Nature and Nurture Argue in the Stairwell

In the early spring of 1996, my mother, younger sister and I moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. At the time, my parents had been separated for two years (they have yet to divorce – closure was never their thing). Yet mom continued to pay the mortgage on the dilapidated childhood home in which my unemployed father squatted (see previous parenthetical snark). The housing budget was tight.

We’d been living with family, but the free rent that came with my maternal grandmother’s flat in North Center had become a price too high to pay. Never a fan of her only child, my mother Gloria, Nanni’s vindictive bitterness toward her two granddaughters became more pronounced with age and the mental deterioration caused by stroke and Parkinson’s disease. When Nanni spread a rumor across the block that I’d borne and hidden a secret child, even the emotionally sedentary and intellectually resistant Gloria could perceive change was in order.

Uptown was a few years away from full gentrification in the mid-1990s and so while a bit snug for three nearly adult women, two cats and a freakishly large 140-pound golden retriever, the apartment we chose had original wood detailing, a separate living room and dining room and a full kitchen pantry. We may not have loved all of the circumstances that brought us to Winnemac Street, but my sister Jenny and I had mad affection for our new place. With its natural lighting and dissociation from the destructive hoarding of our father, and mercurial bullying of Nanni, 1262 West looked and felt like the sweetest freedom $475 a month could buy.

The excitement of setting up home, several months before I’d leave it for the choral adventures of South Africa, followed by freshman year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, still shines brightly in memory. Several years from discovering our mother’s long-running identity theft scheme, which put me in bankruptcy court, and left Jenny and I to rebuild on our own, peace and freedom felt possible as never before.

My younger sister and I put our belongings wherever it felt right – calling out to each other as we unpacked, singing loudly along to CDs blasted from a boom box. In sprit and practice, it was just the two of us. Gloria worked a third-shift nursing job. Jenny and I readied for school, prepared dinner, studied and slept, dodged Jehovah’s witnesses and army crawled across the floor to avoid windows as Chicagoans riotously celebrated the Bulls’ latest NBA Championship. Just us and our pets. A couple of young urban women undertaking a dry run at adulthood.

I remember a few other things quite vividly about that spring move to Uptown. One of them is the sound, more like a death rattle, of my mother attempting to carry her half of a chest of drawers up a single flight of stairs. The highboy-style bureau had belonged to my grandfather, Poppa, who died in July of 1993. In 1996, my mother smoked three or four packs of Virginia Slim Ultra Lights per day. This was a rather neat trick considering she worked in a hospital operating room for 75 hours a week. But I suppose if one avoids healthy food, exercise, house cleaning, bill payment and certainly, the conventions of parenting, it frees up extra time.

The afternoon my mother tried – and failed – to move the dresser left a vivid imprint on my 17 year-old imagination. And of late, I return to the memory more often. On that day in 1996, Gloria was 39.5 years of age – the same spot on the progression of life I presently occupy. She had two teenage daughters (versus my own childlessness) and had long given up on expecting days better and more exciting than ones already passed. The hopelessness was conveyed by the programmed end to end lighting of cigarettes that occupied her waking hours. She was chain puffing her way to conclusion – with internal resignation and a blank stare for the world around her.

The memory of Gloria huffing and gasping, grip on the tall dresser slipping between sweaty hands after a mere seven stairs, is endlessly depressing. Even at the arrogant, immortal-feeling age of 17, I knew a 39 year-old was not, in common practice, an old woman. But there she was, almost fully gray-haired, wearing disheveled, dirty sweats, DDD-cup breasts swinging low and saggy in their bralessness, lighting up her next smoke even as she was clearly unable to breathe. And I hated her intensely in her disregard – the lack of self-care matched by unconcern for the example offered. I thought to myself, swore rather, “That will never be me. I will never let myself go that way.”

Reader, you probably know what happened next. Flash ahead 22 years to the first morning of 2018. I’m 39.5 years old, 30 pounds overweight and pathetically out of shape. Bob and I live in a third-floor walkup condo building and I need a couple breathing breaks to travel those stairs. Every morning I look out the window of our North Center home office, and into the fourth grade Pilgrim Lutheran school classroom where Gloria and I both studied.

