The night we met was not magical like you might expect. He was shy at first and nervous to come too close too soon. We had a lot to learn about each other. Our journey of doing so began the night we first locked eyes in a PetCo parking lot in Pasadena on a clear, crisp night in early December. He jumped into the car and came home with me as if he’d known me his whole life. I had no idea what I had gotten myself into in that moment when I heard him panting and exploring the cushy, camel-colored backseat of my old Nissan Altima. But the next morning when I forced my eyeballs open at the screech of my alarm, there he was with his big, black, beady bug- eyes staring back at me from beside my bedside table, his wrinkly face cocked to the side in an excitedly curious demeanor. When it registered to him that I was awake, he took a step toward me and sniffed my side of the bed as if deeming the area safe before invading too much more personal space of someone he’d just met ten hours prior. I sat up against my pillow which he interpreted as an invitation to pounce up to properly greet me. I’m not a morning person and am not capable of being wooed before my morning cup of Joe, but at the sight of his curly little tail wagging back and forth above his chunky hind-legs, I could not help but smile.
It’s real. I have a dog. And I think he likes me. I thought to myself.
I named him “Wallace,” because to me, he looked like a Wallace.
It became obvious a couple of days into his stay that he adored me. Wherever I went, he followed. Whatever I ate, he wanted to watch me eat. If I slept, he slept right beside me. If I was happy, so was he. And if I was sad, he was sad. He worshiped me. I was his everything.
But he’s a dog so that is to be expected. And him being a pug only made him more doting and demanding of both my undivided attention and affection. Unfortunately, I did not have that to give him all of the time. This became apparent to me after a few weeks passed and the novelty of having a pet pug had worn off and the reality of being a dog-owner set in. Poop on the carpet and peanut butter Girl Scout cookie induced vomit included. (It was my fault for leaving an opened box on the couch).
It became even more apparent when I had a bad day. As a woman living with PTSD from childhood trauma, a “bad day” is a lot more than a day when a few things go wrong. A bad day is tumbling down into a rabbit hole and feeling like I can see and feel nothing but the reality of my pain in the darkness that houses the despair and hopelessness that I try to hide from myself and the world. A bad day is believing that I am not worth more than what my thoughts tell me that I am and resenting everyone around me for having been dealt a better hand of cards. But more than anything, a bad day is being absorbed by my inner pain, the sort of pain that is best likened to laying on a bed of broken shards of glass, unsure of how I got there or how I can get out – knowing any move I make might cost me injury.
There I was in the thick of a storm howling inside of me after a particularly grueling day at work, and upon setting down my tote bag stuffed with disheveled paperwork and folders and granola bar wrappers, I felt my head grow dizzy and light. And then out of nowhere came the urge to cry. It was like an itch that had to be scratched. So I gave in and let the tears fall. I had gotten into an argument with my mother two hours prior and that was the trigger that did me in. Every ounce of anger and helplessness and agony from my childhood when she so often neglected to fight for my safety from an abusive alcoholic stepfather had been stirred and brought to the surface. I wanted to scream and throw the mug that held my morning coffee at the wall just to hear it shatter into a hundred pieces. But instead I collapsed on my bedroom floor and cried. At the time I was just learning about PTSD in therapy and was still a fish out of water in terms of knowing what to expect.
A minute after falling to the floor I felt something soft and damp on my cheek. I looked up and it was Wallace, his nose pressed to my face sniffing me and struggling to understand what was going on. I turned over onto my back and he put his paw on my belly as if he wanted to climb on top of me but wanted my permission before doing so. He whimpered and pounced toward my face again and licked the stream of tears that had trickled down onto my chin. He did not like to see me upset. And he was going to do whatever he had to to get me to stand up again and be okay.
Wallace would not waver. He laid down beside me and continued sniffing and whimpering and staring at me as if I was wounded and it was his job to nurse me back to good health. It was strange for me. I didn’t understand why he cared so much. But after laying next to him on the floor and petting the soft fur of his paws and running my hands over the folds of his wrinkles for twenty minutes, I felt better. The anxiety and fear had been lifted and I was “me” again.
The storm had ended and I could see a sliver of sunshine. And it came in the form of a pug.
Ever since that day Wallace has become my best friend in a way. He knows when something isn’t right with me and rather than ignore me in favor of a nap, he stands by my side. Literally.
This is a feat in an of itself for Wallace because he is not a smart dog. When we adopted him we were not told that he has half-deaf, half-blind, and had been previously abused to the point of which we suspect he sustained a head trauma. Wallace walks into doors and doesn’t understand how to play “catch” and forgets where I am when I am standing directly in front of him sometimes. If he has a working brain, there is not much of it left. But when I am visibly upset, he picks up on it immediately.
