The Day I Learned Why Dogs Howl

Today I remembered one rainy Saturday a few years ago when I was heading to a funeral but needed to bury Richard M. Nixon in my backyard before my toddler found out she was dead.

That’s a lot in one sentence. Let me explain.

My late husband, Richard, left me many things, but the most precious was a long-haired tortoise shell kitty cat. Her name was Nixon. Richard Milhouse Nixon, to be precise.

For a long while after he first adopted her from the shelter, he never really gave her a name–just called her Cat. He was going out of town and his neighbor agreed to keep an eye on Cat. When she asked the cat’s name, she was disappointed to hear that the cat didn’t have one. She picked at Richard about it. Because his friend was super liberal, and he was a smart ass, he said, “Fine. The cat’s name is Richard Milhouse Nixon. Please be sure to say, “I love you, Nixon” every time you snuggle her.”

He adored that cat. She helped him get “in” with my family because you know how some families ask, “Do you go to church?” or “How do you vote?”…my family asks, “Do you have any pets?” You can’t hang with the Garretts if you don’t have some shedders in the house.

This is Nixon giving my dog Katie the stink eye for being on the dog bed.

This is Nixon giving my dog Katie the stink eye for being on the dog bed.

Nixon lived for several years after Richard died, but eventually she got narrow in the hips and her gums didn’t look so healthy and her bags of groceries disappeared (that’s what Daddy called those sags of flab under a fat kitty’s belly). Nixon declined quickly. She died in her sleep and I found her one rainy Saturday morning curled up near the fireplace.

I was already feeling blue that morning because it was the day Athens would say goodbye to Randy Bewley, a musician, artist, father to two boys, and beloved of my friend, Robin. Randy had died very suddenly and it had been a sad sad week. And now Nixon was dead on my hearth and Vivi was due to wake up any minute. Crap.

I wrapped Nixon in one of Richard’s old bath towels, one that still had his name tag sewn on it from summer camp, then hid her in our bedroom. I whispered to G that I needed him to get Vivi out of the house so I could bury the cat without having to explain it all to her. He bundled her into some warm clothes and they headed out for pancakes.

It was pouring cold rain. I put on the purple raincoat that I had worn on all of those European adventures with Richard then I clutched his poor dead cat to my chest. After a quick stop in the tool shed for a shovel, I made my way down the hill to the beech tree beside the river–site of our pet cemetery. Huckleberry Finn, my big white Greater Pike Hound, walked at my side. I couldn’t keep an eye on him and focus on digging a cat grave, so I locked Huck inside the fence. He sat on his haunches to watch what I was doing.

Huck o' my Heart

Huck o’ my Heart

Well. I started digging a hole and the deeper I dug, the sadder I got. Nixon had Richard’s heart, just like I had once. She was the something he had loved and I had loved. She was part of our little family and now that last link with him was gone. I settled her light body into the earth. I ripped up a few pieces of English ivy from the riverbank and wove them into a heart shape that I placed in the grave with her.

It was time to say a few words. There in the streaming rain, I thanked her for being a sweet and faithful kitty. I told her how much he had loved her and how when he had to be away from her those last few months, I recorded five minutes of her purring and he would lie in his hospital bed and listen to it when he felt afraid. I told her that I was sorry she didn’t get more time with him.

And then I sat in the rain on my haunches and I sobbed. I wailed. I keened. I didn’t worry about any of the neighbors hearing me. I didn’t worry about whether I looked crazy or not. I didn’t care. I cried as hard as I could. For Nixon, for Richard, for Randy, for Robin, for myself. For the whole damn sad world that seemed to be crying along with me.

Then from behind me, I heard a plaintive sound I had never heard before, like a harmony to my grief. It was Huck, still waiting for me in the rain. He threw his head back and howled at the gray sky. Three long slow howls, like a wolf under a full moon. I had never heard him make such a sound and he’s never done it since.

