess the damage.

Just around the corner, Coleen and Brooklyn were standing in front of the sink, Coleen busy wiping Brooklyn’s shirt with damp paper towels while Brooklyn stood in a daze. Erin knelt by her daughter and asked her what happened, if she still felt sick, if she wanted to stay for the movie.

I turned on the faucet a few feet away and cleaned myself the best I could, while Erin and Coleen finished with Brooklyn. Coleen explained to Erin what happened after she left for the snack bar.

I didn’t even notice anyone else enter the bathroom, but as the four of us finally turned to go, a voice echoed angrily behind us.

“The least you could do is say you’re sorry!”

Brooklyn and I had already rounded the corner by the door, so we weren’t able to see the woman. I watched Coleen and Erin both turn around to face her.

“What?” Coleen said, her face twisting in disbelief. “Is she talking to us?”

“Excuse me?” Erin asked, looking genuinely perplexed by the sudden outburst. “Are you talking to us?”

“Yes, I’m talking to you!” the woman spat, her voice harsh and unforgiving, amplified by the hollow echo of the bathroom. “The least you could do is say you’re sorry after that girl puked all over us!”

Like a knife, her words pierced my heart, and I felt the knife twist as I watched Brooklyn’s cheeks flush with shame. She bowed her head and stared at the floor.

I leaned down and took her tiny hand in mine.

“Come on, sweetie,” I said softly. “Why don’t you come help me get some napkins?”

Brooklyn didn’t speak. We walked out the door and into the lobby. As the door swung shut behind us, I heard Erin’s voice growing loud with anger.

“We’re sorry, but it’s not like this is something you can plan! You’re a mother! You should know!”

Brooklyn and I busied ourselves gathering napkins at the counter. I pulled a stack and handed them to her, then grabbed some more.

“How’s your stomach, Brooklyn?” I asked, kneeling down in front of her. “Are you feeling better?”

She nodded.

“You wanna go sit back down?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Is the movie starting soon?”

The bathroom door swung open, and Erin and Coleen emerged. Coleen’s brow was still furrowed in disbelief, as if she couldn’t quite comprehend what had just occurred. Erin’s face was flushed, and for a moment I swear I could see the steam rise off her just like in the cartoons, her rage a visible cloud around her.

“Yeah, it’s gonna start in a couple minutes,” I replied. “There’s Coleen and your mommy. Should we go catch them?”

Brooklyn nodded and grabbed my hand. We hurried after them, catching up just outside the theater door. Brooklyn took her place at her mother’s side, and I hung back with Coleen to find out what happened after I left the bathroom.

“I don’t know. It’s crazy!” whispered Coleen. “The lady kept saying that we should apologize because Brooklyn puked all over them, but how could she? I didn’t see her puke anywhere but on the floor and on you. Did you see anything?”

I shook my head. “Where was that lady sitting anyway?” I asked. “I didn’t even notice her.”

“In front of us somewhere, I guess. I don’t know,” Coleen replied. “She’s just crazy though. Erin said she was sorry, but the lady just kept being all nasty and rude, and Erin finally snapped and told her that we couldn’t help it and the lady should understand because she has kids. I mean, her little daughter was standing right there with her! How messed up is that?”

By the time we returned and cleaned up the floor beneath our seats, the lights dimmed and the previews began. Though the movie was a welcome distraction, I couldn’t help but play the scene over and over in my mind—the woman’s piercing voice, the way Brooklyn hung her head in embarrassment before I could usher her out of the bathroom.

I glanced over at her from time to time during the movie. She seemed fully engaged in the film, even bobbing her head along with the music. I wondered if there was any chance that she would simply forget the ugly scene in the bathroom, if it would get lost in that dark void where so many of our childhood memories go, never to return to the surface as we get older and leave them behind. Yet, with a heavy heart, I knew that it was a memory that had been burned into her young brain.

That day, Brooklyn turned six, and had to learn that sometimes people just really suck.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Letter to the Editor in the Coolidge Examiner 4/22/09

Dear Editor,

We are at a point in this country where our educational system is, quite frankly, a joke. American students are lagging far behind other industrialized nations in math and science, and a large percentage of our high school graduates are earning diplomas without even being able to write cohesive essays that are grammatically correct. Yet, instead of coming together and trying to find ways to fix our broken system, we are wasting our time pointing fingers and trying to pass the blame.

The saddest part about the recent upheaval of the Coolidge School Board is that, in the end, it is only the children who are being hurt. It is their education that is suffering, while the adults who are supposed to be in charge of it are too busy squabbling with each other over trivial matters. While some may try to blame it on the faltering economy or gross administrative mismanagement, it seems more likely that the real problems lie not in the system itself, but in the people who are too busy fighting with each other to do their jobs and make things work.
The main purpose, the only purpose, of a school board should be to make sure that the children in a community are being served and educated.

Last week, Superintendent Darlene White was “reassigned” to her home until further notice, and several administrators were left in limbo, wondering if their contracts were even going to be renewed. This week, positions were eliminated and a few resignations were even submitted. What should have been a meeting to discuss issues and try to come to rational resolutions became more of a childish quarrel. Watching the proceedings was like watching a bunch of third graders trying to figure out how to uninvite the unpopular kids from a birthday party, after everyone has already RSVP’d.

As a community member, I am sickened by these events, and saddened by the irresponsibility of the people whom other community members have entrusted to educate their children. How are we going to be able to hire faithful and hardworking administrators after this? How are we going to attract quality teachers? How are we going to fix any of the real problems in our educational system, when we can’t even learn to get along with each other? I do not have any children yet, and I must admit that I am glad, for I do not think that I could send my children to the Coolidge schools with a clear conscience, knowing that their education and well-being is not the number one priority.

