Over the last few months, several of my friends have dealt with the loss of a beloved pet. It put me in mind of a something I wrote years ago after we lost our first dog, a black lab named Gracie. I thought I'd share this post again in support of them and in memory of Gracie, who I think of often. This reflection and others are available in The Best of Aloha Kugs: Volume I which you can find right HERE.
Everyone loves their dog. At least everyone is supposed to. I loved Gracie from the moment she tackled me in my apartment in New York in the mid-90's. She tackled me, as if to say: “I know you, and you’re mine!” and then sped off as if to say, “So, what else ya got?” She was one of a kind.
That first weekend that the wife brought Grace up to stay with me in NY, I got very sick with Gastroenteritis. I had a high fever and hallucinated a few times. I remember the dog, even having just met me, laying next to my side of the bed, doting on me as though she had known me forever.
She was always a handful, usually for the best. She snuck more cookies, pies, turkey butts, silver polish, pretzels, cakes, ice cream, steak, venison, chicken, cottage cheese, chili, buffalo wing bones, buffalo burgers, French fries, soap, and bread than any dog I’ve ever known. She could release herself from any enclosure, could hide evidence of her crimes, and in general, keep everyone on their toes. She was a menace to other dogs, unless she decided she liked them, and even then, it sometimes took some prodding. She was an only dog, to be certain, but she liked “Peaches,” and “Montana,” and especially “Mikey.”
Grace’s biggest impact on me was not only the manner in which she inspired me to open my heart to her, but in the way she, in her own way led me back to being a person of faith. I was in a pretty dark, but searching period spiritually, and I honestly feel that God chose to work through this 45 pound ball of energy to bring me back around.
I was working at Camp Ramaqoius during the summer of 1998, teaching rock climbing. It was a relatively soft job, but one day, I got a call to come to the office of the camp, as this was before I, or most people had a cell phone. I had a message to call the wife, though she was not the wife then, and she said it was an emergency. I called, and in tears, she told me that Gracie had been involved in a fracas with Harry, the annoying little dog next door, and that she’d bitten him, and his owners were being dicks about it-even though he came on her property. She was upset, and said that she was thinking of putting Grace down. I told her to wait until I got there and left work.
When I got to my car, I found that I was parked in. There was no room at all to get out without serious risk of damaging the other cars.
I was blessed in this time to be driving a 1995 Mercury Tracer, later to be called “Bullseye.“
So what did I do? I won’t say that I prayed as much as I opened a negotiation with the Almighty. I said, alright God-you want me? Here’s my price-get me there and help me fix this, and you’ve got me. Seemed a small price to pay, I thought.
Somehow, I managed to get my car through without damage. To this day, I’m not sure how it happened. Honestly, I have no memory of how I made it out of the parking lot but the nest thing I knew, I was on the road, speeding shamelessly to home, hoping that the future wife, “the girl” in this narrative, would respect my request. In all honesty, I wasn’t sure. Grace was her dog, technically. We weren’t married yet, so I had no real claim to her, though I like to think we were acting as a family, with the wedding less than a year away. My whole drive there, I didn’t put the radio on, which is rare for me. I held a whole dialog with God about not wanting to let this Dog go-that I wasn’t willing to do so, and that if need be, she was coming to live with me in New York whether “the girl” liked it or not. The trip remains a blur to me, and having never driven from Camp to the Girls’ before, I’m still not certain how I managed to figure out how to get there. I spent that drive spelling out my terms to God, and all it was going to cost to get me back, with a full heart, was for lack of a better term, saving this Dog. For whatever reason, I felt called to tie my spiritual life to Gracie’s.
Now, I like to think of myself as a strong man. I’m not sure anyone else does, but I like to think that I have strength, and especially when it is needed, I show it. The moments when I take charge are probably not as frequent, mostly because we work together on most things and build consensus. I remember going into the house, and finding her and Grace on the bed. She had been crying, and in essence, said that she’d said goodbye to Grace.
