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Animals Saved Me
by Richard Gilbert

First Place, Creative Nonfiction Prize

1994, Indiana

My aged Labrador Retriever is dying, and I’ve come into the garage this Saturday morning to check on her. Tess has been declining for some time—I can admit that now. She’s been sleeping more and moving stiffly. When she quit eating and took to bed, I couldn’t deny her aging any longer because, undeniably, her time itself had come. She’s not even whimpering, but animals don’t dwell: they deal. And so, intentionally or in effect, they hide their pain. Anyway, I can’t let her slowly starve or die of dehydration. It’s on my shoulders to call an end to Tess’s suffering, and I have. Our veterinarian will euthanize Tess on Monday.

Tess retreated a few days ago to her thick cushion out here in our quiet attached garage; her nest is beneath the wooden stairs into the house. “Hey, Tess,” I say, squatting to pet her. She raises her head an inch from her green canvas pillow, and tries to thrust her snout forward; her tail stirs but doesn’t thump. Flies lift from her rusty black coat. Flies have found her—though it’s still spring, barely May, not even June, and cool. Our vet thinks she has extensive, advanced cancer. She’s thirteen years and four months old, a good age for a Lab. But too early, of course, for me.

I hear a car crunching up our gravel driveway, and I raise the garage door to see my wife’s coworker Rebecca approaching in her soccer-mom van. She parks in the driveway and waves, and we walk together to our front door. Halfway up the gentle paved incline, she stops and says, “Oh! How’s Tess doing? Kathy said she’s sick.”

“Not good. She’s not even drinking now. She’s staying in the garage.” I gesture to the open bay.

“Is she going to be okay?”

“No. I mean, she’s dying, Beck. Tess is an old dog. Old for a big dog, anyway.” A sound stops me—Tess barking from the garage. Hearing my voice, she’s barking. She’s calling me even though I just left her—maybe because I said her name—and it’s a gut punch. She hears me and needs me.

“It’s okay, Tess! I’m right here.”

“So what are you going to do? Have her put down?” Rebecca’s tone and the intent way she’s peering at me make me uneasy. She’s searching my eyes, her own eyes bright and intense, her head tilted solicitously to one side, her expression pert and greedy as a monkey’s. Her avid curiosity feels unseemly.

“Yes. Monday. I want to spend some time with her today and tomorrow. Then that last trip to the vet’s—”

“I may have to do that with Glad,” Rebecca says, referring to her family’s Rottweiler.

Glad? What’s wrong with her?” I picture Glad: thick, doggy, strong as an ox—if not in the prime of her life, not far past its midpoint. She seems gentle with Rebecca’s three young children, and beloved by her oldest, Melissa. I’d never liked the looks of Rottweilers, probably influenced by their fierce roles in movies, but she’s like a big nonchalant hound and won me over.

“Yeah, she’s getting impatient with the kids. She could bite someone.”

“I guess you know your dog. But I’m surprised.”

“Anyway,” she continues, glancing across our flowerbed, the late daffodil varieties still blooming, “we need a smaller dog. Missy and I have been studying breeds. We really like the Cavalier King Charles spaniel.”

Rebecca once mentioned her childhood obsession with dogs and how she’d memorized every breed. I also recall her saying she’d had to euthanize their previous dog, just before they got Glad six or seven years ago; how she’d carefully researched a replacement, or maybe said she’d always wanted a Rottweiler, a breed on her childhood list. Something about her story had sounded odd then. Now I know.

I’ve loved an array of animals since boyhood and aspire to become a farmer—I keep laying hens, supply eggs to an organic store, raise and butcher broiler chickens, and sell some of the meat to neighbors; I’m trying to act professionally in my new realm, not overly sentimental even about pets. But I love dogs, and dogs, like horses, are essentially sacred animals in our culture. Dogs are also possessions, though: short of inflicting outrageous public cruelty on them, owners hold their lives in their hands. I know some animal rights activists might view me as equally callous, since they consider animal agriculture mass murder and liken pets to slaves. My contrary sense stems partly from humans’ coevolution with dogs, cats, chickens, and livestock. But it’s not history or logic that tells me in my bones they’re wrong—it’s love.

I hand off Rebecca to Kathy and walk down the sidewalk in the mild sunshine and into the dim garage where Tess waits. We’ve had a good run together, and sometime this weekend I plan to tell her so. I’ll thank her. The span of Tess’s life, I’m surprised to see, has taken me from late youth into early middle age. I recall what Mom said last Thanksgiving, watching Tess jerk herself across the family room: “Tess has gotten old. She doesn’t have much time.”

“Oh, she’s okay,” I’d said. “She has arthritis in her shoulders from playing Frisbee. I probably need to get her on an anti-inflammatory.”

Mom didn’t argue—she saw what I couldn’t see. As on one of her previous visits when she’d told me, “You’ll never put your heart into another place like you have this one,” and I’d just looked at her. I wonder now if she sensed that the passion Kathy and I were expressing in and around our home, in an outpouring of projects and purchases, carried a seed of restlessness.

~

I’ll learn, in the decades ahead, it will be easy enough to remember my happiest days: the six years we’ll live here in the white colonial-style faux farmhouse Kathy and I built on eight-and-a-half acres just over a mile from the cute downtown square of Bloomington, Indiana. A fortuitous alignment of hard work and lucky timing has taken us far. Not just materially but emotionally.

Our two kids, Claire and Tom, need me. I’m busy at the publishing house where I work, and I write a popular gardening column for the local newspaper, where once I’d been a star reporter. Kathy is ascending at Indiana University, already promoted from professor to department chair. The kids attend a new elementary school built on our road. I take them camping on our land, and we fish and swim in our own pond, an acre of blue water behind our dream house. (Tess, already eight years old when we moved here, in 1989, swims too, snorting with effort as she circles us as we wade, tread water, or glide in a canoe, and the kids laugh as I yell, “Look at that big old black water rat!”) Kathy and I have busy weeks and we race around, working and running errands; we discuss squeezing in a vacation; we’ve lost ourselves in our busy lives. In landscaping that echoes our starter house, I’ve placed a pin oak in front of our manse, to shade it from the western sun. A windbreak of pines we planted as seedlings now stands twelve feet tall in rows across our homestead’s western and northern borders, a green embrace.

We’d owned the land for several years before building, and we’d planted and planned. We had the pond dug. One day soon after our house was finished, I ordered Tess to sit before my orange tractor outside the garage and I took a photo, which I tucked into a thickening album labeled “The Farm.” Now every summer I grow a patch of vegetables, and, all around us, flowers. During our first summers here, two moments—of grace? consciousness?—sink into my soul. Holding Tom in a wooden rocking chair, I sing him bedtime lullabies, his warm heft in blue footie jammies soft against my chest, and I gaze out his window at the neighbor’s two horses grazing in the long Indiana dusk. Another night, on my way to my own bed, I step into Claire’s room beside her sleeping form and am riveted by the sight of the pond glowing in her double windows: lit silver by a full moon, the crescent of water shimmers as bursts of light flash across its luminescent surface.

Mom’s visits can turn tense, since she yearns to discipline Claire, our oldest child, whom she views as needing to be taken down a notch. A sore point with me, since I feel she was destructively harsh to me as a boy; her strategy of breaking her children, through whippings and shaming, seems at best superfluous when insecurity is already the human lot. Once, shortly after she’d arrived here from her home in Florida, I found her staring at Claire, who was prattling before her on a couch—Mom looked, with her coldly fixed green eyes and still pose, like a snake about to strike a clueless mouse—and I intervened with some distraction. In another decade, I’ll overhear Mom begin to analyze her mother with one of her siblings. How, when they were growing up in backwater Atoka, Oklahoma, during the Depression, she showed affection only to one of her ten children, the first, a cherished son. How she treated the others indifferently. And probably, based on how Mom raised me, disapprovingly. My clearest memory of Grandmother is of her examining me with her dark eyes as I sulked.

Our harmonics still clash—Mom gets huffy, I get prickly—but we possess affinities, too. I’m the only one of her four children who shares her affection for books and chickens. And a few years ago, as we drove in Bloomington, she bestowed a surprising blessing. “You’re a good father,” she told me. “All you boys are. You didn’t have a good example. Your Daddy wasn’t—he didn’t take the time. But you’re good fathers.” Mom, so tough, actually marveled.

Because I’m happy, her sketchy performance as a grandmother rolls off my back. I see now, so many years later, that my happiness is why I didn’t become angry at her in that incident with Claire. (Mom saw my happiness then, of course.) In another life, when I was unhappy but didn’t know that, either, Mom gave me Tess. When she remarked on Tess’s decline, I wonder if she remembered that bright spring day, thirteen years before. I wonder at my blindness—Tess was on her last legs. Mom had handed me a cue to see and affirm that simple truth. We might have lingered, and I might’ve told her all that Tess had meant to me. Except Tess’s story wasn’t over yet, not to me; I couldn’t even imagine it would end. When Mom comes, once or twice a year, it’s celebratory, and maybe I don’t want reality to intervene.

Cooking is how Mom expresses love. This phase of life and of my relationship with her becomes crystallized in one memory. I’m with her and my little family around our antique oak table, where we’d eaten her standing rib roast, Yorkshire pudding, asparagus, garlic mashed potatoes. On this mild evening, overlooking our pond from our bay-windowed breakfast nook, Tess gnawing a bone nearby on the family room rug, our bellies full after Mom’s feast, we’re playing cards and laughing.