When my husband and I walk Jude together, we pass the same two-flat on Wolcott where Nanni played her Machiavellian head games. I may not smoke cigarettes – completely turned off as I was by mom’s perpetually bad breath, yellowed skin and nail beds – but on New Year’s Day, I face an uncomfortable reality. The roads to 40 might travel on different metaphorical continents, but she and I arrived at the same physical health destination. I look, sound and probably feel more like Gloria than I’d promised 17 year-old Becky I’d allow.

And yet for all the unwanted physical parity, my mother and I are different women. At 39, she lived as though she’d already died, while I know I’ve only begun to reach full potential. Our symbolic duality reckons with a self-aware determination that marks my character alone.

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The Ogilvie Arches

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I’ve resided in the city of Chicago nearly my entire life. A toddler’s stay in Virginia here, a college move to Urbana, Illinois there. And one exquisitely awful year wasted with the wrong man in Bensenville, a suburb next door to O’Hare Airport. Oh the noise, so unlike the sonic cornucopia of sirens, bus recordings and general boisterousness that are the soundtrack of urban living. The sky screaming of planes, the smell of jet fuel in the air. Roaring, toxic monotony – much like that relationship.

I’m a committed Windy City concrete jungler. Nevertheless, I’ve spent many years traveling the Metra commuter train lines that ferry suburban workers to and from Chicago’s downtown. The operation serves more than 100 communities with 11 routes and 241 stations, a few of which can be found well inside city limits. I have a lot of love for the Chicago Transit Authority for many reasons. It’s another story for another time, maybe a novella. But two things which a trip on the subway or elevated train is not: comfortable or permissive of personal space. With cushy benches that double as nap mats during off-peak hours, upper deck seating and a smoother ride, Metra delivers a generally preferable experience to standing crushed between sweaty bodies while hanging on to a piece of metal for balance.

And the Ogilvie Train Station, which serves as a hub for many North and West Metra lines, has a few cute shops, some valuable services and a pretty amazing food court. This third wonderland has provided the backdrop to many quick office lunches, drink dates and post-happy hour carb loads over the years. Several businesses sell portable adult beverages to go for one’s Metra trip. How can the CTA compete, I ask?

Anyway the food court offers meal options both healthyish…and not. For every Subway or salad venue, there’s a Taco Bell, Arby’s…and of course, a McDonald’s.

The Ogilvie Mickey D’s has been a curious emotional foci, a place I find myself after incandescent episodes of grief. It’s completely disproportionate to my overall McDonald’s experience. Normally I eat at a franchise maybe twice or thrice a year? But when I do, it’s statistically likely the incident will occur at the train station.

  • In spring 2011, I bellied up to the bar after a stranger than fiction near miss with my soon-to-be ex-husband. The intrigue found me hiding behind a train station dumpster, crouching low to the pavement to avoid being seen. Thus forced to engage. Every second of the standoff included acute awareness of juvenile, humiliating behavior. Others saw me and possibly had a few questions, but it wasn’t their eyes I feared. After abandoning defensive crouch, I ate my weight in French fries while waiting for the next train back to the safety of my bachelorette studio.
  • While battling acute migraine headaches between 2012 and 2015, a period marked by many shameful episodes of public vomiting, fried potatoes were often one of the few foods my body would accept. Ensuing visits to the train station McDonald’s counter, where I was oft and understandably mistaken for a hungover mess. There was an advantage to the confusion. On several occasions, I was allowed to cut in line because other patrons feared my sick.
  • In February of this year, I made half a dozen grief trips on the way home from my current employer. Regular readers of this blog, as well as those close to Bob and I personally, know that this was the month where we lost two of our beloved fur babies within a three week timespan. Dead of winter devastation. Daily movement and functionality were hard-fought battles. I began 2016 on a low-carb diet, losing 15 pounds, and kept the regiment up more or less until Memorial Day. But February contained several days without any other fucks beyond immediate survival to give. There were some Quarter Pounders with cheese at the train depot.
  • In April, Prince died. I left work that day around lunchtime, a grief-stricken, sobbing wreck grappling with shock over the loss of an artistic inspiration. Double Quarter Pounder with cheese while feverishly reading online coverage of the Purple One’s untimely demise.
  • I’ve already mentioned Memorial Day. The next day, Tuesday, I threw low carb diet and exercise routines aside upon learning that my dear friend Todd had died. We’d spent time together the previous weekend and he was perfectly well. Six years of unflagging support, sardonic wit, music and political discourse – gone without warning. I can’t even recall what I ate that day. I just remember feeling pulled to the same particular fast food counter on autopilot. Ingesting my emotions in a familiar place had by now become a source of comfort through complete internal chaos.

