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.

Seasons

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Every night – and before every nap – we follow mostly the same routine (though we have no schedule – the words “schedule” and “eleven week old” in the same sentence are laughable to me). This routine consists of nursing, swaddling, and then performing some sort of awkward dance wherein I try to simultaneously bounce and cuddle Ellie, who is usually trying to push herself off my chest and stare wide-eyed around the room at everything she could possibly be missing before sleeping.

Sometimes, this routine involves my singing quietly to her – some made up song comprised of whatever phrases pop into my head. After she finally settles down and closes her eyes, I revel in the quiet for ten minutes until I am forced to get up and obsessively check to ensure that she is 1) still breathing and 2) still asleep.

Sometimes after the first night feeding, it takes me a while to go back to sleep, so I have a lot of time to think. Last night, for some reason, a random childhood memory popped into my head.

When I was younger, we moved around a lot. But my favorite childhood house was the “Melchor house,” so named for the street on which it was located. Down the street, there was a short bridge over a little creek.

My mom and I used to walk down to the bridge and watch the water. I would pick up a few of those “helicopter” seeds (what sort of seeds they actually are, I have no idea) and throw them over the railing into the creek. I liked to watch them twirl down to the water and then float away. Or I would throw a sweet gum ball (one of those prickly little seeds) into the water and then run to the other side of the bridge to see how long it took to make it down the creek.

It’s funny to think about how such a seemingly random memory could be so deeply embedded in my mind when I think about my own childhood. It makes me wonder if my mom felt the same way watching me grow as I now feel with Ellie – the days can be so long until they drift into months and then years…and then you wonder what happened to the time.

Really, what happened to all the years in between for me and for us? A seeming lifetime of growing up, a love, a marriage, houses, death and then birth.

It makes me wonder how Ellie will remember how own childhood one day when she is lying awake at night, after feeding and comforting her own child (should she choose to have one). What sort of memories will she reflect on, and will she feel the same sort of wistfulness for a time that cannot be replicated because we all grow up eventually?

Maybe that’s what excites me the most about having a child. Certainly not the sleepless nights or the couch bound nursing sessions or the seemingly endless hours of inexplicable crying that seem to occur and then vanish for little known reasons…

No, what excites me is the chance to make new memories with and for Ellie – to give her the same love, warmth and comfort I was lucky enough to have in my own childhood.

Many people have told me that the newborn phase, with its odd mixture of vacillating joy and frustration, is just a season.

Seasons are fleeting. But, my memories let me know that even the most mundane activity can be remembered years later, polished by the passage of the years in between.

 

My Sentiment, Exactly

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There is this uplifting scene towards the end of How the Grinch Stole Christmas where the Grinch’s heart expands to three times its normal size. Having a kid is somewhat like having this happen-except throw frustration, sleep deprivation, anxiety and abject terror at the responsibility for keeping this totally helpless tiny human alive into the mix.

To be honest, ever since our daughter Ellie was born six weeks ago, I have walked around with a totally different perspective on motherhood. I have looked at other mothers-especially those with multiple children-and wondered just how the hell they do it.

I don’t mean how do they do it on a day to day basis.

Yes, the sleep deprivation outright sucks. But no matter how long and frustrating the nights get, things always seem a little brighter once the sun comes up (because, let’s be honest, the first few weeks are mostly just about survival).

And yes, the constant crying and occasional screaming (newborns are sort of like dachshunds – a body that tiny really shouldn’t be able to produce that loud a sound, it just can’t be natural!) is frustrating, but at some point it always passes.

No – caring for a baby is hard work for sure, but it’s something that slipped into our lives like it was supposed to, because loving our daughter just made it so. What I wondered about these other mothers-now that I am one-is how they walk around with this expanded heart. A heart filled with boundless love but also what must be boundless anxiety and a fierce sense of protection.

I wondered – how have these women managed to temper these feelings and carry on with their daily lives, appearing so nonchalant? I wanted to know the key – I wanted to know their secret to somehow resuming a relatively normal life and regaining some sense of who I was before the baby. I wanted to know once I found her-this old Jenni-how I could marry who I used to be with this new identity as a mother. I reasoned that surely this must be possible.

Everyone else seems to be able to do it.