It’s time to stop pointing fingers and assigning blame. It’s time to get off our high horses and admit that we have all made mistakes. It’s time to stop assuming that someone else is going to pick up the slack if we don’t do our jobs. It’s time to stop being so selfish.

We are at a point in the history of our country where we have the opportunity to make a great change, and really begin to turn things around for the better. In just a few short years, we have watched our economy tank, gas prices skyrocket, hundreds of thousands of people lose their jobs and their homes. We all sit and watch the news and wonder how it’s ever going to get any better. We think that we are helpless, and we wait for some superhero to come along and save us. But no one is going to save us. It’s up to us to save ourselves. It’s up to us to change. And the only way we have a chance to do that is by coming together, communicating, and keeping our focus on our goals and on the well-being of our children.


Lori L. Romano

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Wake Up Call

When 47-year-old Susan Boyle first strutted on to the Britain’s Got Talent stage, one hand on her hip and the other clutching in the microphone, she was greeted by an incredulous panel of judges and an intolerant audience. She fumbled awkwardly through the small talk with the judges and joked about her age, which elicited a wide-eyed “what have we gotten ourselves into?” glance amongst the panel. When Ms. Boyle admitted that she dreamed of one day being as famous as Elaine Paige, audience members groaned and snickered and rolled their eyes at this frumpy, unemployed spinster standing center stage in her matronly dress and matching shoes. Simon Cowell (known here in the United States as the Patron Saint of Sarcastic Criticism on American Idol) stretched his face into a tolerant smile, folded his hands, and waited for the impending disaster.

I felt a pang of fury watching the icy reception, and I was overwhelmed by compassion for this poor woman who was about to put her heart and soul on the line in front of millions of viewers, only to be publicly ridiculed, first by Simon and the other judges, and then by the malicious media. When Ms. Boyle smiled cheerfully and gave the thumbs up to cue the music, my heart stopped for a moment in my chest.

Beautiful music has always affected me profoundly, resonating somewhere deep inside, as if somehow directly connected to my soul. There have been numerous occasions throughout my life when I have been so captivated by a piece of music that I have had only what I can describe as an out of body experience, floating somewhere above my body, enraptured by the natural progression of the notes and the enchanting lilt of the vocals. There have been moments when I am absolutely certain that I have gotten a glimpse of Heaven right here on earth—playing in high school concerts in front of my hometown audience, standing next to Katie Luekens singing hymns during chapel services at Concordia College, sitting in the darkness of the Broadway theaters and concert halls. Whenever, wherever I happen to be, I get lost in the music.

“I Dreamed a Dream” has always been one of my favorite songs from Les Miserables, yet all of the other performances I have ever seen appear amateurish and pale in comparison. A choir of angels could not have sung with more passionate intensity or with greater joy than Susan Boyle. My heart ached as I watched the audience members’ skeptical frowns melt into rapturous awe.

From the time we were young, we are told to never judge a book by its cover, yet we do time and time and time again. We are living today in such an egocentric culture that it is difficult for many of us to even bring the world around us into focus. It’s all about me, me, me, what I think, what I want, what I like or dislike. There are so few genuinely pure and humble souls left that when we do encounter them—souls like Susan Boyle—it is hard not to sit up and listen.

Humans are amazingly complex creatures, capable of extraordinary kindness and compassion, or devastating ugliness and brutality. Sadly, in today’s world, we have all been subjected to more than our fair share of evil and greed. Even those of us with the best of intentions are finding it difficult to let our lights shine in the midst of so much darkness. I am a believer though, that energy is contagious. So it is no surprise to me that Susan Boyle has become such a sensation, that she has had several million hits on websites like YouTube, that her story and her video is spreading across the globe. In the darkness, even the tiniest pinpoint of light is enough to draw us in, to make us anticipate the dawn. In today’s world, where there is so much misery and despair, one short glimpse of a pure and beautiful soul—like Susan Boyle—just might be enough to restore our appreciation of, and our faith in, each other.

And if you’d like another uplifting story and musical performance, check out Paul Potts, who also shocked the Britain’s Got Talent judges and audience. If you ever had any doubt that there were angels among us…

Sunday, March 29, 2009

As We Jump Into the Final Frontier

There was a time in my life when I was terrified of marriage. Almost every couple I’d ever known made it look so hard—learning to compromise, learning to live with the highs and lows of another person. I didn’t think that I would ever be able to find someone that I would want to commit the rest of my life to. Hell, I wasn’t sure I could find someone I could actually put up with for that long, or (perhaps more appropriately) someone who would put up with me.

I didn’t think that I had impossible standards. I wanted a guy who could love me for who I was. I was tired of being told what kind of clothes I should wear, or that girls shouldn’t play drums or be good at sports. I wanted a guy who would make me feel important, the kind of guy who could be interested in me for more than my body, who actually heard what I said and could carry on an intelligent conversation in return. I wanted a guy who would never cheat on me. I’d been cheated on by damn near every boyfriend I’d ever had and was, quite frankly, sick of it. I wanted a guy that I found attractive because, no matter how adamantly some people try to argue that looks don’t matter, they do. There has to be some level of attraction, or there will always be something missing from the relationship.

Above all else, I wanted a guy who could make me laugh. Life was serious enough without some sourpuss with no sense of humor making it even more difficult. I’d dealt with a few of those before—the angry, jealous types—and quickly learned that we couldn’t get along for much more than a week before I was considering joining the Witness Relocation Program just to get away from them.

