It was just supposed to be a donation. Part of the downsizing. Just a quick stop. Drop off the blankets, the sheets, the bedspreads, the old towels. Then turn around and go.
In honor of Reggie and Lizzie, I made two trips to Athens-Clarke County Animal Control this week.
Just to drop off sheets, towels and bedspreads.
But…it was much more than that.
No, I did not adopt a dog. But as soon as I heard the chorus of barking when I exited the car, I should have known, like the children hearing the flute of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, I would not be able to leave without looking at the dogs in the kennels.
When I got out of the car, the first thing I noticed was the redneck guy with a huge, macho-looking black pickup truck, stocked up to the brim with tires in the bed of the truck – doing what I hate most, what I can’t stand, what I fight against – he was surrendering his dog to the shelter. He handed his medium-sized, light-colored dog, on a rope to the shelter worker. The dog looked at him with its tail wagging, not understanding what was happening – he watched as his owner walked away without even petting him or saying goodbye. He just strutted back to his truck. He looked at me, and I looked away. (I won’t tell you what I was thinking or what I wanted to say – especially on my public blog, but if you are a regular reader of my blog, or if you know me personally, I’m sure you can imagine).
Thank goodness he didn’t just dump the dog on the road – or tie him up somewhere and just leave him – that would be far worse, and too many people around the world do just that.
I know for a fact he did surrender his dog because his dog, Scar, was one of the dogs I saw in the kennels not long afterward. He had not been there long, but he already looked terrified and lost and confused.
And Scar, you did not deserve that. There is always another way – but again, I remind myself, it is better than leaving him on the road. This way, he has a chance – someone, or a rescue group, may save him.
But this is not a no-kill shelter. That’s why they are closed every Wednesday.
When I entered the lobby, I brought the four or five bags inside and asked if I could also donate the wool blanket that Reggie had soiled before he died. Unfortunately, for health code reasons, they could not wash it there, but I did take it to the laundry on Prince where I went a few weeks ago, and Michelle, gladly took it and told me she would not even charge me to clean it since I am donating it to the animal shelter.
As I turned toward the door that led to the kennels, I took a deep breath. I could hear the dogs from the inside, and once I entered the walkway of the front kennels, it was strange – I felt like I was listening to a concert – but it was not soothing – the dogs’ howls ranged from desperate to agonizing to angry to sorrowful to hopeful. It did not bother me as far as the noise, it was more like music to my ears – hearing dogs barking does not phase me at all – they must truly be my soulmates in another life, as well as this one. I am very sensitive to loud noises, but not dogs barking. Though, the sound of the dogs in their emotional pain did create these waves in the center of my chest, where my heart chakra is – it drew me to them, and I could not help but bear witness to their pain and to their longing for someone, anyone kind, to take them home and give them a forever human to love.
The first two dogs were pitbulls, and I have to tell you, (I’m terrible with names), the smaller one, a female, tilted her head and looked right into my eyes with an expression I will never forget, I’m sure – it was like she was pulling me toward her, like a thread, a rope, connected her heart to mine. In her eyes, I saw her plead for me to love her, to take her out of this cage and give her a home. She jumped up, not in anger, but in eagerness, in hope, that I would be the one to open up the gates to a new life for her.
But I can’t. I couldn’t, and yet, I could not walk away from her.
I squatted down and approached her and looked at her, right in her eyes, and I told her, “I’m so sorry. I can’t take you with me. I’m sorry.”
The dog to her right was also very excited to see me and looked at me with that hopeful joy, the kind of joy someone feels when someone who might just be the one to love them forever, unconditionally, has just come their way.
But I couldn’t.
I continued walking down the row, in the front, very slowly. There were medium-sized mutts, some looked like Rottweiler mixes, some were Pit mixes, some looked like a mix of all kinds of dogs. None of them were very large, but none were small, either.
Even if there were a small dog, I could not take one home right now. For many reasons, but even if I did not have to keep my house immaculately clean, now that it is immaculately clean, for the first time since I moved in, I am not ready.
No dog, anywhere, can take Reggie’s and Lizzie’s place. I can’t even imagine another dog besides Reggie or Lizzie living in this house.
Some of the dogs, in the back kennel, looked at me with fear, with suspicion, and I knew – these were the dogs who had been abused, beaten, neglected, and they were the ones I was drawn to the most, and yet I also knew, they needed me to respect them, and give them space, at least, for now – if I was not going to take them home with me, it was not fair to do anything else.
There was one dog, an older lab mix, a girl, that leaned right up against her cage when I drew near, and I stuck my hand near her nose. She licked my hand and then pressed her body – on her right side, as close to the chain link as she could. I knew exactly what she wanted me to do and I was happy to oblige her. I stuck my fingers through the small space and began to pet her.
It was like coming home for me – to pet a dog again – even if she wasn’t mine.
She is the first dog I have pet, that I have touched, since Reggie died.
I have seen dogs, but I have not approached them, not even my neighbor, Pennie’s dog. I just feel like since Reggie died, I don’t want to do that, but somehow, being in the shelter, something happened, and I did it without thinking when she reached out to me, without words, and asked me.
There were some female students who were taking dogs out of the kennels to walk them and play with them in the back fenced-in area designated for the dogs to exercise and let out some of their pent-up energy – and who could blame them – being cooped up in those kennels with nothing but a tiny canvas cot and a floor made of concrete – no warmth, no love, no comfort of any real substance.
No wonder their cries fill the air with voices that are so ripe with hope and agony, they must be singing out to God to help them, and yet, so few of us hear them.
