It’s barely a whimper now when we drive by all the old familiar places.
The boxwood shrubs, the cracks in the threshold of the appliance store, the plastic jar of dog biscuits at the barber shop; she had memorized every step, every scent, every stop. There was a time when she would writhe in doggie pain, inconsolable, yelping and moaning, lunging out the window, if I’d turn the corner on Lockwood Ave., and keep on going, no time for our evening walk, no time for revisiting the places which brought her so much joy.
But not last night. Too much time and too many walks not taken has dulled her memory. Last night, she offered only one, short whimper, almost as an after thought.
This made me sad.
“Libby, don’t you remember?” as I reached to the back seat to scratch her golden, silky head. “Have you forgotten? This is the place you love so much !”
She looked straight ahead with doggie determination, eyes focused on the road in front of us, chin up, as if saying, “What’s next? Where are we going?
My dog has turned into me.
In much the same way that I have ignored any reminders of the joy I’ve known in the past, I’m passing through my life these days with my eyes focused on the road ahead, “What’s next? Where am I going?
There was a time when I was not so strong, when I pitched and moaned, aching to go back to my favorite places, wanting to jump out the window of a tall building instead of a car, inconsolable for nights on end. Honestly, it was months and it was ridiculous. Pete thought so too. He was our family dog, during this particular pitching and moaning, box-of-Kleenex-a-day phase of my life. Actually, Pete,“The King of Dogs” as I anointed him, was with me for 14 years, the most trustworthy partner I had in raising these four kids, no doubt. He was our faithful companion, floor show and guard dog. Pete was ultra-protective, wicked smart and devoted to me, but he didn’t suffer whining fools after a point. Yes, even my loyal, 98-pound German Shepherd mutt hound ran out of patience during these spells of nocturnal sobbing. Concerned and sympathetic at first, when my muffled sobs would wake him from a sound sleep on the rug next to my bed, he’d slowly get up on his arthritic doggie legs, (he was ten years old already...) and come to my bedside, nudging me in the back with his cold nose.
“What’s wrong? Is there anything I can do? Rollover and go back to sleep, you have to work in the morning....”
After a few months of this irrational, and in hindsight, completely undeserved grieving over a guy who truly wasn’t worth it, if the tears on my pillow woke him up, Pete would slowly lumber up from the rug, with an indignant, doggie “harrumph” noise and unceremoniously walk out of my room, crossing the hall to my daughter’s bedroom where he could sleep in peace. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so damn pitiful.
I’ve almost forgotten the wonderful times and the wretched times which provoked this prolonged drama, but I do hold fast to my resolve to never go through that kind of heartache again. The memories lay dormant, less pungent than the scents along Libby’s favorite route, until some damn Hallmark holiday comes along to stink up my mind.
I avoided the most recent one, however, and it’s one of the worst. I deftly dodged the emotional stink bomb this past Valentine’s Day and was damn proud of it. Just like Libby, The Replacement Dog, as I’ve anointed her, I looked straight ahead, trying not to notice that everything on the damn planet was dripping in red; from the cupid cut-outs on the elementary school windows, to the red velvet cupcakes in the bakery case, to the lacy push-up bras at Target, I paid no attention to any of it, a single gal with no beau in site, I was hangin’ tough. I showered affection on others, even bought a few token gifts and sent Valentines to my faraway kids, AND stayed on my diet, thank you very much! My daughter bought me a lovely bouquet of flowers and I was fine. Just fine.
Until yesterday. I rounded the corner at the grocery store, and the heart shaped boxes of chocolates, donned in their crinkly, bright red cellophane, had been dumped in the 75% off cart, like so many mufflers in a junk yard. It made me remember, dammit. A semi-sweet jab of a reminder, shattering the Valentines Past immunity I’d built up from eating candy conversation hearts by the fistful, stamped with, “Remain Numb.”
Such is my modus operandi, Remain Numb. It’s my credo, my strategy, mother’s little helper, in never letting these alleged romantic holidays burst my impervious little bubble. It’s a multi-purpose mindset to surviving all manner of emotionally challenging occasions, including but not limited to; birthdays, Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, my wedding anniversaries, former husband’s arrest and sentencing dates, other people’s weddings, other people’s wedding anniversaries and sitting in my car at stoplights watching couples stroll along the sidewalk holding hands.
“Remain Numb.” Try it, it works.
Unless something smacks you in the face, like a piled up stack of bright red heart shaped boxes of candy relegated to the clearance basket. I paused. I pondered, right there on the special bargain aisle. Sometimes you have to stop and smell the chocolate. To stuff it, (and I don’t mean eating it) is unhealthy. At least thats what my shrink always told me.
“What you suppress, you must express,” he would say, followed by “we’re out of time.”
Okay, okay, So, I’ll express that some memories are worth an occasion whimper, like the romantic weekend I spent with Nick the out-of-towner, the man whom I instantly fell in love with at my brother Garrett’s funeral. My shrink told me this was also unhealthy.
