A Tribute to My First Dog Oreo

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Oreo, October 1999 — July 2015. RIP.

Last night, my first dog Oreo died. He was a little black-and-white shih tzu who spent a wonderful fifteen and a half years as a constant companion to my family. I’m gutted, but I also know it was his time and that he lived a long, happy life. This week, I’d like to memorialize him by sharing a little bit about his life and our relationship:

Flashback to the Fall of 1999: I’d convinced my mother to maybe let me get a dog for my birthday (by the way, “maybe” totally meant, “yes, but only if you kiss my butt for a little while first” in Nance-language). Originally, I wanted a Yorkie, but as many puppies as I met while we surveyed breeders, I was having trouble finding one that called out to me. As my 14th birthday neared, I worried I’d never find a dog, and that my mother would lose interest in our search and change her mind. Then she suggest we meet a shih tzu puppy instead. “They’re small and personable,” she reasoned, “and wait ’til you see how cute they are!” This was, of course, before the days of obsessively researching breeds, breeders and rescues on the internet, so I pretty much had to take her word for it. I agreed to meet a puppy on my birthday, December 3rd, 1999.

I remember playing a basketball game in a puppy-fiending haze and then taking a long drive with my mother to the breeder’s house in Eastern Connecticut. When we walked in, the breeder kindly told me to sit on the couch while she went to get the puppy.

“We only have one left,” she explained, “he’s the runt of the litter, but I think he’s got the best disposition of them all.” I held my breath as she walked into the other room. Nance gave me a reassuring smile and a thumbs up. The breeder returned with a ball of fluff no larger than the size of a grapefruit in her hand. She placed him on the floor to sniff me, and without hesitation, he ran as fast as he could up my legs and torso and went straight to licking my face like crazy. Never had I ever loved a creature so quickly and with such abandon. I caught my mother’s eye as a mischievous smile crept across her face.

We’d found him. He was coming home with us.

“I want to name him Oreo,” I said decisively. It wasn’t the most creative name, but it just seemed to fit. He was so cute, you could gobble him up, just like a cookie. He was so tiny that a puppy collar wouldn’t even fit on him. We had to buy him a kitten collar in the smallest size.

When we pulled into the driveway later that evening, my mother said, “just walk up to your father and show him the puppy. Say nothing.”

“Wait, you didn’t tell Dad?! I thought you were going to talk to him! He’s going to be so mad!”

“No he won’t. Not when he sees how cute the puppy is. Besides, it’s your birthday. He won’t yell at you on your birthday.” She had a knowing glint in her eye, and I sensed that she was right about how he would react. My father would never agree to bring another animal into the house (and for good reason, since he always got stuck taking care of them, even though he was never the person who wanted them in the first place), but he also wouldn’t kick a pet out. He was a softie at heart.

(Author’s Note: I reiterate that these were different times, and acknowledge that surprising someone in the household with a pet is a huge no-no. I would never do this again, and highly discourage anyone from doing so).

I brought Oreo into the house, shaking with nerves. My father was standing in the kitchen. I approached him as he caught a glimpse of the fur ball in my arms. “What’s that, a rabbit?!” He asked, confused. He was used to us just bringing home all kinds of animals and springing them on him. He didn’t seem at all surprised.

“No, a puppy.” I said, and put Oreo onto his outstretched hand. He was so small, he sat right in my father’s big palm with room to spare. He wagged his tail enthusiastically, putting on his best “look how adorable I am and please don’t send me back, mister!” show.

“He’s cute,” my father admitted, and handed him back to me.

And that was that. Oreo was cleared to move in and became a fixture in all of our lives. He wormed his way right into our hearts with his sweet demeanor and energetic puppy sociability.

I remember staying home from school “sick” for a few days in his first couple of weeks just to be with him all day. We’d lay together and nap and I’d try desperately to help house train him. He became my best pal, following me around the house, and never letting anyone else ever sit next to me. That was his spot — right by my side. He was a true companion, full of personality, affectionate, a bit protective. He was my guy.

I hated leaving him when I went away to college in New York City, and even tried to take him back to school to live with me one time. Although I learned quickly that he hated being an only dog (my parents were so smitten by then that they’d gotten another shih tzu as a companion for Oreo), so I dutifully took him back home to Connecticut.

Every time I’d go home to visit my parents, Oreo would put me through the same wringer: at first, he’d be ecstatic to see me. His whole body would shake with excitement and he’d shower me with love and affection. That is, until he remembered that I’d abandoned him for the city. Then he’d act really cold and throw me shade left and right. He’d look over his shoulder at me and roll his eyes, or walk away when I called him, as though to say, “you left me, lady! Get in line!” After a day or two, he’d stop trying to resist me and let me back in again. “You’re staying this time — I knew it! We’re back together, the old partners in crime! YES!”

And then I’d reluctantly him leave again. So was the pattern of our relationship and our love.