These last few weeks, this last week, especially, I have been lost myself, much like them. Really, I have been lost for almost 2 years now – since May 2017. In some ways longer than that, but most acutely since May 2017, and in some ways, it has consumed me, completely, since June 3rd of last year.
And then, as I knelt before the dogs, and looked into their eyes, I felt as if I could almost read their minds, and their souls, and I knew – I knew who I was, or more specifically, I ***remembered*** who I was – for the first time in a long time, I felt like me again. These lost dogs, who have been led astray, guided me back to me, the real me – the one who has a dream of a dog rescue of my own, the one who loves dogs with all my heart and soul, the one who would do anything to save a dog in need, the one who, after the worst heartbreak of my life, the one that I was sure would break me, is still standing – unbroken and resilient and stronger than ever.
Make no mistake, I am heartbroken – I have never, ever known heartbreak like this – but in their eyes, I remembered that my heart, though broken, is still beating, still alive and still open to love – to love my friends, to love my mother, to love the memory of Toby and Lizzie and Reggie.
And someday, when I’m ready, to come back, to this shelter, or to another rescue group, to open my home, my heart, and my life to another dog, who I know I will love as much as I love the three I have lost.
I did not intend to see the dogs. I did not intend to ask the front desk about how else I could help, but I did. I only intended to drop off some sheets and towels and bedspreads.
The universe had other plans for me. And I am so glad. I know I will be back. I used to be afraid to go to the animal shelter – afraid it would be too hard for me.
It’s not too hard – not anymore – having made it to the other side of “too hard,” “too painful,” and “too much to bear,” I have found I can handle more than I ever realized – I underestimated myself – and I’m not the only one, but I won’t do that again. I know where I belong – I belong with the dogs, I belong with other writers, I belong with other people who tell the truth, who keep their word, and who know how to forgive and let things go, when someone expresses remorse and makes amends. I belong with my music, I belong with my books, and I belong with my advocacy for those who have survived trauma.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I always have hated cliches.
Maybe I should reconsider that – losing my entire family, the future I dreamed of, the man who was the love of my life, my dogs, my home, it didn’t kill me. Not yet.
And I don’t plan to let it.
Maybe, there is something ahead of me so wonderful, so magnificent, so fulfilling, that I can’t even picture it – and then, maybe then, I will know why this happened, and maybe, I will be glad it did. It’s hard to imagine that I could ever be glad about that, but I am stronger than what others think of me, stronger than the false way in which they choose to define me, stronger than the black-and-white and distorted way in which they see me.
On the night he proposed to me, he read me the list of 32 reasons why he loved me, before he knelt down and said, “And for all these reasons, will you marry me, sweetheart?”
Even though that life, that future, is no longer, those 32 things are still true. They always were. They are the real me.
If the dogs at the shelter, if the souls I saw in their eyes, are the beginning of my journey to finding me again, then I can’t wait to meet her.
Bless the dogs of Athens-Clarke County Animal Control…and all rescue dogs everywhere. They are God’s gift to the world.
On the last day of Reggie Roberts’s life, Friday, February 1, 2019, the sun was shining and the temperature was warm. When I woke up, he was sleeping in Lizzie’s dog bed, snuggled in the blankets, breathing air in and out, as he had every other day of his life with us, living in the moment, without worry, without fear – except, this morning, would be the last time. I’m glad he didn’t know…I’m glad that as he rested in the bed where his beloved Lizzie used to sleep, peaceful and fearless, he didn’t know that it would be for the last time.
I sat by the bed and watched him for several minutes – I did not disturb him as I went through my daily morning cleanup of the bathroom floor – but he stirred and woke up on his own and resettled on top of the plastic trash bags protecting the carpet, as he did every morning, with his head between his paws, watching me with that guilty look in his eyes. I wish he did not feel guilty – he had nothing to feel guilty about – it wasn’t his fault.
It was cancer.
If there is any fault, it is the fault of the cancer. But that doesn’t make anyone feel better, nor does it bring him back.
Downstairs, as I did every other morning, even though it wouldn’t matter now, I gave Reggie his medications and his canned food – he ate it the same as he did every day. And that killed me – he was still eating, he still looked at me the same way he did on any other day, he walked like any other day, wagged his tail when I put on his brown coat and his harness, ready to get into the car and drive wherever I would take him.
He was alive, and I was making the decision to end his life.
I don’t know how, or why, I’ve had to do this twice in the past few months, once for Lizzie in October, and once for Reggie at the end of last month, but I know, I’m not alone. My next-door neighbor, Pennie, has become a good friend in the past year, but even before we got to know each other better, we talked about our dogs all the time. I remember she told me the painful story of losing her rescue boxers all in one year many years ago, and recently, in the spring and summer of 2017, she lost two of her three dogs, Suzie and Daisy. She told me the story of losing one of her dogs at home, without warning, in detail, and it pained me to hear about what they went through. I have a friend I met through dog rescue circles in San Diego, named Lorri, and a few years ago she lost two of her beagles and one of her other rescue cats all in one year, just a few months apart.
This happens all the time. And yet like anything else in life, that happens to a lot of people, if not to everyone, until it happens to you, there is no way to know exactly how hard it is.
Even though I treated that Friday morning like any other day in front of Reggie, nothing around me looked the same – not the house, not the car, not the road in front of me, or the familiar buildings we drove by – every car around us seemed unreal. Walking into Jittery Joe’s felt like an out-of-body experience with Reggie in the stroller, looking around him. Every time someone looked at him in the stroller and smiled, I felt a deep ache in my chest, literally. When I ordered a latte, and asked for water for Reggie, I tried not to think about how he would not be back – I did not want to waste a single minute thinking about how many hours I had left with him before 1:30 pm.