Having Wallace has has helped me to not feel alone when I feel sad, scared, and anxious. His love never judges or condemns or requires conditions be met. He also helps me because he has needs that need to be met which forces me to take my mind off of myself no matter how bad my day has been. I have to walk and bathe him and give him clean water and kibble. And these tasks make me feel needed and important in moments when I feel insignificant and low.
I never would have guessed a pug could have so much power. Certainly not a pug like mine who regularly runs into doors. But I’ve been proven wrong by an unlikely subject — a bug-eyed, wrinkly-faced, half-deaf dog I met in a PetCo parking lot two winters ago. And for that I say “thank you, Wallace.”
Thank you for being dumb. Thank you for being peculiarly obsessed with me and worrying for me when I’m not well. It is because of these things that you have given me what I have needed most in some of my weakest and scariest moments: unconditional love and a belly of rolls to cling to and hold when it feels like I have nothing else to grasp and no where else to turn. You’ve been there when no one else was. Because you are a dog you may never understand this. But it is because you are a dog that you have been able to love me in this way which makes you my hero. And at my worst when I am laying on the floor unsure I can make it through another day, my very best friend.
“Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring–it was peace.” Milan Kurdera
This personal essay was submitted to me by a dear friend who has chosen to remain anonymous. When I first read her words my insides ached and my spirit hurt for her while my heart rejoiced. I ached and hurt because I know the pain that she details here all too well, and I rejoiced because of how she has chosen to be the victor and use her pain for the good of her life as a survivor, wife, and mom. I am honored that she chose to share her story here for both the benefit of her own personal catharsis and the healing benefit that I believe many will experience upon reading her words. It is possible to recover and heal and have a new, different life after trauma and abuse. Even if that life involves the laborious, exhausting, and never-ending task of being a parent. What my friend has written here is proof that there is hope. And there is beauty and honor beyond what most of us can comprehend in being a parent when you, yourself, were so wounded by those who were supposed to parent you well.
I hope these words are as much a blessing and an encouragement to you as they were to me.
The thing about my family is, we keep it quiet. When my dad hit my mom this Spring, I was shocked neither of my brothers told me that it had happened before. I was shocked my mother had stayed with him if it had happened before, and continued to stay with him after a second time. My aunt was shocked at the news, then shocked some more when I told her about his abusive and violent past in our family, minus hitting our mom. How coffee mugs were thrown at the tree in our front yard on his way to work, how he accused my mom of trying to kill him when he pinched his finger into a new camping fold-out chair she’d gotten him for his birthday, finding a letter on the kitchen table before school one morning in which my mother had written out that his “spanking” of us was abusive and not corrective, the rocking chair smashed to bits, the hole in the living room wall, the screaming and shaming. His own sister and my favorite aunt had no idea, and she had lived half a mile from us for years. The secrets go deep and stay there. Even when my mom asked my father’s mentor for help in getting my dad to leave the house while they figured out what to do with their relationship, she kept the physical abuse a secret.
The thing about my husband’s family is, everything is out in the open. The first time I met his mother we had driven a couple hours to visit his sister, who was in the mental hospital for a suicide attempt in the form of not taking the pills that helped her transplanted heart survive. As we sat in her living room later that night, she told me all about my husband as a child, embarrassing stories, all about his sister’s condition, and more information about herself then I had heard from my mother in my lifetime. I hadn’t even been dating her son yet, but she opened up and told me about herself and their family. I was so grateful and uncomfortable, so surprised by all the admissions and genuine interactions.
Families are curious and complicated and full of traps. Or sometimes full of treasures. I want my family to be different. The day before I got married, I shyly told my mother I was nervous about my wedding night, that it would hurt, but received no advice or words at all.
I mean, I don’t want to just make my family sound awful. There were and are good things. My dad always supported me in everything I wanted to try. He was at almost every cross country meet and soccer game, and enthusiastically cheered my slow, slow running on, far past high school. My mom taught me to sew, a valuable skill I love having, and would always listen when I wanted to talk, helping me think of sides I had missed, and taught me about God and gave me the path to a strong faith.
And now here I am, by the grace of God, in a loving and amazing relationship with a man who loves me more then anything else. Our family will be and is different, by the grace of God. I trust him completely and know he would never hurt me. I want our family to be different. I want us to be open and full of love and kindness.
I haven’t felt like myself for a couple weeks. Maybe just a week. My heart feels dry and stony. Reading anything feels like too much work and bounces right off places usually so eager to soak up encouragement or new ideas or happiness. I play with my daughters but feel listless and distracted. Going through the motions instead of feeling the energy and excitement I usually feel when around my family. I’ve snapped at them too often and too quickly. Last week I kept telling my toddler to stop crying, cringing at the echo of my father in my head.
