When to Say When

One day back in the spring, driving home from work, Carrie Underwood’s “Starts With Goodbye” came on shuffle on my phone. It’s an old song and I hadn’t listened to the words in years, but that day, I caught myself listening and really hearing the words.

“It’s sad but sometimes moving on with the rest of your life / starts with goodbye.”

And I couldn’t help but think how true they’d been already that year. How true they are for any big moment in life. Whenever you step forward into something new, you’re stepping away from something old.

For me, this year, that something new has been the journey into parenting. I don’t think enough people talk about that journey, unless theirs was riddled with infertility or miscarriage. And so as someone who couldn’t even take that first step forward, much as I saw the joys of raising a child, I felt alone over those few years I wrestled with the concept. I hadn’t tried and failed; I hadn’t even tried.

But last year, a chain events set off the push I needed to step forward.

Knowing when to say “when” is hard. And it doesn’t get easier with age or wisdom or hindsight. I’ve had a couple crossroads moments in my life and each of those decisions were hard for different reasons. But for the first time, last November I found myself experiencing an all new kind of “knowing when to say ‘when’.” My husband and I had to actively decide when it was time to say “when” regarding our dog’s health.

When someone you love is dying, in all the days and weeks leading up to the end, you never know it’s going to be the last time that memory will be happy. The last time you’ll see them healthy. Until, of course, it is. You expect one more glimpse of their old ways, one more relapse, one more good day.

With Grace, our dog, I’d been preparing to lose her almost since the day I met her. Over the years, I caught myself crying over the thought of losing her, even when she was at her most vibrant and healthy. She’d stand aloof wagging her tail while James reminded me that it wasn’t her time. Not yet.

I’d tell him I already loved her too much, that I was scared how much it’d hurt to lose her. Maybe that’s what those of us do who’ve suffered great losses. We brace ourselves for a pain we’ve felt a few times before. We know how bad it’s going to hurt when everything crashes down.

When she stopped eating everything, no matter what James laid out on the floor, she lost weight dramatically. We were so focused on keeping her alive at all costs that we couldn’t see we were heading straight for a cliff where we’d be forced to make a quick decision: put her to sleep peacefully or risk waking up to find her dead one day.

I was right, of course. Few other losses have hurt as bad as losing her. For a few months, I’d be carrying about my day and feel this unshakeable sadness creep up. And then, exactly 3 months later, thinking about how we wanted to become a family of three again, I got a FaceTime call.

When I answered it, my mother-in-law was sitting on the couch next to my sister-in-law, holding a baby. I knew my brother-in-law and sister-in-law, who’d been married a decade, were in the process of an adoption, but there was no “tell us when you have a baby,” so even they wouldn’t know if and when they’d become parents. And after years watching them walk through an incredibly long season of infertility, I couldn’t bring myself to process what I was seeing on screen. But that’s what it was. They’d been handed a baby boy, unbeknownst to them, hours earlier. They were at a friend’s house playing cards and eating snacks, the friends well aware of what was about to be a life-changing moment for them, when the adoption agent showed up with their little bundle of joy.

We drove across town that night to meet our new nephew. And as we walked into the friends’ bedroom and I saw that baby boy wrapped up tight, my throat closed. I was overcome with gratitude for their story. A story they’d almost given up on, I later learned.

I stood on the sidelines in awe as they called supervisors and put emergency plans in place. They had had classes to teach, meetings to attend, and medical procedures scheduled. All of it was turned upside down.

In the weeks that followed, I watched them learn the basics of caring for a baby: swaddling, feeding, calming him down. I helped screw the crib together. I brought over a container of homemade meatballs and pasta sauce. I asked how I could help. And I felt my heart open up to a goal I’d written down in my planner just a few months before.

I just kept thinking, “What am I worrying about? They had no time to prepare. We would have 9 months. They couldn’t bear to read baby books or websites beforehand. We could learn as much as we wanted. They hadn’t bought anything. We could build a registry and shop on our own, too.”

But my fear hadn’t been about any of that. It was about all the phases of pregnancy. About morning sickness and the risk of miscarriage and the pain of labor. It was about how tenderly you have to carry a baby through 9 months and hope everything goes just right so you get to hold him at the end.

Seeing them, I knew I’d never have complete reassurance about any of that. And I couldn’t help but feel guilty to worry when I was sitting in their family room, watching them like deer in headlights, learning how to keep their child alive from hour to hour. I knew that if I wanted to take the leap, the only thing standing in the way was myself. I’d never really be ready (who is?!) but I had people around me to help figure it out along the way. No matter what, we’d get through.

Here we are. Grace will be gone a year on November 16. And we still miss her fiercely. My throat’s closing up just thinking about it. But we are learning that without losing her, we might never push ourselves into this new season of three. Even though we ached to grow our family. We would’ve kept saying, “Not yet. Soon. Not yet. Soon.”

And why? We wouldn’t have had a good answer for that.