He grew a lot more comfortable with my abrupt entrances and exits later in his life. He understood that we didn’t live together, but that when we’d see each other, it was special Chelsea-Oreo times. I visited home to spend time with him as often as possible, and after I graduated Fordham, he started to visit me in the city once or twice a month along with my parents at the apartment we shared together. He still insisted on being right by my side, and would often sleep in my bed with me, while his two sisters slept with my parents in their room.

Some things I adored about him:

He loved Wheat Thins to an unhealthy degree: He pretended to be selectively deaf for the backend of his life, but always exposed himself whenever a box of Wheat Thins would be opened in the next room and he’d come running like a little bat out of hell.

He was a grumpy old man: A grumpy, slightly judgmental old gay man, if you ask me. He had no time for nonsense, and would complain to anyone who would listen if someone or something was annoying him. He did this with incredible vocal fluctuation. Sometimes, I really thought he was talking to me.

He hated to exercise: and on the off chance that you took him on a walk that was longer than a block or two, you would need to give him positive verbal encouragement the entire time. He was a major lap dog.

He was protective of me: Not in a I’ll-bite-you-if-you-come-near-her kind of way, but in a much more subtle, gentlemanly way. He’d show his quiet disapproval of my boyfriends by turning away from them and outright ignoring their existence. “Oh, you’ve brought HIM?!” He’d communicate with his eyes to me privately, “I had no idea you were still super into dating losers! Get it together, darling, you’re not getting any younger.”

I knew Dave was different when Oreo met him for the first time, and sat right in between us, rather than on the other side of my lap. He even let Dave pet him, and looked into his eyes. Maybe he just had a thing for big muscles and blue eyes — who knows what that crazy little man was thinking. In my mind, I saw approval. Maybe I manufactured it, or maybe it was there. All I know is, Dave was the first guy I brought home that didn’t totally repel my favorite furry guy, and that was enough for me. Deal sealed.

I’m so incredibly thankful for the years I was able to spend with Oreo, and that he was in good health for the majority of his life. I’m going to miss him immensely and am having a hard time imagining life without him as a fixture. There’s also the fact that losing him feels a bit like a double blow: I’ve lost my first dog, along with another little piece of my mother — a symbol of the strong, beautiful connection we shared. But in the end, it comforts me knowing that I loved them both so fully.

I’d like to close by sharing a poem I wrote about Oreo in the Spring of 2000, when I was 14 years old. It’s a little silly, as most poems written by children are, but I think it’s the perfect memorial:

Knowing That You Were Mine

I remember

the first time I saw you —

your glowing eyes, 

filled with adventure, youth, curiosity

And how I held you —

your fragile, tiny body

so gently, as though holding an infant

I cradled you in my arms

knowing that you were mine.

You’d show your affection

with kisses; nuzzling me

And I would smile 

knowing that you were mine.

I brought you home

and put you down —

you were tentative at first

but your little legs could keep still no longer,

I played with you

knowing that you were mine.

The days passed,

and I grew fonder of you

Even though sometimes, 

it’s hard to clean up your messes

I love your warmth, 

to hug you, kiss you, love you

the perfect friend — my little dog,

It comforts me

knowing that you were mine.

Oreo as a wee puppy, 1999.

Oreo as a wee puppy, 1999.

I love you, old boy. You’ll be missed.

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The Internet Commenters in My Head

Confession time: I’m addicted to internet comments. They’re probably my worst, most destructive vice. No, really. I have a problem — I absolutely MUST know what anonymous people on the internet think. I will often gloss over huge portions of articles I’m genuinely interested in just to see how the commenters reacted. My problem runs so deep that, if I’m reading an article on my phone and can’t get the comments to load from my mobile browser, I will email the link to myself so that I can read the comments on my laptop later on. Yeah, it’s pretty bad.

Why the obsession with what random people online think? There are too many reasons to list, but the ones I’m most able to articulate are: 1), I’m a glutton for other peoples’ ignorance and stupidity, 2), sometimes commenters genuinely bring perspective or further depth to an article or concept that I’ve never thought of, 3), the lawyer in me simply MUST know what the other side(s) are saying so I can stay in front of their arguments in the inevitability that I end up in a real life debate on the topic, 4), because clearly I hate myself and don’t value my own time. Ha!

I try to keep in mind the fact that the people who consistently comment on internet media are not representative of the entire population — the vast majority of folks are like, “meh, this is not important enough for me to get involved,” while internet commenters are like:

For me, it's more like, "I can't. This is important. Someone is wrong on the internet and I have to watch someone else destroy them in the comments section!"

For me, it’s more like, “I can’t. This is important. Someone is wrong on the internet and I have to watch someone else destroy them in the comments section!”

According to my brother, most anons who angrily comment on the internet are either teenagers in their rooms with nothing better to do, or worse, adults with nothing better to do.