My specific words at that time I don’t recall, but I know they included that I was not going to allow Gracie to be put down, and that if I had to take her to NY to do so, I would, even if it was against her will. I said that we needed to do better by her as dog-parents, and if there was a failure here, it was ours, not hers. That we had to learn and we had to adjust, and that our family did not simply throw away a life because things got difficult. I said a lot of stuff, and in the end, we agreed to get some help training her, and to work on ourselves as caregivers to Grace. I think it was one of the first real “household decisions” that we made, as we were still only engaged, but I like to think that it helped me realize the importance of taking care of Grace as a mirror to what it means to care for a family. I’d like to think that that’s why God put this nutty dog in my path. But, whatever the reason, I’d made a deal with God and I was back.
It was that simple for me, honestly. The love of a Dog brought me back to God. The story of how I got back with Jesus is even sillier, but it has little to do with Grace.
Throughout the remainder of her life, she brought us incredible joy and humor. I can’t say that the training we did really stuck with her, but we never really had a major incident again, as we learned how to adjust to her, which I think is honestly a lesson about family. You can’t change them, but you can change how to live and deal with them. Grace was there through all of our surgeries and slept curled up in the crux of my knees on more nights then I can remember. We spoiled the daylights out of her, and in essence, she reaped the benefit of our long standing efforts to conceive. She was the first baby in the family. But then, she saw us through all that-every shot, every test, every drug, every disappointment, every hard decision, Grace was there. Sometimes she dozed off, but she never failed to be present.
I remember the summer we got married, I was off from work while she had to work all summer. There may not ever have been more fun had by one man and a dog than we had that summer. Geez-we had our own soundtrack. We’d work out in the morning, have lunch on the deck, listen to the radio in the afternoon, and then, just when it seemed the right time: play “Jump in the line” by Belafonte at happy hour and chill out in the hammock with the parrot head mug until “the girl” got home.
I remember one weekend when I worked at the school in New York, she was with me, and the kids were doing nightly check-in. There was a Korean boy, who was afraid of dogs and when he saw I was holding her leash, decided to make faces at her. Grace looked at me sideways, as if to say, “Mind if I bark at him?” to which I nodded. She let out one loud “ARF” and the boy took off. That one still makes me laugh.
I remember that Grace learned how to wink one eye. She honestly would do it at the most appropriate times, and it would be funny as hell.
I remember one day in North Jersey, she and I were walking outside the house when we were set upon by wasps. We ran, both of us getting stung. I ran into the bathroom, as I had one in my shirt and more following us, and once I hit the door, she turned around, setup on guard-dog duty and held them at bay.
I will always remember how she’d dive into snow banks. I think I will do that too from now on. Seems like a good policy.
I remember reading my graduate papers to her. Her input was invaluable.
I remember Sundays, when the wife would be working all day at the parish, I would be in the den, I’d turn on football and she’d curl up on the green Mona blanket, and we wouldn’t leave that room for hours…and I’d just absently pat her head
I remember how she knew that Great-Grandma Jensen was not someone to jump on…though she jumped on most everyone. I remember too, how when I got home from my back surgery, she just knew she had to be gentle with me. With the wife in Germany, she was my most consistent and welcome companion, and laid with me for hours. She knew to go easy.
I remember waking up with her on 9-11. We were the only two who seemed to have slept through the whole thing, but I remember getting a call from the wife at like 11am, and turning on the TV and holding on to Grace as I got the whole story at once. In all honesty, I just remembered that now. Today. Wow.
I remember how she ate Annie’s cookies and hid the evidence.
I remember playing ball with her in Beverly and how she loved that fence. It was probably the only time we had her that she was really un-tethered. I can still see her romping around that space, chasing the ball, or a bug, or her shadow, or rolling around in something icky. We had a lot of fun on Sundays there, too. Same Mona blanket-just a different couch.
I remember how once my wife got pregnant, Grace had to sleep near her. She did that both times.
I remember how, coming home late from the Dublin Pub, after work, sometimes at 2am, she’d meet me at the top of the steps, smell me, make a face, but go to bed satisfied that I was home. I just smelled bad.
I remember time in the living room in North Jersey listening to the radio, or just music, laying on the floor leaning my head on her for hours. Sometimes in front of the fire, which she always liked.