It might be inferred (because accurate) that 2016 has been a challenge. Separately and together, Bob and I have had a lot of loss to experience and process. Certainly the complexity of it all has spilled over into our personal dynamics. Though we’re stronger and more bound than ever in our second year, the Terrible Twos aren’t just a toddler thing. Last month was hard. And of course it included an Ogilvie McDonald’s culinary therapy session. For whatever reason, I took a picture of the marquee and posted the image to Facebook with the caption “I’ve given up on life.” I suppose it was a cry for some kind of compassion and community during a moment of weakness.

My friend Meg observed, “the Ogilvie McDonald’s is a ‘special’ kind of giving up.” I knew exactly what she meant. What’s a more anonymous, pulsating and lonely experience than a train station? Add a toxic, fatty, solo meal to the mix and one has all the trappings of bad fiction. I don’t write bad fiction. I don’t write fiction at all.

I think the unreality of the scene keeps me coming back. It’s not the real Becky. It’s not my life. Those visits to McDonald’s represent a false sense of willful control during delirium, a way to organize tragic events that are lawless and messy. It’s a second’s consolation, an indulgent, fleeting fullness before beginning long, empty grief work.

A Laborious Summer

Summer in the City

Today is Labor Day, that celebration of the American worker that falls on the first Monday in September. In a lovely explanation provided by the United States Department of Labor, we dedicate the national holiday, “to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

These fine laborers also form our communities, our circles of friends and family. I remember my maternal grandfather Eugene Bosiacki, a WWII veteran who later drove a streetcar for the relatively nascent Chicago Transit Authority. Poppa was robbed a number of times on the job – an era in which drivers carried cash, expected to make change for riders. He was a man of few words so I’ll never know if these episodes frightened him half much as his time spent as a teenage POW in The Philippines. Somehow I doubt it. In the mid-1980s, Poppa was forced into retirement from his final career as a cable salesman. The company was moving out of state. He was well into his 60s and gee, management would love to extend him an offer to relocate after decades of service. But everything is being computerized and well, of course you understand….

I think of my paternal grandmother June Crowley, who juggled multiple waitressing jobs while raising six kids as a single mother in Chicago. After she retired to her own little cottage across the Illinois border in Wisconsin, June had bunions and painful arthritis from years on her feet. But she also relished the satisfaction of having earned her rest and peaceful homestead. No one had handed her a thing.

I’m reflective of my own academic, non-profit, corporate and volunteer labor. The years of under pay and few (if any) benefits. The career reinvention at age 30 that found me pursuing a dream of writing just as the George W. Bush economy fully cratered. The moments I felt hopeless and crushed under the weight of agendas not my own. And the relative career autonomy and satisfaction I enjoy today, a direct result of timely opportunities and relentless self-advocacy.

But Labor Day 2016 is full of other thoughts beyond the worker and his or her struggles and gains. The holiday also traditionally marks the unofficial end of summer and this one, for me, has been unusually hot and painful. I love the heat and any other year, the Windy City’s months of sultry humidity would be received as a blessing. However when one is physically and psychologically stunted by grief, the languid heaviness of the environment depresses an already weak will to engage.

On Memorial Day, recognized as the informal commencement of summer, my dear friend, theater companion and liberal political debate partner Todd died from a sudden heart attack. Prior to his jolting death, we’d been enjoying beer and pretzels at a local German bar in my neighborhood (where incidentally, Grandma June was employed for many years). We looked forward to a series of concerts and other plans for the coming months. We gave each other a warm, long parting hug. Then Todd went home, enjoyed some of his favorite music (per his final Facebook posts), went to bed and never woke up. I’m still struggling to process that such an important part of my daily existence is gone for good.

This past Thursday as Labor Day weekend approached, a colleague for whom I had enormous respect died after a short battle with eye cancer. Her medical leave was just announced that Monday. Three days later she was gone, leaving behind two young children, a bereaved husband and a legion of befuddled colleagues. Didn’t we just have a drink with her at the office summer outing a few weeks ago? Kristin, like Todd, was in her early 40s with so much left to do. When I return to work this week, there will be an interim director in her seat. Why does life move on with sterile logic when it feels like everything ought to stop?