But still, their words seep into me and I find myself fearful of them. They color both my perceptions of myself and the thoughts I share when I write. Ultimately, I fear both rejection and harassment and as silly as it sounds, one of my worst nightmares is hundreds of anonymous people telling me how horrible, stupid, fat and unworthy I am.

By constantly reading what they write, it’s almost as though I am trying to arm myself against them — trying to stay one step ahead of them, so I can ward them off preemptively. So that nobody will ever say something terrible or hurtful to me anonymously again. Because that’s how THAT works.

I’m no stranger to internet harassment. When I was a Freshman in high school, somebody made a screen name on AIM called “ChelcIsFat” and proceeded to send me bullying messages day after day:

“How much do you weigh? 38729202339392728292 lbs?!”

I blocked them, and they came back around time and time again under different burner screen names — over and over, until I had nothing left but tears and the burning question:

“Why me? Am I really so horrible?”

I had my faults, for sure. I was a hanger on and a bit annoying, but I didn’t deserve cruelty. I didn’t deserve harassment. And I found all of those negative internet experiences to be extremely alienating and scarring. They still profoundly affect me and the way I interact with others.

Sadly, cruelty and harassment are just par for the course when you’re a woman on the internet — or anyone on the internet, really (though, let’s be honest, women are particularly targeted).

Here’s the thing — as much as I try to compartmentalize all of those anons, and tell myself to brush them off, I’ve noticed lately that they’ve taken on a life of their own in my mind.

They’re perpetuating my self-doubt: “I shouldn’t publish that — nobody cares about what I think about racism. I’m no authority!”

They’re lurking beneath my words, urging me to be more diplomatic when I’m really, really not: “Maybe I should tone down that argument… I don’t want to anger anybody or have them criticize me.”

They’re keeping me from fulfilling my potential and being true to myself: “I shouldn’t post too much in my blog, or promote myself too enthusiastically or people will get annoyed,” or “I can’t post two essays in a row about my grief or I’ll drive people away. What if people think that’s all I am?!”

They’re holding me back from fully pursuing writing: to this day, I won’t publish my work anywhere that has anonymous commenting systems, for fear of backlash or harassment.

I’m ashamed to admit that I police myself based on the words of anonymous people who are, for all intents and purposes, extremists. But I also don’t know how to get them out of my head or get past my paralyzing fear of being bullied again.

I’m sensitive, and I don’t want to (slash honestly couldn’t) change that.

So what do I do? Do I keep quiet and let them win, or do I put on a brave face and keep writing? Is it worth it to get hit in order to be authentic? Am I seriously this pathetic and cowardly, when there are people like Malala Yousafzai in this world (who, if you’ll remember, was a CHILD when she risked her life to write about being under Taliban occupation, and despite being shot in the head for that conviction, she is STILL putting herself on the line to advocate for girls’ education)?!

These are the questions I grapple with constantly. And of course, the internet commenters in my head have plenty of opinions in regards to the answers.

But today, I’m going to very maturely give them a big ol’ double middle finger and say, LA LA LA, I’M NOT LISTENING.

On Healing: It Gets Better

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“I always feel like I should be doing more but I am still struggling so hard. Every week feels like a different battle. Sometimes I’m up and sometimes I’m way, way down. I don’t know how to balance it all. I’ve been turning it over in my head and trying to process it, but I still feel so far from real progress. I know I have to give myself time and that it’s all fresh. I know perspective is on the way. I know there are lessons. I know all of this, but I want to fast forward. I don’t want to go through years of pain. Happiness doesn’t seem like a choice right now. It feels like hard work that I don’t have the energy for. It could be years before I am totally myself again. Besides, ‘myself’ won’t be the same person. I will be newly formed — rebuilt, and pieced back together. The girl who sat on top of the world last April is no more. She is gone.”

–Excerpt from my journal, January 22, 2014 

These are the words I wrote to myself 6 months after my mother’s tragic death. I was feeling extremely fatigued with my grief and isolated from my relationships. Nobody knew what to say and I didn’t know how to ask for what I needed.

I honestly didn’t know what I needed, besides time. I was beyond frustrated because I’d just started to feel like a whole human being again after a series of traumas in college — being raped in September 2004, and then finding myself in a three-year disaster of a relationship, where I was catfished and emotionally abused. After my mother’s death, I was bitter that I had to give so much more of my life — a time when I should have been in my prime — to my shattered heart. The idea of falling back into the black hole of depression, anxiety and PTSD; of having to claw my way back out again felt incredibly cumbersome — insurmountable, even.

I felt like I was just spinning my wheels; that unending pain was just the cycle of my life: First would come trauma, and then my prolonged healing cocoon. After several years, I would emerge as new, stronger person and finally start to get my life together and fulfill my untapped potential. Just as my unfettered optimism was taking flight, tragedy would come back around knocking . . .