A few weeks after Ellie was born, I got on my horse for the first time since last October. At the barn, I felt a curious blend of emotions – a brief taste of independence and its joy mixed with the absolute visceral need to get back to my baby. Still, I pressed on and enjoyed a brief ride because it’s a part of who I am.

I also recently began running again, slowly re-building my stamina. It’s just 30 minutes, but something about getting outside, pounding the pavement with my two (giant) feet and just sweating helped me to slowly start seeing that it just might be possible to still be me

Perhaps becoming a mother for me doesn’t mean that I need to accept a completely new identity – maybe it just means accepting that I am capable of having my heart expand as such.

Becoming a parent has been everything and nothing like what I expected. I expected the day to day to be exactly like the way it is – the constant nursing, the dirty diapers, the lack of sleep. But while I knew instinctually that I would love my child, I couldn’t have braced for the depth and degree.

I learn something new about Ellie literally every day. It’s amazing to watch her grow and experience the world – at times, I definitely feel like I’m fumbling my way through this, but a few days ago, she cracked her first really big smile at Paul, and I thought there is nothing I would rather see.

I wouldn’t describe myself as overtly sentimental on the surface – but, I will take that memory and store it inside my ever expanding heart.

 

 

Baby Steps

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I was never that girl who spent much time dreaming about being a mom. I am not overtly “girly,” nor do I consider myself overly maternal (though I would bet our plethora of animals might say otherwise).

Rather, my desire to have a baby just sort of developed naturally over the course of time. During that timeframe, several of my friends and acquaintances became pregnant and had children. Yes, it is entirely possible to be thrilled for someone while feeling a tinge of sadness and regret that you are not the one sharing such news. I had to realize that feeling that way didn’t make me a horrible, selfish friend. It just made me human.

Time went by and I became pregnant at the end of last August. I shared our news very early on. I didn’t have misgivings about doing so because I figured that if things went wrong, I would want the support. It didn’t make sense to me to hide something I had wanted and waited for – if I had had a miscarriage, I would have been devastated. But what if no one knew? Paul and I would have been alone, and I didn’t see the point in that. It’s such an individual preference, I know.

I have shared so much in this blog about my recovery from grief and my injury. Yet, I could never had quite prepared myself for the entirely different door that being pregnant opens. And I have to say, it’s been at times very uncomfortable for me.

Don’t misunderstand – I am thrilled to have this baby. It’s just everything else that has thrown me for a loop. For someone who has shared so much, I am a very private person, and so many things have been a rude awakening for me.

I expected the advice – some welcome, some not so much. Paul and I have an idea of how we would like to raise our child, and I don’t think that always jives with how other people might want to do things – that’s okay, too, as long our wants as parents are respected.

As I pointed out, for example, I am not overtly girly, and I don’t plan to raise my child that way. If she grows up and wants to play with dolls and play dress up and watch 500 movies about princesses, then so be it. But I also don’t intend to push her toward being any one way. I just want her to have the opportunity to be herself.

As soon as people found out that I was having a girl, I found myself struggling with their reaction. Here is a news flash. I have one pink shirt in my own wardrobe. What makes people think that I need 500 pink shirts for my baby? Why do we just automatically assume that girl=pink? I don’t begrudge the color – it’s just not my preference. That hasn’t changed because I’m pregnant.

Which points toward the bigger issue and what I have been struggling with the most – yes, being pregnant and having a baby changes your life. But being pregnant in and of itself doesn’t mean that I am a different person or that my personality just changed randomly.

I am still me – I am still Jenni.

I didn’t like being touched randomly before – what makes people think I want to have my swollen, tender belly touched or rubbed? Especially out of the blue?

It’s like people consider my belly to be entirely separate from my body. Just to reiterate – it’s not. And as a public service to all other pregnant women, please stop reaching out and touching us without asking. Maybe there are some women who don’t mind, but I would bet the majority of us would at least like to be asked first. People didn’t reach out and randomly rub my stomach before I was pregnant. How weird would that be? Food for thought.