His howling startled me out of my own fit. Our eyes met through the fence. He stood up and wagged his tail slowly at me with a look on his face that seemed to say, “Are we done? Or once more?” I couldn’t help but laugh and something in my tired heart cracked open with the wonder of his howl. Such a wild animal thing, such a mystery, right here in my backyard. I told Nixon goodbye one more time, filled in the grave, then walked back up the hill with my dog right by my side.

So why do dogs howl? I looked it up. It’s not because they are sad. According to Cesar Milan, dogs–and wolves–howl to tell a lost member of the pack where they are. A wolf who has wandered too far will howl to say, “Ummm…you guys? I’m out here alone” and another wolf howls in response to say, “You’re OK. Come over this way.”

I think that’s exactly what Huck was telling me that day. He heard a member of his pack howl because she was afraid and feeling lost, so he howled to say, “Over here. You’re not alone.”

My dad died yesterday. He spent his life tending to the little creatures of this world, the raggedy abandoned dogs like Huck and the pampered kitties like Nixon. One of my friends reminded me that all dogs go to heaven, and I laughed to think about how busy Dr. Garrett will be saying hello to thousands of old friends.

The Excruciating In Between

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

Last Sunday, when my dad and I had our last good visit, we said these words. As I crossed the parking lot to my car, I realized that he hadn’t said what he usually says when one of us is leaving after a visit–“Be careful. I don’t have any extra children.”

Two weeks before, when Little Gay and I visited, he had said it, because she chuckled, “Now THAT sounds like Daddy!”

I sat there in my car with the nagging fear that I wouldn’t ever hear it again.

I was right.

The Lion of Lucerne Switzerland.

The Lion of Lucerne Switzerland.

I’ve talked to him since then, but he hasn’t been able to talk to me. Now we are caught in the exruciating in-between.

My dad has been sick for a long time. My Daddy, in caps, has been gone for a while now. The strong arms that hugged me tight. The voice that told me he didn’t have any extra children. The finger that pointed up at the ceiling when he was about to say something funny. That kissing sound he made to call a dog in for some scratching behind the ears. Even the terrible cheese dip that he made in the microwave and brought out to the little metal table by the pool.

But his body is still here. He is in between worlds and we are too. Kind people say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” and I think “but he’s still alive.” Then there are the people who say, “I hope he gets better” and I can’t find words to say, “That is impossible.”

For a week, we’ve all hovered somewhere in this excruciating in-between. Alone in their house, I cannot bring myself to sit in his chair in the library because it’s Daddy’s Chair. Even though I had no problem sitting in it before. I am caught between that idea and the idea that he won’t sit there either. In his room at the hospice, I sit nearby but not next to him, because that’s my father, right there…but my daddy doesn’t seem anywhere nearby. In-between.

So I go to Griffin and sit on watch but I can’t do it and there is nothing but “it” to do. So I go to work to stay busy and it helps some, but every time my phone rings my heart stops. We run out of milk, even in this strange fatherless world, so I go to the grocery store and I buy things that G can cook in case I need to go. I take my kids out shopping for school clothes and I make sure they have something somber to wear for the day that I will soon have to explain to them. But I don’t tell them yet because we are caught in-between.

This isn’t my first time walking down this path. My late husband died at home and I was his caregiver. Richard never gave in to the idea of dying; even as his body disintegrated around his brave heart, he fought. He was in hospice care for about nine hours total between me signing the paperwork and his last breath. There wasn’t a lot of room for in-between. There wasn’t much time for “the forethought of grief” as Wendell Berry calls it. There was busy-ness and then there was grief.

None of this excruciating in-between.


Life and Death Decisions in Jackson Georgia

That visit I had with my dad on Sunday? That was a good trip to Jackson. When I got there, his room was crowded with three visitors–a family who had been bringing their cats to him for 15 years. We told some cat stories. Daddy told about the little kitten who chewed a hole in the sofa cushion so she could sit under the sofa in peace and stick her head out if anything interesting happened. I told the one about when we were picking on Little Gay about being a bad driver and she got so mad that she stomped outside…and ran over the cat’s tail. He told about Rufus, the last kitty he talked me into and how a few days after I brought him home he ended up covered in ringworm and Vivi lost a hank of hair right before picture day. Annie, Baby, Slick, Nashville, Puff, Mama Kitty, Mouse, Janie, Mr. Kitty, Mr. A Hole, Rufus and Jinx. So many cats.