It’s no wonder I was so desperate and fatigued. The truth is, I’ve never caught much of a break. For much of my life, I’ve been in the active process of healing. I don’t consider myself an expert, but I would say I have a decent amount of experience.

Here’s what I know:

I’ve learned over the years that healing is a tricky thing and it takes time. As many times as I’ve found myself broken, I’ve never discovered a trick or a shortcut back to happiness or wholeness. There’s no life hack that’s going to make you heal overnight. Trust me, I’ve tried them all: disassociation, straight up pretending everything is fine, focusing on other things, faking a smile until it feels real (note: it doesn’t. It just gets exhausting holding your face like that, plus it makes people feel awkward) and about a billion other “how to be happy” tricks. As the brilliant Taylor Swift says, “bandaids don’t fix bullet holes.” Bandaids also don’t fix galaxy-sized gaping wounds in your heart. Unfortunately, there’s no way around it — sometimes you have to buckle in for a bit to get back to the good place.

What’s worked for me, personally: 1), lots of time and giving in to my emotions — letting them surge and swell as needed, and wallowing whenever I needed to give in to the tide 2), canceling plans to focus on self-care, even if to outsiders, that self-care looks strikingly like plain old laziness, 3) writing in my journal and allowing myself to indulge in my bleakest thoughts.

Healing also takes patience and self-kindness, both of which I’m still mastering. This morning, as I was leafing through my journals from the year after my mother’s death, I was struck by how absurdly hard on myself I was. Even in the weeks just after my mother’s death, I was constantly berating myself for not doing more, whether it be working out daily, tending to my neglected relationships or pursuing my writing. Truthfully, I just wasn’t in a place for any of that, but I couldn’t see it at the time, even as I self-awarely promised to give myself a break.

A dear friend of mine, Jordan, still routinely reminds me not to be too hard on myself; that I may always use up about half of my energy healing from the misfortunes that have befallen me; that I can’t compare myself to others who seem to be accomplishing more with their time. PTSD may keep me in a headlock for a while, and even long after I’ve surpassed the peak of “Pain Mountain,” traces of my trauma will live inside me and shape my experiences forever.

A lot of times, it’s difficult not to get ahead of myself, to stay on my path, and to be steadfast in my commitment to healing when so much else calls me — career, writing, relationships, being a good friend, travel, my puppy, never-ending house work and about a million other hobbies and interests that I’d love to focus my energies on. I constantly have remind myself,you can only be where you are. Don’t rush it and take the little victories as they come. You’ll need them to stay strong.”

Ultimately, I press on, because I know there is so much life and so much good waiting for me on the other side. And there is beauty in both the breakdown and the in-between, too, if I look hard enough for it. I’m already starting to experience it. The other day, I looked at all of the plans on my calendar and I felt excited and giddy for the first time in over two years. It’s finally happening — little by little, it’s getting better. I actually thought, “I CAN’T WAIT FOR IT TO ALL HAPPEN!” rather than “ok, I just have to get through these next two weeks of calendar events, and then I’ll be able to retreat. Phew!”

I’m not getting through my life anymore, I’m living it. It still takes me by surprise now and again how far I’ve come. What a gift it is, to be excited to live! If you are excited to live your life, count yourself among the lucky. So many people are silently living in pain, hoping for each day to end so they can comfort themselves with the knowledge that they got through another one. Take it from someone who’s been there many times before.

Of course, none of this is to say that it’s all sunshine and rainbows in Chelsealand. I still have bad days and I’m still struggling with the anxiety that trauma always seems to bring. But at the very least, I don’t feel continuously bogged down by sadness.

And right now, that’s good enough for me.

Observations from my First 10 Days of Dog Guardianship

Our first day together!

Our first day together!

I apologize for the radio silence in the past few weeks. Dave and I added a new furry family member to our household — Alfie, a black terrier/lab (we think?!) mutt who has completely taken over our lives and our hearts. So far, rescuing a dog isn’t exactly like I thought it would be. As much as I furiously researched and read everything I could get my hands on, nothing really could have prepared me for the overwhelming gravity and responsibility of taking on his guardianship. I guess, in some small part, this is what new parenthood feels like. You think you know, but you have no idea until you’re knee-deep in it. It’s a process of doing and learning and growing together with your pup; all with patience, the virtue I have the least of, and which I’m still learning every day.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted a dog of my own. I spent years biding my time, knowing I was not ready for the responsibility; that my freewheeling lifestyle could not support the stability and attention a dog needs. But a huge piece of my heart, a piece that only a canine companion could fill, called out to me every time a dog would walk by. For the past year, Dave has dragged me away from the dog beach and Yappy Hour (a daily event at a local bar where dogs run around a fenced-in area while their owners drink) more times than I can count.

So when our day finally came, I was filled with anxiety, excitement, anticipation and the weight of what this decision would mean for me; for us.