~

That Monday I drove to our veterinarian’s, looking blankly at trees, lawns, strip malls. Our vet walked out to the parking lot and I opened the rear door of our Mazda van. Tess lay in the luggage compartment where I’d placed her on a blanket. Her muzzle was white; her black coat was dull; her expression, always kind, was weary. The vet gave her a shot in a foreleg and the light fled her brown eyes. She went so fast.

I buried her on the far side of the pond in a grove of river birch, and planted a clump of daffodils in the raw dirt. Later, standing there, Claire, age eight, cries and Tom, five, looks pained. “Let’s make a cross,” I say, and we do. I assemble it in the basement, and there we paint it in rainbow colors: aqua sky, green trees, yellow flowers. I wonder about our Methodist church’s position on using this sacred symbol to honor a dog, and decide I don’t care. I must do something for the kids, from whom I hid Tess’s death and burial, thinking those would be too wrenching. (A mistake, in retrospect—Claire, as an adult, feels I cheated her out of a chance to say goodbye, which makes me realize I’d probably been trying to shield myself from her emotion.) Our graveside commemoration feels necessary, even profound, in honoring our feelings of gratitude and loss. As long as we live here, which I don’t know will be for only two more years, this colorful cross, screwed together from scrap boards, marks Tess’s grave.

With her death, for the first time in years I think of our first days together. I see myself as a young reporter in Florida, a skinny guy with hair like Elvis, cuddling his new puppy and beaming. When she’d run to me to give and receive love, Tess didn’t know to stop—I’d squat and call her, and get knocked on my butt, laughing, with Tess suddenly in my arms, licking my chin. Sometimes, at bedtime, I’d forget to put Tess in her crate before turning out the light and climbing into my own bed, and in the sudden darkness, the black puppy was like an iron cannonball streaking invisibly at my shins, coming hard and fast and low across my bedroom floor.

I regret my last photograph of her, in our family room here. Aiming the camera at Tom, I caught only her hindquarters in the background, accidentally, as she moved unnoticed out of the frame. As our children grew, Tess had moved to my periphery. She’d stood front and center with me for but a few years, finally shuffling to the edge of a stage grown larger than I’d dreamed possible. Increasingly, she’d lived more in Claire and Tom’s world than in mine. Their gentle panting overweight buddy. Seventy-two pounds of love. She was their first animal friend, and their first incomprehensible loss. My own stunned realization at Tess’s graveside: how fast not just canine but human lives pass. I’ll struggle to remember that insight, but what I know forever is that when you encounter an aged dog, you regard a walking vestige of someone’s former life. You see an old dream. Explaining to others the nature of that dream, let alone grasping it yourself, isn’t simple. I had a dog and then she died. There’s the basic plot, which lacks explanatory power. Knowing anything worthwhile about that event sequence takes knowing the meaning of “I” and “had” and “then.”

A dog’s death, like a human’s, throws you into the past’s jumbled narratives. Into considering a story’s beginning, middle, and end. You flash through phases, arriving at last where you stand. I was a young 26 when Tess entered my life, changing it; I was 39, a different man in different shoes, when she exited. Standing there beside Claire and Tom at Tess’s grave, I felt chastened and soberly aware, stilled for an instant in the onrush of time.

 

1983, Indiana

Kathy and I bought our first house, a tidy limestone ranch, 1,100 square feet, in an old development beside Bloomington’s bypass at the point where you could see, across the way, the football stadium. We’d briefly rented a log cabin on the edge of town, but this house felt permanent. A widow who’d built it with her husband had lived there alone once he passed, and then she’d died. Dusty spirea shrubs stood in a row along its back wall; the house’s picture window framed a lofty pin oak out front; hoary spinach-colored junipers sprawled along the blacktopped driveway.

Almost an acre of lawn sloped to the road, and I’d walk out past the oak with Tess, her tail raised and thrashing, and hurl a blue Frisbee toward a quince bush on our lot’s far corner. Tess ran flat-out away from me and caught the disk over her shoulder in a flying leap, like a wide receiver snagging a Hail Mary pass downfield. Somehow we’d worked out our timing. With the Frisbee captured in a decisive snap, she’d let her momentum carry her into an easy circling lope, her head nodding like a horse’s as she returned.

Every afternoon I drove my tan Mazda pickup an hour north to my job, on the night copy desk of the Indianapolis Star. A red and white Igloo lunch bucket jiggled on the seat beside me. I was learning the names of northern trees and shrubs. Weekends were for projects. Kathy and I rented a machine and blew shredded newspaper insulation into the house’s cramped attic. We rolled milky white paint onto its dry plaster walls—the bitter smell of latex paint still brings me back to that low ranch on Saville Street. The weather was clear and arid that August, autumnal; the baked clay soil cracked an inch wide in spots. Our first cat, Natalie, a gray tabby runaway who had adopted us, hunted the chipmunks that overran the yard. Inside, under the widow’s thick green wall-to-wall carpeting and its crumbling red waffled backing, we found hardwood floors; we staggered under the heavy rolls of carpet and padding, aiming for the bed of my truck. Everything was new each timeless sun-struck hour. Lingering in bed on a weekend, we felt the morning’s cool breath die in the hot blue windless afternoon.

If I want to see the face of young love, I have only to review photographs of us then. In almost every one, we’re embracing and grinning, or kissing. In our wedding picture that fall, taken by a friend of Kathy’s, we kneel in lush ryegrass I’d planted in the garden plot behind our house to enrich the soil. I’m between my wife and my dog, one arm around Kathy’s waist, over her red sweater, and the other draped over Tess’s glossy black shoulders. We’re smiling, and Tess, in this odd situation—summoned into the garden, told to sit with us facing a stranger—appears meek, abashed, lovable.

With Tess, we’d felt instantly like a family. I liked Kathy having her own relationship with Tess. It pleased me to see her kind interactions with my dog; though more reserved than I was, with my Frisbee, my commands, my jokey exhortations, Kathy had also become Tess’s master. In her brisk maternal way, it felt as if Kathy had adopted my child from a previous marriage. Which, in a sense, she had.

~

How well humans remember beginnings and endings. We can bookend an era easily, but middles blur, not shiny new, not dramatically or at least unmistakably over. I was 28 and Tess was two when we moved with Kathy to Bloomington. It felt as if my life had at last begun. Driving a U-Haul into that busy, prosperous town, I recall thinking The spinning threads of my being can wrap and hold fast here. That grandiose metaphor turned out to be true. But I struggled and failed to grasp the chasm between then and now—an eye blink before, I’d been a footloose journalist in Georgia and Florida, jumping to a bigger newspaper every year.

What I couldn’t see in this glorious new start, on an otherwise forgotten day in June 1983, was that Tess and I had entered our Middle Period. Which quickly became subsumed in a succession of momentous firsts with Kathy. When we bought the faded house on Saville Street, my only asset to contribute to its purchase was my name. Tess had already made her contribution, as my companion in courting this tall brunette with the big smile. Kathy took it from there. It being me. She took me from there. And if that sounds passive, I had gambled my future on her. Instead of returning to my good job on the Orlando Sentinel, after a fellowship year at Ohio State University where we’d met, here I stood beside her, with Tess. I’d followed her first to Carbondale, Illinois, where I’d worked for eight months on a little newspaper and bought my little truck, and then on to Bloomington. And though we hadn’t yet married, and I was broke, Kathy expressed her faith in me by having me co-sign our deed. I’m awed by this now, though it seemed only natural, if magnanimous, then. A sense of my humility lingers, part of my larger wonder that we’d become a couple. In my recollection, I left this unspoken. Maybe the past burns away such connective tissue from memory, like a dream that starts without preamble. But if I could go back in time, I’d order my younger self to take Kathy by the hands, look into her brown eyes, and pour out his love. She’d plucked me from oblivion. Maybe I knew then, as now, I’d end up bawling. I had written her letters and poems. Anyway, I possess photographic evidence of my devotion: all those hugs and kisses.

When I’d taken Kathy home from Carbondale to meet my parents for the first time, I’d gotten embarrassed in front of my mother by my constant displays of affection toward Kathy. I wasn’t just holding her hand—if my arm wasn’t gripping her waist, I was squeezing her shoulder or rubbing her back. “I can’t stop touching her,” I actually said to Mom in a shy mumble. “I know,” she said. “I’m afraid you’re going to grab me by mistake.” The story I prefer to tell about that historic visit involves Dad dragging out his prep-school yearbooks to show Kathy, and Mom sitting her down at the breakfast table to inquire about her family. Such major endorsements—they’d basically ignored, as politely as possible, previous women. During Mom’s friendly grilling of Kathy, I could see she identified with Kathy’s large, hard-working family, prominent in their farm town. Mom sat leaning forward and smiling, her compact frame and frosted blonde hairdo contrasting with Kathy’s height and loose brown hair. With Kathy nervous in the spotlight, I kept handing her bits of Mom’s famous oven toast, bread coated with butter and crisped to an explosive crunch. For years I joked that I’d fed Kathy eight pieces during her interrogation, until my exaggeration became our remembered truth.