But for a time, it was purely wonderful, especially our first Valentine’s Day, when he flew into town for one of the most romantic lovely, sweet evenings of my life. I baked heart shaped sugar cookies and frosted them in pink, I farmed out the kids to three different moms and bought something pink. I booked a suite for the opening night of a grandly restored, downtown hotel and made reservations at an intimate Italian restaurant, shaved my entire body and took a long bubble bath.
He left me a message before he boarded the plane.
“I can not wait to hold you,” he said. I saved that message for months.
The anticipation was thrilling. This would be only our third weekend together since that bright December day when we went hiking in the mountains of New Mexico, one day after we memorialized my brother, and just two days before the police arrested my ex-husband. Peppered in between the grief and stress, I had spent New Year’s Eve with him in Milwaukee and now, just two weeks later, he was coming to St. Louis for Valentine’s Day. It felt like it had been two years.
I bought a pretty red shirt to wear to the airport, my make-up was perfect, my hair was perfect, my breath was pepperminty and I was lotioned up all over, with brand new, lacy things and expensive, French perfume. We were like two pups wagging our tails when we spotted each other in the crowd on Concourse A.
Embraces like these are the kind you dream about. His shoulders were as wide as a big screen TV, and he swallowed me in his arms, lifting me off my feet.
“I thought it would take forever to get off that damn plane” he whispered.
It was one of the best feelings I’ve ever known.
And it was one of the sweetest nights I’ve ever had. The dinner was exquisite,
(I had the pumpkin filled tortellini, he had the veal) and so was everything else, the red wine, the frosted heart-shaped cookies, the red wicker basket he brought me, full of scented soaps and oils, the decadent chocolates, the crystal chandeliers in the lobby, with giant bouquets of roses on every table, the decadent king size bed in the plush, turn-of-the-century suite, with it’s heavy, brocade bedspread which we promptly kicked to the floor. And later, lying on top of it, a ridiculously sinful indulgence, we ate Krispy Kreme donuts and drank milk from the carton at 3:00 o’clock in the morning.
We were completely unaware of the blizzard whirling outside, until I got up to blow out the candles. I refused to fret about my kids sleeping at their friends’ houses, my ex-husband sleeping in the county jail, cancelled flights, mounting bills, car repairs and college loans or what would become of Nick and I, “What’s next? Where are we going?” and yet, hoping and praying at the same time that he’d say, “I’m moving to St. Louis. I want to be with you.” I was totally in the moment for one blissful night. With Norah Jones singing “Come Away With Me” on the radio, I drifted off to heavenly sleep. in his arms, sated, serene.
We broke up on a clear November morning in Milwaukee, nine months later. After a dozen or so back and forth trips, with him increasingly withdrawing, and me increasingly holding on for dear life, I found my strength, or rescued my pride. I got up one morning, after he’d said, “I just can’t do the long distance thing any longer,” and then added, ”but I don’t want to lose you,” and promptly turned his back to me in bed. As soon as it was light, I got up and out. I never got my shit together so fast in my life! Up and out, packed and gone, in about six minutes flat.
“I’m leaving before it gets ugly,” I said and walked out the door. The only satisfaction I had, was the look of disbelief and profound sadness in his face. I still don’t know how I had the strength to keep on walking. My car was covered in a blanket of screamingly vibrant yellow leaves, the sky, bright blue, like the New Mexico sky on the day I fell so deeply into him. I pulled away from the curb and never looked back.
Although, I did call. Fool that I was, I called. In an empty downtown parking lot, overlooking Lake Michigan, my hands shaking, tears running down my face, I called back to say,
“The lake is so beautiful this morning. It makes me so sad that we are not going to have this day together.”
“I wish you’d come back,” he said. “I don’t want you to go.”
But I had to. I knew we couldn’t bridge the distance or the different lifestyles. A writer, musician, with no children of his own, he’d never man up enough to take on four teenagers who didn’t belong to him and he admitted as much. I knew it wouldn’t work, but my head hadn’t informed my heart. The onslaught of tears commenced at Lake Michigan and didn’t let up until I crossed the mighty, miserable, Mississippi. I was writhing in pain, yelping and moaning for 248 consecutive miles, from that parking lot to my driveway, where, I had to suck it up, pull it together, slap on some concealer, and hit the door explaining to my disappointed kids why mom was home a day early and why Nick would not be coming back.
It took me a full year to get over him.
When you fall in love at 47, you know you have fewer chances of doing it again. Will there ever be another blonde, with eyes as shiny as the sky? Or winter nights, us unaware of storms brewing outside? Or silly pink cookies and satiny pink peniors, the anticipation of love’s tender touch? I do not know. I truly do not know.
But I will concede that time is a healer, this much I can say is true. I’ve moved on, I’ve gotten better, I’m whole, I’m happy, I’m healthy. But, I’m also honest.
The only thing worse than longing is the absence of it.
“Remain Numb” isn’t good enough. It’s not good enough for my dog and it sure as hell isn’t good enough for me. Just like the chocolate Easter bunnies, in their gold foil regalia sit quietly on the next aisle over, surely there is some joy waiting around the corner.
Come on, Libby, we’re going for a walk.