It was about 9 am.
There was a man, maybe my age, with glasses on the end of his nose, short dark hair, wearing casual sports clothes sitting by the window across from the long glass table where I sat down and parked Reggie’s stroller next to me. I pulled it as close to me as possible. When I looked toward the window, the man looked as if he recognized us, but when he smiled and then returned his attention back to his laptop, I realized I was probably imagining that because I had gotten so used to people admiring Reggie, I usually never thought about whether or not I knew people or if they were simply other regular customers.
But today felt so different, like I had to take in every little detail with such attention and care. It all seemed much more important to not forget.
I leaned my head down on Reggie’s head and pet him and kissed him. I hope no one saw that tears started to fall, but I had to stop, I had to for Reggie. I did. I had brought my laptop but I didn’t feel like I could write. I lifted him up out of the stroller and put him in my lap and just held him, hugged him, kissed him, breathed in his scent, rubbed my cheek against his fur, and slowly rocked him back and forth. I may have even hummed the lullaby I hummed for Toby, and for Lizzie, the night before I put them to sleep, in 2011 and 2018, respectively. My voice was so hoarse from crying for so many days, so many months, I could not hear much of anything coming out of my throat. After a long while, with Reggie still in my lap, I opened the laptop. Somehow I found the strength to write…for Reggie.
Before I knew it, two hours went by. It’s all a blur now, but eventually I realized that I’d been sitting there with Reggie in my lap, sipping my latte, for a long time. With a heavy heart, I lifted him from my lap and returned him to the stroller and wheeled him out of Epps Bridge Jittery Joes for the last time.
From there, I drove Reggie to Bishop Park, where Audie and I used to walk both dogs often on days like this. I didn’t leave him in the stroller. I lifted him out and let him walk on the path for as long as he could manage, at his own pace. I took video of him walking, as I had many times in the past month on our trips to state parks. I knew from experience how much it would mean to me over the years to be able to watch him – alive and moving.
He took his time, sometimes trotting, sometimes walking slowly. He marked a lot, he pooped a lot. He stopped to smell trees and leaves and grass. Sometimes he sat, upright, to pause and rest. We did two loops around the park before he started breathing more heavily and I decided he’d had enough on his own – I wanted him to have energy for the next two hours, before the vet came to the house.
For the third and last loop, I returned him to the stroller and he lay down as we walked the path of Bishop Park for the last time.
It was ten after 12, less than 2 hours until we had to be back home to wait for Dr. Stoppe.
Time for Reggie’s last meal.
I’d been pondering all morning where to take him. Neither Toby nor Lizzie got to have a last meal, not the kind I wanted Reggie to have, the kind they all tell you to give your dog – ice cream, pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers, French fries…”the kitchen sink.” With Toby, I tried, but he was so weak, he could barely move, much less eat. With Lizzie, there was no time to think. She did not want to eat anything on the morning of October 13, 2018 and left the salmon and tuna in her food bowl untouched as I raced to get her to Hope as fast as I could to end her suffering.
With Reggie, he was calm, and there was time, not much, but this was my last chance to give one of my dogs that gift of a “last supper” so to speak.
When I thought about it, I realized that Reggie deserved the best, and the best was my favorite place in Athens – the Heirloom Cafe. No fast food, Five Guys Burger was not good enough for Reggie – he deserved grass-fed beef, the good stuff.
There were only a few other customers inside when I told the hostess I had Reggie with me in the stroller. We had the patio to ourselves. Henry, one of my favorite people, was working the lunch shift but he was not our server. John, who is a very nice person, works the bar on weekdays, I believe, I never have seen him there on a weekend in all the years I was a brunch customer. He had never met Reggie, and I didn’t tell him what was going on, just that we only had about 45 minutes and so he took our order right away – a grass fed burger with fries for Reggie – no toppings and the same for me without the bun and the cheese.
I took Reggie out of the stroller and placed him in my lap again, wanting to hold him for every single minute possible in this last hour and a half of his life. Before the food came, we had a surprise visitor – my friend, Mary, whom I met at the Heirloom brunch bar a couple of years ago, exited the cafe with a work friend. She came over to hug me and I did tell her that I was putting Reggie to sleep. She hugged me tighter. Mary is a dog and cat lover and a pet sitter – I didn’t need to explain to her how I was feeling.
I asked Mary to take a photo of Reggie and me at the table, she took several, and when our food came she watched as Reggie gobbled up a few bites of hamburger and about 8 French fries. It made me so happy to see him eating and enjoying the people food.
After Mary left, Reggie had more trouble eating, meaning he didn’t eat anything. I kept trying to feed him smaller bits of French fries and smaller pieces of the burger but he turned his head away, or sniffed the pieces and refused the food. I suppose the rich, heavy food hurt his stomach – it’s not as if the colon cancer or the massive, ulcerated tumor cared that he deserved to enjoy this kind of treat that would be his last. Eventually I stopped trying, and just picked at my own food. I didn’t have much of an appetite, either. As 1:00 approached, I asked John for a check and a box for all the leftovers and headed home.
When we got there, Audie’s car was parked on the street (I was confused as to why he didn’t park in the driveway, but no matter). He was sitting in the driver’s seat texting or doing something on his phone when I pulled into the garage, head-in (I usually back in, I didn’t bother to worry about it that day). Dr. Stoppe wasn’t there yet, and I told Audie I wanted to take Reggie on a last walk around his neighborhood. He agreed and I let him take the leash. Audie commented on how weak Reggie looked, which he had told me he’d noticed the day before when he was walking him during some of the visits I’d granted him with Reggie in the last several weeks before he died.