Now, we’re over halfway through the journey. And we’re filled with overwhelming gratitude to think about how close we are to meeting our son. And in the meantime, we’ll read as much as we want and take classes and prepare because we can. For that, my heart is full.

Goodbye Gracie Girl

On Friday afternoon, we said goodbye to our baby girl, Gracie.

When I first met my husband, I’d never had a dog, never wanted a dog, never understood what it was like to love a dog. I’d worked for not one, but two, pet companies. First, a veterinary specialty clinic where I spoke to owners who drove hours across the country for the absolute best orthopedic care for their pup. And then, for a dog daycare franchise’s home office, colocated with one of the daycare centers so I watched pet parents spend thousands of dollars a year because they couldn’t bear leaving their pup at home all day long. I knew in my heart how much people must love their dogs, but I couldn’t feel it myself.

Until about five years ago, working still at the daycare, when I first met Grace. When I walked into the kitchen, a few steps into the house, she started wagging her tail and peed all over the tile floor. In that one moment, I felt my heart soften.

After hours of watching other people with their own dogs, running into the daycare or the veterinary clinic, and still more time spent in the room with two surgical coordinators explaining next steps and estimates to our clients, shouldering the weight of many a desperate phone call about setbacks and pain, about side effects of medications, this moment finally did it. How can someone you’ve never met love you as soon as they lay eyes on you?

Jamie told me he’d been talking to Grace about me, saying how she was going to love me when she met me. I didn’t believe it. But then, I saw them together. And I watched them lay on his bed and he would. He would talk to her about me and say, “See, this is the girl I told you about.” And I realized he had. He had told her about me. She had been waiting for me and she knew, when I walked into that kitchen, that I was the girl he’d been talking about.

I hate that I have to write this in the past tense. I still want to talk about her like she’s right here, waiting at my feet because I’m sitting at the kitchen table so I must be eating, right? But she’s not.

She was a fighter. Her kidney levels first took a turn in July 2017, but she didn’t show it. Even in May, when the vet told us that she needed to go on a new diet, we didn’t believe it. The only signs were her constant need to go for a walk and her excessive thirst. Only a few weeks ago, after several failed diets and some weight loss because she was too stubborn to eat anything but her regular food and treats, did we switch her to a full-blown kidney disease treatment: pills, omega-3 supplements, kidney-specific food. And still, she wasn’t acting differently. And then, all of the sudden, she was. And there was no turning back.

I’m realizing now that unless you’ve ever lost a beloved pet, you won’t understand. I sure didn’t. But losing a pet is like a hundred micro heartbreaks every single day.

It’s the bad things you miss, even though you didn’t expect that you would. It’s expecting her to follow you into the basement to get the laundry, and having to coerce her to come bouncing back up the stairs with you. It’s expecting her to hop off the couch or clomp down the stairs when someone opens a takeout bag of Chipotle, or Chinese food, or Chick-fil-a, or anything really. It’s every thought you have that you’re used to saying out loud, like the phrases you’ve said a hundred times when she goes to nose open the bathroom trash cans, or hop up to get to the trash in the kitchen when you throw something away, or when she doesn’t want to come downstairs when it’s time for you to leave for work, or when you really need to pee before you can take her pee, right when you get home from work, so you tell her to go grab her leash. It’s expecting her to lick the dishes in the dishwasher. It’s not having to leave the light on when you go to get takeout on a Friday night. Or not having to worry about what time you get home. Or not having to put the gate on the stairs. Or wash a hundred rugs because she can’t walk on the wood floor without slipping and she can’t hold her bladder very long.

It’s the good things you miss too. Like the way she’d wait for you to give her a treat after a walk even if you already sat down in the other room, so she’d stand in the hallway staring at you, unwilling to move. Or the way she wiggles into the tinniest spots to sit next to you on the couch. Or the way she climbs over your computer keyboard when you’re trying to type. Or how she sprawls out on the bed like she owns the place. Or the way you joke that she’s well overdue on her rent payments. Or the way she wags her tail and stands on the sofa so she can see you the minute you get home from work. Or the way she always, always, always wants to play with her toys. The avocado and the two Santas and the snowman with no arms. Elmer the elephant she only got because you needed free shipping on an order for her veterinary diet. The slice of pizza bigger than her face. The many toys she tore to shreds within hours. But mostly, it’s the way she sat with you whenever you needed her, like somehow she knew, and maybe she did. Especially on those Sunday afternoons when you were alone for 8 hours, just you and her, while Jamie went to the Redskins games. She always drove you crazy wanting to walk every 30 minutes but you would’ve treasured that time a little more if you knew it would be gone so quickly.

I might’ve only gotten 5 of her 13 years, but every day my heart grew with her. They don’t make ’em all like Grace. She was something fierce, something special, someone you simply can’t replace. I don’t know that I could even try. I just hope she keeps showing up for us, in the smallest places, in the smallest ways.