I will always remember the moments when the twins were sweet to her-petting her and hugging her. Talking to them about her death will be difficult, but necessary. I hope they will learn to understand.
Letting her go this afternoon was hard for me. I held her the whole time, and though it was difficult, I had to be there. To be honest, I saw that moment 9 years ago in my mind when I was racing to the girl’s house to try and save her. I have always known how her life would end, though I didn’t know when. It went pretty much exactly as I knew it would. I’m glad that we had those 9 years though. We packed a lot of love and a lot of life, growth and change into those years.
I knew I had to be with her at the end, because I honestly feel in my heart that she would have done the same for me. If I had asked her to, she’d have stayed with me that long, and longer. She would have waited up for me, as she often did. I held her all the way through, and I told her that I love her and that I always will. I told her that she was a good dog. I thanked her for being my and our dog. I told her that everyone loves her. I told her I will miss her, and I asked God, that even though I do not know what is out there beyond life, if there is a place for her, that she find her way there, as she has more than done her part to make this world better. I told her that she made me a much better person, and that she brought me back to God. I said that a day would not go by that I do not think of her, and I honestly feel that is true. She restored my faith and opened my heart to a world of endless love and wonder, and in all honesty, there are not that many human beings in my life that can top that for impact.
Perhaps that’s unusual. Take it up with God then-I’m at peace with it.
I’d like to think that she had a good life with us. The last few years her health was not as good, and with the birth or the twins and Allie, our attention to her diminished. I feel badly about that, except for the fact that I’d like to think that in some way, caring for her taught us how to care for them. She got to enjoy them and they her, and while the twins are not yet 3, they will remember her. I will see to that.
The house already seems emptier without her. There’s no one to pick up the food that the boy dropped on the Oriental rug. I guess I’m going to have to be more diligent about that. I keep thinking that I’m going to hear her adjust herself on Daddy’s chair and I’ll hear the clinking. I think the first night I spend in this house or the next by myself will be difficult, as even when the wife and the kids were away, Grace and I were usually home together. I’m not looking forward to that.
She was one of a kind. I don’t know that I’ll ever want another dog, or to be honest, any pet.
I had my dog, and she was spectacular. I will miss her, and I hope that we did right by her.
Addendum from 2018: As I revisit this over ten years since she died, I do still miss her. That said, there was a moment a few years ago where I really felt her presence. The children and the wife really wanted a dog and I’d been resistant. “I’d had my dog,” I said. "It wouldn’t be fair to another dog to try to have her fill the space that Gracie left," I said.
Someone posted something on Facebook a few years back that was written from the perspective of the dog who had passed and it said, essentially, “instead of missing me, please take that love and share it one of my brothers or sisters who need a home.”
And of course, that made me lose it too. And we have Maggie now (pictured above), who is laying on my foot again as I edit all this. It seems to be her happy place, right on top of my foot.
Just like Gracie.
A week from today I will celebrate my 45th birthday. I usually like my birthday, but it has obviously taken a back seat to other events in our family calendar over the years. More often than not, I have to do math in my head when someone asks me how old I am, but, I won’t likely have to do that next Wednesday at least. Any of you who’ve known me, read my books, blogs, or simply paid attention to the middle-aged gentlemen in your lives will know that we have a penchant for anniversaries. Maybe it’s just me but generally I think we mark events all year, especially now that Facebook makes it so easy to know what stupid thing we were doing “on this day” every single day.
My father died when he was fifty years old. He was the strongest and healthiest man I knew until about May 1990, after which cancer mangled us all, culminating in his death in October. I was seventeen. I’ve written about the mess I became and the nonsense that my difficulty in managing that whole part of my life has wrought. But this isn’t about that. This is about what it means to be a grown-up. Sort of.
Technically, I suppose I’m a grown-up. Certainly, I’m an adult, but I don’t know that I feel like one all the time. I spent so many years as a stay at home dad, living in the world of my children: their play, their imagination, their amazing creativity, much of which, I’m glad to say still continues to this day. I was all ways kind of a goof. My wife has said on several occasions that I’ve helped her learn how to be more fun. I won’t argue the point. I also spent so many years working in schools that I know my mind and schedule were locked into school-time, which is really similar to ‘young people time’ and promoted a sense of being youthful at times, at least for me.