Maybe astonishment at one’s unremarkable past is a facet of adulthood best left unremarked. Yet it does seem remarkable to me that the following year, now over thirty summers gone, we drove my subcompact pickup truck to Florida from Indiana to see my parents again. Visiting them, apparently, was what we’d do each summer. (No need to board Tess this time: she came with us, in the bed of my truck, under an aluminum topper.) Kathy’s parents had died young, and while I had no sense mine would ever pass away, I craved their knowing Kathy. I wanted to share our romance, I suppose, and to receive their blessing. Besides, though we had little free time, we had even less money, and visiting was cheap. So we left our limestone ranch on its rise and headed south. Upon reaching Georgia, we took back roads through the state’s western side, which eventually brought us to my favorite uncle’s home. After our overnight there, as we departed on the last leg of our trip, a drive of eight hours, my aunt handed us a dozen sandwiches, mostly meatloaf. Another endorsement of Kathy—an effusive one, though perishable.

As we followed our scenic route, we shared our bounty with Tess, handing her sandwiches, moist with mayonnaise and fragrant with onion, through the matching pair of sliding-glass windows in the truck’s cab and its topper.

~

Two years later, in May 1986, we drove home from the hospital with our newborn daughter. We got Claire inside just ahead of a violent thunderstorm. My five-foot-two mother, commanding our tiny kitchen, whipped up a late breakfast. Amid the aroma of buttermilk biscuits, Mom stirred spicy sausage gravy with a wooden spoon; our lunch of pinto beans with smoked ham hocks was already simmering. Tess stood below, hoping for spills.

Having left the Indianapolis Star’s night copy desk for more regular hours as a reporter in Bloomington, that winter I had time to hunt grouse with Tess. Cradling a heavy shotgun, I slogged through rough terrain for hour after hour, walking until my feet and hips burned, watching Tess quarter. During two hunting seasons, the only grouse we ever saw flushed out of range because I didn’t trust Tess’s nose—it had been too long since we’d chased birds. Head down, her snout buried in weeds, she sniffed frantically and her tense body ponged, her tail blurring in a furious lateral arc. She was making game! She was almost atop a bird! That became clear as a grouse rocketed away at 70 miles an hour, borne upon its own startling noise, the sound of a giant shuffling his deck of stiff cards.

I’d trained Tess to hunt, when she was a pup in Florida, by triggering and encouraging her instincts. First, I’d thrown training bumpers, tubes of white plastic, encouraging her to fetch, and later I tucked live homing pigeons in the grass to teach her to find birds. I taught her to swim in the brackish Indian River a block from where I was living, and started throwing her bumper into the water. I’d make her sit beside me as it splashed down, and then I’d thrust out a rigid hand and yell “Back!” The code in her DNA for hunting and retrieving exploded—how thrilling to see Tess hit the water in flying leaps after our plastic prey.

Four years before that grouse—ancient history—I’d shot a pheasant cock over Tess at my professor’s farm in Michigan; I’d packed him in ice and driven to Carbondale to cook him for Kathy. Even then, with my outdoorsy dream manifest, I suspected I’d rather raise and tend birds than thrash through freezing bogs trying to kill them. But there was the appeal of a working dog as a special sort of friend, a sentiment perhaps stemming from my most basic affinity, for animals themselves. This love dawned with my memory, on a farm in Georgia, and continued after my family moved to Florida. There I stood one night, at age nine, weeping and pleading for a dog before Dad. And after his assent, Mom found us one, a sullen beagle named Dolly, who refused to obey or learn tricks and who wouldn’t even lick me. Atop the dressers in my bedroom stood bubbling aquariums full of fish or pressed into silent service as terrariums for snakes I’d caught. “You’re really tuned in to animals,” Kathy once remarked, when I was raising a batch of ducklings for our pond. “You see what’s going on with them, what they need.”

“Animals,” she added, “were how you related to your parents. They were your bond. Animals saved you.” She referred to the affection Dad and I shared for his cattle in Georgia; to my blue parakeet Hattie, surely a gift from Mom, chattering in our farmhouse kitchen; to his and my laughter in Florida, years later, when Dolly’s grudging pleasure over getting belly rubs embarrassed her; to my adolescence when he got me some ducks. And how, after I hatched their eggs in an incubator in my bedroom, Mom taught me to supplement their mash with hard-boiled egg and bits of dry oatmeal.

Good memories, the usual, and then something earlier surfaced. Once, a flock of birds flew into the big windows of the Grants discount store in our Space Coast boomtown, Satellite Beach. They were sparrows or finches, dusky olive-brown with a slash of clear yellow on their upper breasts. Anyway that’s how I picture them, the scads of slight birds dotting the green concrete sidewalk. Maybe a storm had blown them in from the sea, just across Highway A1A from the store, and they’d veered into the lighted glass. Many were stunned, not dead. Mom saw that, darted into Grants, and bought a birdcage. We stuffed woozy birds inside, and took them home as pets. Soon we turned them loose, as they never settled down and, in our greed, we’d collected too many, but the incident amuses me. So earthy, so Mom. In front of Grants, a store selling parakeets and canaries, free birds!

~

Kathy delivered Tom on a blue and gold October morning in 1988. By then, photos of Claire often included Tess, who stood patiently as Claire stuck hats on her head or wrestled dresses over her hindquarters. A year after Tom’s arrival, we began building our dream house on the remnant of a forty-acre farm. Our little limestone ranch sold surprisingly fast, and the new owners wanted immediate possession. Kathy found a rental on the other side of the university, a board-and-batten cracker box with a fringe of brick façade below its picture window. Our temporary neighborhood was thick with other houses hard-used by generations of graduate students.

As we moved in, our nearest neighbors, two guys who had added onto their own modest house and heavily landscaped their yard, stared and turned away. Another messy family with bratty kids and a crazy dog, I imagined them thinking. Later, I saw one of them standing at the curb in front of our trash and recyclables, hands on hips, furiously shaking his head—apparently I’d placed our refuse on the wrong side of our driveway, too close to their property line. They favored Labradors themselves and owned two yellow males, the chunky show type. “Is she spayed?” one of them demanded over the fence about Tess. Their dogs were neutered, so the issue wasn’t relevant, just a judgment about our trashy dog and, by extension, our low-rent lives. They hustled their dogs inside whenever Tess entered our backyard.

Having a dog exposes you in the way having a child does. Or having a mate. Or relatives. Or anyone, really. You want your beloved to escape wobbles like the ones that shaped your own trajectory. You try to teach a pup or a kid; to support your partner; to get along with family members. But your bond makes you see others’ judgments about this entity orbiting you so closely. Vulnerability can hit with a pang. That’s just the fine print you hadn’t noticed about love.

In storage with most of our possessions was a painting of Tess, which today hangs on a walnut-paneled wall of our TV room in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. My older sister, Meg, commissioned the portrait from an artist and got Kathy to sneak some of my photographs. So many years later, I look up at Tess looking out, wearing her red nylon adolescent collar, her eyes alert and calmly concerned, her ears cocked to hear my wish. Under her painted gaze, I prepare to weatherproof her leash, a strap of brown leather, now 35 years old, with shallow scars and thin cracks in its dark surface. Only half an inch wide and a quarter-inch thick, its edges tapered and beveled round, the leash feels good to hold. I squeeze it lying limp and velvety in my palm. That first winter in Carbondale with Kathy, I pored over a small glossy catalog, debating lengths, widths, colors. I picked this six-footer made from a single piece of cowhide; instead of using steel pins to secure loops for a human hand at one end and for the collar snap at the other, its maker cut slits and cinched it back on itself and, above the snap, formed neat braids. I selected a matching leather collar, to replace the red one Tess had outgrown, and although the collar is long gone, her leash has served three successor dogs. Along its length I massage Montana Pitch Blend, a mellow amber goop of pine resin, mink oil, and beeswax, working extra into the slits and braids, which are stiffening. These strong, handsome links appear simple, yet defy my understanding—I’d never get it back together if I pulled apart its tight connections.

A few nights after treating Tess’s leash, I dreamed pit bulldogs circled me while I was out walking her. We were back in Indiana. But then Tess was gone, and alone on a muddy unpaved road, I struggled toward our white house, which in the distance appeared smaller, shaped differently, not quite in the same place. No pond glimmered behind it. I stood trembling on the dark wet road, unsure how to make my way home.

 

1981, Florida

“What about your choice of a retrieving breed? You didn’t ask me when you picked your wife. If you’re satisfied with that choice, you ought to be able to pick out a dog. If you didn’t do well in that choice, you should have learned something.”—Richard Wolters, Water Dog

 

You’re in an early, short, mistaken marriage. So is your wife. Not that you fight. Instead, you’re like two passive kids, equally burdened and blocked, who can’t help each other. Yet it surprises you that she can ignore such an adorable puppy that you, her husband, adore. You think a loving wife should embrace your dog and, ideally, also cut your hair. You don’t wonder if you’d embrace her cat, if she had one, which, thank God, she doesn’t. Does she?

Soon it’s time for you to leave for your fellowship year at Ohio State. You aren’t sure what your wife will do, but she comes too. You hadn’t imagined the challenge of renting a decent apartment near campus with a dog. You were a newspaper reporter, gainfully employed, but you’ve become a student with a dog. You visit squalid apartments and duplexes in scary neighborhoods. In a student ghetto, you find a decent two-bedroom, the end unit in a tired 1920s townhouse, its sooty bricks sucking light from the somber Yankee sky. Look, there’s a place on the corner to sell your blood plasma. You pay extra rent each month for Tess, and keep the place spotless.