Paul and I also have struggled mightily to keep the baby “stuff” under control, which is difficult when people are excited and want to give you ALL THE THINGS. And again, I am so, so grateful that people are excited for us and want to help. I really, really am – but similar to the whole belly touching thing, be mindful of who you’re dealing with. Some people might welcome a plethora of random baby gifts, and that is totally fine. But some people might be more minimalist and just want specific items. Nothing wrong with either way of being – it just seems to be difficult for people to get sometimes.

I have struggled to maintain my sense of self over the last eight months. I have not ridden a horse or run a few miles in months, and it’s hard to lose that sense of self, even if only temporarily – but I don’t think people realize that sometimes. And so, it’s more important to me than ever to still be regarded as who I am and who I was before – even as I prepare to welcome this new life. Physically preparing for this change is challenging enough!

While grieving my father and then during my initial recovery from the TBI, all I wanted was to find some sort of sense of normalcy again. Emotionally, being pregnant has been a crazy balance between being so excited and so terrified. The only “normal” thing about this is knowing that in some way, everyone who has been there has dealt with these emotions in some way or another – it’s just always eye opening once it finally happens to you.

 

 

It’s Just a House

Paul and I began 2012 like most other years – excited about the prospect of a fresh start and a new year to experience together. That spring, I was promoted at work, and we began to seriously talk about starting a family. I loved the little townhouse my family had purchased a few years before, but it was time (so I felt) to move up and along to a real house.

Paul and I got on a kick looking for restored bungalows, somehow ending up doing the majority of our searching in Durham. Paul wanted to be somewhere walkable to restaurants and other fun things to do, and I wanted a home for the future family I envisioned. We stumbled upon the listing for our house – I was instantly smitten. Built in 1916, it had been beautifully restored. Yet, we actually bypassed it after the first showing. We were still “new” to downtown Durham, having been UNC students.

The house was in an area of Durham still in transition, and we were temporarily blinded by the dilapidated church across the street (now an art gallery) and the uncertainty of what we were getting into. We looked at other places in the next month or two after our initial showing and just didn’t see anything that seemed suited for us. Something about the house stuck with us, so we went back and gave it another chance. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was perfect for us. We decided to put in an offer and make our home there.

We closed on the house the morning of September 28th, 2012. Less than two hours later, my mom called me. My dad had suffered a major stroke – a stroke that would take his life just over two weeks later.

Instead of unpacking and making our new house a home, I spent time planning my dad’s funeral. The next few months were a blur, and to be honest, I don’t remember much about that time apart from barely functioning. Yet, somehow the fog lifted a bit the next spring. I remember specifically that Memorial Day weekend – Paul and I took our two dogs to Umstead Park for a long hike. I crouched on a rock in the middle of the creek and watch my dog enjoy the rushing water. I looked at the sunlight filter through the trees and thought for the first time that life could be okay again.

sallieandme

The next week, the accident occurred and I sustained my TBI, aphasia and apraxia. Once again, our “normal” life took a backseat. Instead of cherishing our first summer in the new house, we spent time driving back and forth to doctor and therapy appointments. I spent much of my time sleeping on the couch, trying to recover from the shock and haze of my injury.

All I wanted during that time was for things to be stable – to have something solid that I could hold on to. Life was not at all what I had envisioned the morning we closed on our house. But as it goes, life went on.

I attended an aphasia caregiver panel recently at UNC, and the more I hear other people’s stories, the luckier I feel about my own recovery. I wasn’t lucky to go through the process, but things could have turned out much worse. Here I am on the other side, and I’m able to utilize my experience in order to live a richer life.

I actually started writing this post a couple of months ago, when we confirmed the move date from our bungalow to a modern condo in Chapel Hill. It was a huge decision for us and not one that we made lightly. But with Paul in school and my acceptance to the Speech and Hearing doctoral program at UNC, moving back to Chapel Hill just made sense. And, with Baby Shafer set to make her debut this May, we wanted to down size and find a place walkable to school, daycare and all the places we love in Chapel Hill.

I’m glad that I sat on this post for a while, because if I’d finished it back in February, it would have been a pretty maudlin read. I was convinced that I would be devastated to leave the house that I had placed so many hopes and expectations on – I had placed the dreams I had for that house on an unreachable pedestal, just by virtue of how life turned out to be while we were there. That’s okay, but it wasn’t realistic to expect life to cooperate just because I wanted it to.