I had given up finding my perfect match, finally deciding that the whole idea of soulmates was just a bunch of hocus pocus dreamed up once upon a time as some sort of grand psycho-social experiment designed to determine what would happen to us human beings if we grabbed onto some impossible romantic ideal and believed it to be gospel truth. Was it possible that there was one perfect person out there for each of us, amongst the billions of individuals on earth? And was it possible that our paths would cross during our lifetimes, or that we would even recognize each other if they did? Mathematically, the odds were impossible. Yet, I saw so many people around me, clinging to the hope that it would happen, always searching for “The One” who would arrive one day, unannounced, and sweep them off their feet to live happily ever after.

The first time I saw Steven Romano, he was emceeing the Freshman Orientation Entertainment at Concordia College. I was a wide-eyed freshman, leaving my home in Nebraska and arriving in New York, where I was certain I must be feeling like Dorothy when she first blew in to the Land of Oz. I’d been in New York less than 48 hours, and I was already addicted to its intensity. Steven was a senior, and the first glimpse of his lopsided, boyish grin in the bright glow of the spotlight made my heart thump wildly in my chest. I’d never felt anything like it before, so I didn’t quite know what to think.

There is a photo of me in the yearbook (or rather, a photo of the back of my head), as I turned all the way around in my seat to watch Steven harass Josh Reiker, a fellow freshman, who was seated behind me in the crowd. I think that photo accurately sums up the six years I knew Steve before we officially started dating. To put it simply, I was in awe of him.

I can’t pinpoint a specific date when our courtship began, for it ebbed and flowed like the Atlantic tide the first five years we knew one another, until we started dating exclusively. It read like a cheap television sitcom script, the way we just couldn’t seem to get together all those years. We became fast friends, and I fell for Steven immediately. My mom likes to remind me of the phone conversation just before Christmas break my freshman year, when I told her that I’d met the nicest guy, Steven Romano, and how if he asked me to marry him tomorrow, I’d say yes. Funny how I was so certain then, and when it really happened six years later, all I could do was spit and sputter, “Oh my God! What are you doing? Are you serious? Are you kidding?”

The only things that Steven and I have ever really disagreed on are the details of our bizarre courtship, arguing adamantly about who liked who first, who make the first real move, who made the whole situation more frustrating and difficult. Whenever Steven was single, I was dating someone. When I was single, Steven was in a relationship. We just couldn’t seem to get the timing right. But, in the meantime, we liked to stroll around campus together, discussing everything from movies and music to philosophy and religion. We often had dinner together with a group of our friends, and spent time together at parties and campus events on weekends. For years, many of our friends jokingly called us “Mulder and Scully,” partly because we were both big X-Files fans, and partly because our attraction to each other (and the way we tried to deny it) reminded them of the characters in the show.

Shortly after I graduated in May 2003, Steven finally asked what I thought about us officially dating.

“You want to know what I really think?” I asked.

Steven leaned in closer and threaded his fingers through mine. “Of course I do,” he said.

I smiled at him. “Well, to be perfectly honest, I think it’s about damn time.”

My answer must have shocked him, because he sat up straight for a moment, eyes wide, as if he’d been slapped.

“Really?” he asked, laughing and squeezing my hand.

“Yeah, really,” I replied.

“You know, I was going to wait awhile to do this, but…oh, what the hell?” Steven said, then leaned in and kissed me. My heart was thumping as wildly as it had the first time I saw him. I knew from the moment our lips touched, that we would be together for the rest of our lives.

Though it took nine years for us, from the time we met to the time we said our vows, the transition was the most natural thing in the world. It sounds cliche to say that I have found my perfect match, but there are not many other ways to describe the way Steven and I complement one another. We both love movies and interesting TV shows—anything from stupid, brainless comedies like Napoleon Dynamite and How I Met Your Mother to things that demand in-depth thought and analysis like Twin Peaks and Lost. We are both drummers and love music, and even though I wasn’t quite sure how his heavy metal and hard rock would fit with my country-heavy collection, we are content most days to set the I-pod to “Shuffle All” and see pops up next.

While I tend to be a little too easygoing at times, Steven is a bit on the anal side, especially when it comes to finances, our CD/DVD collection, and his desk in the office. My idea of balancing the checkbook is having rough idea of how much is in account and cutting off spending when I think the balance is hovering right around $100. Steven checks the account religiously every morning online, and keeps a second record of the account on Microsoft Money, where he can track all of our purchases and project our cashflow for months in advance.

Our CD and DVD collections are alphabetized on the shelves, and our video games are grouped according to the game systems they are played on. Steven is overzealous about discs being left out of cases or, God forbid, being put in a case where they don’t belong. Should Steven ever do anything to seriously irritate me, I’m quite certain that the ideal revenge would be to take every single disc out of its case and replace it with something else. Since this is likely to end in divorce, Steven’s initial crime would have to be something unforgivable.

While I am far from the stereotypical crazy writer whose lair is littered with half-drunk mugs of stale coffee and dusty piles of paperwork that threaten to topple at the slightest breeze, I will admit that my desk can quite accurately be described as organized chaos. To the untrained eye, it might appear untidy. There are usually several piles of papers and files, a couple books and/or magazines, three or four pens and pencils, a few photographs, and a handful of paper scraps that have ideas, random thoughts, or quotes jotted on them. To work most effectively, all of these things are essential. When I’m in the writing groove and really churning out the pages, I simply don’t have time to stop and go digging through the file cabinet or the bookshelves to try and find a file or article or book that I need as a reference.