Reggie didn’t make it very far, and we walked at a snail’s pace. I couldn’t help but think about all the walks over the years when I could barely keep up with Reggie, as he pulled Lizzie behind, with the dog leashes that Audie tied together into one to keep the two of them together – Reggie pulling Lizzie along so she didn’t fall behind.
And now we were awkwardly, almost silently, taking Reggie on his very last walk, and with that ending the era of our life with our dogs, altogether.
When we saw the car driving down the street, I said to Audie, “that must be Dr. Stoppe.”
It was, the car pulled up the driveway, and Dr. Stoppe and Tristan, one of the head vet techs, exited the Subaru and flipped the trunk, removing the supplies they needed for the euthanasia.
I apologized for the mess and the odor when they entered the house. I showed them upstairs to my sitting room, where Toby’s dog bed waited for Reggie to say goodbye as he did at home, on the same bed, back in 2011. It was serendipity, in a sad way, that my first dog, and my last dog, would go to sleep in the same way, and in the same place, albeit in a different home.
I had hoped Reggie would feel more comfortable at home, and he was, but he recognized Dr. Stoppe and Tristan and was very aware something was going on that affected him, and he began to shake. It was very hard, but I knew it would have been worse at the clinic. At least here he was home, and Audie and I were there with him.
Dr. Stoppe had brought the clay to make paw prints for Reggie and we watched as a nervous Reggie allowed Tristan to press his paw in each circle of clay, one paw print for each of us. What was touching was that they’d already carved his name, “Reggie,” into the clay before they came.
We pet Reggie, while Dr. Stoppe prepped him for the procedure, though he panted and shook, and it was heartbreaking, but the worst part, and the best part, for me, was watching as Reggie walked over to Audie, his original human, and cuddled up next to him for protection. Reggie looked over at me, and at the vets, and back at me, as he huddled in Audie’s arms, and I knew, no matter what happened, or had happened, I did the right thing by bringing Audie home to be with Reggie when it was time to say goodbye. I knew it would be what Reggie needed, and what Reggie deserved, and I was right. I could not bear the thought of Reggie not saying goodbye to his daddy, and I knew that if our roles were reversed, I’d want to be with my dog when he died.
As I have often said, years from now, all that will matter to me is that I behaved in a way where I will look myself in the mirror, and know that when Reggie, and Lizzie, died, I did what was right.
For some reason, I felt much more stoic, or more resigned, or stronger, or more something this time. With Lizzie, I cried as I said goodbye, but this time, I did not. Neither did Audie. It happened much more quickly, there was less time, because Dr. Stoppe and Tristan had to return to the clinic. The whole process of sedating Reggie, which made him sleep, with his eyes open, happened quickly, although it was difficult to get the catheter in originally, which was why it was hard to see him so scared and aware – Dr. Stoppe assured us he’d be okay, once he was sedated, everything would be fine.
She was right, his breathing calmed down and he rested, although it was unnerving to see his eyes open as he slept. Lizzie’s and Toby’s eyes had been closed.
“Are you ready?” she asked us. I didn’t look at Audie but we both nodded and said, “Yes.”
I can’t speak for Audie, but I was never going to be ready, it was just that I knew there was no other choice but to resign to be ready to let Reggie go.
As Dr. Stoppe gave him the drug, Audie being the scientist asked them what drug they were giving him. It started with a “B,” I think, or a “P.” I don’t remember the name).
“It’s okay, Reggie. You’re going to see Lizzie and Toby soon. It’s okay, Reggie.” I pet him and reassured him as she administered the drug.
I knew when he was gone, even before she put the stethoscope to his chest and eerily, the same way she did for Lizzie on October 13th, said aloud, “He’s gone.”
His eyes had gone glassy, his chest had stopped moving, before I heard the words.
Last time, I cried with my head on Lizzie’s. This time, no tears came. The numbness came immediately. And suddenly I was thinking to myself it would be okay, that he was with Lizzie and Toby, and at peace, and I kissed him, and all I could say was, “He feels so warm.”
“It takes a while,” the doctor told me (meaning for the body temperature to change).
Audie kept saying to me we’d done the right thing in a very matter-of-fact way. It was strange. It was not that I didn’t know that, and yet, I think he needed to hear himself say it aloud. We all grieve in our own way. He seemed calmer than he did last time, too, and we only had a few minutes before Dr. Stoppe asked us again, “Are you ready for me to take him?”
I didn’t fight it, and I reminded her Loran Myers from Memory Garden would be picking him up at the vet later to take him for the after-death procedures. I told Dr. Stoppe I wanted to be able to pick out an urn this time (with Lizzie we did not get to do that, though the wooden box is very pretty).
Tristan wrapped Reggie’s behind in a giant gauze pad and put him in Dr. Stoppe’s arms – two-handed, they carried him downstairs and Audie and I followed. We watched them put Reggie’s still body in the trunk of the car, and the last thing the doctor said to me was to let them know if I needed anything.
Audie turned to me again to tell me that I had done the right thing, that Reggie was suffering, or that we couldn’t let him suffer, same difference. Audie did not hug me, he did not offer to stay and talk, he just said he had a faculty meeting and then a retirement party that night.
“Take care of yourself,” he said flatly as he walked down the driveway to his car.
I watched his car pull away and drive down the street, to the stop sign, right turn signal on, and then he turned right, and was gone.
I stood, standing there, for a long time, staring at the street. I couldn’t even move. My body had gone into shock, or my brain, or both. I didn’t cry. I felt as if I was in a dream, watching myself stand there. I heard the sounds of cars, the sounds of my next-door neighbor’s daughter, S.J. and her friend talking in their driveway, the sounds of Doug, across the street, getting in and out of his car, and opening and closing the garage door.