There is a pivotal scene toward the end of the movie Up where Carl lets go of the house he shared with Ellie. He understands at that point of the movie that it’s just a house and that letting go of the actual house doesn’t mean he has to let go of the memories he made there.

up_movie_balloons_house-wide

I have learned to let go of a lot of things the past few years, and then more I have to let go, the more I understand that I keep what matters most close to me – what matters is not necessarily where I am but who I am with and what I choose to do with my time.

To spend time with Paul and our animals, to embark on this new journey together with a family and school, it’s more important than any expectation I could place on what, in the end, is just a house.

The Weight

In mid-November, just as I was emerging from the first trimester fog (otherwise known as “Jenni feels like a zombie every day”), I flew to Colorado for the annual American Speech and Hearing Association conference. It was the first time I attended, and it was an overwhelming blur of learning opportunities for me. I also led an hour long presentation on my case study – we shared what we’ve learned so far based on my experience in recovery from apraxia and how this fits in with the current research. I spent most of the week just trying to soak everything in.

Flying into and out of Colorado, I was a little surprised at how bland the landscape was. I was expecting a vista of majestic, snow-capped peaks to stare at while I squirmed uncomfortably in my window seat–avoiding thinking about the fact that I had to pee seemingly every five seconds. Yes, the joys of pregnancy are true (by the way, the snow-capped peaks didn’t show up until we were close to landing in Colorado, but they were, in fact, grand).

I do a lot of thinking on planes because I can’t ever seem to sleep on them. I was happy to head home, and flying back to Raleigh, I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful the area really is from the air. The trees were on fire with the colors of fall, and it always makes me a little sad that the fall leaves are so fleeting. My thoughts were wandering back to some time warp, as they tend to do, and I was thinking about the little fake plastic trees my dad used to have set up around his Lionel train set. From the air, the trees below looked just the same, and this sort of perspective made me oddly nostalgic. I knew that once I returned home, I would have to sort through all the vintage train sets littering our office–one of the last vestiges of cleaning out my parents’ house last year that we hadn’t gotten around to dispersing yet.

A couple of weeks after I returned from ASHA, I did just that. Paul loaded my car down with boxes of trains, and I drove to a little niche toy train store in Raleigh to see if they were interested. I stood there in this cramped little shop and couldn’t help but think how my dad would have loved to look around. Did you know they have not just miniature people to decorate your train set, they also come in sets with very odd themes, like “Disaster waiting to happen…” I kid you not.

The train store ended up buying all the trains, and I walked out with a much lighter car but also with a heavier heart. Since my dad died, I have had to give away, throw away, sell or otherwise get rid of more things than I can count. Things that I used to hold on to became mostly just objects, and while it’s freeing to rid oneself of extraneous material things, it’s still also hard to say goodbye.

I have become very good at saying goodbye.

That being said, in the past year, I have shed a lot of emotional weight this way (perhaps now to compensate for the increasing size of my midline?). Recently, Paul and I were walking the dogs, and he asked whether I would go back and change having had my accident.

Given that we all know how this story ends up now, it was hard to give an unbiased answer. But I said no. I would be kicked 20 more times and go through every part again if it meant that I could bring my dad back, but obviously this isn’t possible. Still, I wouldn’t change anything that happened because for the first time, I feel like I have a clear purpose.

Soon after my dad died in 2012, I found myself wanting to make some sort of change in my life, but I couldn’t identify what that might be. Since my accident, my path toward research in the speech field has been made clear. It’s gratifying to have a sense of direction. Now I just have to get myself there, and I am doing everything I can.

When I wrote my last post, I had just begun my application to a Speech and Hearing PhD program, though I didn’t share this.

I had also just found out that I am pregnant. Now as I type, I have submitted my application, and I am over 20 weeks along. Half way (let’s talk about how frightening and awesome this is in a later post)! I have felt every day like I should be knocking on wood – that I can’t be too excited about these exceedingly good things happening, because something bad could happen in turn. Right? But that’s no way to live. I’d like to think that these good things are balancing out the past three years, but that’s not really how life works.

I’m just rolling with it, aware of what has been lost and also of what I have and have to look forward to still. As my old internship supervisor said, you can’t control the waves, but you can control how you surf them.

I’m strapping on my board for 2016.