When his visitors left, I noticed that the mom walked with a limp and hadn’t said anything. I asked him, “Was that the lady who wrote the letter?” He nodded. One of his favorite clients. She has cerebral palsy and a lot of people only see her differences. She wrote him a letter once to thank him for always being kind to her and treating her with respect, even if she can’t speak. He cherishes that letter.

I told him the good news about Carlos, and what books Vivi’s reading this week. He asked me about my writing. We talked and talked. He scooted his wheelchair over to the drawer and pulled out a pack of gum. Offered me a piece and I declined. He chewed four pieces then complained about the bitterness of the peppermint. He asked me what I thought of the cheap paintings on the wall opposite his bed. We agreed–every time I visited–that they looked like wet cardboard and had probably been purchased at a gas station.


That was Sunday.

Now he’s in hospice.

He crashed on Monday and had to go to the hospital. By midnight, he was in hospice care. I drove down on Tuesday in the rain.

My brother had been there overnight. He and Big Gay and I were coordinating what needed to happen. One of the jobs was to retrieve Daddy’s things from the rehab place in Jackson. I volunteered since it was right on my way.

On that long drive, I was listening to NPR and the news turned to the story of Kelly Gissendaner, the only Georgia woman on death row. She was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at 7 p.m. That night. In Jackson, Georgia.

I listened to person after person talk about how their own lives had been changed for having met Kelly in prison. How she told them they had value and they could redeem themselves. That very day, her own children had to make the choice between seeing their mother one last time and going before the appeals board to beg for clemency. They begged for her life.

The text from Joe said, “Get the cards and the poster and bring them here. Don’t forget the vase.”

I took a few grocery bags out of the back of my car and walked through the rain to the entrance. Definitely not the baby anymore. Not today. As I made my way down the long hallway, I tried not to make eye contact with the nurse who had been so kind to him on Sunday. I just couldn’t do it.

The top of every surface was covered in cards. Every one of them had a cat or a dog on it. I couldn’t look at the names and addresses. Just made a neat stack and put them in a bag along with the poster from the people at the clinic he built. I took the tired oranges and apples out of a hand-turned bowl he made on his lathe. I tucked the slender glass vase with the giant red rose that Big Gay had cut for him in between the cards. As I bumped the petals, they released a sweet fragrance. She grows antique roses that still smell like roses instead of those new varieties that smell like refrigerators.

Rose in the Rain. Courtesy Pixabay.

Rose in the Rain. Courtesy Pixabay.

I left most of the toiletries, but I took the half bottle of Canoe and the black plastic comb. When we were kids, Daddy relaxed every night by sitting in his chair with a book and combing his hair mindlessly. I still remember how we laughed the time he combed it all straight up and looked like an onion.

I got the suitcase out of the closet and filled it with books. Spy thrillers, history sagas, right wing politics…and Geraldine Brooks’ “People of the Book.” I liked that one, too.

I opened the drawer and put the half-open pack of gum in my purse.

Just like Big Gay had told me to, I left a note on top of the dresser that said, “Please share his clothes with anyone who needs them. Thank you–The Garretts”

He’s always been the kind of man that would give you the shirt off his back.

Two visits ago, he told me that he was anxious about dying. He worried “that he hadn’t been a good enough Christian.” I was so horrified at the thought that I couldn’t respond. I’ve told him many times what I think–It’s this life that’s heaven or hell, and we make it so for each other.

Clemency. Forgiveness for what we have done. Mercy. The gift of life when we have been handed a death sentence. Standing in the rain and holding out hope, even when you know it’s running out. We all hope for mercy, right there in Jackson, Georgia.