Eventually, maybe half an hour later, my feet hurt, and my legs were hurting so I sat down, right there in the driveway, not talking, not crying, not even thinking. I just sat, the rest of the day, with the sun on my face and the wind blowing now and then, and did not move, except to reposition myself from the pain of sitting on concrete, but I could almost not feel that, either. Eventually my neighbor, Pennie, pulled up into her driveway in her white car, into her garage, but she did not come over. I knew she knew I needed to be alone.
As it grew later, I could tell it would be dark within an hour or so. I stood up and stared at the sliding glass door and I realized why I probably had stayed in the driveway so long:
I did not want to walk back into that house. I’d be alone, without Reggie, without Lizzie, without Audie, without anyone.
I did not want to walk inside – I’d known for weeks every time I pulled up the driveway and saw Reggie waiting for me on the other side of the glass that this day would come, and I’d be dreading it, and now it was here. I wasn’t ready, I’d never be ready, so I stayed, in shock, avoiding it, for as long as I could, until I couldn’t anymore. My body hurt too much from the concrete – everywhere – and it was never going to get easier. The dogs, Lizzie and Reggie, filled that house up, still, in every way that mattered, except they were not there, and never would be.
And then, there were none.
Two weeks have passed, and Audie and I have each ordered our urns and paw prints from Mr. Myers. We have not received them yet, and unlike the day we ordered my gravestone and golden cast paw print for Toby, along with a digitized version in a silver charm, Audie and I will be going alone, separately, to pick up our respective urns and paw prints.
When Lizzie died, it took many weeks for me to touch her things, and for some reason, this time, I needed to collect Reggie’s things immediately to donate to Hope. The day after he died, that Saturday, February 2nd, I spent most of the day doing that, and then robotically cleaning all the surfaces of the house in shifts, of one hour at a time, since it hurt my body too much to do it all at once. When I went to bed that night, my body hurt all over from exerting more physical activity than I’m supposed to, but I didn’t care.
It was better than the emotional pain I felt. The grief hit me so quickly, so hard – and I needed to push it away, push it down, quickly.
On Valentine’s Day, I hired Certified Clean Care to take care of the caked on and hardened feces and blood left behind from Reggie’s cancer, along with the years of buildup of dirt and red clay and urine and feces accidents that had occurred when one, or both of us, didn’t get home in time to take the dogs out, or when we were on a trip and came home to find the pet sitter had not cleaned it up – which didn’t matter anymore, and didn’t matter much then. When you have rescue dogs, especially dogs with medical issues, these things happen. I knew there’d be a day, this day, to clean it all up, as if it never happened. And it worked, the floors and carpets look practically new, especially the hardwood floors and all the kitchen and bathroom tiles. The carpets look fairly new, and the air is clean to breathe.
I would have done it anyway, myself, because I promised Audie I would, and I always keep my word, but it also felt like a gift to myself, when it was done, for all the months and months of taking care of both Reggie and Lizzie at the end of their respective lives. I felt I had earned this fresh start, with fresh carpet, fresh floors, fresh air and a clearer mind. Or as close to that as possible.
A few days earlier, I had finally decided it was time to clean the bedding – my blankets and sheets that Reggie had soiled in the last few days of his life when he’d been on the bed with me. For some reason, this was hard – you’d think it would be the first thing I’d want to clean, even before the floors and the carpets, but for whatever reason, it was the hardest thing to let go of – I couldn’t smell anything anyway, but visually, you would think I wouldn’t want to see it – the spots and stains the tumor left behind. Or, more likely, I was just too exhausted – that’s probably it, mostly. My same friend, pet sitter Mary, had told me about a wash and fold on Prince Avenue that was willing to wash pet-related stains – a dry cleaners wouldn’t do it, she said. It took a couple of bags to fit in all the bedding – sheets and blankets and comforter. (Thankfully, there was no damage to the mattress or mattress cover. My tiny throw pillow – I just threw it away).
The lady who works at the laundry, Michelle, was incredibly empathetic and a dog lover. She told me she’d been through something like this once, too. Her kindness made a world of difference – I felt embarrassed walking in, thinking of how to explain what happened – and she took care of all that right away. When I picked up the bedding on Valentine’s Day, while the other guys were taking care of the floors, Michelle showed me the bedding and it was as if nothing had happened – there were no stains, no spots, as if the cancer – and Reggie – had never happened, either.
Many friends have sent kind messages and texts. Hope Animal Medical Center sent me a sympathy card, as they had done with Lizzie, with signatures and notes from Dr. Clifton, Dr. Jeni, Dr. Stoppe, Leah, Cheyenne and Nicole.
That was when the tears came the hardest.
It was not the first time they came. It took about 4-5 days, but one morning I woke up and Reggie’s brown coat was there, beside me, on the bed. I picked it up and cradled it, and put my nose to the material. I could still smell his scent, and then it came out, the grief, the screaming of his name, the anger, the loss, the emptiness of all the multiple losses: Audie, Toby, Lizzie, Reggie, my marriage, the life I had sacrificed everything for when I left San Diego to come to Athens, and everything in between.
And then, I got in the shower, brushed my teeth, got dressed, and it was over, for the time being. Until it happened off and on, the past two weeks, sometimes while driving, sometimes sitting in the car in the garage, sometimes in the bathtub, sometimes when I look at the photos sent by my friend, Suzanne, of Lizzie and Reggie, with their paw prints and Lizzie’s urn, waiting for Reggie’s to join it – and then I can’t stop crying. I look around the room, my favorite room in the house, the dogs’ favorite room, too, and all I see are paw prints and photographs and pictures and – nothing – nothing but memories of the most beautiful, most loving, most amazing three dogs this world has ever seen.