Your wife leaves, returning once for a quick uncontested divorce in a downtown courtroom. Before ice narrows the Olentangy River, a few blocks from your apartment, you take Tess every afternoon to swim and fetch her Frisbee. The winter is long for a Florida boy, but you’re cozy, reading inside with Tess lying nearby on the stiff gray carpet. You aren’t just a broke divorced graduate student, his thick hair starting to thin, living in a threadbare apartment: you’re a guy with a great young dog who loves and needs you. Once, she growls at you when you take away her juicy steak bone, and you throw her down and yell into her face—teaching her humans have rights. Once, you playfully blow air at her with your new hair dryer, and when you’re at school she chews it apart—teaching you dogs have rights too.

In spring, you want to date a woman who is lecturing in your department while she writes her doctoral dissertation for the University of Michigan. You teach different sections of the same class, and trade handouts and ideas. But asking out Kathy scares you witless. You’re bad. She’s the first good woman, as you think of it, you haven’t run from—going all the way back to high school—though you won’t connect those dots for years. Having Tess, heedless of human shame, helps. Kathy pets her, though intimidated at first by her size—she’s a big dog, in Kathy’s eyes—and by Tess’s intense focus. After the first time you leave them alone together, Kathy admits her fear: “Sometimes Tess looks like she wants to eat me.”

“No,” you reply. “That’s love.”

Kathy plans to return to Ann Arbor before relocating, somewhere, for her first job as a professor; you plan to camp in your history professor’s farmhouse, south of Ann Arbor, and write freelance articles. And really, it’ll turn out, to see where Kathy goes. Meantime you’ll hunt pheasants with Tess, write a letter to Orvis asking to attend their wingshooting school for free so you can write about it (No thanks, comes the reply), read your professor’s old New Yorkers, and think about Kathy. She’ll accept a job, in southern Illinois. On the way to Carbondale, she’ll visit you at the farm and you’ll wander alfalfa fields together and watch Tess try to catch voles. You’ll laugh at Tess’s frantic, comically fruitless pursuit of the puny rodents. And you’ll laugh at her again that night when, smelling the bread Kathy bakes, she drools. Tess, at once goofy and comely, will seem to you the earthly embodiment of your deepening celestial love.

But first, to get you out of Columbus, your friend Bailey sells you a white Chevy Bel Air, a 1969 muscle car, and you cram its wide, gas-hungry body with your possessions. As you prepare to drive to Michigan, leaving your sedan idling at the curb, Tess prancing on its front seat, you walk into your landlord’s office. “Thank you for your tenancy,” he says. He promises to mail your damage deposit after he inspects. But he keeps the money, because he’s sleazy and because he can. That $300 constitutes most of your net worth; its loss stings far worse than your divorce—already hard to recall. In time, though, it will be as if he gave you a gift by stealing your nest egg because you’ll never forget the exact sum, which, like anyone’s remembered past, accrues interest.

~

I saw the film Tess in the Cineplex on Merritt Island, Florida, probably alone, late in the winter of 1981. That sense of flying solo strikes me today, as I was newly married, as does my naming a puppy after a young woman destroyed by male lust. While there’s precedent for men naming boats and horses and the like after women they find desirable, I recall feeling embarrassed when I told Mom, who’d just given me the puppy, where I got her name. To Mom’s credit, she merely nodded.

A year before, I’d given Mom and Dad a puppy. I hadn’t learned you should never surprise someone with an animal. I knew that in theory—a college girlfriend having once impulsively gotten me a puppy I made her return—but I hadn’t yet learned it. Or I believed in exceptions to the rule that you shouldn’t gift someone with an animal they hadn’t even asked for. Especially a puppy, whose housebreaking and socializing take time and effort, aside from any formal training. Yet I did it, did what my girlfriend had done to me. In 1980, newly returned to my home county in Florida from a newspaper in Georgia—back really because I was eager to share in Dad and Mom’s creation of their retirement home and nursery business—I enlisted the help of my siblings in purchasing for them a costly registered chocolate Labrador puppy from an unusually handsome field strain. Shortly afterward, Mom backed her car out of the garage and fatally squashed the pup as it ran up behind her.

But that’s not when I learned giving them a puppy had been a mistake. I learned that in spring 1981, just after my twenty-sixth birthday, when Mom gave me Tess. Awful timing. As a reporter, I put in long days. I’d applied for a year-long fellowship for journalists—way up north, at Ohio State—which the previous year I’d won but declined, and how would I go with a puppy if I got it again? I didn’t even know what I’d do with my wife if I got it. But Mom saw how desperately I wanted a Labrador—obviously why I’d given her and Dad one. So she made my dream come true by contacting a courtly family friend, George Moreland, who owned a quail-hunting plantation in southern Georgia near our old farm. She must’ve told him she needed help getting me a Lab from working stock. He drove Tess to their nursery in West Melbourne, and she called me that April morning. I drove down there fast from Cocoa Village. I recall how black the puppy looked on the emerald grass, and my and everyone’s joy.

Mister George raised pointers, not retrievers, although at big events he used Labs for fetching dead quail. I imagine a buddy owned, or helped him locate, Tess’s litter. Overwhelmed with getting a puppy, I asked no questions and got no information about the little female’s origins. No kennel name, no purebred’s registration papers, no date of birth. I started training her from books, a library with three books by Richard Wolters, who, breaking with tradition, advocated that their training start early in puppyhood. My yard was minuscule, so I walked her down to a park along the river. Our hazard there was fried chicken—bony scraps thrown into the grass by picnickers—and I had to run and take them from Tess. After four months, she was fetching trussed pigeons, unhappy but unharmed, from where I’d hidden them around Mom and Dad’s acreage. Finally, when Tess was barely five months old, I mailed in our entry fee for a field trial near Tallahassee. Such events reflect waterfowl hunters’ need for dogs that can mark fallen birds and retrieve them over long distances, while obeying hand signals if necessary, even while swimming, to find multiple birds or birds moved by currents. I had no idea how Tess would fare, never having seen another working retriever outside of my books, and I got worried. What most people want from a dog, I realized, was what I’d always enjoyed, a lovable couch slug.

What I was doing with Tess was different. Much harder, more absorbing, and electrifying when Tess took me with her on her jubilant retrieves. Together we were having new experiences, growing. “You needed to love something without constraint or fear,” my sister recalled when I asked her, years later, what she’d been trying to memorialize by giving me the painting of Tess. “No matter where you went or what you did with your life,” Meg added, “Tess didn’t demand explanations or make any real or veiled critique.” Meg’s carefully chosen words felt compassionate toward me but ripe with implication, themselves a veiled critique. I thought of our mother, who, when we were growing up, gave piercing looks and stinging whippings, spoke insults that stuck. You’re bad. Or at least that was my experience as her moody middle child, her difficult one, the kid who resisted her. Then, in late middle age and into old age, Mom stopped trying to dominate us and even started kissing us. She’d changed herself into someone much more loving. This wasn’t my mother of memory—unless, provoked, when she returned. After Kathy and I moved our family from Bloomington, amidst the initial wreckage of our new life in Ohio, I must’ve sounded too plaintive on the phone one evening. “You’re needy,” Mom said—a contemptuous slap. You’re bad. If I’m honest, my tone was pleading, for sympathy over what we’d done to ourselves. Years later, a therapist said, responding to this story, “People have needs.”

What is love? Acceptance, friendship’s bedrock—the degree of acceptance sets the depth of the relationship—also seems an essential element in love’s molten core. Acceptance affirms and encourages, and I crave it, the deeper the better. Dogs, of course, offer it totally. And part of that is they forgive your shortcomings. It’s not lack of awareness—they remember how you’ve hurt them accidentally in a stumble, and know if you’re the type who lashes out. All the same, offering their endless affection, they bestow bottomless acceptance. You’re good.

~

Stepping up Tess’s training underscored my inadequacies as an outdoorsman. I’d never even shot at a duck, let alone possessed the accessories of waterfowling’s ancient craft—the camouflage-netted green boat, the hardwood duck calls, the corded decoys, the long-barreled shotguns—but maybe I’d have to become a hunter—for Tess. Or maybe field trials would become our substitute for actual hunting. Imagine, then, Tess on her first retrieve before the field trial’s watching gallery, gathered at the edge of a cow pasture. Tess dashed out and grabbed the bumper. She spun and returned, her ears flying. Halfway to me, she stopped. Lowered her head. Dropped the bumper. Tucked a shoulder and flipped onto her back. And began rolling ecstatically atop the first manure patty she’d ever smelled. Laughter all around. Even I laughed—what could I do?—but my face burned. I’d warned Tess off Kentucky Fried Chicken, not cow flops.

“Your first retriever?” someone asked.

Many of the field trial Labs grew huge, the muscular males often exceeding 100 pounds—rangy, powerful dogs built to traverse North America’s big landscapes. They towered over Tess, one of the few puppies run that day, but I didn’t mind that she was little, growing toward an adult weight of maybe sixty pounds. It bugged me, however, that Tess wasn’t as pretty as the other dogs. I noticed her black coat’s brown cast, her sharp face. I imagined this was the price of being bred by quail-crazy Georgians more focused on their elite setters and pointers.

