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.