Never Mind

This post has been sitting in my Drafts folder since October 26 of last year. The note said, “I keep thinking I will open the teacher’s report and it will say, ‘Never Mind! He’s fine!'” For the last two years, I’ve been waiting for someone to study my son and his behavior and pronounce: “You have just been imagining this! Never mind!” or “Wellll…we thought we saw something, but turns out…Never mind!”

“Never mind” wipes out the whole problem. It never existed. But I couldn’t bring myself to write about my dream of hearing “never mind” because I kept hearing “Can you come get Carlos from daycare? He’s throwing chairs and hitting the teacher.” For months, I flinched every time my phone rang at work. I saw how he kept to himself in his classroom, while clusters of kids playing nicely together swirled around him. I cringed every time he had a full-on screaming meltdown because the toilet flushed automatically at McDonald’s or the brakes on the school bus hissed and squealed.


His pediatrician, the one who first said we should get him evaluated for autism, told me “I don’t thing he has it…but get him evaluated.” The first psychologist said, “Well, if he has it, it’s not too bad?” And another one said, “Can’t rule it out but can’t quite put my finger on it.” When I took Carlos back to the pediatrician and confessed that I was feeling overwhelmed with it, he said, “We don’t run from this.” I knew what he meant, but all I could think was, “What exactly am I running towards?”

I gave up on hearing “Never mind” and started assuming we would hear a “Yep, that’s what we’re looking at.” I wanted to know exactly his coordinates on the spectrum and what we could do based on those coordinates.

He started Pre-K and those behaviors disappeared or diminished. He sits quietly on the rug and listens to story time. He wears headphones around loud noises and they don’t bother him. He even has a friend at school. His special ed teacher stopped me a few weeks after school had begun and said, “I’m not seeing the behaviors that are mentioned in his IEP.” I braced myself to finally hear it, for her to wave her hands and say, “Never mind! He’s fine!” Then she said, “Welllll…actually, yeah, let’s keep these goals. I’ve been seeing a little more now that he’s settling in.”

ARGH. We had gotten THIS CLOSE to “Never mind!” and it slipped away.

A label shouldn’t matter–he’s still my kid. I know him better than any other person in the world knows him. Still, I wanted something to Google, something to put a check box next to all these worries so that I could tell myself, “This is The Answer. Now you can rest a little.”

So almost 2 years after this journey started, we finally got The Big Evaluation at the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta. We submitted pages and pages of answers to every question about every distant cousin who had so much as a snaggle tooth. We sent in school forms, audiologist reports, IEP evaluations.

For two hours, the chipper autism expert talked to us about Carlos and watched him as he played. Then she spent time interacting with him–blowing bubbles, taking turns, quizzing him about letters, asking him to draw, telling jokes, giving him bottles to open, tapping his knee with a hammer, looking in his ears, giving him a rubber snake to play with, cajoling him into sitting back in the little red chair for  few more minutes–and all the while scoring his responses on her sheets of paper. After a while, he got so used to the routine that when she asked him a question and he answered it, he pointed to her sheet and said, “Put a check mark!”

We all laughed at that. He got a lot of check marks.

Finally, she tallied up a few columns and typed a little into the computer. She turned to us and said, “We’re not looking at anything on the autism spectrum here.”


“Any difference that he has is really not that significant. He’s 56 months old and on these verbal inventories, he’s scoring at about 51 months, so he’s making great progress since his last evaluation.”

G and I just sat there staring at her. Carlos pressed the button on the yellow school bus toy over and over.

She talked more about pragmatic speech (the meaning of what’s being said) and he seemed to be absolutely fine in that aspect. Fluency, the ease with which we produce speech, appeared to be the root of Carlos’ speech delay. And he’s catching up on fluency.

G asked if we should get more speech therapy than what he’s already getting and school and she shook her head. “If he regresses in any way, come back to see us, but short of that…I don’t think you need to worry about it.”

You mean, “Never mind?”



Let Me Be the Baby For a Little While Longer

I told a little lie to my baby Sunday morning as I got ready to leave for the day.