Oh boy am I in trouble with this cutie!

Oh boy am I in trouble with this cutie!

Here are my observations on dog guardianship so far:

1. My lifestyle is already improving. Beginning my morning with a walk rather than scrolling my phone is a much more efficient and healthy start to the day. Also, it just plain feels better. And I am still able to get to my desk by the same time each morning. Even our short potty breaks are a nice way to get me away from my desk and moving every few hours. I’m taking more steps and feeling better than I have in months. Each evening, Dave and I leave our phones at home and take Alfie to the beach, where we play fetch while the waves crash. Not a bad life!

I mean... how could you not love this nutter?! MY LIFE.

I mean… how could you not love this nutter?! MY LIFE.

2. Just because your puppy listens to you and takes commands today does not mean he will listen and take commands tomorrow. Puppies are unpredictable. One day, they’re walking perfectly on a leash, coming when called, and sitting on command, and the next day, they’re overwhelmed with energy. Adjusting and training are ongoing processes with no short cuts. “Patience, consistency and positivity” is basically my new life mantra with Alfie-boy.

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“You said I was a good boy yesterday, and I assume that carries over to all days, right?!”

3. I’ve met more people in my town in the last 10 days than I did in my entire first year here. Having a dog in my tiny, canine-obsessed town has completely legitimized me. I’m amazed to find myself yukking it up with other dog-parents while our “kids” play. I still sometimes feel out-of-place or like a fraud, but I assume this will lessen over time.

4. Sometimes, it still doesn’t feel real and Alfie doesn’t feel like my dog. Sometimes this whole adjustment is just really hard. Sometimes I feel depressed and trapped, followed by guilt for feeling depressed and trapped. I know these “puppy blues” are normal, and that they will lessen with time, but every now and then I think, “OMG WHY IS MY PUPPY PUPPY-ING SO HARD?! I AM GONNA FREAK OUT. PS: I CAN’T DO THIS!” Instead of freaking out, I gather myself, because puppies need calm leadership and stability. I remind myself to remain kind and patient, which brings me to my next point…

5. My relationship with my puppy will change me. I am changing already. He is giving me more purpose in my life. Let me explain: Before I got Alfie, I read The Art of Raising a Puppy” by the Monks of New Skete. In the book, the monks talk a lot about the spiritual aspect of the human-canine relationship; how as you raise your puppy, your puppy actually raises you. The monks posit that your dog is a mirror reflecting back on you — showing you the person who you are projecting. As someone who has always struggled with patience, staying present and keeping control of my emotions, I must remain vigilant not to let these characteristics seep into my relationship with Alfie. I must keep a sound mind to be a good guardian.  So Alfie is my ultimate lesson in patience and mindfulness. Yes, I will raise him to be well-socialized, have good manners and to be happy and healthy, but I will also raise myself up to a higher standard. I will be a better, more fulfilled person. I already am, and I have his furry little face to thank.

This is the look on Alfie's face when he senses we're leaving the dog beach.

This is the look on Alfie’s face when he senses we’re leaving the dog beach.

So, that’s what’s been floating through my mind in my first 10 days with Alfie. I’m SO looking forward to seeing more of his personality emerge, and for both of us to start feeling more comfortable with one another. In just a little over a week, he’s already taught me so much, and given me an incredible amount of love and companionship. I can hardly wait for our bond to deepen, and to see the amazing dog he will become.

Sure, there are moments of frustration and anxiety, but the overwhelming sentiment is one of pure, deep love.

Woman’s best friend, indeed!

How a Trip to IKEA Reconnected Me to My Mother

Let’s start by rewinding a few years:

The year is 2012. I’m 26 years old, it’s a cool spring night, and I’m impatiently waiting in front of Union Station in New Haven for my mother to pick me up. She’s about ten minutes late and I’m fuming, like only a spoiled daughter could.

As if I haven’t been through enough already! I think, grimacing at the memory of weaving my way through a crowded, rush hour packed Grand Central Station with weekend bags in tow (If you’ve never experienced this, it’s like the ultimate game of frogger, except not only will you get run over — you’ll also get yelled at for not getting out of the way fast enough. Just one of NYC’s many charms!). As if that wasn’t enough,  I’d also sat for 1 hour and 40 minutes on a slow crawling, standing-room-only Metro North train that somehow managed to smell of porta-potty, even though I wasn’t in a bathroom car.

My mother pulls up in her Jeep and immediately launches into an excuse for being late — something about the return line at Target.

“It’s all right.” I say. “I just want to get home and see the dogs.” I decide not to lay into her, because she seems so bubbly and I don’t want to ruin the hour-long car ride ahead of us.

“Okay, we just have to make a quick stop at IKEA first,” she says nonchalantly.

I let out the ultimate groan.

“What?!” She asks innocently, full well knowing I am about 30 seconds away from a night-ruining meltdown.