Because Steven’s and my desks are pushed up against each other, my piles have a way to migrating over into his space. On a bad day, he might have a few piles of his own, mostly receipts to be entered in Microsoft Money, or the books and notebooks from one of his computer classes. He can usually stand the overflow for a week, before he starts asking when I’m going to go through things. Because he works a 9-80 work schedule and has every other Friday off, I’m usually only awarded a two-week grace period before he snaps and starts cleaning himself. The problem is, he doesn’t just move the piles back onto my side. Instead, he tries to tidy it all, putting things away where he thinks they go, and I am doomed to spend several hours trying to undo the damage. One of these days, I’m certain he’s going to pull a Dwight Shrute, and fortify his workspace with a fence made from sharpened pencils as Dwight did in an episode of The Office.

There are not many things I’m certain of in my life. I know that things can change in an instant, and I’ve always been easygoing enough to be able to roll with just about anything the Universe throws my way. But if there is one thing that I am certain, it’s that there is no one I would rather share my life with than Steven Romano. Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember a time when Steven wasn’t in my life, as if he has always been there, and while I once had doubts about soulmates and ever finding a man I could (or would even want to) spend my life with, I have to admit, I’ve become a believer.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Saying Goodbye to Grandma T (part one)

The tears came unexpectedly, a wave of grief so sudden and searing that it burned me like a branding iron. It was all I could do to choke back the sobs until I hung up the phone. I wiped away the tears with clenched fists, like a child, trying to grind them from my eyes. I felt guilty, crying so hard for the great-grandmother I hadn’t even known for eight years. When I finally emerged from the office, my eyes were red and puffy.

“Hey babe, who were you talk—” Steven asked, stopping short as he turned to look at me.

“It was Momma Dawn,” I choked. “Grandma Taylor died today.”

“Oh Lori, I’m sorry. Oh, I am so sorry,” Steven said, catching me as I collapsed into his arms.

“I didn’t…I…it feels like I barely even got to know her!” I sobbed.

By the time my tears were spent, I was numb.

The drive from Arizona was long, twenty-two hours each way. Momma Dawn did most of the driving. If she was anything like me (if perhaps this was another trait I had inherited), she needed to drive, needed something to do with her hands, something to help occupy her mind and distract her from the stinging sorrow.

Kolt, Kassie, Uncle BB, and Momma Dawn shared stories about Grandma as the miles passed—stories of her gingersnap cookies, her chicken fried chicken dinners, how she used to stay up all night gambling in the Las Vegas casinos while Grandpa Taylor slept soundly in their travel trailer. I listened to the stories greedily, devouring them the way a starving man would devour a steaming plate of food set before him on a table.

Though I knew in my heart that my life had played out exactly as it was supposed to, I couldn’t help feeling like I had been cheated.

The day I first met Grandma Taylor is burned into my brain. As much as I’ve thought and written about it, I made certain that it is a memory I will never lose. I can close my eyes and relive that first moment when I saw Grandma, standing just inside the front door, her face half-hidden in the shadows of the single lamp that burned in the living room. Even in the darkness, I knew that, for the second time in less than eight hours, I was looking into my own eyes, staring in dumbstruck amazement at a face I had never seen, yet seemed hauntingly familiar.

“Oh honey, I’ve been waiting so long for you,” Grandma said, gathering me into her arms. I was surprised at how tightly she squeezed me, holding me for several moments, like she didn’t ever want to let me go. And I got the feeling that, here I was, holding in my arms another part of me that had been missing.

We spent hours talking, and looking at photographs. Grandma led me through the house, pausing next to each photo long enough for her to explain who it was, when it was taken, and the story of any events that had transpired before the snap of the shutter. After the tour, we settled in on the couch to look at the photo albums. Grandma nestled in close to narrate, her hands folded neatly in her lap, except when she reached out to point at a photo or take my hand in hers and squeeze it gently, whispering each time, “Oh, honey. I’m just so happy you’re here! How I wish Billy was here to see you!”

Grandma had the hands of a farmer’s wife, the soft, but weathered hands of a grandmother. They almost seemed too large and strong in comparison to her dainty body. They were the hands of a woman that worked hard throughout her life, the hands of a woman who saw her fair share of both joy and heartache, the hands of a woman who earned a very special place in Heaven for the way she has lived and loved and done her part to make the world just a little bit better for the rest of us.

Driving up from Arizona, we watched the external temperature gauge dropping steadily with the passing of the miles, as we pushed north through New Mexico, Colorado, and the Nebraska panhandle. Even after arriving in Ainsworth and driving to the funeral home to meet the family in private before the public viewing, the mercury in the thermometers continued to fall as the overcast sky let the first of the snowflakes drift to the ground where they hung on and eventually began to stick.

Hard as it is for me to believe that there are still relatives I haven’t met, I found myself once again trying to overcome my shy awkwardness, as I was introduced to more aunts, uncles, and cousins. In their faces, I found warmth and familiarity. And in mine, they saw something that made their eyes water as they tilted their heads and smiled and said, “My God, you look just like your mother! Don’t she look just like Dawn?”

For the first time in my life, I am able to smile and reply, “Thanks, I get that a lot.”

There are times, even now, that I find myself having a hard time believing that this whole reunion hasn’t been just one long dream, perhaps because I’m finding everything I prayed so hard for is finally coming true. Sitting in the lounge at the funeral home, I studied the faces of my relatives the way an artist might study a model before making the first few sweeping strokes on the blank, white canvas. In the faces of those around me, I saw pieces of myself. In their stories, I saw glimpses of my own childhood. It was as if I had been sucked into some strange episode of The Twilight Zone, where I was swept into an alternate dimension to be raised in an environment and with a family that was almost an exact replica of the one I had left behind.