“Where you goin’ Mama?” I didn’t want to tell him that I was going to see Papa and Nana. To him, “Nana and Papa’s house” means cousins in the swimming pool, four doggies, popsicles, searching for eggs in the chicken coop, and that drawer full of Jackson’s old Transformers and race cars. But this summer hasn’t been like that.

“I’m going to get gas…” then under my breath I mumbled, “first.” I’m going to get gas first then I’m going to see Papa in the Rehab hospital.

After a long drive and a little bit of crying after listening to Dan Savage tell a story on “This American Life” about when his mom died, I got there. But I sat in the parking lot and checked my phone. I finished my glass of tea. I cleaned a couple of receipts out of my purse. I checked my phone again. Played a game of Scrabble. The parking lot was busier than I’d seen before. Lots of people still in church clothes headed for the entrance doors. I sat there as the minutes ticked by.

I’m 46 years old, but I wanted to be the baby for a little while longer. I just couldn’t summon enough adult to walk through the doors and see how my dad is doing. I don’t want to deal with this.

Image courtesy Pixabay

Image courtesy Pixabay

Last time I visited, my sister was in town, so I got to walk beside her like I’ve done for so much of my life. I feel safer when I’m with her–she takes care of things. She’s got no qualms about the smell of Purell or the inelegant details of illness. She’s used to being in charge and I am used to letting her be in charge. But she’s in Bolivia on a surgical mission. And I’m sitting in the parking lot acting like a baby.

Twenty one years ago, my Grandmama Eunice was in this same building. We called it “the nursing home” then. I had gone over to visit Daddy and Big Gay one Sunday in February and Daddy said, “Come on and ride over with me. Mama would love to see you.” So we went, and I walked through the entrance doors next to him and let him handle things. I remember that day so vividly, because it was the last time I saw her. She lay in bed wearing that surprised look she had in her last few months. I knew she had given up on living that day because it was the first time in my life I ever saw her without lipstick and with some gray roots showing in her hair. I remember picking up a photo of one of my Florida cousins that was propped in her window sill. “What’s Jeff’s baby’s name?” I asked her. She couldn’t recall.

Just as Daddy and I were getting ready to leave that day, Grandmama Eunice reached out her thin hand and held on to Daddy’s arm. “I haven’t had a letter from your father and I’m starting to worry.” Daddy’s face got that surprised look on it that we all seemed to be wearing as we figured out this part of life.

“Mama, Daddy died back in 1965. Remember, he was in a car wreck with Mr….” Her hand fluttered up to the side of her face before he finished and she shook her head like she was being silly. She even smiled a little with embarrassment.

I kissed her on the cheek. We said our goodbyes. As we were walking down the hall, I told Daddy, “I didn’t know she was losing her memory.” He said, “Yeah, it comes and goes more lately. A couple of days ago, she told me that when she gets out of here, we need to find a house closer to town because Evelyn can’t be walking that far to school.” Grandmama Eunice was the oldest, and Evelyn was her baby sister. Even though Evelyn was in her 80s at the time, something fluid in Grandmama’s mind had her talking to her grown-up baby boy about her baby sister.

On the drive back to the house that day, Daddy and I were riding along in silence down a long straight stretch of piney highway. It was the middle of the afternoon on a sunny cold day. Before I even noticed anything moving, Daddy pointed at the windshield and barked, “DEER!” A good-sized doe bounded out of the pine woods and slammed into the truck in front of us.

She limped across the highway and collapsed into the ditch on the other side of the road, still trying to run. The black truck pulled over and we pulled over in front of him. Daddy reached under the seat for his pistol. I sat there stunned at how quickly this man who had spent most of his life tending to animals knew that there was no fixing this. He stepped out of the truck and called to the driver who had hit the deer. “You need any help?” He held up the gun so the man could see it.

“Naw, I got it. Thank you.” The man lifted a deer rifle from the rack in the back of his pickup as a teenage boy climbed out the passenger side. This was rural Georgia after all. Most of the venison we ate when I was a kid was killed with my dad’s truck on the back roads he traveled to make veterinary calls. He once got two in one season without ever firing a bullet.