I know they are together, across the Rainbow Bridge, the way they used to be, since the day they came together as a family, with Audie and me, on December 22, 2009.
I believe in the poem, the legend, and I know someday, somehow, I will find my way back to them, as I cross the bridge myself. There they will be in the valley of dogs long past, and they will see me, our eyes will meet, their ears will perk up, their tails will wag, and suddenly, they will start running toward me. And pain free, like I once was, myself, long ago, I will run to meet them, and I will fall to my knees, opening my arms, as they jump into my lap, put their paws on my chest and lick my face until we stand up, together, and they follow behind me, as I walk into the valley to be with the creatures that I love most in this whole world…and always will.
When most people think of November 1, they begin to think about Thanksgiving dinner, holiday travel plans (Where should we go this year?), Black Friday, Christmas decorations in all the stores, cooler weather, maple leaves in autumn’s colors, Daylight Savings and…if you’re a writer…like me…
…National Novel Writing Month.
November 1st is 4 days away. The clock is ticking. Only a few days left to set up your writing space,prepare your plot outline, clear your social calendar, and rearrange your schedule so you can make your minimum daily word count of 1,667 words.
In other words, November 1 begins the writing marathon: 50,000 words in 30 days.
Here in Athens, Georgia, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a very big deal. We have a Facebook group (Athens Wrimos), we have a municipal liaison (this year it is one of my AWA colleagues – I’m very excited for her!), we have a kick-off event on November 1st (not a moment to waste), the Night of Writing Dangerously (for some this is an all-night event – I’ve never made it to one of them), write-ins, sprint competitions, and more than 200 participants (for a college town this size, that is a large number of writers).
Basically, NaNoWriMo owns our lives for 30 days, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
This year may be particularly challenging for me, I admit, but I signed up yesterday, nevertheless. I can’t not sign up – not just because I am a co-founder of the Athens Writers Association and want to be a role model to my fellow writers, but mostly because this is our annual ritual – this is what we do – it’s unavoidable – we have to tackle the challenge – better to try and fail than not try at all. Or, as one of my favorite quotes says, “You only fail when you stop trying.”
In October 2015, I created a public reading group called “Read-Ins,” which was named as a play on our phrase, “Write-Ins.” I’m not sure if Katherine created it for the Athens Writers Association, or if she borrowed it from somewhere else, but it fits perfectly. We used to perform public readings on a regular basis in 2013-2014, and when the Coffee Shop of Athens closed down, our public readings schedule hit a lull. We had one at Cine, and one at the ACC Library, but we were no longer regulars about town (Luckily, in 2018, Normal Bookstore has stepped up to support us and become the new “home” of the Athens Writers Association).
However, I was anxious to get our writers back out there reading their work in public – so – during the “void,” I came up with the idea to get a small group of writers togetherin an informal setting, instead. Once a month, we gather together to hear their poetry, fiction and non-fiction read aloud in the Barnes and Noble bookstore cafe. (Quite the fitting place to read our writing aloud, is it not?) We give each other feedback and applause, constructive criticism and praise, and…
…According to what I am told, everyone loves it, and is having a blast – it is by far one of the best things I’ve done in Athens.
Last week, a handful of writers and I commemorated the 3rd anniversary of the “Read-Ins” at our regular meeting spot in Barnes and Noble. After our meeting, we headed to Carrabas Grill to celebrate Katherine’s birthday, and to toast to 3 years of “Read-Ins.”
“Here’s to the beginning of our 4th!” I cheered.
As it was already the last week of October, inevitably, the dinner conversation shifted to the impending start of NaNoWriMo – and – the question that goes around the table every year around this time (usually put forth by my colleague, Danny).
“So, do you know what you are going to write for NaNoWriMo this year?” Danny announced.
For a few moments, no one spoke up. Everyone looked at everyone else. I wouldn’t go so far as to say, “you could hear a pin drop,” but, we all grew unmistakably quiet upon hearing the proverbial question.
NaNoWriMo can be intimidating if you overthink it. After all, it is a competition, but it is a competition with yourself:
Can you set the goal to write ~2,000 words a day and complete a novel (or non-fiction book) in one month?
There are no losers, there are only winners.
Everybody who registers and makes the attempt to conquer the 50,000 word beast is a winner, for, let’s face it, many would simply shake their heads, “No, no, I can’t do that…”
When I first heard about it in 2011, from my San Diego Toastmasters colleague, Maxine, I was totally confused by the concept. She suggested I sign up next year.
The following year, I was living in Athens, Georgia.
One day, while having coffee with my friend Carmen, also a writer, the subject of NaNoWriMo came up again. She encouraged me to sign up, and even though I was about to leave on vacation for the month of November, I thought, “Why not?” Carmen was the person who explained to me how NaNoWriMo works, and that it is, indeed, a challenge to meet a goal for yourself: to write every single day, not to compete with anyone else (Incidentally, if you do not add any buddies, no one will ever know your word count).
I signed up late, and only made it to ~16,000 words that first year.
Oh well. At least I did it.
The following year, 2013, I tried again, while on vacation in November, again.
That year, I made it to ~21,000 words.
Closer, but not quite there yet
The following year, 2014, I stayed in Athens, and I’ve stayed in Athens every November since.
Somehow, that seemed to do the trick for me.
In 2014, I finally won with ~53, 000 words – and it was one of the biggest adrenaline rushes of my lifetime.
I did even better in 2015, and hit ~88,000 words – how that happened, I do not know, but I wrote ~21,000 words in the first 2 days, so that sprint at the beginning had something to do with it. I did not repeat that miracle, but I did make the 50,000 word goal, and then some, in 2016 and 2017.