These bookend summer tragedies created a strange, surreal layer of additional thickness, overlaying Chicago’s muggy air. Air that already stifled from winter’s loss of my fur babies, Dino and Meko, as well as the April death of creative muse and master of individualism, Prince. Bob mourned the passing of his beloved godmother in June.  Death is of course, part of life. But how is one to deal with such an endless conveyer belt of emotional punches? I laid down often this summer. I didn’t always get back up without strenuous effort.

I see much celebration over the advent of fall in my Facebook newsfeed. Normally I regret the end of summer too much to welcome the change of season. Because fall has this annoying habit of leading to winter – a cruel set of Midwestern months indeed. This year feels different. My grief will travel with me as I watch the changing leaves fall to the ground, but I feel the sensible need for a rotation of scenery, of a different energy charged with autumn static. The promise of a difficult year approaching its denouement.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel Stubbornly Remains in Office, Still Destroying Chicago

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“When the Mayor deems Gang Threats Against Police ‘Absolutely Unacceptable,’ he’s perfectly right of course. But the mob vengeance mentality against the CPD did not germinate in a vacuum. What he calls “a continuing dialogue on police reform,” is necessary because Emanuel’s office has a persistent problem – routine evidence of black citizens losing their lives to police officers under circumstances questionable at best.

At this point we’re stuck with Rahm until early 2019. Consideration of a recall bill has been stalled since January, and the Mayor has deflected numerous calls for his resignation. However, we are the same city that shut down a Trump rally, the town that rebuilt itself as a world-class destination after a devastating fire. We reversed the flow of the Chicago River. We are more than capable of coming together to remove the cancer in City Hall. So let’s do it. #FireRahm”

Read the full post at Contemptor.

Home: What Does It Look Like To You?

Home

“Home” is a word with many different definitions. Over the weekend, I visited Dictionary.com to study them…

  1. A house, apartment, or other shelter that is the usual residence of a person, family, or household.
  2. The place in which one’s domestic affections are centered.
  3. An institution for the homeless, sick, etc.: a nursing home.
  4. The dwelling place or retreat of an animal.
  5. The place or region where something is native or most common.
  6. Any place of residence or refuge.
  7. A person’s native place or own country.

What I want to talk about this evening is the fifth definition on this list, home as “the place or region where something is native or most common.” Although I was born in Chicago, the first home I remember is an apartment in rural Virginia. My father Gregg was a military policeman in the United States Armed Forces, a professed proud keeper of domestic peace. My mother was a registered nurse, a healer.

Our apartment had a bathroom door that locked from the outside, and one of my earliest memories is of being trapped in the small room. The doorbell rang while I was doing my tiny lady business and I heard the unmistakable click of the lock as one of my parents ran to greet the caller. I’ve never figured out which one of them actually turned the handle and it seems unlikely this particular mystery will ever be solved.

After what felt like several minutes of banging on the door and crying, I was freed by my laughing mother. She claimed I had tripped the lock myself, silly girl, and what’s the sobbing and fuss all about? I was preschool aged but immediately befuddled. My mommy wouldn’t lie to me, right? I knew what I heard. I wiped my tears and filed the incident away. I was good at that.

Much later I learned from my father’s family that dad had been conducting light traffic in the drug trade to supplement his soldier’s salary. Society’s respected veteran and his wife locked their toddler in the bathroom to service a customer. Because neither of them admitted to it during the course of our relationship, I’ll never know for sure if the maneuver was for my safety or just to keep me out of the way.

It was established early on that home was absolutely for me, “the place or region where something is native or most common.” We moved several times throughout my childhood but each environment was characterized by the same features: emotional and physical threats with lots and lots of untruth.

My parents fought – loudly, violently and often. When I was 8 years old, I was huddled on the stairs that led to a second floor bedroom. I was trying to prevent my little sister from seeing what was unfolding. Usually she was only too happy to oblige but I always felt the need to act as gate keeper and watch to the bitter end. As if by sheer force of stare I could protect my whole family from destroying itself. As if I would know the exact moment to intervene and save everyone. On this evening, my father screamed three words that changed me forever:

“You trapped me.”