Somehow, it was as if I had been there before, able to recognize everyone, even as I met them for the first time.

Though everyone agreed that Grandma looked better now than she had in months, I couldn’t bring myself to go in the viewing room right away. I hung back in the hallway, studying the photoboards and chatting with my new cousins as Momma Dawn, Mark, and Uncle BB took their turns.

Even now, over ten years later, I still sometimes have trouble getting past the image of Grandpa Luethje lying in his casket at the funeral home, as if that snapshot in time is the gruff gatekeeper to the memories that I have of him when he was still alive. I couldn’t allow that to happen to Grandma Taylor, not when I had so few memories of her to begin with. I would do anything to preserve those precious moments that we had together. I would keep them safe, whatever it might take.

I waited until later in the evening, after much of the public traffic had dwindled and most of the family was occupied eating Pizza Hut in Grandma’s honor and sharing memories of her in the lounge. I slipped into the viewing room behind Kassie and Kolter, staying in my place about ten paces behind them.

As they stood between me and Grandma, shielding her from my view, I took myself back to that December day when we met for the first time. Closing my eyes, I could almost hear her sweet voice, ushering me in out of the cold. Behind my eyelids, I played the movie for the thousandth time, watching Grandma dart through the front doors of the Rosebud Casino, dismissing one of her sisters with a quick hello and wave of her hand as she made a beeline to her favorite penny slot machines, returning to give a proper introduction only after she tipped four chairs against four machines to reserve them for her, Momma Dawn, Louree, and me.

I could see her, hopping up from her kitchen chair to refill my coffee cup, bustling to gather extra quilts for my bed and retrieve the steaming corn bag from the microwave to help keep my feet warm in the night. I could feel her strong arms, catching me in an embrace, and her warm hands clutching mine, as if she needed to touch me in order to convince herself that I was really sitting there beside her after the twenty-two long years we’d spent apart.

When I opened my eyes, Kassie and Kolt had stepped aside and were studying the flowers. I watched Kassie step in close to hug Kolt, whispering in his ear, as he broke and began to cry.

Grandma looked so peaceful that she might have been sleeping. Just like Grandpa Luethje’s viewing, I took a tentative step forward, as if expecting Grandma Taylor to suddenly sit up or open her eyes. I stared, without blinking, trying to decide if I could see her chest rise, ever so slightly with the intake of a breath. When I had stood there long enough to convince myself that she was, in fact, gone, the grief, like a knife that had been stuck deep into my abdomen, twisted.

It’s not fair. No. It’s not fair! I thought, over and over, in the whining voice of a petulant child, the way I had once whined while being spanked, or being hold I couldn’t read just one more story before bed. The tears built and my vision blurred. I took a deep breath and bit hard on my lip to hold them in, and slowly backed away.

Suddenly, I needed to be out of there. I needed fresh air, even though the temperature outside had dipped well below freezing. I’d always hated crying, and I absolutely refused to cry in front of other people if I could help it. The hallway was crowded, and I had to weave my way to the coat rack, avoiding the questioning glance of my relatives as I passed.

The icy wind slapped my cheeks as I hit the door. Behind me, I heard Kassie calling.

“Hey sissy! Where are you headed?

“I just need some air.”

“Hold on, I’ll come with you.”

I held the door open so she could follow.

I strode onto the sidewalk, where the snow had finally begun to stick and cover the ground in a thin layer of white. I closed my eyes and breathed deep to slow my pounding heart. I stood, head tilted back. Snowflakes landed on my cheeks, where they melted and ran like tears.

“You okay, sissy?” Kassie asked, breaking the silence.

I opened my eyes and turned. She stood behind me on the snowy sidewalk, her misery a mirror of my own.

“Yeah,” I said softly. “This just really, really sucks.”

Kassie nodded. “Yeah,” she said. “It really does.”

We looked at each other, not moving, not speaking, frozen by the cold and the pain.

“Come on, let’s go back in,” Kassie said finally.

I hadn’t realized how hard I was shivering until she spoke, my teeth chattering so hard I thought they might break. Threading my arm through hers, we retreated to the warmth of the lobby to say our goodbyes until the morning.

While the grownups retired to their beds, or to tie up the loose ends of the arrangements, Kassie, Kolt, and I headed to the bowling alley to spend time with our cousins. The bowling lanes were packed when we arrived, reserved by the Thursday night leagues, so we retreated to the back room. The boys played pool while we girls pulled chairs close to the gas stove to drive away the winter chill and talk. Outside, the temperature had dropped to the single digits, and the snow continued to fall.

By the time we arrived back at Grandma and Grandpa Beguin’s, several inches had accumulated on the ground. We trudged through the powder carefully to avoid any patches of ice on the sidewalk beneath. Inside, the house was dark and silent.

In the room that Kassie and I shared that weekend, Grandma Beguin had turned on the electric blanket and left the lamp burning, to welcome us home.

Lying in the darkness, snuggled beneath the warm blankets, I heard Kassie’s breathing become slow with sleep’s regularity. I closed my eyes and tried to turn off my racing thoughts, but my mind wouldn’t cooperate. Instead, it replayed moments over and over, like a video montage on an unending loop—Momma Dawn’s voice on the phone announcing Grandma’s death, Aunt Carolyn smiling through her tears as she pulled me into a warm embrace, Kolt hanging his head and weeping beside Grandma Taylor’s copper-plated casket.

I didn’t realize I was crying, until the tears slid down my cheekbones and dripped onto my pillow.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Adopting Electra (part two)

Every pet I’d ever had in my life came easily, whether adopted from the local animal shelter, given as a birthday present, or picked from a litter and paid for. I guess I just never expected it to be any more difficult.