I’m now a few years away from the age my father was when he died of cancer. I never had the chance to have an adult relationship with him and that saddens me when I think about it. I think he’d have been a spectacular grandfather and I believe he’d have really loved my wife.
So, as I think of it all, I’m at an age that my father was, for that one year. What’s funny to me though is that I still feel very much like myself. I still feel like the kid who did stuff as a kid: played sports, was in clubs, performed in shows and stuff like that. I still feel like the kid who grew up with a whole lot of dreams and plans. I was all of those kids until I became that kid who lost his dad on a breezy day in October. I still feel like the kid that had to figure out life with my mother for years after dad died. I still feel like the young man that had to navigate both of their deaths. I still feel like that same young man at times, despite what returns to me when I look in the mirror. It’s sometimes very strange to see it all in the moments we stare at ourselves.
I know that my father once turned 45, just like I’m getting ready to do. I don’t remember his 45th birthday, but it would have the winter of 1984 and I was in sixth grade. There was likely a steak dinner and a homemade Chocolate cake that my mother made for special occasions. There may be similar things on my birthday next week but the challenge I’m facing is that I find it nearly impossible to think about myself in the same context as my dad. He was a grown-up. Mom was a grown-up. Sister Jane, Father Dave, Mrs. Chorley, Mrs. MacFarland, Mr. Hartz, Jim the Mailman, Sal from Sal’s Pizza: these were grown-ups. Mr. Bedford, our bus driver for SPS, Mrs. McGinn, Grady at Trinity Church-those were grown-ups. I can’t be one of those now, can I? I suppose I am, but I don’t exactly feel like I’m a shining example of adulthood, like I remember them being. But what if they all felt like me? Maybe they still felt like the young person they’d been, inhabiting the body of an adult they hadn’t anticipated becoming? I don’t know that I’ll ever know the answer to that one, but I hope that makes sense.
“Don’t ever grow up completely.”
A good friend of mine wrote that to me in the yearbook the year she graduated high school. I’ve always liked the idea behind it. I used to take it to mean that I shouldn’t ever completely lose touch with the young person I was at the time. That strikes me as a totally reasonable explanation. Thinking about it right now, however, I wonder if there’s more to it than just that.
Maybe part of not “growing up completely” is allowing myself to look at the adults I knew as a child with similar wonder and respect, as opposed to looking at them with eyes that are much closer to the age than they were when I knew them. Maybe it’s that I shouldn’t lose my inherent sense of wonder and silliness, which was a big part of my persona then. I’d like to think it still is now. Regardless, as I grow older, I hope I grow wiser and more patient and more kind, but I hope I also hold onto some of the aspects of my youth that have survived all these years and challenges and flourished, especially in my life as a parent. I still have no plans to ever “grow up completely” but I’m intrigued now by the idea of how others might approach the question, so I’ll ask directly: What does being a “grown-up” mean to you? And are you one? Feel free to answer in the comments section and as always, thanks for your support.
What a difference a year makes.
At this time a year ago, I was getting ready to head to New York City for one of the largest annual writing conferences in North America. I had a novel in hand and a desire to bring it, and myself for that matter, back into the game that is publishing. I’d attended a smaller conference in Philadelphia earlier in the year and received some good advice and worked on a few things with my book pitch and the book itself. I’d then consulted with a major industry insider who worked with me on the overall scope of the book, my synopsis, and helped me make a few significant structural changes that made the book a lot better.
The weekend of the conference, I took the Acela up from DC on a Friday and arrived in Manhattan with a full head of steam. I was there to learn, network, cheat on my diet, and pitch my book to a roomful of editors and agents in what they call “Pitch Slam.” It’s essentially book-related speed dating.
Overall it was a great conference and I learned a lot and met some very cool people and ate some amazing food. I got to meet and talk with Richard Russo and a number of other writers and agents and editors, many of whom I’ve gotten to know a bit through their social media and web platforms in the months since. It was a valuable experience.