“There is NO SUCH THING as a quick trip to IKEA!” I complain. “They make you walk through their entire stupid ‘showroom’ AKA a mile-long elaborate maze of cheaply produced particleboard furniture with strategically placed displays of $1 junk to keep you in there for hours and hours. There’s a cafeteria, for crying out loud! I don’t trust stores with cafeterias. They’re trying to trap you!”

“It’ll just take a second!” She says in her teasing voice. She apparently came into this interaction knowing I would be pissed, and she is now refusing to lower herself to my level, lest she let me ruin a perfectly good trip to her beloved IKEA. “I’ll buy you chicken fingers.” A peace offering.

“ABSOLUTELY NOT! I will not waste precious chicken fingers calories on IKEA!” I blurt out grumpily. But my blood sugar and patience are running low, so I know that I really have no choice.

———

This about sums the majority of my trips to IKEA. I would kick and scream, and my mother would soothe. I would vow never to go back. She’d always find a way to trick me into it (like holding me hostage, needing a ride home).

My mother had an inexplicable love of IKEA which knew no bounds. Okay, I guess it wasn’t inexplicable. She loved decorating, and IKEA kept her design ideas within reach. She was not a rich woman, but she could make a room look luxurious and modern for under $1000. She would start by looking for inspiration from HGTV or high end magazines like New York Spaces, and then look for some key pieces that could be substituted out at IKEA to save money. The rest could be pieced together through discount retailers (like Home Goods or Target) and one or two investment pieces would be purchased at her other go-to design retailers like CB2, Pottery Barn, Macy’s, West Elm or Pier 1.

She was very talented, and very passionate about design. I perpetually teased about her hobby, but also utilized her skills endlessly — not only for my own decorating projects, but also for my friends’. Her decorating advice alone has left her missed by many.

So, when I moved to a giant old fixer-upper house at the beach, I felt her absence with every decorating decision I made. Some, I made in spite of her (example: she was not a fan of string lights… which are present in nearly every room in my house), and others I made inspired by her. Some projects, I felt I couldn’t even touch without her advice.

“I wish I could channel Nance,” I’d complain to my friends. “I feel so lost! It’s too much!”

This sentiment felt exceedingly more prominent as I decided to tackle my backyard. The space was strangely shaped, had noticeable and ugly damage from Sandy, and was overrun with birds and squirrels, because nobody had really been taking care of it or spending time out there.

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BEFORE: A hunk of dirty cement in need of some TLC.

My mother could always see the potential in a space, which happens to be my biggest struggle. I have good taste, and a knack for mixing patterns and decorating styles, but I have a really hard time envisioning the potential of an undesirable space. I called in for backup and consulted with Bonnie and my father. They both agreed something could be done — the patio could be salvaged, and shared their ideas.

I spent weeks researching ideas and searching for the lowest prices on each piece I needed. I used to outsource this arduous task to my mother, so doing it myself made my appreciation for her hard work as a designer grow with each passing day.

When it came time to actually go purchase the stuff, the dread came. Dave and I dragged our feet on trekking to IKEA with everything we could muster — no excuse was too insignificant to convince us to put it off. But finally, we could make excuses no more; a beautiful Saturday with no plans was ahead, so we put on our big kid pants and took the plunge.

As we walked through the doors to the Elizabeth, NJ IKEA, I felt a wave of nostalgia wash over me. The smells, the sights, the colors, the setup — it was all there, just like I remembered it. Only, this time I didn’t hate it. I felt something. Something I haven’t felt since May of 2013.

I felt my mother.

I am not a spiritual person. Though many people told me my mother would guide me, speak to me, or be present in my life, I did not believe a single one of them. I know myself, I thought, and it ain’t gonna happen. And I wouldn’t say being in IKEA was really like any of those things. It was more like… I felt connected to her spirit.

For the first time since her death, I didn’t picture her in my mind’s eye as an agitated corpse of a human in the hospital, without proper cognitive function, struggling to fight despite having no hope. I remembered her as a full human — a person who loved this crazy warehouse and their suspiciously cheap swedish meatballs.

I could almost see her pointing things out to me and driving Dave nuts with her longwinded exploration of every room and every idea in her head (don’t worry, I took over that part for her).

She was, in a sense, with me.

Maybe it’s because I’ve lost nearly every place that connected me to her, or maybe it was the spirit of doing a weekend decorating project. Perhaps it’s just that time has passed, and I am finally healing from the trauma of her horrific death. Whatever the reason, it was a surprisingly calming experience, especially after I had expended so much energy dreading it.

That Saturday, after a long, hard day of work on the patio with Dave, I stepped back to marvel at what a little elbow grease and a trip to “stupid” IKEA can accomplish.

photo 2 (3)

AFTER: A backyard oasis

I sent a picture to my dad. “You have your mother’s touch. She would be proud.” Through my gratified tears, I thanked him, but couldn’t help but wonder why I felt so emotional about this project. It was just a backyard, after all.