He doesn’t even know he’s hurt me, too. He doesn’t know that I have nightmares about him hurting me, ruining my morning before it begins. What about my brothers? Now they will go through high school with that example in their minds, who knows if my parents even addressed it with them. Watching my brother glare at my mom, angry his dad had to leave the house. My dad calling my mom saying she needed to come take care of the boys a couple days after he decided to move back in and she had been left to find her own temporary home. I get so angry just thinking about it, the example it gives them.
I had been at my aunt’s house down the street when my youngest brother called and told me I should come home. Seeing my dad sitting at the kitchen table, arms crossed with literally the most angry and defiant expression I had ever seen, asking him what happened and him saying he had hit her, then hearing my mom crying in the living room, the side of her face swollen. “He won’t leave,” she said. She needed the car that I had borrowed. Leaving me and my daughters and my brothers at the house with him. Texting my husband while I sat in the living room with my brothers, waiting for we didn’t know what, shaking and shivering and feeling the weight of our world.
Am I weak for being so affected by this? I’m an adult. I didn’t even live at home anymore, we were just visiting while my husband finished up packing up our house and work at the military base we had been stationed at – but it kills me. My idea of my family has been shattered. His anger has always been apparent, but now it’s inexcusable. Part of me is thrilled to be living oceans away, another part is full of anger at the idea of more incidences being pushed under the rug, back to normal.
I want it out of my head. I want it out of my life. I don’t want that to be the history in my family. I don’t want to hear the excuses about my mom asking for it, or the passive-agressive arguments of how its always his fault. I don’t want anger to be a part of my brain, ever, at all toward my children. I want to raise them in kindness and, sure, how about some justice-based anger toward the awful things that are done to people, such as violence, but not a screaming rampage for coming out of the movie theater five minutes late.
I know every family has a history and mistakes built into them. Families that let those mistakes build a bigger wall, and families that use those mistakes to move forward in forgiveness and love and grace.
I want to feel like myself again and I want to erase the memory of that week from my brain. I don’t want to cry in front of the domestic abuse advocate at the Commissary who is just trying to give my daughters stickers and let me know about their resources.
And I see myself unraveling this month, trying to hold it all together but getting everything wrong, trying to be the perfect parent to prove my distance from mine but falling down anyway, wishing I could be perfect as I fall on my face. I’ve been reading and reading and pinning ideas and putting into practice every piece of advice on how to raise happy, healthy, morally-concious children. Making mental lists on how to teach children without yelling, how to get them to listen without raising my voice, counting to three and giving time outs. It’s exhausting. I’ve been enduring guilt trips led by myself over letting them watch tv, trying to turn every moment into a learning opportunity, and racking myself with guilt over letting them play by themselves – aren’t good moms supposed to be involved in every moment? Shouldn’t I always always always be able to make them happy and get them to understand my discipline and education? Shouldn’t I love playing with them and teaching them and reading them the same books over and over and making them lunch while they cry that they don’t want to eat what I’m making?
It’s too hard to live this way. I give up trying to be perfect. Here I am, trudging through each day, trying to muster the energy for a game of chase around the house, trying to balance in grace while I reset myself.
So it comes to this: the sins of our fathers follow us. Of course I won’t hit my children or my husband, but my propensity to snap at my children or react in anger scares me and I see myself mimic my father. I will struggle and pursue peace and kindness in my house and in my heart. We will be family that shares and reaches for understanding, and we will build a new legacy, by God’s grace and our pursuit. My shoulders feel lighter bleeding this into words. I know there is hope and healing, even for my family. Grace, my new family motto.
One of my favorite things about this small sliver of time before the holiday rush swallows us whole is seeing lights begin to pop up in my favorite places — restaurants, shops, neighborhoods, and little cafes — there is something soothing about it that makes me feel grateful for the start of the Christmas season in all it’s bedazzled and decorated glory. I noticed a lot of lights hanging outside at a couple of shopping centers and restaurants today and I made a point to spend a few minutes taking in the reality of the holiday season really being here already. It came upon us so quickly, didn’t it?
Anyway, I hope you had or are having a peaceful Friday night wherever it is you are while reading these brief words. This past week was a frenzy of busy-ness for me and I am looking forward to marinating in the quiet and warmth of my apartment this weekend, snuggled up next to my stupidly sweet pug with a book in one hand and hot tea in the other. (I’ve been devouring Amy Poehler’s “Yes, Please,” and advise you to do the same.)
In the meantime, I have a couple posts coming this weekend and into the beginning of next week that are being polished up for posting and I will have them up as soon as I am able. Stay tuned! And for now, I’ll leave you with these wise words that I read this morning with hopes that they mean as much to you as they did to me.