I did well at the Pitch Slam. I had worked on my pitch and felt like I had it down tight. I like to talk, so I had to really work on not rambling and getting off topic because there needed to be time for conversation. You’re given only a couple of minutes so you have to make the most of them. I ended up with requests for partials from five agents and one request for the full manuscript. That was about a 95% success rate for the day so I left the event feeling ecstatic. The cocktail hour later that evening was boisterous and many toasts were raised. It seemed as though almost all of us had met with some level of success. It was a good feeling and it permeated all of the remaining sessions during the conference.
Alas, then it was time to head home to continue our work as writers and prepare our submissions to the agents/editors that were about to make our dreams come true.
I left town on Sunday on the Bolt Bus. It was not as luxurious as the Acela, but it got the job done and I tried not to think of it as a commentary on how the weekend had gone. It had not been an inexpensive venture, which is why I’ve only gone to this conference twice in my life, and saving a little on the back end was really just fine.
After a week or so of fine-tuning my manuscript, I sent out the requested partials and the one full manuscript request. I personalized each letter with details from our conversations in New York, details I’d learned about other books and authors they’d represented or worked with and how I saw x, y, or z as something that indicated that we’d work well together. I did my homework and I respected the process. I believed in myself and I believed in my book, The Last Good Day.
I’m tempted to completely skip over the part where most of the agents didn’t respond, as this is not really about agents or that process. Literary agents work extremely hard and every single one of them I’ve met has been pleasant and professional. The ones who responded to me were kind and generally thoughtful in their replies. A few were clearly cut-and-paste passes, but again, I know many of them get over a 100 blind queries from people like me a day. It must be daunting and don’t envy them their inboxes. I heard from two of them within a month, another after four months and yet another seven months later, long after I’d made some changes I’ll discuss in just a moment. The other two I’ve still not heard from. I sent nearly forty more blind queries between August and December with no appreciable response.
It was getting close to Christmas and as I often do around that time of year, I began to take stock of things in my life. The family and I had some time off planned after the holidays and I brought all of my notes and everything related to both The Last Good Day and a few other projects I’d been playing with on vacation with me.
After our first day of vacation down the shore, everyone else went to sleep, leaving me and the dog awake to tackle the thing in front of us. Maggie, our very sweet yellow lab, promptly fell asleep on my foot. While certainly a supportive gesture, she was of little help.
The first question I asked myself was: “Do I believe in The Last Good Day?” I did, but I didn’t see a way forward with it in that moment, but the characters in that book have never really allowed me to let them go.
The next thing I thought about was “What do I really want out of all of this writing stuff?” Throughout my life, I’ve always written. I remember writing a book about dinosaurs on my Grandmother’s old Smith-Corona typewriter when I was five. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t take it up to the bookstore so everyone could have one. Writing was about the only thing I was good at in school, or at least the only thing I took any real interest in, besides music, and I didn’t get that at school. So, I’ve always been writing-stories, novels, journaling, blogging, and more-I’ve always written stuff and I likely always will. So, if writing was likely to serve as a constant anyway, what is it I really want from it?
I sat with that question a long time over a glass of Jameson’s Caskmates with one giant ice cube that looked a little like the Death Star. The answer I finally came to was, “I want to give my book a chance to find an audience.” I could almost feel the characters inside my head give me a slow and semi-sarcastic ‘golf clap,’ as they are occasionally smartasses, but it was the next moment that I remember more clearly.
Full disclosure: I talk to myself sometimes. Everybody does it but I do it more than most people, probably. I find it to be a healthy way to brainstorm and flesh out ideas and I usually only do it when alone.
Anyway, I leaned back in the really uncomfortable dining room chair, causing the dog to reposition herself onto not just my foot but my entire ankle, and said aloud to myself, “So what exactly are you going to about it?”
I sat with that question a while before my eyes settled on a chair in the living room. It’s one of those older, cushioned rocking chairs that were popular forty years ago. I don’t even know when or where we got it, but rocking chairs in general make me think of my grandmothers. In that moment I remembered my mom’s mom, sitting in that same room, probably in that same chair and for some reason, after midnight, during Christmas break, I had a flash of her reading her favorite children’s book to me as a little kid.