Tess did better that day retrieving from a big pond. She hit the water hard and swam fast toward the bumper. She went straight out, grabbed it, and paddled back. “She’s a game little thing,” an older man said. She was—Tess was game. Whatever else she was or wasn’t, from her unknown lineage in backwoods Georgia to my inept training in suburban Florida, I took those words as truth. Some people were criticizing trial dogs for having such high energy and strong prey drive that they lacked an “off switch”—too hyper and hard-headed. Tess seemed okay—my love for her prevented my fretting much on that score—though she’d whip around excitedly, examining faces for clues a fetch session was in the offing. Even inside, she ran instead of ambled; trained not to jump on people, she’d ram them when enthused. “Purebred dogs are hyper like that,” David Bailey, my friend and coworker at the Cocoa newspaper, observed one evening about Tess. She’s not, I almost cried. She’s a field trial dog! I felt a lonely, confusing distress, especially since a cruel consensus had apparently formed: my wife gasped out in response, leaning forward while shaking her head and waving her hands in helpless mirth, “She’s dumb.”

Later, preparing to leave together for my fellowship in Ohio, my wife and I were also clearly breaking up. “Maybe we should have a baby,” she said. In a confused last-ditch way, she’d been trying harder to connect. “God no,” I said. “That’d be a disaster.” I’d married her only because she’d wanted to, the first woman who had wanted me permanently. I didn’t ask myself whether I wanted her forever. Or, honestly, at all. Looking back, I never knew her. A middle child too, she didn’t speak of her childhood either—except to mention that, as an infant, she’d stared silently for so long at her parents they’d had a doctor examine her. Her parents had come to our house shortly before our wedding, traveling from Texas to meet me and my parents. Her father, a corporate executive with a beet-red face from high blood pressure, told me that a reporter from the Wall Street Journal had showed up to cover a colleague’s retirement unshaven and wearing a tee shirt. I could hear Tess breathing hard against the door of our bedroom, where I’d sequestered her, and I thought, At least they covered his damn retirement. Her mother said almost nothing but—wordlessly staring herself—seemed both distant and overbearing. “She’s a real bitch,” Mom said later, giving me a piercing look. After they left, my wife told me they’d vetoed our notion of getting married outdoors at my parents’ nursery.

I have no photographs of that long-ago wife, but I possess one she probably took of me and Tess at the field trial, sitting beside each other on the pond’s bank, waiting our turn. Just before I sent her on her scored water retrieve, we’re intently focused. She’s on my left and sitting staunchly. Just in case, I’m holding her red collar. Her chest juts forward and her entire bowed body radiates energy. So does mine. We look out as one, our heads thrust toward the water, thick as thieves, tight as ticks, a team. Buddies. Partners.

~

Before she died, Mom let it slip that my first wife used to filch cash from Dad’s wallet. When she told me, my father long dead, I felt shame for what she and Dad had discovered—shame compounded by my assumption Mom had informed my sister back then. She hadn’t, Meg told me. Thankfully I’d usually gone to their nursery just with Tess. I’d trained her to find birds there with homing pigeons I’d borrowed from their neighbor, my friend Joe.

Mom loved Joe too, and Dad was jealous of our relationship with him. One evening before I left for Ohio, Dad frowned when I defended Joe’s dog he’d accused of chasing his ducks. Joe also kept ducks and chickens, so I considered it unlikely his dog killed poultry. I’ve since revised my opinion, having learned how situational a dog’s behavior can be. Anyway, Dad’s dismissive response addressed something else. Apparently repeating a saying, which I’d never heard but instantly got—and just as instantly resented—he said, apropos of my defense of my friend’s dog, “Love me, love my dog.”

Isn’t that really the issue here? Isn’t it always? Isn’t any story, told long enough, about love or a cry for love? Kathy was right, animals saved me. They gave beauty, emotional comfort, and a bridge into human relationships long before I realized the depth of my shame or blamed it on Mom. Before I realized that she’d been repeating her own mother’s example. Before I factored in my distant father’s effect on both of us. Before I’d made some of Mom’s mistakes as a parent myself, and added my own. Before I’d learned that I cannot separate my insecurity from my intrinsic nature. So lately, when I recall their silence, when I grieve what now seems my loneliness within that lonely family around the TV—surely not as forlorn as in my memory, but  awfully quiet—I try to see that my parents were doing the best they could amidst their own suffering. “They talk about ‘dysfunctional’ families,” Mom once protested, out of the blue, during the go-big 1980s. “Every family is dysfunctional.” Which goes too far, unless Mom meant that no one gets exactly what she needs. But it’s true we existed in the broad flood plain between Happy Hills and Raging River. You hiked out early, if you had sense.

At the late start of my expedition, Mom gave me a dog. Tess, the best birthday gift a mother ever gave her son, was love.

Two Poems

Chard deNiord

How It Went, My Heart

In steps at your command
down the plank of a tall
fast ship with the salt
of sex across its lips.
In whispers, too, to the Captain—
Poor Captain—so swayed
by looks he went along
to the end with blindfold on
and toes curled round
the board. “Recreant,”
you said, and so it was—
all muscle and nerve like a bird
in the wind. As for its ghost,
it bled like a body slashed
at the throat by a single word.

 

where and how the blood was made

Her son’s dreadful bodies, buried by that mass, drenched the Earth
with streams of blood, and they say she warmed it to new life,
so that a trace of her children might remain, transforming it into
the shape of human beings. But these progeny also despising the
gods were savage, violent, and eager for slaughter, so that you might
know they were born of blood.
–Ovid

In a sea beneath a sea without a name
where waters gathered to a clarity
that was also sorrow. There, in the darkness
that thickened in a dream at the center
of nothing, a scarlet serum formed
with hypostatic stuff in the centrifuge
of gelid currents that flowed in time
with the moon, the moon, back and forth,
until the mere idea of things themselves
suggested bodies and they were formed
as germs at first before becoming flies
and worms and flesh, never mind the eons
that turned to seconds in retrospect
inside the heads of those whose brains
were seeds for minds, whose thoughts
progressed in a garden where innocence
died and beauty was born; salt sorrow
red lust   stars betrayal   difference depth
grief violence   awe trust   charge order
rage dust   chaos sky   fear gush
life stain   sea death   flooded their hearts
that hardened to stone at the taste of it.

 

Art by Daniel Toby Gonzalez

Vermont Poet Laureate, Chard deNiord earned a BA in religious studies from Lynchburg College, a Masters of Divinity from Yale Divinity School, and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His latest collection, AT THE SLEEP CLINIC, will be published in 2020.

 

Tilt-A-Whirl
by Rachel Furey

Overall First Place, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Winner 2015 Katherine Paterson Prize

It’s just you in the Tilt-A-Whirl cart until Jimmy Miller slips in beside you. He reeks of cigarette smoke, and you want to grind an elbow into his stomach and tell him to find another cart. But the handlebar clicks shut and the ride starts up and Jimmy’s sitting there beside you smiling underneath his baseball cap, his camo pants brushing against your basketball shorts.

On a different day, this might be a good thing. He’s one of the few guys in school as tall as you. You respect that he doesn’t try too hard, that his hair is messy, that he’s almost always wearing camo pants, not giving a shit that some people call him Camo. He’s an expert shot—always brings down a deer on the first day of the season. You appreciate that kind of efficiency.

But you came here to be alone—came because all that spinning is your way of slowing down the swirl of thoughts in your head. Your cart hasn’t started moving yet, and Jimmy reaches over and places a hand on your knee. His palm is hot, damp, and it stings your floor-burned knee. You push his hand off.

Your cart teeters back and forth, then takes its first full spin. Your body presses into the back of the cart. Jimmy pushes his hands into his pockets and stares at you as if to say, See, now I have my hands contained. Your knees are no longer in danger. Most guys wouldn’t dare to sit beside you. Most guys think you are more guy than girl.

You’re about to tell him his hands don’t have to stay in his pockets—they just have to stay away from you—when your cart turns again. More slowly this time. It doesn’t seem fair. The cart beside yours is spinning like crazy. You catch flashes of three middle school girls in jean shorts and tank tops. They squeeze the handlebar and laugh so hard one of them has spit running down her chin. You used to laugh on this ride. In fact, you probably laughed the last time you were on it.

“What the fuck is wrong with our cart,” you say to Jimmy. He stares at you hard, like he’s looking at you through the sight in his rifle. He has hazel eyes. You never noticed that before.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” he asks.

You squeeze the handlebar. It’s sticky and you wonder what pudgy, popsicle-eating kid sat there before you. You want to be that kid. Ten again. Not six feet tall. Not a licensed, driving adult.

“My dog died,” you say. You time the words just right. Your cart makes its biggest turn yet, and he can’t say a word.

You stare down at your hands. There’s a spot of blood on your thumbnail that you missed when washing your hands. You found it when drying and couldn’t soap again. It seemed fitting that you couldn’t wash all of her away—that a part of Assassin would remain on you. She’d earned her name by hunting groundhogs as a puppy. Even when she was the same size as them, she could kill a couple every week. At the time you were seven and also loved that the word ass was in Assassin twice.

“What kind of dog,” Jimmy asks.

“I’d have to show you a picture,” you say. You had one of those mutts that was part everything. Long ears and short tail. Black, brown, gray, and white hair. Short in some places, long in others. You used to get a kick out of going down to the dog park and telling people Assassin was sixty percent St. Bernard or thirty percent greyhound despite the fact the dog was about two feet tall. You had the swagger to make people believe just about anything.

Your cart spins again. Hard. Three times in a row. You close your eyes. This is what you came for. This moment when your body is one with the seat. You thought this motion might make you forget the morning. But you can still feel Assassin’s warm, wet fur in your palms. You squeeze the handlebar more tightly and her fur is still there.