Daddy got back in his truck and we went on our way. “It’s not normal for deer to be running this time of day. Something must have been chasing her.” I couldn’t think of a thing to say.

That story was going through my mind today as I sat in the parking lot. I needed to summon up the courage to be an adult, to know what needs doing and do it. But I sat there wishing I could be that baby for a little while longer. My daddy’s baby. He was Grandmama Eunice’s baby, I’m his baby, Carlos is my baby.

I went inside and we had a great visit. Told stories and made jokes. When his nurse came in for vitals, he introduced me and said, “She’s gonna be an author. I’m really proud of her.”

It was a long day, but a good one. When I got home after dark, G had the Littles in the tub with suds piled up on their heads.

As I put on my pajamas, Carlos, wrapped in a red striped towel, climbed up on the big bed. “Let’s have a pillow fight, Mama.” So we did. “Tickle me firty times, Mama.” And I did. “What’s dis spell, Mama?” He pointed to the cover of Jenny Lawson’s new book. “H-A-P-P-Y…that spells Happy.”

In that moment my little baby, I accepted that this is the way it has to work. Babies have to grow up but they always stay the baby. She loved him, he loves me, I love mine. And that will never change.

Dharwadia India

Image courtesy Pixabay

Learning to Breathe Air

Saturday morning, Carlos and I checked on the science project we’ve got going on the deck.


I eased the brown plastic cover all the way off of his sandbox and propped it against the railing. Twenty little tadpoles flitted across the surface of the rainwater that has collected in there during the last part of summer. The water is nice and clear, but nice and brown too. Every few days, we throw some vegetable matter in there for them to nibble on. They like grapes. There’s shade and sun and room to practice swimming. The cats and the birds haven’t bothered them. Yet.

“Oh, look how much they’ve grown, Carlos!”

He leaned over towards the surface. “They gwowin, Mama!” He parrots what I say often. He’s learning so many new words.

“This one’s got legs!” I named that tadpole Lieutenant Dan–because he’s got new legs. I didn’t try to explain it to Carlos. He’s never made it through Forrest Gump.

"Lieutenant Dan! You got new legs!"

“Lieutenant Dan! You got new legs!”

If our shadows crossed the water, the tadpoles darted away to the safe end of the sandbox. I took a piece of pinestraw and stirred the water gently.

“Look how the big ones are hanging out right at the top of the water.”

“What they doin’ Mama?”

“They’re learning to breathe. Well, they’re learning to breathe air for when they live on land instead of in the water.”

“They breevin’ air.”

Lieutenant Dan flicked his tail and skittered a few inches away from my pinestraw. His tiny legs just hung there while his tail did all the work.

It got me to thinking about how the tadpole doesn’t know that these changes are happening. It doesn’t wake up one day and think, “Alright, today’s THE DAY. I’m gonna get me some LEGS today! Better start practicing breathing the air because I’ve got big plans for these LEGS!” That tadpole spends every day just being a tadpole. Then one day he’ll be a frog. “Gradually, then all at once,” as Hemingway said.

I spend so much of my life trying to anticipate what comes next, trying to make sure that I am ready. I try to ensure that nothing will take me by surprise, while all the while I have no idea what is coming. All this anxiety that stems from prepping for…something.

Going from breathing water to breathing air. What is it in the tadpole that pushes him up towards the top of the water, to that other world? Is it air pressure or the angle of the sun or the buoyancy in his changing body? The tadpole has to change. It has to grow and adapt to a radically different world. But it does that simply by living each minute. The change happens to the tadpole, not because of the tadpole. (This is where my therapist would clear her throat and raise one eyebrow in my general direction.)

Every one of us made the same transition. In the womb, our tiny lungs are filled with amniotic fluid. Then we leave that quiet ocean and the pressure of the atmosphere forces itself into our lungs. We answer the surprise of that invisible weight and the rush of our own blood flowing with our first great wail. The first time we comment on this world is the first time we breathe air.

