In Memory of Shea

Shea came to live with me when she was a puppy, not a baby but certainly not grown. She still had her baby teeth. I know that because I still have the ladder back chairs she used as a teething ring. Back then, she was all tail and feet and not entirely sure what to do with either.

I was living in California then, working as a real estate broker. One of my clients had a home on acreage they wanted to put on the market. They had it rented to some very nice people who had a lot of dogs, cats, goats and I believe a pony. We had to ask them to move before we put the property on the market, which meant they were going to have to find homes for most of their animals. I sat on their front porch, watching their dogs play while we talked about it. Almost before I knew it, I said, ”If you don’t have a home for the Shepherd pup, I’ll take her.”

I didn’t need another dog. I had two already, but there was something about this one—.    Shea enjoyed the ride home, but wasn’t so sure about getting out when she spied the greeting committee. The other dogs circled the car, barking and in general making a fuss. My mother lived in a small house on my property and she, too, came over to see what was going on.  She looked in the car and sighed. “Another dog?”

My son-in-law said, “Are you going to let this one in the house also?”

“Of course not,” I replied, “She’s going to be huge. Besides, she’s never been in the house, and I need a guard dog.”

He laughed, but I insisted she would sleep outside. Just shows how we can delude ourselves.

Shea did get to be a big dog, and a beautiful and happy one. She also took her heritage as a herding dog seriously. The cat was the first victim. She rapidly found out that herding cats is, indeed, difficult. She tried it on the grandkids next. They were little then, and didn’t like being pushed into a corner and held there. They protested with loud yowls until rescued. She wanted to try herding the horses but I made sure she knew they were off limits as well.

She was a gentle dog who loved just about everybody, especially kids. I have a picture of her lying on my kitchen floor, my granddaughter, who was less than two, sitting on her as if she was a chair, while looking at a picture book.

Shea loved to travel. We crossed the country three times, Shea, Laney, my Italian Greyhound and Shea’s best friend, and me. I never felt safer than when I had her with me. She wasn’t a snarly dog, but she did love her family and I don’t think anyone who tried to threaten me, or one of the kids, or Laney. would have gotten off easy. She thought motels were fun and especially liked elevators. Laney didn’t share that particular enthusiasm.

She loved our house in South Carolina. It has a wrap around front porch. However, she was given to unauthorized walks, so I had a gate build over the steps. She spent a lot of time there, telling each passerby good morning and each dog that stepping on her grass was against her law. She loved the postman. Go figure.

She died during the night, not coming into my bedroom for help, so I know it had to have been quick. I found her in the morning, lying between the coffee table and the sofa, looking as if she had returned to a favorite spot to sleep, a sleep from which she would not wake.

I was with a friend, many years ago, when her dog died. She was devastated and cried out that she would never get another one, the pain of loosing them was too great. I understood then what she meant, and certainly understand it now. The pain is intense. But, I wouldn’t have missed a minute of the time I had with Shea. She brought great joy into my life and even greater love. She was fun to be around, and an unfailing friend. You can’t feel grief without great love, and great love was what she gave me, and what I gave her back. Will there be another dog? Almost certainly, but not now, and it won’t matter. Whoever it is won’t take the place Shea had in my life and in my heart. In my memory, she’ll always be beside me.

Charlie Got A Job

Charlie just phoned me. He got a job. He’s not sure what he’ll be doing, but the city called him and asked him to come in tomorrow morning. They told him they were going to offer him a job. Offer? That always sounds as if there is some doubt. There is no doubt here. He’ll take it. Whatever it is, it’s something steady, five days a week, a paycheck and—this is the clincher. He’ll get benefits. Tonight, Charlie is a happy man.

I met Charlie after a big snow. I’d only been out of the hospital a short time, didn’t have my artificial leg yet, was scheduled to go to Duke for further tests, and was snowed in. My sister-in-law was with me but she could no more shovel all that snow off the porch than I could. We were stuck. I called some friends, and low and behold, Charlie arrived. His head was covered by a knit cap, his muffler wound around his neck, a huge smile was on his face. “This won’t take but a minute,” he said.  He was like a snow shovel machine. Not only did he shovel the snow off the porch, he kept going. Snow on the driveway flew. We made it to Duke.