“Friction is necessary. Ease of life leads to complacency and the atrophy of the human will and spirit. Within our struggles lives our strength, within our trials lives our triumphs. Friction creates a platform for change, generates heat and or fervor and creates a motivational charge that gives us an opportunity to be better. A gem cannot be polished without friction and so neither a person without hardships. Friction within and friction without sharpens our senses and revives our internal resolutions. Friction is uncomfortable, hardships are distressing but both are necessary. We cannot light a match without friction nor can we hone steal. Uncomfortable as it may be, our adversity ultimately lights a fire and sharpens our very will to flourish. Today, let us not be discouraged, let us not be bitter in our suffering rather let us be encouraged as we look to our trials as a medium that will eventually make us better.”
Until next time…
All it took was a Coldplay song on a cloudy day to reduce me to a sloppy mess of tears on a recent Friday afternoon at work.
“See you soon,” from Coldplay’s live album that they released in 2003 — eleven years ago — was the song that did me in as I listened at my desk while finishing up my paperwork for the day. It’s not a particularly sad song, but there is something in the words and the way Coldplay front-man, Chris Martin, sings them — honestly and with a passion that lingers long after the song has ended –that pulls at my heart in an almost painful but pure, cathartic kind of way. It makes me feel something that not many songs can, which I would describe as a nostalgic longing for a season of life that long ago came to an end. A time of life that I miss like a childhood pet and that ended far too soon.
Have you ever missed a specific time from your life so much that it has made you cry? If you’re a mother I can imagine you miss the days when your teething, tantrum-throwing toddler was a warm bundle of newborn baby that you rocked in your arms and held close in those first sweet months of life. If you’ve lost someone you loved with your whole heart, it may be the memories of a time when they were with you in the flesh to talk and laugh and share Christmas dinner and late-night conversations with. Or if you’ve uprooted your life from one geographical location to another for a job, relationship, or a simple change in scenery, it may be the life you had before you became a transplant in a scary new city that doesn’t understand you just yet.
For me, the time I miss most is my second year of college, and living, working, studying, and learning how to be a twenty-something in a busy college town where my best and most beloved friends were never more than a five minute walk or drive away. I miss those days more than I miss almost any other time of my life because they were encapsulated in a time that can never be re-created or experienced, even slightly, ever again. I was invincible in that year of life. I could do anything that I wanted to and taste, smell, and touch whatever beckoned me and my insatiable, bookish curiosity as a student, dreamer, and budding young writer. The world was my canvas and the memories made over coffee on the grass between class lectures and cocktails at local dive bars and late night dancing at funky clubs downtown have since become the palette that has colored this canvas and made it the work of art that it is — a portrait of life that I will carry with me wherever I go like a five-year-old who won’t go anywhere without their favorite teddy bear. Those years are a part of me. They’re the blood and bones of my most confusing, exhilarating, and heart-breaking life experiences. Without them, I wouldn’t be the person I “grew up” to be and am still growing into.
I think a lot of us thought we would never really grow up when we teenagers or in our first years of college. I know I didn’t. The idea of being an adult seemed beyond me and something I couldn’t reconcile easily with the youth that I think we all secretly hope will last forever. Growing up is a strange thing in that way — you never really grasp the entirety of it until you look back and can see the years passed glaring back at you with the piercing, bright light of a department store fitting room as a beautiful, blemished reminder of all you’ve endured and all you’ve been. And in that, we are reminded of how fleeting and temporal this one life is and how forgetting to pay attention to it robs us of the good things like joy and gratitude and love. We often forfeit those things in favor of busy-ness and structure and it is usually only in hindsight that we see how tragic that trade-off is and how it left us starving for more and unhappy with what we had.
No matter how much time and circumstances may changes us, we are always married to our past in some way, and because of this, the present feels more like a momentary affair to quell our ache for what once was.
I ache to re-live my second year of college when I shared a kitchen with my best friend and talked philosophy over Radiohead albums playing from my iPod and asked questions about love and God and the wild, big world awaiting me. I ache to feel that first autumn breeze while walking to class with a hot black cup of coffee and a pair of sneakers in my backpack for my evening runs around campus that I miss so much. I miss the way the library smelled on cold nights, like chimney-smoke and old leather-bound books with broken spines, and I miss the football games and falling leaves on University avenue when I counted down the days until Thanksgiving break when I could sleep in til noon, wrapped in the blankets of my childhood bed and the warm smells of my mother’s lasagna bubbling in the oven.
I will never get those moments back. And a big part of growing up is being able to accept that fact, which for me has been anything but easy. We can never get away from where we’ve been. And the lyrics of this Coldplay song capture this best for me in how I think of that year of college I miss most to which I say as both a plea and a prayer, “I’ll see you soon.” If only in my dreams and on the canvas of memories that I will carry with me until my story meets it’s end and the aching for once was at last, is gone.“If you knew what was going to happen, if you knew everything that was going to happen next—if you knew in advance the consequences of your own actions—you’d be doomed. You’d be ruined as God. You’d be a stone. You’d never eat or drink or laugh or get out of bed in the morning. You’d never love anyone, ever again. You’d never dare to.” Margaret Atwood