The first indication that adopting a beagle was going to be a much more difficult process came when I downloaded the adoption application from the Arizona Beagle Rescue (AZBR) website, a 5-page document that requested all sorts of information—from how much time our prospective pup would be spending alone each day, to the names and phone numbers of references who could attest to our dog-owning skills.

Once our application was approved, I had to schedule a Home Visit with one of AZBR’s volunteers, so they could come and check out the living conditions, and make sure the walls and gates were secure enough to keep a curious beagle from escaping at the first interesting scent to pass by. When I told Steven, he just shook his head in disbelief.

“Are you kidding me?” he asked, laughing. “Any idiot can bring an innocent child into this world, and we have to have a home visit? For a dog?”

After a few emails back and forth with our assigned volunteer, I had the home visit scheduled for a Tuesday night in October. Our Home Visitor brought her two fosters, Stevie and Bill Bailey, along with her to let us see two typical beagles in all their glory. While Stevie ran through the house, sniffing everything and trying to stretch her nose above the top of the counters, Bill Bailey came and sat next to me, coughing and wheezing, to get a back scratch. Abandoned in a pound by his former owners, Bill Bailey had developed a case of kennel cough so severe that it permanently scarred his throat. He walked around now, constantly trying to clear his throat, sounding very much like an elderly man with a bad case of smoker’s cough.

I was afraid that once Steven got a taste of the chaos, he might very well tell me that he had changed his mind and I could forget about getting a dog. Then, Bill Bailey strolled over and jumped suddenly into his lap as he sat at the kitchen table. Surprised by the sudden display of affection, Steven stroked Bill Bailey’s head and scratched his ears. After several moments, when it finally dawned on Steven that Bill Bailey was eyeing the bag of Foerth’s dog food sitting on the table in front of him, Steven helped him back on to the floor.

He walked around for several days after the visit saying, “Bill Bailey used me. That dog used me to get to the food, and I feel dirty!”

The next afternoon, I got an email congratulating us on being approved. Now, all we had to do was hurry up and wait for the Adoptions Coordinator to contact us with the name of an available beagle that matched our requests. We had fallen in love with a 3-month-old puppy named Gracie May after seeing her photo on the website, but there was no guarantee that we would get her. Instead of adopting dogs out on a first come, first serve basis, AZBR tries to match beagles with families where they feel they fit best, based on temperament, activity level, household members, etc. While we were impressed with the professionalism and genuine interest AZBR had in finding the best possible homes for all the beagles, we couldn’t help but be frustrated by the lengthy process.

As we the days and weeks passed, Steven and I prepared ourselves for our new arrival much like expectant parents. We purchased a crate and a comfortable bed and found the perfect place for our new puppy to sleep in the corner of our room while she adjusted to her new home. We picked out toys—chew toys, a red AC/DC guitar with a squeaker inside. We bought treats shaped like little bones and dyed orange and black for Halloween. We each made a list of possible names, and made fun of each other’s choices. We had everything. All we needed now was a dog.

After a month of waiting, an email finally arrived, asking if we would like to meet Electra, an 8-month-old beagle that had been rescued by AZBR a little over a month ago. I logged onto the website immediately. All that was posted were two photos. No description. No details. Nothing. And yet, looking into her sweet face, I knew we had to go see her. I contacted her foster mom, and made arrangements to drive to her house in northern Phoenix the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

The usual protocol for AZBR’s visits is for the prospective adopters to make arrangements to meet at the foster’s house. They do not notify the foster directly about their intentions to adopt or not. Instead, they return home and contact the Adoptions Coordinator. This system saves any embarrassment or hard feelings, should the potential adopters decide not to take the dog for any reason. The day before we were supposed to go for the visit, Electra’s foster mom called me again, with a small amendment to the usual plans.

“Here’s the deal,” she explained. “I’m leaving first thing Tuesday morning for Thanksgiving, and a conference for work. I’m going to be gone three weeks. I called the Rescue and worked it out so if you decide you like Electra, I’ll have all the paperwork here for you to sign, and you can take her home that day.”

“Wow, sure. That sounds great,” I said, wondering if perhaps things were suddenly running so smoothly because we had found the dog that was meant for us. I tried not to get my hopes up, but my pounding heart betrayed me.

Adopting Angel had been the most natural thing in the world. I knew she was my dog the minute I saw her in the little pen the pastor had built in his living room to keep the puppies corralled. When I sat down on the carpet, Angel walked right over to me, and climbed into my arms. She was so small that she could fit in one of my hands, and she fell asleep as I cradled her there.

“Now, I don’t know that you’ll want that pup,” the pastor said, eyeing me cautiously as I held Angel. “See how much smaller she is? She’s the runt of this litter. Was born dead even. I had to rub her almost five minutes and breathe into her nose ‘til she finally woke up and started movin’. She’s likely to be sickly. Might not even live that long.”

I remember looking down at the little black and white ball of fur in my hands and thinking that maybe he was right; maybe I shouldn’t be hasty in my decision. Then she opened her little brown eyes and looked at me and sighed, and I knew then that I couldn’t let her go. I named her Angel, thinking that there must have been one there with her the night she was born.

I couldn’t help but wonder if it would be the same with Electra.

We arrived at the foster’s house and rang the bell. Inside, a cacophony of barks and howls greeted us through the screen door. There were three beagles bouncing and falling over each other in front of the door when we entered.

“There,” the foster mom said, pointing to a dog that stood across the room. “That’s Electra.”