Charlie left me his number and I used it. I love to garden, however that was no longer an option. I could get down, sort of, still can, but getting back up was, and is, another thing altogether. I have always picked up after my dogs, have never asked for help, but staying upright in the backyard was, and remains, a challenge I’m afraid I’ll lose. Over these last couple of years, Charlie has been a godsend. However, the little pick up work I could offer didn’t begin to substitute for a real job. We talked often about his being laid off and what he was doing to find a new job. We talked about what he did before, how he’d worked in a grocery store and was in line for a promotion when the store went out of business, how he’d worked for the city on the trash truck for a while, but hurt his back and there was no position open when he could work again. It was an ongoing saga because, as I gradually learned, Charlie has limited skills.

I live in a state that has some wonderful universities. Young people from all over come here to attend them. We also have one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the nation. How we reconcile that, I don’t understand. But it was increasingly obvious to me that Charlie was a product of the part of our state’s school system that was short of everything, books, desks, pencils, teachers, but not students. He was never going to attend one of those fine universities; he was never going to land a white-collar job. He was going to be lucky, in this economic climate, to get one at all. During all this, Charlie kept smiling, but, month by month, I watched his hair turn gray.

Charlie never gave up. He found out there were new openings at the city. He went down and applied. He had lost his drivers license. He’d had a couple of traffic tickets and there was no money to pay them. A driver’s license was necessary to do just about anything the city had open, or would have open. A friend of mine, and Charlie’s, took that project in hand, and after a lot of red tape cutting, Charlie’s license was re-instated. He was ready. However, the city wasn’t, the hospital wasn’t, the new restaurants up on the boulevard weren’t either. But Charlie kept making the rounds. He applied to the city again. This time, I tried to help. We wrote a thank you letter to the man who interviewed him and I wrote him a letter of recommendation. So did some of the others who he worked for. And Charlie kept going back. Politely, persistently, he took the letters in, took his new drivers license in, and took himself in, just asking to be considered. He did it on his bike, he couldn’t afford a car. He never lost his good humor, never lost his hope. He never blamed anyone, just thanked all of us who tried to help. This morning, all that paid off. The city called.

We will all give special thanks this coming Thanksgiving. Charlie has a job.

A Personal Best

I’m not much for team sports. For whatever reason, football, baseball, all those kinds of sports have never grabbed me. Perhaps it’s because when I was young I went to Catholic school. The nuns weren’t much on girl’s team sports either, except volleyball. They loved it. I didn’t. I always stood in the back row and ducked when the ball came near me.

However, I love individual sports. The kind of thing where you are competing against yourself as much as against the other guy in the pool, the ice rink, the horse show arena, or on the gymnastic floor. The sports announcers call it “personal best.” I understand that kind of competition, challenging yourself to get better, to try harder, at something that is very important to you.

This couple of years have been filled with personal best challenges for me. Some I didn’t think I’d accomplish, but somehow I’ve managed to achieve a few of them. And, glory be, I’ve just pulled off another one. I can get into—and out of—the swimming pool without using the handicapped lift chair.

I can hear the murmurs now. My two year old does it all the time, I hear someone back there say.  So did I until I ended up with only one leg.

I’m not going to describe here how I can do it, but suffice it to say it’s damn hard and scary as all get out. I really didn’t think I could do it until I met a man at the pool who also was missing a leg and climbed in and out routinely.  I stopped him to ask how he did it and how long he’d been an amputee. If he’d been young, bulging with muscles, I wouldn’t have asked, but he looked to be about my age and in not much better shape, so–.

He’d been an amputee since he was a teenager so was a lot more practiced at this stuff, but I decided that didn’t count. If he could do it, so could I. I tried climbing out first. Half the lifeguards were standing by, ready to pluck the old girl out of the water, but I made it. The next time, I went down the ladder into the pool. They were all still there, but they weren’t holding their breath quite so obviously. Now, they just ask which way I’m going in or getting out. Yes! One more hurdle jumped. Figuratively speaking, of course. But this frees me up just a little bit more. I can go to any pool without asking if they have a handicapped lift. So—hotel pools, friends pools, the Y pool near where I live, I can go to any of them.

Challenging ourselves and winning is a great feeling. We all do it, in almost all facets of our lives. We challenge ourselves to be better at work, to be better parents, or grandparents, to be better, healthier cooks, gardeners, tennis players, to loose weight, do a better job balancing our budgets, the list goes on. We’re not always going to win, I still struggle with that blasted budget, but if we keep trying, and set realistic goals so we don’t defeat ourselves before we ever get started, its amazing what we can accomplish.