But it wasn’t just a backyard. I had finally felt her. I channeled her. I had applied her lessons and was able to create something glorious out of what was honestly a tarnished space.

Most amazingly, I had enjoyed it.

Sneaky Nance. Through all of her making me watch HGTV, and dragging me through IKEA, and sending me links to consult me on her projects (or sometimes, our projects), and leaving her decorating magazines all over the house, and “hiring” me to put in floors and paint rooms, and always designing me my own space that inspired me and fulfilled my needs… she had slowly indoctrinated me to care about my surroundings, and to take pride in building them myself.

Our last project together just before she passed (my room in NYC) cemented the design-on-a-dime education that she gave me. And I guess it’s time to finally admit it to both myself and the world: I like decorating.

There, I said it.

I am once again reminded that I am my mother’s daughter, and I am amazed that she still has lessons to teach me.

Like: I am not a rich woman, but I can turn a crappy backyard into a beautiful little oasis by the sea for less than $500.

The Long, Lonely Road of Grief.

For many years, I had recurring nightmares about losing my mother to a horrific accident or illness. She would be somewhere far away, hurt or dying; needing me. I would run to her tirelessly, breathlessly; circumventing impossible obstacles, scaling walls — my veins pumping with fear, adrenaline and regret. But no matter how hard I tried to reach her in time to save her, it was always too late.

Waking up was a ritual of vast relief and thankfulness for another day. What luck, to be presented a brand new chance to be a better daughter! Through my appreciative tears, I would call her, just to say “I love you.” I couldn’t fathom not being able to pick up the phone to hear her voice.

The day of my mother’s stroke was like a surreal, slow motion reenactment of one of my nightmares. It was all there: the harrowing phone call, the 4 hours of Merritt Parkway traffic, with no information other than “it’s bad.” The desperation, the bargaining, the fear lumped up in my throat; the knowing that this time, it would not be okay. There would be no relief to wake up to. Only pain.

Anyone who has ever loved someone understands the horror of this nightmare; few have a playbook for what happens when it comes to life. Despite years of grazing the overwhelming emotions that would undoubtedly leap out of me if I should ever lose her, I was still floored by how hard her death hit. No contingency plan could have ever prepared me, and my heart’s lack of cooperation with the “plan” left me frustrated and dumbfounded. Much like falling in love, coping with death leaves us with little control over how our hearts proceed.

The despair was endless. The lack of understanding from mostly everyone around me was staggering. The days droned on hopelessly and everything felt wrong.

So it was, living in the valley of death.

I looked on at those walking amongst the living, exasperated, wondering if I would ever join them again; wondering if promotions, moves, petit social slights, new workouts, or politics would ever matter to me again. I wondered if I would ever again feel anything but longing and despair.

I checked Facebook obsessively, hoping that everyone else moving through life as though nothing was different would somehow normalize me. But I only felt isolation.

I stood still as the world passed me by. The worst part was that I didn’t even want to join them.

Few checked in on me after the funeral, and I slid into a cocoon of depression and resentment. I couldn’t tell if they expected me to be ok, or if they just didn’t know what to say; couldn’t deal with how horrible it must be… couldn’t fathom being in my situation.

“She’s always with you,” they said. (“No, she’s gone. And she’s not coming back,” I thought. “I don’t even see her in my dreams anymore.”)

“You will hear her voice with time,” they said. (“Hearing someone’s voice is a choice,” I thought, “and my skepticism makes it too difficult for me to listen.”)

“Just be thankful for the time you had,” they said. (“I can be thankful for the time I had while being completely, totally and utterly devastated that she is gone,” I thought.)

I hated their empty words, yet I seethed and said nothing. They just wanted to help, after all. And to be fair, our culture does not seem to understand that pain and grief are natural; not necessarily “problems” to be cast away, fixed or covered up. I have never been comfortable putting my emotions on the back burner — they are not something I could wish away, even if I tried. And besides; in this case, I rightly deserved every bit of my pain, and then some.

My darling Bonnie shared this quote with me, and it helped me tremendously in that dark time: “If she does want to talk, avoid saying things to diminish or explain away her pain, like, ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ or ‘Time heals all wounds,’ or ‘God gives us only what we can handle.’ These are things people say when they don’t know what else to say, and even if they’re true, they’re better left unsaid because they can be discovered only in retrospect. When her pain is fresh and new, let her have it. Don’t try to take it away. Forgive yourself for not having that power. Grief and pain are like joy and peace; they are not things we should try to snatch from each other. They’re sacred. They are part of each person’s journey. All we can do is offer relief from this fear: I am all alone. That’s the one fear you can alleviate.” – Glennon Dale Melton, a passage from Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life.