She stood, as if waiting patiently for her turn to greet us. I leaned over and held my hand out in front of me. Electra lowered her head and trotted over. She didn’t even stop to sniff my outstretched hand. Instead, she reared up on her hind legs, put her front paws on my thighs and turned her droopy hound dog face up to mine. I rubbed her long floppy ears and ran my hands along her smooth black sides. Like Angel, I knew from the moment I saw her, from the moment I touched her, that Electra was mine.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Adopting Electra (part one)

My life has been punctuated with pets. Except for the college years, when I lived in New York, I have always had a pet. I am, hands down, a dog person, but that's not to say that I don't like cats. I would argue that Baby Gray was the coolest cat that ever lived.

He broke absolutely every cat stereotype--we managed to move him six times during the sixteen years that we owned him; he would come to you every time you called him; and he absolutely loved people, all people, without reservation. I loved the way his purr sounded like an idling diesel engine, and the way his stump of a tail (the result of getting hit by a car one summer while we were on vacation) would twitch wildly whenever he got excited chasing a piece of string across the floor.

But there really are two distinct classifications--cat people and dog people--and while a dog person, like me, might love and appreciate the occasional cat, dogs will always hold very special places in our hearts.

I love the way dogs always seem so uncoordinated, the veritable Bull in the China Closet Syndrome, when they get excited. I love a dog's unbridled passion whenever I walk in the door, whether I have been gone for five minutes, or five hours. I love the way a dog will follow me from room to room in a house for no other reason than to be close to me. I love the way that something as simple as tossing a toy across the room can turn into an unending game. Toss a toy across the room for a cat, and he'll just look at you, thinking, "You moron. You threw it. You go pick it up."

After living, petless, in New York for nine years, it was time to get a dog. My husband, Steven, who has never had a pet, argued adamantly against it. He just couldn't understand why anyone would want one. They were messy, required lots of attention, had accidents on the rug, needed to be walked, fed, bathed, and taken to the vet at regular intervals, and they had a much shorter lifespan than humans. He had seen what my parents and I went through in the summer of 2008 in my shih tzu Angel's final days, agonizing over the decision to put my 15-year-old dog to sleep. When Mom and Dad delivered Angel's cremated remains to me in an urn, which I promptly placed on one of the bookshelves in the living room, Steven just shook his head and chalked up as yet another reason not to get a pet on his internal scorecard.

But my persistence finally paid off, and Steven relented to adopt a dog, under two very strict conditions:

"First of all, I don't want no wussy dog!" he stated firmly. "No little fluffy thing that you carry around in your purse. Nope. No way."

"But, honey, I don't even carry a purse," I reminded him. He just held up his hand for my silence.

"And second, let's just remember this was your idea, which makes it your dog. You get to do all that crazy dog stuff that dog people do. Don't expect me to go out picking up poop. Nope. Not happening."

I just smiled and kissed him. "Whatever you say, honey," I agreed, then retreated to the office to start looking for our new dog.

Over the next few weeks/months, I scoured the internet for local shelters and rescues. We agreed right away that we wanted a rescue dog. Why perpetuate the cycle of overpopulation when there are millions of wonderful dogs who have been abandoned and are just waiting for a family?

We discussed breeds, temperaments, size, and decided that our house and yard would be best for a medium-sized dog, one that would adhere to Steven's No Wussy Dog Rule, but would be small enough that it wouldn't take over the house and feel crowded.

When Steven off-handedly remarked that he always thought a beagle would be a pretty cool dog, I jumped at the suggestion. I'd gotten so used to him just shrugging his shoulders and saying, "Eh, whatever you want," when I would show him photos of cute adoptable puppies, that I'd begun to suspect that he really was going to leave the decision entirely up to me. Now that he was actually expressing an interest in a beagle, I finally had something to set my sights on. With a few clicks of the mouse, I was on Arizona Beagle Rescue's website, oohing and aahing over photos of the happiest little dogs I had ever seen. It didn't take much to convince me.

I'd never had any beagle experience. My dad and Grandpa Felker had several hunting dogs growing up, but they were all labs or lab/retriever mixes. I'd gotten my shih tzu, Angel, as a Christmas present in 8th grade. According to everything that I was reading, owning a beagle was a whole different ballgame. Driven mostly by their insatiable appetites and their keen sense of smell, beagles can be a handful for people who are not prepared, scouring the countertops and tables for food left unattended, knocking over garbage cans and eating the contents. But, overall, a beagle seemed to be just the dog that Steven and I were looking for--medium size, loving, playful, energetic, extremely loyal and intelligent. We were a little concerned that most experts recommend never letting beagles off-leash, as they have a tendency to run off if they catch a scent to follow, but the positive aspects of the breed far outweighed the negative.

Thus began the adoption process.

To be continued...

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Mis-Education of America

Like all children, I went through periods when I hated school, and made up excuses and potentially life-threatening illnesses in order to convince Mom to let me stay home for the day. But, in general, those days were rare, as I always enjoyed learning. My occasional hiatus usually had more to do with being tired or fighting with my friends than it had to do with school.

Most of the classrooms of my youth ran like well-oiled machines. My teachers were knowledgeable, and enforced discipline and order in ways that were both fair and effective. Talking during class was taboo, and disrespect was simply not tolerated.

It was rare for a student to even try to bend the rules or show disrespect. When they did, they were sent straight to the Principal's office and punished, mostly through detentions, suspensions, or expulsions. Sometimes they were even sentenced to manual labor, reporting for duty early on a Saturday morning to spend the day scraping gum off the bottom of the desks or scrubbing the black scuff marks from the gymnasium floor. Parents were always called immediately, and the punishment at home often far outweighed any the school administrators could dream up. We were a generation of kids who were grounded, given additional chores, and spanked when necessary.