Your cart slows and you wait for another hard turn, but the ride is slowing altogether. If Jimmy weren’t sitting beside you, you’d curse at the ride operator—tell him to go for another round. Instead, you scoot farther from Jimmy. As soon as the ride stops, you crank open the handlebar and scuttle out.

Jimmy follows you. “Hey,” he says. “Can I get you something to eat?”

You almost tell him to fuck off, then you remember that he is not seeing the same images you have been seeing for the past hour. He wasn’t there on your road to see Assassin’s head turned at an angle so horrific that you had to sit on the pavement a minute before crawling forward. He didn’t pick the dog up and hold her in his arms, didn’t press his neck against the wet snout, hoping to feel a pant of warm air again his skin. He didn’t stand in the backyard with the dog in his arms, its dampness transferring to his T-shirt, while he decided where to bury her.

You hadn’t buried Assassin. Not yet. You needed to ride the Tilt-A-Whirl first. You’d merely picked out the spot, which you believed to be beside the Barbie doll your Aunt Evelyn gave you for your eighth birthday. Barbie was tall like you, but there were no other striking resemblances. With your dad’s power sander, you sanded off her breasts. Then you dissembled her, limb by limb. You took her parts to school in a paper bag—a decision that earned you a week of after-school detention and an order from your dad to either put the doll back together or throw her away. Instead, you buried her. Assassin once dug Barbie up and you had to bury her once more, deeper.

“I’m not hungry,” you tell Jimmy.

“We could ride the train,” he says.

“You mean the dinky kid train?”

“Yep.” He takes a step closer to you. He pulls his hands out of his pockets and keeps them at his sides. “When my little brother gets upset, I take him on the train. It’s calming.”

“Do I look like a little kid to you?”

He shakes his head. “Just a suggestion. That’s all.” He turns like he might leave.

“Fine,” you say.

There’s not a line for the train. That’s one upside to a boring ride. The two of you climb into one of the front cars. They’re made for kids and your knees press against the warm metal. Your floor burn stings again. The kids are slow to load because they’re yammering about the snow cone man being out of watermelon and Mom only allowing one bag of cotton candy. You shift in the tiny seat, eager to be in motion again. Jimmy taps his fingers against his knees. He looks at you, and you think he might say something, but he doesn’t.

Finally, the train starts up. It rattles on the tracks, and vibrations shoot up your feet. The driver pulls a cord, activating an annoying horn that the children cheer for and Jimmy laughs at. The horn blows one more time and you’re back in that scene from an hour ago, the garbage truck blowing its horn. Once. Twice. Three times. You got up off the couch on the third and ran outside to find Assassin.

Your basketball shorts don’t have pockets in them. You wish they did because you don’t know what to do with your hands. The train doesn’t have a handlebar like the Tilt-A-Whirl. You squeeze your fingers into fists and let them bounce up and down on your thighs. You glance up ahead. Gray squirrels are playing chicken with the train. Darting back and forth across the track, their furry tails flitting up and down. On a different day, this might be funny. On a different day, you might root for the train to clip one. Today, you pound your fists into your thighs harder.

The train clatters along, then hits a tunnel. It’s cool and dark and you let yourself go for a moment. You stop pounding your thighs. You relax your face. You take a deep breath, and on the release, you feel something catch in your throat. In the movies people cry one tear at a time, but when the train comes out from under the tunnel and back into bright sun again, your face is wet. You tilt your head away from Jimmy and stare at the grassy hill to your left.

Jimmy does the nicest thing he can. He takes off his baseball cap and places it on your head. He punches the bill down low and then gives you a minute.

You wipe your face. You hold your elbows out to your sides in a way that suggests strength. “It’s my fault,” you say. “I let the dog out. I forgot it was garbage day. The garbage truck was her favorite.” She’d pace up and down the road for an hour after it had gone through, her nose pressed to pavement as if she could absorb each of the smells.

“Okay,” he says. One word. That’s it.

You ease the bill of the hat up and look at him. He meets your glance. “I flipped the trash man off like it was his fault,” you say, “but it wasn’t.”

“To be fair,” Jimmy says, “it was partially his fault. And partially the dog’s fault.”

You shake your head. “No, it wasn’t Assassin’s fault.”

“Wow.” He gazes out into the park. “That’s one hell of a name.”

You want to tell him the part about the word ass being in there twice, but it feels silly now.

He reaches for your knee, then remembers and pulls his hand back. “According to my brother, all dogs go to heaven.”

“Please,” you say, “no clichés.”

“Sure.”

You glance up ahead. Squirrels are still scrambling over the tracks. “This isn’t really a calming ride,” you say.

“Sorry. It was either this or the dunk tank.”

You’re not sure if he’s joking. Maybe you could go for a dip in the dunk tank. All that cold water. A moment without air.

The squirrels are still playing chicken. You swear one had its tail nipped by the train. You can’t watch anymore. You scoot toward the edge of the seat, then you tilt to the side and let yourself fall. You thud against grass, the fall not as hard or satisfying as you expected. But you are on a hill. You let gravity take you. Let yourself roll. Let yourself be ten again, the world circling around you the way you wanted it to on the Tilt-A-Whirl. It’s all warm grass and soft dirt.

Until a chip bag rustles under your thigh. A rock under your hip. Geese shit against your forearm. You pull your arms away from your sides to slow yourself down. The park and the hill and the train are all spinning, but you can make out Jimmy rolling toward you. You reach a hand toward him. You want him to be the one to stop the spinning.

Letter to my Son Jacob on his 5th Birthday

Mimi Lemay

 

 

Mimi 1

 

It was a frigid New England February day, much like this one, when we were first introduced. Of course, I imagined that I knew something about you beforehand, by the way you moved and kicked and somersaulted in my belly — by your satisfied silences and painful protests. The only ‘real information’ I had was that you appeared to be healthy, and that you were a girl.

I prepared your sister and our home for your advent: Another crib with attractive floral bedding, matching dresses, spring bonnets in duplicate and coordinating bathing suits for the summer. Your dad protested all this unnecessary expenditure, but I slyly reasoned that birthdays a half year apart meant that hand-me-downs would be seasonably unsuited. And so I dreamed, and I clicked, and adorable and trendy confections in pink and purple and mint and magenta arrived at our doorstep. It was folly but it was fun.

When we finally met you were momentarily silent. You took a pause to adjust to your surroundings before announcing your presence as I anxiously strained the only autonomously movable part of my body, my neck, to catch a glimpse of you around the blue curtain where the surgeon had extracted you from my womb. The surgery had been painful, the anesthetic insufficient, but all that was forgotten as every fiber of my being was focused on your unseeable presence. And then I heard you. You didn’t whimper, you didn’t cry, you didn’t squall. You ROARED: “Here I am!” Soon after, as you lay swaddled near my head in a white towel with pink and blue stripes, I was able to gaze into your eyes through a happy haze and introduce myself in return.

“Hello Princess,” I said, “I’m your Mama.”

Mimi 2

Your dad often recounts the moment he held you first. Your hearty, solid body, your pumping fists and legs and the surprised thought, “This one is a different model,”comparing you to your dainty sister. In the weeks after, we would share all the funny and not so funny moments with our friends: the attempted VBAC, the insuing complications and that hilarious moment when the anesthesiologist, from her poor vantage point at the head of the gurney called out, “It’s a boy!” Hilarious, because you were not, most definitely not, a boy.

What you most definitely were was a spirited little thing. As you grew, you had a way of fearlessly barreling around and into things that earned you the nickname “honey badger.” For mild plagiocephaly (flat head), you wore a bright pink football helmet for several months before your first birthday. We assigned your audacity to the fact that the helmet protected you from the consequences of most of your escapades.

mimi 3

 

Mimi 4

You had a curiously deep voice and a blithely cheerful personality. As our second child, you benefited from the benign inattention of more relaxed parenting. However, despite its charms, your ‘knock about-edness’ began to concern us as time went on. You lacked coordination, constantly falling off and into things, sometimes seeming to deliberately throw yourself into the couch or floor. We contacted our local Early Intervention specialists and after a lengthy assessment you received services for Sensory Perception Disorder, a minor hiccup in an otherwise pristine medical record.

When your baby sister came along you were still in diapers. You welcomed her with generosity, with no significant jealousy or displacement. You three were so close, so affectionate to each other. Our family was complete. Three healthy, bright, beautiful girls: we had spun the wheel of fortune and won the jackpot. There were no clouds on the horizon and the sun shone in perpetuity. Of course I exaggerate. There were tussles and tiffs, bumps and bruises, reflux and influenza, terrible twos and tormentuous threes. But for the most part, I was grateful beyond measure that our lives were so lovely, so ordinarily good. I enjoyed posting pictures of my darling daughters, now dressed in triplicate, to Facebook, and I reveled in the compliments we received.

Mimi 5

 

As you crested the middle of your second year you developed a curious habit, a persistent routine. You started to change your clothes repeatedly, maybe 10–12 times throughout the day. I reacted with both annoyance and mounting concern. Your pile of sartorial rejects meant exponentially more laundry. Goodbye matching dresses. My concern was that your habit was tinged with compulsion. When you woke up crying at 2am one night begging to be allowed to change into a new outfit, I called your pediatrician. Since you did not display other signs of compulsiveness we associated your desire to change with your general sensory seeking behavior. You were changing clothes in order to feel the fabrics rub against your skin. Children with a sensory deficit often seek sensations because they do not experience them to the full extent that the rest of us do in the ordinary course of our day.