A Man of Habit

My grandfather was a man of habit. He walked the same three miles every day. He always stopped at my aunt’s house to see his grandsons. He worked at the New York Shipping Association Pension Fund for 40 years. When he retired as Executive Director, he settled on a once-a-week transition. On Wednesdays, he took the train into Manhattan and rode the elevator up to his office in the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday. By all intents and purposes, he should’ve been at home that day. Maybe bouncing a baby on his lap or waving at the neighbors who knew him as Walking Joe. He shouldn’t have been in New York at all. But he switched his routine, and he went to work.

He walked home that day, soot-covered and forever shaken. It took him hours. He made it back, but he was never the same.

We started recounting the story with my brother-in-law recently, and I thought about how hard it must be to believe someone when they say, “You woulda loved him.” We inflate people we love when we eulogize them. The person you’re telling always thinks, “Yeah, yeah, sure they were great.” And you want to grab their shoulder, catch them right in the eye, and say, “No.” You want to say, “Sometimes, they aren’t. But this one? This one was great.”

It’s like wringing out a wet dish towel, trying to make it dry. You can twist and squeeze, twist and squeeze, but there will always be that little bit of water left, until you let it fall flat and dry on its own. Until you succumb to the reality that you might never be able to show them. Sometimes I think we try too hard to explain how much someone means, because we can’t bear but to try.

I think about his diehard love of the Mets. I try to imagine him at Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The way he never took off the shiny Mets varsity jacket. I think of the day he took me on the ferry to Shea. The weekends spent at the Poconos. The songs he sang us, made up and out of tune. How he could fall asleep standing up, leaning on the half-wall between the kitchen and family room. How he ate apples with a knife and brushed the salt off his sourdough pretzels. How he couldn’t swim so he’d stand in the shallow end of the pool with a baby in his arms.

I go back from time to time and read what I’ve written about my grandfather over the years. Because I can’t bear not to. Because the good parts, they deserve to be remembered. Because even though that day got the best of him, and he turned away from his family and lifelong friends until the day that he died, suddenly, we got the best of him first. For a time, we did.

I could run myself ragged thinking about the calendar. If September 11, 2001 had been a Monday or a Thursday or a Friday. Would he have met my husband? Would they have spent hours together, talking about everything and nothing? About the agony of postseason baseball. And the buzz of the stock exchange. And the comfort of a good book.

His story may never have a better ending. But the middle, the part I remember most, was just magic.

Set a goal. Cross it off. Set another.

When I was 15, I quit my first love—gymnastics. It was a decision that taught me so much about myself. I loved it, still do, but it was tearing me up mentally and giving myself the permission to quit meant giving myself permission to experience whatever life had in store and not put a big red FAILURE stamp on that chapter in my life.

I went on to run cross country and track. Something I didn’t know how to do. Something I had always hated. I was the 15-minute mile shrimp in elementary school. The girl who would’ve gotten the Presidential Fitness Award, or at least the National Fitness Award, if she didn’t get a big X in the mile every year. I could stretch and push up and sit up and pull up and all the things but running? No, not running.

And honestly, running felt like salt in the wound because I couldn’t play any other sports. I wasn’t any good at anything else. I had no hand eye coordination. I think it took me a month or two to see running as something to be admired. Something to push towards.

My dad spent hours with me at the local YMCA, in the months before school let out for the summer, training my breathing patterns and posture and arm movements, pushing me to round one lap of the indoor track without stopping to heave. He would stand at the corner of the track, pressed against the wall with a running watch, timing me, quietly propelling me to just keep going, one more step, that’s it.

Then we transitioned to running outside. My neighborhood had rolling hills and I remember thinking, “This is hard. This is nothing like the indoor track. You expect me to run 3 miles by August?” It was May and everything hurt. My calves. My quads. My lungs. I was a muscular 110 pounds and yet, I felt so heavy. Sluggish.

I started doing summer runs with the coach and some other girls and I remember the first time I ran 3 miles. It was mid-July, mid-morning, and I was coming around the corner down Walnut Street in Royersford, thumping down the uneven concrete sidewalk, trying to admire the houses I passed by. I had just stopped to walk a block when my coach came doubling back for me and pushed me to keep going, almost there. When I got to Lewis Road, the 7-11 on my left, I felt home free.

Running was never the plan. But those 3 last years of high school brought me so much joy, and so much appreciation for the limits of the human body. Set a goal. Cross it off. Set another.

A few people in my life are struggling with where to go next. They’re at crossroads, hoping they can just continue forward but realizing they can’t. And I want them to know that there is beauty in forcing yourself to set aside what you planned and follow the best path you see now, to push yourself into something you didn’t know you could love.

Lately, running has given me anxiety. Am I going to fast? What’s my heartbeat? Am I going to be okay? Can my body handle this?

When I was just 15, had never run more than a few hundred feet at a time, that was the last thing on my mind. I was just frustrated and tired and hot and out of breath. Our bodies are powerful. But so are our minds. They see us through. They know what we sometimes cannot know until we given in and trust. Let’s not forget that.