Even if we never knew it was time to practice.

At Loose Ends

We had a kindergarten tradition at Flint River Academy. Every fall, Mrs. Nina Lemmon (yes, with two ems…and it’s a long i in her first name, not a short i) taught her students to tie their shoes.

shoe lace practiceShe cut out dozens of little shoes from yellow construction paper. You end up with a lot of yellow construction paper when you are a school teacher named Mrs. Lemmon. She wove one white shoelace through each, and labelled them with the names of her new students. The shoes hung on the wall inside her kindergarten classroom with their laces loose and dangling.

Every few days, Mrs. Lemmon, who was an angel of patience, gave us a chance to practice tying our shoes. If you did it right, your shoe was moved out into the hallway under construction paper letters that shouted: “I CAN TIE MY SHOE!” If you couldn’t get it to work, your shoe stayed in the classroom and waited for you to solve the magic puzzle that brought the loose ends together into a neat bow.

I wasn’t the first to get my tied shoe moved out to the hallway. Or the second. Or third. Each day, as we walked in a rambling line to the lunchroom or the library, we passed the parade of neatly tied shoes outside Mrs. Lemmon’s classroom.

It had started to worry me–yes, my neurotic little five-year-old self was already worried about measuring up. What if mine was the last shoe added to the line? What if I never managed to make the rabbit go around the stump and into the hole?

No kid got out of Mrs. Nina Lemmon’s kindergarten class without learning how to tie her shoes. NOT A ONE. I should have known that she wouldn’t let me miss out on this important piece of knowledge, but I wanted to be done with the hard part of learning and on to the celebrating. I wanted my shoe in that hallway for everyone to see. So they would know that I was smart. That I was capable. That I was OK.

One crisp October morning before sunrise, I sat on the living room floor in our trailer and I worked on tying my shoes. It wasn’t happening. I remember my dad’s boots stopping near me (boots–that could be my Plan B if I never figured out the laces!). He squatted down and showed me again. Maybe it was the angle or maybe something clicked or maybe I was just ready, but IT WORKED. I tied one shoe and then I tied the other. I couldn’t wait for Mrs. Tigner to pull up in the driveway and honk the horn on her brown station wagon so that I could get to school and show Mrs. Lemmon that I knew how to tie my shoes!

A couple of weeks ago, G took the kids shoe shopping. Vivi came home with a powder blue pair of sneakers…with laces. Oh boy. That’s when it hit me. My kid is in third grade (gifted, no less!) and still doesn’t know how to tie her shoes. Thanks, Velcro. What would Mrs. Lemmon think?

Every morning, when I had to tie her shoes for her, I added “teach Vivi how to tie her shoes” to the running list of things in my head that I have to do or someone will find out that I’m an incompetent mother. It’s overwhelming, that feeling. That dark gray shadow in my mind that says, “What have you forgotten?”

loose ends

We sat down last night after dinner with no distractions. I took one blue shoe and held it in my lap while Vivi sat across from me with the other.

“OK. Before we ever start, let me just tell you–you’re going to mess this up about 20 times before it makes sense…OK?”

She got it after seven.

After she tied the laces correctly a couple of times, she was ready to quit and go watch Pokemon on Netflix. When I insisted that she sit there on the rug and tie her shoes at least 20 times, she moaned and groaned.

“Hey, Viv. Watch this.” I closed my eyes tight and tied the shoe. She marveled. I took the shoe with loose laces, put it behind my back, then brought it back tied neatly.

“Whoa! You’re a magician!” she laughed and grabbed for the shoe to try it herself.

“No, it’s just that I’ve practiced this since I was in kindergarten. Once you’ve practiced it enough, you won’t even have to think about it. You won’t even be able to remember the time when you couldn’t tie your shoes.”

Ah. When I find myself at loose ends, I have to remember to keep on practicing. Even with mothering, or forgiving myself or breathing through the hard stuff. Eventually, it gets easier. Eventually, I won’t even remember that there was a time when I didn’t know how to do this.