This theory held water for only so long, for soon after you started preschool at 2.9 years, you became attached to one particular garment — a short-sleeved cornflower blue turtleneck sweater with a brown dog on the front which you wore for the next six months with few exceptions. You wore your ‘doggy sweater,’ day and sometimes, if you won the battle, night. You wore it over your tutu to ballet class, and over your holiday dress to see Santa at the mall. I ordered several more on eBay. Again, I cursed silently as I increased the frequency of my laundry to accommodate your needs. Since the weather was chilly we had a temporary reprieve from having to figure out how the doggy sweater would work on top of swimwear. I decided to fight that battle come spring. But by the time spring arrived our struggles over the doggy sweater would seem trivial compared to something new and far more alarming.

Mimi 6

 

Mimi 7

 

In the interim between the advent of the doggy sweater and your third birthday you set a stake in the ground and declared yourself a boy. At first we bantered with the word “pretend.” We explained, and you acknowledged, that you were pretending to be a boy. At preschool you tentatively assigned yourself to the male faction of the class and you were told that you were pretending, and that pretending was fine as long as it didn’t interfere with the workings of the school day. When I was told that you were told that you were pretending, I nodded and acquiesced. It made sense. This new thing was foreign and it was troublesome and above all, it seemed unhealthy. Another obsession. Another whim.

Whim or not, our home soon became a battleground over gender with you constantly pulling me, your dad and your older sister into unwilling skirmishes. You would glare at us with your huge defiant brown eyes and say, “I AM A BOY,” and I, a great believer in the principle of the inverse proportionality of parental disapproval to a child’s sedition gave little protest. I would sigh: “That’s fine sweetheart. You can be what you want to be in our home.”

I kept your sister off your back when she protested your apparent disregard for basic biology (which we explained to you). We started to have discussions about the narrow-mindedness of gender expectations: pink and blue, dolls and trains. We assumed that you were stating a preference for things un-girly. We couldn’t comprehend that you could even conceive of what gender was when you had barely begun preschool. So we told you to go ahead and wear boy clothes, and that gray was a perfectly acceptable favorite color for a three year old girl, and that yes, if it was important to you, we would call you Jackson, or Max or Jake or whatever the nom du jour was.

Mimi 8

Mimi 9

 

You never asked us to call you anything but Mia, your birth name, in the public arena. But our soothing acceptance never seemed to be enough. You became watchful and guarded at school and in public. At home, there were many occasions that you let go, hitting, kicking and punching, wailing and screaming: “Don’t talk to me!” “Get away from me,” and frequently, “You ruin everything!” Your anger seemed atypical, in excess of the ordinary emotional vicissitudes of being three.

You had always been jolly and loving as an infant but now I was the only one you would kiss and hug — you frequently exploded if anyone else tried to show you affection. Sometimes, even with me, if I casually brushed your hair with my hand or gave you an unsolicited hug you would recoil and bark angrily at me. And that was another thing — your new, quite unsociable habit of pretending you were a dog when people addressed you. You would lope around in a circle, as if chasing an invisible tail, tongue hanging out, “Aarf! Aarrrf!!” leaving us to explain your odd behaviors. To be fair, we had many peaceful moments and it wasn’t all bad. Sometimes you relaxed and your beautiful happy nature shone through. Those moments were a blessing, a dream — and I cherished every one, bracing for the next upset.

I knew that being ‘as a boy’ was important to you. I knew little of the word “transsexual.” I had first encountered it as a young adult, riveted to the dark thriller Silence of the Lambs, in which the antagonist, “Buffalo Bill,” skinned his victims in order to create for himself a ‘woman’ body suit. I was aware that there was a newer term — transgender — and that, in my way of thinking at the time, younger people could be ‘afflicted’ with this too. It was weird, it was beyond the pale, it was, to my current shame, slightly grotesque. I did not truly believe that it applied to my beautiful, round-faced, bright-eyed, innocent preschooler.

But then one day in the late fall of your third year I attended a routine parent teacher conference. Your teacher expressed her concern in hesitant tones: “You know, Mrs. Lemay, has it ever occurred to you, is it possible — that Mia may actually believe she is a boy?” You had just learned how to write your name, all jumbled letters and fat precious pen strokes. We were so proud of you. You however, did not share our pride. Apparently, when required to write your name you would comply, but then immediately cross it out. This obliteration of the marker of your given identity spoke volumes about how you perceived or rather, refused to perceive yourself.

Reality, which had been hovering just out of conscious reach, struck. My stomach churned. I tasted the ash in my mouth (I never understood that expression before). Tears stung as they welled up in my eyes. I tried to stem the flow out of embarrassment, wiping my eyes and nose on my sleeve, standing in the middle of the bare auditorium, no box of tissues in sight. Not my little girl. Not happening. Please wake up.

I stumbled through the next days in a painful haze. We were a few weeks shy of winter break and I reached out to a friend of ours, a therapist who had worked with at-risk LGBTQ youth. As we stood doling out cheddar cheese bunnies and pretzels to our raucous offspring on a play date she confirmed my fears — we should consider that you might be transgender.

I pressed her to tell me what that meant. Not the dictionary definition, but what the implications were: to your future, to your physical and mental well-being and to our family. I heard words like “outcomes” and “high-risk” and “medical intervention” and statistics like “over 40% attempted suicide,” and my world started to unravel. She tried to temper these dark things with words of encouragement and moral support, however it was impossible to process any further. The blood was rushing too strongly in my head as my heart was being carried downstream with the vestiges of my fantasy of a wonderful life for you.

I freely write about the negative emotions that the possibility of your transgender nature evoked with regret, but no shame. By now, you know how proud I am of you, how happy I am to be your mother, and how I perceive your unique nature as a precious if puzzling gift. At the time though, it was a devastating blow.

I began to grieve, waking up in the early morning hours biting my pillow to silence the sobs, my sheets bathed in the stink of bad dreams. I was losing you, my precious daughter. You were in the room next to me in peaceful childhood slumber, but you were most assuredly slipping from my grasp, hurtling into a void of social rejection, physical mutilation and suicidal depression. I felt helpless. I began, as many parents do when faced with a child that has unique needs, to ask, “What is the treatment?” by which I meant: What is the cure.

I called the Gender Management Clinic at Boston Children’s Hospital, and although you were too young for the program they referred me to a therapist who had experience with transgender youth. She was not covered by our insurance at the time but was willing to speak with me at length on the phone. She advised me that many children — up to 70–80%, who present as gender-non-conforming (running the gamut from tomboy/effeminate to truly transgender) revert to their assigned, or ‘born’ gender upon reaching puberty. Oh phew. What a relief. “Keep things fluid,” she further advised, “Try not to box your daughter into making a choice either way. Just show support.” All good advice and I was temporarily buoyed by the hopeful news. To my desperately seeking ears, this meant you might well be going through a phase. How wonderful.

And so we left things. You asked to cut your hair and we gave you a sweet pixie cut. Keep it fluid. It was all about compromise those days. Slowing your inexorable march toward all things boy. For your dance recital, your instructor graciously allowed you to wear a tux with a bright pink bow-tie and cummerbund to match the sequined tutus your classmates wore. Your wardrobe was by this time mostly boy clothes. I say mostly, because I snuck in girl clothes in dark colors…they had tiny embellishments, embroidered hearts and bows that reminded me that one day, you could be my little girl again. In my eyes, they also served to ward off the questions I imagined I would have to answer about your appearance to those who knew you as a girl.

Mimi 10

 

For a while you tolerated this deceit, but you soon became quite canny at the subtleties of gendered clothing. You would reject the white Peter Pan collar in favor of the crisp button-down. A-line shirts and ruched sleeves disappeared from your drawers, along with velour and Lycra. Hanukkah and Christmas came and went and you received superhero action figures and matchbox cars from us and your wonderfully perceptive Grammy and purple pajamas and pink pencil sets from well-meaning loved ones who didn’t understand the extent of your preferences. You jumped for joy with the one and wrathfully rejected the other. Even I still clung to the belief that if you could only see the gray areas between the pink and blue you might find yourself at home somewhere in between. Hence the Katniss Everdeen doll that made its way into your heap of Christmas loot. I still recall your look of utter disdain.

Mimi 11

 

It was soon February again and we celebrated your fourth birthday. And you grew taller, wiser and accomplished many things. Over the winter break I had tentatively broached the topic: Would you be happier with a boyish/unisex name at school? You categorically refused. Your answer gave me a covert thrill of hope. I dared to dream that you were not fully committed to being a boy, and that you would be one of the preponderance of kids who ‘figured it out’ because their parents didn’t make a huge deal out of it. For use at home, you settled with us on a name which sounded similar to your given name in order to avoid the confusion of the daily merry go round of arbitrary boy names. We urged you, and you accepted the name Mica.

It was your dad who came up with a brilliant scheme — when you went to school, you could add an apostrophe, a little sickle on top of the “I” in Mia that would stand in for a letter “C.” This would mean you were writing Mica, not Mia and therefore you needn’t cross it out. We all giggled at the subterfuge and it was enough, for a while.