Although only a third grader, I knew instantly the trap was me. I could do math and figured out my mother was three months pregnant when she and my father married. If Daddy felt forced into domestic unrest by external forces, the fault was clearly mine. I felt a sudden and quixotic rush of guilt as well as a sense of my own power. In a bizarre way, this new information only reinforced what I already felt was a duty to be hyper-vigilant for my family. I was capable of generating danger before I was even aware of it. That contrary gift had to be channeled productively.

The impression Gregg’s words left, deepened by natural inclinations of character and a desire to be loved, unleashed a firestorm of achievement-oriented activity. I wanted to be the best at everything, to keep climbing new heights, make Gloria and Gregg proud. It was so painfully and openly needy. I owed it to my dysfunctional parents to help them care more, and I was persistent in effort. After all, wasn’t their unhappiness and disinclination to provide for our basic needs my fault? I trapped them. I was hungry in more ways than one to show them that engaging was worth it. That I was worth it. As a bonus, I enjoyed the luxury of disappearing into industry. A mind and body always in motion don’t have time to hurt and despair.

The last time I saw my mom was in my early 20s. She committed extensive identity fraud against my sister and I before fleeing downstate. She’d been lying for years until a repossessed car and a locked drawer of never paid bills exposed the truth. She tried to change her story again and I slapped my own mother – hard. She walked out the door with her purse and the clothes on her back – and never contacted us again. I filled out a police report and the bankruptcy judge who discharged the case regarded me with tremendous pity. I gained a new understanding of home – the place where one can be victimized and abandoned in slow motion. And left to handle the cleanup.

When I was 30 years old, I checked my dad into a hospital for another mental health stint. Although I hadn’t lived with either of my parents in a long time, I was still “home” every time we engaged, my fight or flight responses at the ready. Surprises were rarely of the pleasant variety. But this one should have been good news. Turns out I’d never been a trap after all. Gregg told me I was the first realized, but fourth conceived child. He did not unburden himself out of the goodness of his heart. It was the act of a rebellious man unwilling to confront the consequences of his refusal to stay medicated. I was trampling upon the homeless, bi-polars perceived right to terrorize people in public places. And that required punishment. So he spat the truth in my direction. The first three fetuses had been aborted. They had discussed the same end for me, but ultimately decided to skip the clinic and get married. I was an arbitrary act. Let my story serve as confirmation that the mentally ill can still be tremendous, calculating assholes.

I was horrified, and hated him intensely in that moment. But in a way, the truth did offer a sort of freedom. I’d never heard that my sociopathic mother insisted she couldn’t get pregnant, and that my troubled father failed to question repeated, terminated evidence of her falsehood. I guess the former Catholic altar boy who still skipped red meat on Fridays couldn’t stomach a fourth trip to the abortion clinic. When my father told the whole truth – that three other babies could have been in my position – a whole new can of psychological fuckery opened. Why me? Why had I been born at all? And why were the people who brought me into the world such monumental pricks?

I was so angry and felt an odd sense of loss. My identity had been wrapped in the narrative of the unwanted, troublesome baby with a karmic debt to repay for 22 years by that time. My internal home – my mind – had been violated again by people who – let’s face it – just didn’t have it in them to love me. My mind was the place where I should have felt the safest, where I stubbornly protected my truths. Suddenly Gregg had upended the world order. It was never clearer, as I stood dumb with shock and rage in the emergency room of Good Samaritan Hospital, that I’d just been a fixture in the physical homes I’d inhabited with Gregg and Gloria. A weapon of psychological warfare. No great and mighty impetus after all.

It’s said often that knowledge is its own power. My home, my identity had been stuffed into a blender and pureed. I was already in badly needed individual therapy and in time would add group work to the mix. True story: Al-Anon can work wonders for all co-dependents, not just ones affected by substance abusers. Compulsive lying and gambling, hoarding – the manifestations of addiction are comfortingly similar in their own way. After so many decades spent in emotional isolation, community was key. But before I got there, the knowledge my father imparted to me that day at the hospital gave me the strength to turn around and leave him – for good. In my nascent, evolving home, Gregg, Gloria, their lies and psychological games were unwelcome. I was not the pre-birth harbinger of doom. I was an innocent baby, unfortunate in parental luck. I needed to learn who Becky really is and build her a newer, safer home.