Writing is no different. You are in a competition with yourself to write the best book or short story possible. You’re going to test how well you did by sending your manuscript out to compete with thousands of other writers who are also sweating blood and tears to come up with the next best seller, or just to get into print. And, as certain as death and taxes, you are going to get rejected. If you keep at this long enough, you’ll have enough rejection slips to wallpaper the dining room. But, like getting in and out of the pool, if you keep trying, good things happen. It may not come in the form of a publishers contract, but go back and read something you wrote a year ago, two years ago, and see if you have improved. See if you are learning, finally, to do this very difficult thing, write a good book. Now go back and read the chapter you just finished. How does it read? Flows better? Characters seem more real? Dialog not so stilted? Plot makes sense? You haven’t used every adverb you’ve ever met?  Ha! You have a personal best. Celebrate. Sing your own praises, crow like a rooster, dance an Irish jig. Make yourself a hot fudge sundae. Then, go pull out that desk chair and plant your behind in it. Crank up the computer and take another look at that great chapter. Can you make it even better? Probably. And, what comes after that? The next chapter, of course. And this one will be better still. Because personal bests exist only to challenge us to do more, to reach another harder and more rewarding goal.

I’m going to follow my own advice. The next chapter in the book I’m writing is going to be more exciting, I’m going to push the story forward without getting hung up on tangents, the characters will be more alive and my dialog is going to sparkle. And, I’m going to keep getting in and out of that pool without using the lift and who knows, maybe I’ll get up enough courage to actually try swimming across it, Maybe. If I do, that will be truly a personal best.

So, I raise me coffee cup in salute to you, to me, to all of us who have achieved a personal best. Let me know what yours was, and how you managed it. I’ll bet there are some pretty interesting stories out there.

Bittersweet

Sunday is the eleventh of September, the tenth anniversary of the terrible attack on the twin towers in New York. It’s a day none of us will ever forget. After all these years, it’s stored in all our family lore, either because of tragedy, close and personal, or because of the sheer horror of what happened, but each of us has a story to tell about that day. Let me tell you mine.

My youngest daughter was due to give birth to her first child, but said child didn’t seem too eager to put in an appearance. So, when she called me early on the morning of September tenth, I knew we were finally on our way. Call the doctor, I said, and started to make my own preparations. I lived on California’s central coast; she was in the LA area, four or more hours away.

The baby was in no hurry. We spent a difficult night, my daughter, the baby’s father and me, while the hospital staff popped in and out, monitoring her progress and the baby’s heart beat. On toward morning, there was much discussion why she wasn’t making progress and worrying about a dry birth. They weren’t as worried as I was. So, even though the television was on, I missed it. “An airplane just flew into that building,” the baby’s father said, staring transfixed at the TV. “Not possible,” I answered, but I turned to look We both stood, uncomprehending, as the second plane went in. Nurses came in to check on my daughter and paused to stare at the TV. We spoke to each other in hushed tones, as if to speak too loudly would make what we were watching real. Suddenly, for me, it became very real. Paralysis melted and my brain had started to function. One of my sons worked in New York, across the plaza from the Twin Towers! They were talking about other buildings on fire! Which ones? I had visited his family not that long ago. One evening, after I had spent the day in the city, he and I met after work and walked over to one of the towers for a glass of wine before returning to Long Island. We went to the top, took our wine out onto the viewing area and watched the lights of New York come on. It had been magical. It wasn’t magical now. I had to know where he was. I grabbed my cell phone and ran downstairs. It was impossible to get through to New York. I needed to get back upstairs. My daughter’s pains were coming faster and she was in extreme distress. I was worried about her and about the baby. An emergency C-section loomed large in my mind, but so did my son. Where was he? I phoned another daughter who lived in the LA area.  She had heard the news but was on her way to her job as a teacher. Don’t leave until you find your brother, I instructed, no one is going to send their kids to school today anyway. Upstairs, things weren’t going so well. The doctor was on her way; nurses were glued to the fetal monitor with scarcely a glance at the TV. It stopped me, however, when I heard the announcer say all planes were grounded. Anything in the air was to land immediately. No planes on the ground could take off. My oldest daughter and my son-in-law were supposed to have left for Texas that  morning. Where were they? A quick check of my watch said they should be halfway from San Louis Obispo to LA. If they made it there, they could go no further. Someone would have to get them. It wasn’t going to be me. The baby had finally decided to make its appearance. Come help her, the doctor directed. I held one knee, the father the other while the doctor instructed my daughter to “push.” The TV screamed the fate of the third plane in the background.