But I knew in my mother’s heart that you were not truly happy. Not like your sisters. Not like the unburdened joy that I thought you ought to have felt coming from a warm loving home with plenty of affection, positive experiences and toys galore. There was an un-childlike, persistent sadness that lay about you like a pall in those years which should have been so magical.

Mimi 12

 

You see, I believe that what had happened while I was wasting my energy hoping that you would make peace with your biology was that we had become unwitting contributors to your fracture into two different people: “Mica” and “Mia.” Home and school. Boy and girl. Unguarded and guarded. Open and shut. Reality (yours) and role-play (ours).

On the home front things were most certainly getting ‘better,’ or should I say, ‘easier?’ Your tantrums subsided as we managed to convince you that we were truly OK with you being a boy and that we believed that what you felt about your identity and your expression of it was your choice. Your sister had become a huge support in this regard. Not many five-year-olds could act with the grace and compassion that she did (and still does). She stopped teasing you about not being a ‘real boy’ and accepted our mantra that “what you are in your heart and your mind is far more important than what you are in your body.” The hard knot of your anger started to dissolve. We all basked in this momentary detente.

In the early spring of your fourth year we went on a glorious trip to Disney World where you were the only kid we saw in a Prince Charming costume. You glowed when strangers stopped and remarked, “Isn’t he adorable!!” and “What a handsome little man!” and we didn’t correct people, because we knew how much you enjoyed being ‘mistaken’ for a boy. The status quo was an OK place to be.

Mimi 13

 

But back at school, activities and in our community at large you remained markedly withdrawn. Our reports from your teachers were that, if prompted, you joined in group activities. You rarely, if ever, engaged your peers in free play. The day you hugged your teacher for the first time brought her to tears. I believe you occupied a special place in her heart and that she felt protective of you. I am so grateful for the good people in our lives.

Despite the fact that you were beginning to relax in the classroom, you continued to erect walls between yourself and others. The barking and loping persisted, and always there was the hood that would come over your eyes that said: shutting down now. In my ignorance I even wondered at times whether you were touched by a mild form of autism, but it seemed incongruent that this behavior turned on and off as if by a switch.

It was that playdate at Papa Ginos that shuttled me right over the edge from keeping it fluid to the time is now. To be truthful there were many small fissures forming in the Theory of Status Quo as I have now come to see it. There was your tearful sister begging me to force you into a dress so that “people will treat her nicer.” There was the sweet little girl at a birthday party that asked me about you: “What is that? Is that a BOY or is that a GIRL?” There were the burgeoning signs of dysphoria (“What’s wrong with my body? Why did God make me like this? Is he stupid?”).

But what finally broke me from my unhappy trance was nothing more complicated than a post-last day of school pizza party where I got a chance to see you interact with your classmates outside of a structured setting. Everyone was there, the boys, the girls, and most of the moms. You sat down at the edge of a gaggle of girls and tucked into your slice. No one jostled you in friendly banter, no one yelled, “Come on Mia! Let’s run to the end of the restaurant and back!” The happy little bodies were in constant locomotion, stepping around you and over you as you sat staring at your pizza. Then you looked up at a group of boys being disciplined by their frustrated moms for running amok, “Sit down Jack! Behave Grady!” and the expression on your face skewered me. It was a hunger that I had never seen before. You weren’t confused. You knew where you belonged. You just didn’t know how to get there. What if it was I who was responsible for showing you the way?

School was officially out for the year. You were signed up for the next year. Another year, deposit down, of living two lives. Open-shut, boy-girl. I watched you carefully during the next week while you enjoyed a camp run at your preschool, and I thought and I weighed, and I deliberated and I doubted until a million possible futures nearly drove me to distraction. What if? Your dad and I talked long into the evenings after you had gone to bed and in the mornings before we emerged from ours. A video had gone viral in the weeks before. A slideshow of a transgender boy, not much older than you, whose loving California family had supported his public transition. We wondered if seeing the pictures of this boy who was so obviously happy in his ‘new skin’ could make you believe in the possibility of your own fulfillment.

It was Friday, June 13, in the evening after your last day of preschool camp when we called you upstairs into your Dad’s office. We told you we had something for you to see and so you sat, engulfed in your dad’s big black swivel chair as he cued the video on his laptop. I translated the words into ‘kidspeak’ as they began to flit across the screen, accompanied by wonderful, endearing pictures. You viewed intently and solemnly as young Ryland Whittington was transformed from a beautiful little girl with golden locks into a handsome smiling boy in a buzz-cut and tuxedo. When the video ended you asked to watch it again. Then you sat staring at your hands. We asked you what you thought about the boy and you shrugged, stone-faced. The walls you had erected were made of hardier stuff than we expected. But the moment was now. All three of us in this room, your palpable pain, the resolution we needed to help you find.

So I got down on my knees and took your soft, still baby-like little hands in mine. I asked you to look at me but when you lifted your beautiful gaze to mine, I was momentarily speechless. I rallied: “I believe you,” I said and I didn’t bother to wipe the tears with my sleeve this time. “We believe you. All we want is for you to be happy, but you need to help us understand what will make you happy.” Your dad knelt down next to you too. “Do you want to be a boy all the time like that boy we showed you?” he asked gently. Your eyes filled immediately. “I can’t,” you responded with a quivering lip. “I HAVE to be Mia at school and Mica at home.”

So we told you. We told you about the choices, any of which you could make — or not. We told you that these choices were yours. Among which, you could continue at your school as Mia. Or, you could go there next year with any new identity and finally, more radical yet, we could find you somewhere to start anew, to simply be the boy you had insisted for so long that you were. You paused a long while. I didn’t know if you could do it. I didn’t know if you had the faith in us to tell us what you truly wanted. I didn’t know if you could imagine a future where you were whole — one identity: body and mind. You broke the silence. “I want to go to a new school. I want to be a boy always. I want to be a boy named Jacob.”
Mimi 14

 

Mimi 15

 

Jacob, my love. It’s been nine months and change since that fateful Friday and so much has transpired to make us believe that the journey we are taking together is the one we need to be on. It’s been tough, make no mistake, and solving your more immediate identity crisis did not resolve all the latent feelings of shame and sadness that you have suffered. But the powerful effect of your transformation was almost immediately felt by all who knew you and loved you.

Within days of beginning life anew as Jacob you began to stand up straight and look people in the eye. You stopped barking like a dog and running for cover. In allowing your transition, we were only hoping to help your spirit survive. We did not expect the seismic shift in your personality that we experienced. You cracked your first real joke within a week, took a fresh interest in learning your alphabet (ironic since school was out) and so much more. You started to cuddle and kiss, laugh and sing —and the dam just broke. You talked and talked and talked as if someone had taken a muzzle off your mouth. You took up hobbies, collecting anything and everything you found that piqued your interest (mostly detritus: scraps, stones and screws you picked off the street to my chagrin). That summer, the world opened up its treasures to you.

Your dad and I were astounded, delighted and profoundly gratified. These positive experiences were crucial for us, because those early days were laden with fear. We were always double, triple, quadruple guessing our decisions, approaching each “re-introduction” with trepidation. It all seemed so fragile. We fretted: Who would break your trust? Who would clip your wings? Who would sneer or giggle or laugh, sending you running back for cover? But you were strong, not fragile. You were brave, not weak.

Together we weathered the firsts. The first time we wrote your name — yours, a triumphant experience, mine, accompanied by a floodgate of tears. The first time I asked someone to call you Jacob, and finally, the first time that you did. Your first Christmas acknowledged as a boy. You confessed afterward that you had half expected Santa would forget and bring you Mia’s presents. Oh baby. The first public announcement, followed by a deluge of love and support from beloved family and friends — their support carried us and continues to carry us. The first week of the new school (you were obsessed about the bathrooms for the longest time) and the first time we ran into someone from your old school (it was awkward, we survived).

Mimi 16

 

Mimi 17

 

Jacob, my love, it is you that have transitioned us to a life less ordinary, and so much more meaningful than it ever would have been. Thank you deeply for your sacred trust. The mystery that is you may never be amenable to a full resolution. I don’t know what’s beyond the next bend in the road but I am no longer afraid.

I believe in the goodness of people. And I believe in your ability to dispel much of the ignorance and intolerance in those you may encounter. I look at how fine a human being you are becoming— far beyond my meager original intentions — and I know that the future is bright for you. I am no longer afraid.

And it is because I no longer fear: the outcomes, the medical interventions, the bigotry, that I will not be filing this birthday letter in a box in our attic with those of earlier years. Rather, momentarily, I will set these words free — relinquishing my control over their trajectory and destination. Their intent is to provide comfort and strength to another mother or father with an aching heart. To provide the message: It doesn’t get better. It gets awesome.

For I have seen and wish to share remarkable things. In those early days as Jacob, I saw the most authentic parts, in the deepest reaches of you, begin to unfold. I saw you take your first huge breaths. I saw the clouds above your head scatter and run. At first there was a silence, as you paused to take in the new world around you, and then you roared: I AM HERE!! It was then that I realized that we had indeed met before, but that truly I had not recognized you that first time. It was then that my grief began to depart as I knew in my soul that you had always been my son, Jacob.

And so always, my love,

Mom

 

Art by Matt Monk

Mimi Lemay is an international advocate for transgender youth. She and her family meet regularly with legislators, business leaders, educators, and clergy to share their vision of a more equitable world. She is a member of the Parents for Transgender Equality National Council at Human Rights Campaign and holds a master’s in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University.