In three weeks I will be 38 years old. I’ve had no contact at all with either of my parents in a long time, long enough to rewrite my definition of home. Remember that list I read at the top of this story? My life today, my living space with my partner Bob and our old shaggy dog Jude most closely matches number 6. The place of residence or refuge. I never understood my parents’ struggle with honesty, even before it started to negatively impact my very existence. I sailed from my mother’s womb as a blunt oversharer and will return to dust the same way I imagine. My natural inclination leans toward the belief that bad timing is more easily forgiven than deceit. I’m sticking with it. I’m capable of shame but I no longer wear it like an albatross stole. For whatever reason the house of relative strength and clarity I inhabit now was built with the materials it required. I can’t regret anything, even the pain.

My mind and my environment, full of quiet, unconditional love that I fought to attract and feel deserving in receiving, is home today. I’m trapped by nothing but the certainty that I’m exactly where I belong.

The Face of White Privilege: Mine

Boston_Protester_White_Privilege

My childhood was troubled. I grew up in a dysfunctional and dangerous home. When I was 13 years old, I started acting out. As eighth graders at a small, inner city Lutheran school, my best friend and I were queens of the neighborhood hill, even if I felt invisible to the rest of society. We embarked on a series of thug-lite adventures that included stealing hood ornaments, drinking Jack Daniels while playing Truth or Dare with local gang members (not high up in the hierarchy, but still) and shoplifting. Though I certainly asked for it often enough, I escaped any real trouble.

I settled down a bit in high school and did fairly well. But I still skipped class to drink rum pilfered from my dad’s pantry with a new best friend. And after sampling marijuana for the first time junior year, I sat in the backseat with stoned passivity as another pal attempted to drive onto the highway via an off-ramp. No one, including myself, was injured.

During undergrad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I was hanging out with a townie buddy at her place when the DEA suddenly burst in to conduct a drug raid. After I was searched and found clean of any weapons, contraband or large amounts of cash, I was allowed to walk to my then-boyfriend’s car and roll away – though I was driving with nothing more than a learner’s permit. Before graduation, I was arrested for two 21st birthday misdemeanors. I was in and out of jail in a couple hours with no incident. After a small fine and some community service, my record was expunged.

In my early 20s, I wrapped a car around a pole at 2:00 am in a rough Chicago neighborhood. Of course, I was under the influence. When the police showed up, my best sober face was used to inform them a tow truck was imminent. The cops never asked me to get out the vehicle. They bid good evening, God speed and drove away. The words emanating from my slurry white lady mouth were satisfactory enough.

All of these episodes are many years in the past. I no longer have any communication with my parents, the first step on a long road to finding the healthy, successful adult waiting patiently in the wings. I’ve had years of individual and group therapy. I have a thriving career, a loving partner and an amazing support network of friends and family. At nearly 38 years of age, I’m proud of the life I’ve built and the opportunities I’ve been given to reach my potential and grow into a leader.

Change the gender and race of my story’s protagonist however, and it plays out in an entirely different way. I’ve been awake to my relative privilege for some time, early biographical roadblocks notwithstanding. I am part of a system that, beyond my parentage, is constructed to benefit, part of a society that mostly roots for my success. I’m a liberal feminist with an advanced humanities degree. I read vociferously. I purposely surround myself with people of different backgrounds and experiences. I want to make the world a healthier, safer and more understanding place for my nieces and nephew. Whatever actions I take must begin and end with listening and learning.

But for a long time, a sort of purposeful forgetfulness took root. I stopped thinking much of my spotty youthful past, except for considering how the events might one day be framed in a memoir. There was no need to dwell. Present circumstances afford the luxury of physical and psychological movement.

Because I am not a person of color. I am particularly not a male person of color. This week especially there’s no hiding from the truth that any one encounter detailed above could have ended in injury, long-term incarceration or death – were I other than a woman with WASP heritage. I’ve been granted leniency in judgment simply by fortune of birth and the benefit of the doubt that comes with it.

And I’ll never let myself forget it again.

#BlackLivesMatter

Remember to Let Him Into Your Heart

Jude

In February, Bob and I were dealt a cruel karmic slap with the loss of two of our three pets in just a few weeks. The concurrent deaths of Dino, the 16 year-old fluffy kitty and Meko, 80 pounds of Rottweiler warrior princess, ripped a hole through our home and our hearts. Wounds from which we’re still recovering.