I attribute my success to the support of my peers, and the build-up of momentum that came from doing it once, meaning, if you can win once, you can do it again…and again…if you plan ahead, and work hard.
(A little luck doesn’t hurt, either – meaning, no unexpected life events get in the way).
Most of my friends in the Athens Writers Association who have participated in NaNoWriMo have accomplished that goal, and I have been as thrilled for them, as I was for myself. Elsa, Jay, Danny, Par, Jenny…they have all won, year after year, and I’m so proud to be among this group of talented writers.
How do we do it?
Let me count the ways…
Tip #1: Breathe. You already won just by signing up.
Tip #2: Plan ahead. Write an outline. Get your materials together – whatever you use – whether it be writers’ software (like Scrivener), notebooks, notecards and pens, storyboards, whatever works for you. You know yourself and what you need for your creativity to thrive!
Tip #3: Get involved with your home region: Look up your home region on the http://www.nanowrimo.org website and find your municipal liasions’ profiles.
Tip #4: Keep track of NaNoWriMo events in your home region:
The Kick-off party is a great beginning (I almost did not attempt NaNoWriMo in 2014 after two years of not reaching the goal, but I went to the KickOff party with Jenny on November 1st at Avid Bookshop and decided to give it a try again).
Sign up for online sprints – you can get a lot of writing done by writing as many words as you can in 10, 15, or 20 minutes. It’s fun to see how far you can get, and yes, there is a little bit of competition here with your peers who are also participating in the writing sprints, but it’s all in the spirit of writing more words and having fun.
Go to write-ins: getting together with a peer, or 3 or 4, or more, to write together does wonders for productivity. Take it from Par and me…we got a lot of writing done in past Novembers by working together at Starbucks (too bad they removed all of the comfy cushion seats, but we will not be deterred!).
Tip #5: Sign up for buddies on the website. It helps, and you can track how much your friends are writing, too.
Tip #6: Read the pep talks from the agents, authors, publishers and famous people supporting NaNoWriMo from all over the world- once you register on http://www.nanowrimo.org, you will receive their emails as they come in.
Tip #7: Don’t give up if you fall behind. Trust me. Everyone falls behind. You’d be amazed how fast you can catch up when you put your mind to it. Many of my friends have done it. In fact, one of my friends made her 50,000 words at 11:51 pm on November 30, 2016, with 9 minutes to spare. We all cheered for her at Hendershot’s – a win is a win. Until 11:59 pm, it isn’t over ’til it’s over!
Time is the challenge: all of us who participate in NaNoWriMo still have to juggle normal life, but it’s possible, and in the end, you will have climbed the Mt. Everest of writing.
And you never know what could happen next…
November 1st is just a few days away, but do not be discouraged if you still aren’t sure what you are going to write yet – trust me – if you love to write, you have time to figure it out – take it from my friends, Danny and Jenny, it’s not too late to come up with an idea, and you probably have one already spinning in your brain, or written down inside a notebook somewhere, tucked away in a desk drawer, and ready to go!
Whatever you do, do not sell yourself short. You can do this.
It isn’t easy, but you know what they say, nothing worth having comes easily.
Go for it. Keep going. Don’t give up.
The world is waiting to read your book. All you have to do now…is write it.
Question: At what point in your life did you become a writer and how did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
Answer: When I was in first grade, my elementary school held a writing contest for Grades K-2. All of the classes were asked to respond to the following writing prompt: “What will you ask Santa Clause to bring you for Christmas this year?” (Nowadays this subject would be taboo for a public school wide writing contest, but it was the 1970’s and it was a private school. None of the parents complained, as far as I knew). There were several winners chosen, enough to fill two pages in the school’s quarterly magazine. My response was one of the winning entries. I wrote a short paragraph asking Santa for peace and happiness for all of my friends and for my family, and for everyone in the world – and for a special best friend. (Although I’m Jewish, we celebrated Christmas when I was very little, and I loved Santa Clause. I think I believed he was real until I was eight or nine years old).
I’d have to pinpoint this accomplishment as the moment when I had the epiphany that I was a real writer and that I wanted to keep writing. I received a lot of praise for being among the published winners for that holiday writing contest. I was six years old, and it didn’t take long for my love of writing to grow exponentially. When I wasn’t writing stories for school, I would carry my mother’s electric typewriter into the hallway and start writing stories off the top of my head, while sitting right in the middle of the floor. (I have no idea why I didn’t just carry the thing over to the kitchen table and sit in a chair like a regular kid, but then again, I was not a regular kid). When I wrote in my diary every night, I usually sat on the floor, also. What can I say, we had very soft carpet in our house when I was a child!
Q: What books have you read that shaped you as a writer? Which authors’ work do you admire and why?
A: As a child, the books that fired up my imagination were: the Little House books, written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Oz books, written by L. Frank Baum, all of the books written by Judy Blume, Island of the Blue Dolphins, written by Scott O’ Dell, To Kill a Mockingbird, written by Harper Lee, and all of the stories from Greek and Roman mythology. My favorite authors in my adult years, whom I’d like to emulate, are: John Steinbeck and Jane Austen. Steinbeck’s novels resonate with me because of the way he seamlessly weaves his profound messages into stories about real, everyday people. I gravitate toward character-centered writing, which I think is Steinbeck’s signature, as well as his talent for painting vivid pictures of the places where his characters are battling inner, and outer, conflicts. When it comes to Jane Austen’s books, I can’t say enough about how beautifully she writes: her characters, her dialogue, her descriptions, are exquisitely crafted. She has created a portrait of an English society long gone that to this day, is not only remade into films over and over again, but also has been taken on by modern day authors with sequels and other stories that recreate that status driven society of early 19th century England. Both authors have inspired story ideas of mine, and I wish they had written and published many more books than they lived to write in their respective lifetimes.