She read it to me so many times. She’d passed away years ago by that point but for some reason, I remember looking at that chair and flashing back to the first time I could remember her reading me The Little Red Hen.
If you’re not familiar with the story, the gist of it is that the Hen grows some wheat and all along the process she asks her friends if they are going to help her with it: planting, sowing, milling, and then baking it into bread. All of her friends say, “Not I!” None of them will help her so she replies to them all in turn, “I will do it myself.” Then, when she’s finished baking the bread, she asks who’s going to help her eat the bread and predictably, everyone is down for that part. But that Little Red Hen, she’s not having any of it since they couldn’t be bothered to help her along the way. As a result, they weren’t going to enjoy the delicious bread she labored on, so she said “I will eat it myself”
“And she did.” That’s actually how the book ends. I know why that story resonated so much for my Grandmother, though that’s not a story for this space. I remember looking at the chair and thinking about her and missing her very much in that moment and remembering how we’d shared that story. That was when I really started thinking about maybe, just maybe it was time to do it myself. Like the Little Red Hen. Like my grandmother.
I won’t go into my entire employment history here as that couldn’t possibly be of interest to anyone, but I’ll say this: that moment was not the first time I thought to myself, ‘If I don’t take charge of this, it’s all going to be a mess so I better make myself in charge of it.’ I was possessed of a “I can fix that” complex in many of the jobs I held in my younger years. I was often wrong but I think I’ll leave it at that.
I’d been wary of Independent/self-publishing for years. I didn’t have any real reason to be, but I found that going it alone in an industry I was still learning wasn’t all that appealing to me until that moment when I felt my grandmother remind me that, “I can do it myself.” It felt ok then. It felt like acknowledging the fact that I’ve always been better when I can be in charge of the things that matter the most to me and that my characters would probably find no fiercer advocate than me, might just matter enough to make a difference.
So, with no formal business training and less sleep, I wrote a business plan in the middle of the night. OK, first I googled, “How to write a business plan.” Then I googled “How to start a business.” Then I emailed my accountant and asked her to explain it all to me. She’s pretty awesome.
But hey--I made a decision that night and it was not, “Hey, lemme publish my book!” The decision I made was, I’m going to start a publishing company. Yes, I’m going to publish my own book but that’s not the long-term goal. I’m not in this to write one book. I’m not in this to just say I did it once and go back to my other jobs. I’m in this now to publish multiple books and eventually help other writers do the same. Once I figure out how to do it effectively.
It’s been a challenge but it’s one that I’ve relished in, to be honest. I’m in my forties and I’m learning new things. I’ve published a book, the first in a series, and it’s done well. But I didn’t do this for one book. I’m here for good. I know it may take a while to become profitable, but I have time.
One year ago, I was looking for someone to VALIDATE me. I was looking for someone to WANT me as a client. By heading to New York, I was attending what one of my peers called, at the time: “Writers Fantasy Camp.” That moniker bothered me a lot at the time.
Today, I run a business. I’ve invested in my writing, my characters and perhaps most importantly, my belief that anything is possible. For now, I am the best shepherd for my sheep, the best “hype man” for my brand. It’s going to take some time and I might fail. I am learning a lot of new things and I’m not good at all of them. But stepping out on faith as an adult who’s already had and left several careers behind is really pretty darned exciting.
I might fail. I could run out of money and then I’d have some decisions to make. I might succeed beyond my wildest dreams and then I’d have some decisions to make. But you know what the fun part is? It’s that I don’t really know what’s going to happen. That’s a pretty fun place to be as an adult. Starting a new thing that’s based on the thing I’ve always done? To me, that sounds like living the dream.
I plan to remain my own best advocate. I plan to continue playing the long game. I plan to continue to learn how to market The Last Good Day effectively. I’m already working on book two in the Avery & Angela series and beyond.
I’m always going to write. My hope is that I’m able to look back on this time in my life and reflect on the beginnings of a sustainable career as a writer as opposed to a glorified fantasy camp. I’m optimistic.
Doing what you love and having it not feel like work: isn’t that the dream?
Well, I’m working on it and it’s never felt closer.