I can admit now, with some degree of shame, that my own grief had a few additional layers. I’m a caretaker at heart. And Dino and Meko were notoriously needy – Deans with his numerous food and body temperature issues, Meeks destroying the kitchen, bathroom and/or laundry room at the first hint of a thunder storm. She was also truculent at best with other dogs, her attitude not affected whatsoever by the arthritic hips that made her unlikely to win a fight. She just didn’t give a shit. I miss my girl.

The dual loss of those two complex fur babies left a pragmatic vacuum in my world. On his worst day, Bob is more capable than most people. He’s the one who makes things work and keeps them running. In return I silently move the empty beer bottles to the recycling bin and clean the lint trap in the dryer. And while I always loved all three of our pets equally, it took a long time to discover what use, if any, Jude had for me. Bob and the cuddly, drooly Australian shepherd have been together for eight years. They have their routines and language. Bob, the standard bearer for reserve, shoots beams of puppy love from his inner core directly at Jude. It’s the warmest, most adorable light. But it was hard at that time not to feel like an interloper, an intruder into a perfect dynamic.

These feelings became increasingly painful as I struggled with newfound time – time no longer spent cajoling Dino to eat more or playing defense between Meko and every other canine walking the neighborhood. I resented Jude for the change. Throughout his own mourning process, Bob moved closer to Jude, with the confused, lonely dog reciprocating. And I was bitter. I missed my babies and the only one left had a perfect union with my partner from which I felt estranged. Why was he the one that lived?

With the benefit of time and perspective, it’s horrifying to confront the shape into which I allowed grief to contort me, however temporarily. After several weeks of uneven sleep and a waking gnashing of teeth, a simple idea occurred. Perhaps I could actually try getting to know Jude. True we’d been living together in the same menagerie for eight months, but I suddenly saw that I never gave him much thought. In part because of high maintenance devotion to Dino and Meko, and also yes, because of the perfect circle that Bob and Jude formed without me. If my nature is that of a caretaker, it’s also sharing space with an insidious pride. Missing love for fear of rejection.

Once I realized it was stubborn foolishness preventing a closer relationship with Jude, I made an effort to be more hands-on. Yes, he and Bob have their routines but we can have our own. I concede that initial attempts were infused with sad wistfulness. But with dedicated repetition, Jude and I finally got acquainted. The knowledge and understanding is reciprocal. He learned that I don’t like to be leapt upon at walk and dinner times like Daddy does. I figured out that a certain high-pitched whine means a digestive bomb is about to explode. But I still have time to open the back door because Jude hates having accidents in the house. Minus the dog hair and drool, my pup can be kind of fastidious. He is every bit as complex as his siblings were. I just had to look.

There are activities in which I can engage Jude that were not possible with Dino or Meko. Like taking long walks, sometimes three or four miles weaving through the neighborhood streets that are my past, present and future. On Mother’s Day, I awoke in tears, missing my pets more acutely while indulging in an annual bout of self-pity. It’s been well-documented that my own mother’s love was withheld. But it was a beautiful Chicago day and I wanted to treat myself to a positive experience. I decided to take Jude on a trek to see the only apartment building where I remember living a happy, healthy life with my immediate family.

As we made our way to the corner of Byron and Leavitt in North Center, I saw that what had very recently been a solid, well-cared for brick edifice, was now a huge empty lot. For sale. Sun shining, 80s tunes blaring through my headphones, I wanted to sit down and weep. The positive memories of my childhood were literally a crater. But I couldn’t indulge the impulse. I had Jude with me. Instead I leaned forward on the construction fence and placed my forehead on the metal plate, as if to absorb the good times from the vacant ground by osmosis. Jude sat on my feet with his hairy warmth. It was calming. Exactly the anchor needed in an out of control moment.

Our walks are now a regular feature – my activity with Jude. We wander through parks and I let him drink water from my cupped hands. I know to avoid food wrappers and garbage cans as if they are landmines. My spoiled doggie is still a rescue pup at his core. If it has aluminum foil, he’ll eat first and ask questions later. He knows I like a brisk pace and thus he rarely pulls me toward others strolling with their own pets (though we both know he’s dying to sniff their rears). He’s not just Bob’s dog anymore. There was always room for three in the circle. I just had to let myself join.