Disrespect was simply not tolerated.

When I first started teaching, I was appalled by the things kids were doing and getting away with in schools these days. At first I thought it was just me--a rookie teacher in a Bronx high school is bound to have some problems, right? But it wasn't just me, and I soon learned that it wasn't just the kids in the Bronx either. As a whole, the educational system in the United States has taken a nosedive and splattered headfirst on the pavement.

Teachers are paid a pittance for the incredibly important job they do, and are being abused with extra duties, activities, committees, and meetings that they are forced to attend outside class. Instead of being able to focus on instruction, teachers these days also take on the role of head disciplinarian (an assignment that used to fall under the Principal or Vice-Principal's job description). Unless a child actually pulls out a weapon and threatens to use it, it is virtually impossible for teachers to get a troubled child removed from class. Not to mention the fact that classrooms are so overcrowded they are literally stuffed with students. There are never enough textbooks or supplies, and many teachers even have to buy their own paper if they want to make photocopies for assignments.

Somewhere along the line, our nation adopted this soft, touchy-feely attitude toward children, and the problems with it are becoming apparent only now that it is literally blowing up in our faces. We are afraid to discipline children, or correct them, because we are afraid we might hurt their feelings. Kids are out of control, in classrooms and at home. They have no sense of right and wrong, no respect for their elders (or anyone else for that matter). They certainly aren't learning anything because, God forbid, we can't make them memorize anything anymore. We can't make them diagram sentences or write long essays or read entire novels, because that would just be too much for them. No, no, no, we need to reward them for jobs half-done. We need to hold their hands and walk them through the watered down curriculum that even a monkey could decipher if properly trained.

In the infinite wisdom of our elected officials and administrators, we have severely cut our art music, and physical education programs--the very programs that give our children creative outlets for their abundance of pent up energy and emotions. I have one friend working in an elementary school without recess. An elementary school without recess!!! The school day stretches from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm, with only a 15-minute break for lunch. Is it any surprise that approximately 6 million children are being diagnosed with ADHD in the United States every year? Is it any surprise that our children are beginning to lash out and bite the hands that are trying to feed them?

Our children don't need to be coddled, and they certainly don't need to be medicated. What they need is to be kids. They need to be given adequate time each day to run and play and stretch, not just their bodies, but their imaginations as well. Then, when it's time to get serious and learn, they need rules and discipline and consequences. Children learn by imitation, by trial and error. If we want them to grow into well-rounded, respectable citizens who can really contribute to our society, then we need to stand up and be role models. We need to figure out how to fix ourselves, then do what it takes to fix things for our children.

The burden is all of ours to bear, for we do not live inside individual bubbles where the rules that govern the whole have no effect on us. It's time for all of us to step up and take responsibility for the state of our world. Only then will it possible to roll up our sleeves, dig in, and do what it takes to fix it.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

His name is Greed

Sometimes I feel just like a gerbil, running around and around on this rickety wheel. I hate the way it wobbles and sways. I hate the shrill, high-pitched squeak, squeak, squeak of the gears that have been worn ragged by misuse. I want to stop sometimes, yet I am compelled to keep going, driven by a force that I am not sure I truly understand.

Nothing is right anymore. Nothing seems to fit. We are living in a world gone mad, and I find it disturbing how many of us are willing to just sit back and allow it go on this way. The economy is in the toilet. People are broke, losing their jobs, their homes, their hope. And what do we really have left without hope?

America doesn't need a stimulus package. America doesn't need a bunch of monopoly money being mass-produced and distributed as though it might really be worth something. No, what America needs is an exorcist, someone willing to face the ugly demon that is festering, and banish it once and for all.

And what demon might that be? Why, I think that's pretty easy. We all know him. His name is Greed.

We have gotten lazy, so incredibly lazy, and we are raising a generation of young people who have an outrageous sense of entitlement. Young people today think that everything is going to be handed to them on silver platters, and they are never going to have to really work for anything their selfish desire. No one wants to work for anything anymore. Why work, when it's so much easier to pass the buck and let someone else pick up the slack?

Movie stars and professional athletes and crooked politicians are making more money than most of us will ever see in our lives, while the rest of us are barely hanging on. We work ourselves to death so we can raise families and try to catch a glimpse of that "American Dream" we've all heard so much about. Sadly, it's getting harder and harder to recognize it.

We are hitting a point in our American economy that we are faced with the real possibility of another Depression. It's sad, and it's going to hurt a lot of people, but maybe it's the only way to bring balance to our society again. We have gotten wasteful and excessive and completely out of control, and, unfortunately, the only way for the pendulum to swing when it hits one extreme is back the other direction. We are destined to bounce from one extreme to another until we finally find a way to fix what's wrong.

The greatest tragedy of all is that we have lost touch with each other. We have stopped recognizing the fact that we are all connected, that we are all here on this earth for the same reason--to do the best we can with what we have, to help one another, and to learn a little something in the process. This country once claimed that it could be a place where people of all different backgrounds could come together and live in harmony, that people of all races and religions and beliefs could blend together, like a steaming pot of jambalaya, each of our individual flavors made more significant in our combination. Unfortunately, we just can't seem to come together. We live in a nation that is sharply divided, and we are all selfish enough to refuse to accept any of the blame for it ourselves, when the simple truth is that we are all guilty.

So, what can we do? How do we go about fixing such a deeply-rooted problem? Can it be as simple as learning to love each other for who we really are, instead of who we want each other to be? Will we ever be able to look each other in the eyes, and admit that, in spite of everything, in spite of all our difference, we are all wonderfully, beautifully human?