It articulated beautifully what I was going through, and reminded me that I was not alone, even when it really, really felt that way. To even have people in my life that cared enough about me to try to snatch away my pain (however misguided they may be) was a blessing.

Besides, the external pressure to move on was nothing compared to the immense pressure I put on myself. How long will it take to feel normal? I wondered listlessly. I agonized over being set back in my life, and promised myself I would feel better after each passing event. I hoped beyond hope that life would take on meaning again; that I could stop sending my zombie representative to parties, dinners, and important occasions. She would show her face and nod politely, but inner me couldn’t help but notice how much she let pass her by.

In my haze, the months all blended together. A full year slipped past me in a vague blur of unspeakable sadness. I was a shell of my former self, and deeply concerned that I was doing it all wrong, despite others telling me how great I seemed, and that I inspired them.

I marched on.

Over time, and through the counseling of friends and loved ones (and a great book, Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss that my dear friend Kristina sent me), I learned that it was ok to grieve and to take my time. I learned that grief knows no timeline or stages. Grief is fluid — there are fine days, and terrible days, and endless days, and a few days interspersed that remind you to live like hell.

It was not all in vain. I grew in ways I still don’t comprehend, and little by little, it does seem to get easier. I can’t say that I feel completely whole again — that would be disingenuous. I still have days where I break down into tears seemingly out of nowhere; days when I don’t want to get out of bed in a world that doesn’t include my mother. Her death left a Grand Canyon-sized hole in my heart, and a scar on me for life. Nothing will change that.  But the ever-present despair seems to have receded a bit, leaving me just enough energy to reintegrate with the living again.

I am hollow no more, but I continue to navigate this long, twisted, and often lonely road of grief. I may never see its end, but I’ve learned to accept and appreciate my journey. I suppose, for now, that’s all I can really hope for.

My Life is Forever Changed, and I’m Starting to Be Ok with That

I have been putting off writing this. Partly, because writing is giving yourself, and I haven’t had very much to give. But mostly, it’s because I believed that some a-ha moment would arrive when I would magically feel like myself again, and writing would come easily. No such luck, so far.

That’s not to say that I haven’t written. I have. My words are scrolled across several journals, trying desperately to make sense of “the new normal.” Or secretly hoping that all this new is temporary — that eventually I will feel comfort in my own skin again, and writing a feel-good blog will seem like the right thing.

But the truth is, everything has changed. I’ve changed. The most important bond I have ever known was broken when my mother died. I have had to learn a new form of adulthood I am neither comfortable with, nor like very much, if I’m being honest.

And with my mother’s passing came many complications for my circumstances — including me losing my home in the Upper West Side of New York City (more on that another time). So after 11 years, I’m no longer a New Yorker, or even a city-dweller, really. With little choice, I packed my newly-inherited things into a 20-foot moving truck and landed 60 miles south of the city in Asbury Park, New Jersey, where I now live with my boyfriend, Dave. This marks the first time I have ever lived with a significant other, and certainly the first time I’ve ever felt I actually had one.

We also got a cat, Penny (adopted from my “wife,” Bonnie, whose fiancé Jeff has terrible allergies). Oh, and I live in an actual house for the first time since I was a teenager, gleefully bucking the Connecticut suburbs for the big apple.

Today, there is virtually nothing I recognize about my life, and few places of comfort to turn; few things that haven’t changed as rapidly as I have.

And that’s ok.

With the changes have come many lessons. And the lesson which brought me back here, to my long-neglected blog was this: there is no better life waiting for me around the corner. Or rather, if there is, it’s not going to present itself while I twiddle my thumbs feeling bad for myself. I think we all fall into the trap of “around the corner” mentality. “Once I finish school, I will know what I want to do with my life and everything will be clear.” Or, “Once I lose weight, I’ll be happy with myself.” Or, “If only I could meet the right person, my life would be complete.”

It’s a natural sentiment, but it also robs us of today. If I’m being honest with myself, I know that no new dawn will fill the void that my mother’s passing left. No change in my zip code will automatically make me feel anew. And no, living at the beach and having more space (while definitely having many perks) will not magically make me a happier person.

I’m finally starting to accept that what I have in front of me is everything. It’s rarely ever perfect, but it’s mine. Now. And it can be taken in a moment, as I was reminded yet again this week by the sudden and untimely passing of an acquaintance I adored.

The present is a gift (heh, see what I did there?) and although I’m currently sad as hell, I don’t want to squander it. If I’m taken tomorrow, I don’t want to be remembered as someone who was living her life in limbo, hoping to feel better before she tackled anything of significance. I want to be remembered as someone who took life by the reigns… er, whatever the hell that means.

So I’m going to stop waiting for some mythical time when my life will be better, or I’ll feel “together” enough to share it through writing. This is where I’m at right now — this messy, scary, ever-changing, sad-but-sometimes-amazing-and-much-of-the-time-HILARIOUS place.

I think I’ll stay awhile.