Q: Which piece that you have written are you most proud of and why?
A: My short story, “To Ride the Wind.” I wrote it in 7th grade for an English class assignment (It was inspired by John Steinbeck’s novel, The Pearl, incidentally). My English teacher encouraged me to enter my story into the middle school’s first annual creative writing contest. My story won first place, which was one of the greatest moments of my life. “To Ride the Wind” was published in the school newspaper that summer, which I consider to be my first real publication. Although we all have to work hard, as writers, to develop our talent and to hone our craft, that story is a symbol of what I’m capable of, and a reminder to never give up on my writing, no matter what.
Q: Do you gravitate toward a particular genre(s) and/or format when you write? Tell us more about which genres and/or formats are your “passion?”
A: In the past seven years, my focus has been on writing memoirs. I also continue to write poetry, which I have always gravitated toward as a means of expressing my personal thoughts and emotions about life. Writing memoirs is challenging in that it requires a high degree of vulnerability and also enough emotional distance to imagine what audiences will be able to identify with when reading about my life story. I’ve spent a lot of time editing and revising my memoirs, as well as reading others’ published memoirs, to guide me in creating books that read like a fictional character-driven novel, even though the stories are non-fiction.
Q: Have you studied writing and/or attended writing seminars, workshops or conferences? Where and what did you learn from your classes/sessions and other writing teachers? Did any of them stand out to you and why?
A: I attended the USC Film School Graduate Screenwriting Program in the 1990’s, which was eye opening as far as how the television and film industry works. Before then, I took playwriting classes in college. I have not attended formal writing conferences, yet. I have taken advantage of as many of the Athens Writers Association’s workshops as I’ve been able to attend in the past 3+ years, and the members of my critique group have made the most significant difference in my becoming a better writer. They have been my best writing teachers these past 3 years, hands down. I have learned so much from everything they’ve taught me.
Q: Have you had any formal writing jobs and/or published any of your work? If so, tell us about your jobs and/or your publications.
A: Currently, I work as a freelance copyeditor – I proofread, copy edit and revise both non-fiction and fiction manuscripts, and in some cases, Power Point and website copy. I’ve written articles for publication in the Congregation Children of Israel Temple Times monthly newsletter. I continue to apply for other freelance writing jobs. In addition to articles I’ve published in the Temple Times, my work has appeared in three publications in the past three years: Writers After Dark, The Journey Home and Slackpole (the annual holiday issue of Flagpole Magazine).
Q: What is unique about your writing process? What works for you, and what doesn’t work?
A: I’m not sure if this is unique, but I work on writing multiple pieces simultaneously and divide my writing time among those projects. It is harder for me to write at home than in a coffee house, but I’m working on spending more time writing at my house (while my dogs lay peacefully at my feet). I work best with a “soundtrack,” which varies, depending on my mood. I tend to listen to a bundle of albums I associate with a particular writing or editing project. It doesn’t work for me to write in a doctor’s waiting room, or on an airplane, though I have managed to write at a table at the car dealership for several hours, so I’m getting better at writing in less-than-ideal surroundings. I keep a notebook in my purse at all times so that I can write ideas as they come to me throughout the day. I used to always write by hand, and nowadays, I usually write on my laptop. I’ve been thinking of writing shorter pieces by hand in the future because I had a great experience recently when I did that – it was like finding a long lost old friend.
Q: What is the most challenging area of writing for you?
A: Not editing as I go while I’m writing my first draft. I still have trouble just free flow writing without going back and rereading and rewriting as I go along. It slows me down, a lot. Breaking this habit is a work in progress.
Q: What are you currently writing?
A: My primary current writing project is a memoir about a tragic life-changing event that occurred in 1992, which resulted in a complex life-changing endeavor of mine over the next three months. Events that occurred during that time in my life substantially shaped the rest of my adult life, for the better, in my opinion. My hope is that this story of my journey from heartbreak and grief to activism and healing will inspire others to triumph in the wake of their own tragedies.
Q: What advice do you have for someone who is just beginning to write?
A: I meet people all the time who tell me about how they are “just dabbling” in writing, whether it be a short story or poetry or a novel, and I always encourage them to not sell themselves short as writers. Everyone has to start at the beginning and many people who are prolific writers start late in life, not realizing how much talent they’ve always had. It’s never too late so I say, don’t underestimate yourself and just be willing to learn and get feedback from other writers whom you trust. Keep writing, don’t give up and join our group. We’re a great source of peer support and encouragement – I know for a fact that it has made a significant difference for many of our members.
Q: How has being a writer changed your life?
A: The real question is how has being a writer not changed my life! I have believed for a long time, since I won that first contest in 7th grade, that writing is what I was born to do. I gave it up for 15 years and took the safe route in life, becoming a teacher and then working in administration at a major university. My dog, Toby Hartmann, inadvertently led me back to writing, and moving to Athens gave me the opportunity to spend the time writing Toby’s story that I used to spend at my brick and mortar job in San Diego, California. It’s hard to explain how being a writer has changed me except to say that now I remember who I am – not to use a cliché, but it’s true that, “I once was lost, and now I’m found.” I know that this is my purpose in life. I cannot feel fulfilled if I cannot write – it is what I need to do for myself. I can no longer imagine not being a writer. It is scary to open myself up to my readers, but it’s worth it to me to share my voice with the rest of the world.