Over and Over, She Rescued Me

Let me tell you guys about Sallie.

Fourteen years ago, as I was finishing up my sophomore year of college at UNC, I ventured over to the Orange County Animal Shelter in search of a dog.

Because every undergrad with an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex needs another living creature to nurture and sustain.

I was immediately taken…by her brother, a brown Lab-looking puppy. I excitedly asked if he was available, but apparently everyone else was also gullible to his puppy face, and he was already claimed. I returned to his cage and a tiny black blur caught my eye. This critter  of a dog was rolling around, biting her brother’s belly and having the time of her life. I took a closer look. This one looked a little naughty. And like a lot of fun.

I asked if she was available.

She was.

I called my parents. My dad agreed to help sponsor her adoption if, and only if, I named her after an old bulldog that used to wander over to our old house and visit our family dogs when I was back in high school.

Sallie was her name.

The freshly minted Sallie (a Lab/Chow, definitely no Bulldog in there, but whatever, Dad) promptly got scheduled to be spayed while I finished up final exams. I headed back to the shelter a few days later, picked her up, promptly drove to the beach, and we started a fourteen year journey together.

Sallie

Over time, Sallie moved with me (seemingly) countless times, stood by my side through various boyfriends (and some major heartbreak), undergrad, my first “real” job, grad school, meeting Paul, losing my dad, one TBI, having a baby, and back to school again.

 

When I had my TBI almost four years ago (what has happened to time?) and returned home from the hospital mute, Sallie was very confused. I don’t think she really understood what was going on and why I suddenly couldn’t speak to her. Our other dog Sadie has always been very sensitive and empathetic, and she immediately picked up the feeling that something was wrong with me. It was so odd to watch their different reactions.

Sallie was always the rock, the mostly unflappable one, in our animal family – she didn’t always make the brightest choices (if I could interview my college boyfriend, I would have him report about the time he had to jump into the lake by the apartment I lived in during my junior year – Sallie decided to run and jump into the lake one day in hot pursuit of some geese…then refused to come out). Then again, I didn’t always make the brightest choices in how I trained her (I use that term so, so loosely). There are so many things I would change if I could, but I think if you are in any relationship for long enough, you probably feel the same way as time passes (also, Shelley, I’m thankful you didn’t kill Sallie and/or me after she ate your phone…and your glasses – and yes, I still feel guilty!).

I have more memories of Sallie than I know what to do with, save for using them to pad my heart and hopefully try and soften the blow of what feels like a gaping loss.

We sat with her yesterday as she drifted off. When the vet gently confirmed that she had passed, I leaned over her and heaved tears into her fur. The last time I did as such was the day my dad died, and the feeling of grief and loss was second only to that moment.

And I thought – I have shared the worst moments of my life with Sallie. And in those moments, Sallie’s companionship and understanding made life bearable. And that makes Sallie was of the best things to ever happen to me.

It is hard to accept that she is gone, but experience tells me that these hard, unforgiving days will soften in time.

I am grateful to have called Sallie my best friend, one of the loves of my life, who rescued me far more often than the one measly time I adopted a tiny black fur ball from the animal shelter.

Grasping at Straws

A few weeks ago, Paul and I took Ellie out to eat at Tyler’s, one of our favorite local places to go. We’ve been taking Ellie out and about since the day we got home from the hospital last May, partly in an effort to maintain some sense of normalcy and give us a break from the many hours spent in that wonderful, awful, confusing, enlightening newborn phase. Now going out is no longer a race to finish our food as quickly as possible and Ellie joins us at the table in a high chair, entertaining herself with toys, coasters, straws and anything else within reach (note to self, continue to remove knives from reach).

On this particular night, Ellie was happily playing with her Eeyore rattle (which just entailed tossing him about and then throwing him on the ground – “How often will Mommy pick this up for me?” seems to be a fun new game) and Paul and I were debriefing after a long week at school. We were surrounded by families, which seems to always be the case when you go to dinner at 5:30 PM on a Friday (whatever, it’s the new party time).

I looked over at the booth to my right, where a harried looking mom was sitting with her husband and two kids. The daughter picked up a straw, tore the top of the wrapper off, then blew the rest of the paper in her dad’s direction.

He laughed.

I started crying.

They were silent tears, but still they rolled down my face. Ellie was oblivious, of course, but Paul knew. And when he glanced over at the family, he also knew why.

Such a simple, almost mundane interaction between a daughter and her father, but I will never know it again with my own dad.

We got to the point where–when my dad was still alive–he would take out one of the ballpoint pens he always carried and actually write his name on the straw first to make sure I didn’t steal it. Then whenever I wasn’t paying attention, off came the top of the wrapper, and into my face the rest flew.

Virtually every single meal out that we shared.

I never thought that just seeing that sort of moment being shared by another father and daughter would affect me so much. It just was a little tug at the stitches I have worked so hard to maintain in order to hold myself together.

It often strikes me how little we will ever know about most of the people we encounter in our lives. It was raining last Tuesday morning, so I took the bus and enjoyed listening to some music on my phone. We hardly ever have to drive much of anywhere anymore, so taking the bus or running is really the only time I have just to sit and listen to music. As I thumbed through my music library, the Beatles’ “I Will” came on, and I stopped my search and just let the song play.

I’m not sure really how it became our de facto song as a family, but it did, and no matter how many times I hear it, I think about my mom and dad singing it on one of our many beach trips, or about how Paul and I walked down the aisle to it after our wedding. All these memories somehow manage to roll past my eyes in the 1:46 it takes for the song to run its course.

Looking around the crowded bus, it occurred to me that no one else knew exactly how I was feeling in that moment. That in that short span, I heard and saw my dad and my family as complete, even if just in my mind. No one else knew how bittersweet those memories felt even after four and a half years.

But then, looking at all the different faces surrounding me, I realized that I also would never know what they were thinking or feeling. Maybe someone else has a broken heart, or is stressed about an upcoming exam. Maybe they just got a new puppy. Maybe they drank too much last night. Maybe they’re going to drink too much tonight. Maybe their mom has dementia. Maybe they just got engaged. I will never know, and that’s just life – it’s okay as long as we respect that other people are also experiencing their own battles.

Maybe that’s the art of empathy and just maybe that’s something we could all be better at, especially in these tumultuous last few months.