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.

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Stage 5: Acceptance

At some point over the winter, I stopped wearing makeup. Now, I never wore a ton to begin with, but I still felt naked leaving the house without at least a swipe of powder. I never had the best complexion, and I was self-conscious.

Just after New Years, my face was angry. My body was angry. And my mind was angry. I had accomplished some big milestones–I flew to Texas for a work meeting and presented in front of a large group of (sometimes intimidating) people. Paul and I finally got my parents’ old house cleaned out and listed for sale. And I had competed in my first dressage show in almost three years.

But I was tired. Really, really tired. Not from a lack of sleep, really, but just from being bone tired. I had been carrying around so much stress internally that I felt like I was going to lose it, and it showed, both in the way I felt and the way I looked.

I’ve never been afraid to ask for help, but I’ve always tried to do things on my own first. I actually think considering the past year and a half, I did pretty damn well. But, it was time to wave the white flag. I got to work making some appointments for myself.

So somewhere along the way, as I stopped to take care of my body and mind, I stopped wearing makeup. It was weird at first. It had always just been a part of my routine. Shower, get dressed, makeup, go. Suddenly, my routine got a lot simpler. And that was odd at first.

But then it became natural. Sure, there is absolutely nothing wrong with makeup. But suddenly, I was enough. I didn’t need it to feel put together.

Acceptance. It’s not just about accepting other people. It’s also about accepting who you are.

For me, it’s been a long process.

I am now a girl with a speech disorder, and that’s alright. Please note, I didn’t say it was fun. But it’s okay. It’s just who I am.

Many people wear their physical scars proudly–as a testament to strength and recovery from some traumatic event. I think of my apraxia in the same fashion. The fact that I can mostly control it at this point just symbolizes how much I have been kicking its ass over the past 11 months.

I am also a girl without a father, at least in the sense that I no longer have my dad to call on when things get tough. Or to surprise on birthdays. Or simply hug. That new identity has been much harder to accept. And yet, I have been working on it.

Acceptance doesn’t mean forgetting.

I accept that these facts are immutable. There is nothing I can do about it. But after one of the longest winters I can remember (or at least it felt that way), I, too, am changing with the season.

Do you think that the little caterpillar is always ready to break free of his cocoon and fly? In truth, he probably doesn’t really think about it. He just does.

Well, however we work our way out – does it really matter?

 

Pick Your Battles

The good news is that I can now take baths without Paul watching me like a hawk.

Why yes, I consider this a positive development. I’ve never been particularly coordinated anyway, but I’m now apparently capable of bathing without causing considerable worry to Paul that I’ll trip, fall and/or smash my head in some other fashion. Progress (let’s not mention that he let me start driving again before this, shall we?).

At any rate, the irony isn’t lost on me. How many of you guys took a bath or shower today without your significant other having a panic attack the second you drop the soap and it makes a really obnoxious thud (really, something that small?!)?

The fact is, there are a lot of times where I feel like I am working so hard to get better but still feel like I am standing still – and the world is just moving on fast forward. People are going about their lives, and time seems to be in everyone else’s favor but yours.

It’s sort of like being a zoo animal. People stop by and stare a while. They are interested in what you’re doing. And they might really care – they might really feel bad that you’re at a zoo and not running free in your natural habitat…but at the end of the day, they get to go home. And you don’t.

I first realized this last year, when I lost my dad.

My dad was my best buddy. He was so young – 63 – and passed away due to complications a very unexpected, major stroke.

I realized sometime later, that somehow, other people were still going on about their lives.

But I thought, how can this be? Don’t they know how much pain I’m in? What I really wanted was to make people understand – “Hey! Wait a minute! Don’t you get it? I’ve LOST something here!”

It took me sometime to realize that just because other people didn’t feel MY loss didn’t mean they didn’t care. It’s only natural to want the world to stop when something tragic has happened to you. But life has other plans.

I realized that I had started to think that way about my accident.

I worried that people would see me talking and think the big struggle was over, when in fact, it’s just as difficult (if not harder). I thought – “Don’t people know how HARD I’m working at this?”

Maybe you have had similar thoughts about something in your life. Maybe it’s a TBI, maybe it’s a stroke or the death of a loved one.

What it’s taken me a long time to understand is that no one else may understand your struggle. It may not have personal relevance to them. But, on the other hand, YOU may not understand someone else’s difficulty.

Everyone is fighting some sort of battle – it’s just going to vary. It’s not about who has it worse. It’s about understanding that empathy and compassion can be invaluable.

This is a lesson I have needed to teach myself – maybe you do, too?