Six of One

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Artist: Madison Koeneke, by permission

Near the beginning of July 2012, my father-in-law, Jack, went into the hospice wing of our local hospital for a major medication adjustment. Even with doctors calling the shots to tweak this medication or that one, the extent of what was now needed could only be accomplished in a hospital setting. Within three days, the medical team had miraculously come up with a medically-induced level of comfort and calm for Jack that we could all live with.

Ironically, the following morning, Jack took a turn for the worse and could no longer swallow, his respirations were significantly lower, and he could barely talk. Communication was minimal, yet we could read his face to know when he was scared or painful, versus when he was in minimal distress.

The nine days that followed baffled us all, as Jack demonstrated that at least in his case, a human being can survive with no food or water and much lower levels of oxygen than the medical profession would have us believe. There was nothing typical about the last weeks of his journey, so the team could only give us the widest range of possibilities as to what would transpire, how, and when.

After the death of her beloved husband, Mollie didn’t so much put on a brave face, as didn’t take her brave face off.  She ate when I cooked, drank her coffee and Sprite regularly, took her meds as always, and slept about like usual. She insisted on doing a few dishes and a bit of simple laundry when she felt up to it, and bathed herself with no help. In most regards, she was doing remarkably well. She didn’t talk much, though, and when asked about TV preferences, the answer was always the same: “I don’t care nothin’ ‘bout television.” Or, from the looks of it, anything else.

It’s completely normal and expected that a grieving widow would lose interest in daily life, so it’s not that we thought she would start making new friends, take up latch-hook, or decide to tackle any of a dozen jigsaw puzzles we had lying around the house for her. The problem was that in our home, we could tell that Mollie still felt like a houseguest who came to visit and whose car had broken down at the doorstep: she seemed like someone stranded and too embarrassed to ask for a lift. We suspected that in our home, although she always did as we suggested, she would never let down her guard or feel at ease. We also feared that if we moved to her back home to live, she would start declining food and drink, might once again feel she should be ‘up and doing’ more than she really could, and might even start refusing her meds. But she would be home, and we would be with her.

Mollie’s home, nestled into the side of a mountain, has been her little own castle for 45 years. It is her place on the earth: it’s where she is completely grounded. So despite some misgivings, we moved back to the old homestead three months to the day after Jack died. Although we noted the significance, we didn’t dwell on it, interstate moves being what they are.

Each month on the 15th, I think about the giant hole in our lives that is the loss of Jack. It’s been one month, it’s been two months. Three months and we moved, then four, then five.

In month four, we had made several trips to the doctor with Mollie, who does not eat or drink nearly enough now, just as we feared. There were days of sadness in month five, of course, and a few tears here and there in front of the Christmas tree.

As the new year settled in, I moved around the house each day, doing this and that. I started my blog. I took down the tree and packed up the Christmas trimmings. I cleaned. As I wandered around each day, I kept hearing the phrase ‘six of one, six of one,’ but I just couldn’t write anything. I had developed a familiar routine over the many months that preceded Jack’s death, and I went through what had become ‘my chores’ with a fair amount of efficiency but very little enthusiasm. It didn’t seem to matter to me if I did one load of laundry, or three. I could whip up something for dinner, or we could just have leftovers. The only thing I really wanted to do was write something, anything, to express what this six month mark meant to me, how it was feeling to be in this space in time.

For over a week, thoughts and feelings clanked around in my head, a mishmash of negativity and confusion. Every night, my partner and daughter would ask, “Did you write today?” And each night the answer was the same: I just couldn’t do it.

It’s been quite a while since I felt anything like real depression. Since realizing a couple of years ago that eating anything containing wheat is just this side of a death sentence for me, I have managed some harsh blows from life with some difficulty, but never with the slightest sense that life is not worth living. To be honest, I was starting to dread that somehow I was slipping back into the primordial sludge of clinical depression and that awful free-floating generalized anxiety.

I slogged through each day, not wanting to face the question of whether I was actually experiencing my first wheat-free depression, but I did notice myself vaguely wondering, “what is *wrong* with me?!” Finally, one afternoon as I was bundling up in a wool coat and galoshes to take the trash out, it hit me: what I am feeling is old-fashioned grief, plain and simple.

For nine months, I had taken care of Jack, morning, noon and night. I helped him with the simplest of personal tasks that he’d done for himself for almost 80 years. I talked him through the myriad of confusions he got tied up in. I watched his every move, and caught him when he fell. I had a routine, and there was a strange unforeseen purpose in the million different things I did every day. What I did mattered, and I knew it. Most days, so did Jack, and many days, he said so. And in what sort of felt like a lifetime, and sort of felt like an instant, all of this was just gone.

Back when I was studying psychology, I ran across a little nugget of wisdom: evidently, grief will often hit the bereaved, hard, at the six-month mark. Months after the loss, everything seems sort of normal on the outside. Folks have stopped calling or stopping by to see how you are, and mostly you seem fine. There’s a new rhythm to the days, and the nights have stopped feeling like an infinity. Then BOOM, it hits you smack in the face.  Life is dark, everything seems so pointless, and it’s a struggle to find any meaning in things.

As with several bits of such useful academic knowledge, I’d promptly forgotten about the six month effect. It came back to me about one minute after I realized that what I have been dealing with is ‘just’ grief. In a sense, the realization was a relief, but the kind of relief that didn’t feel like relief.

I still feel weighed down most days. I don’t sleep well. I care about a few things, but far fewer than is normal for me. I have great intentions, specific plans, but very little motivation, and almost no energy. Projects have stalled. People are waiting on me. I’m pretty much stuck right now.

This is the first time I’ve lost a significant person in my life when I wasn’t already dealing with a base-line level of depression and anxiety. The wave of grief I’m dealing with doesn’t really feel much different, and that’s what is so frightening to me.

I remind myself that this time, I’ve had a significant enough life event to account for what I’m feeling. I will ride it out somehow, and that’s all I have to do. If I have a day filled with overwhelming sadness, it won’t kill me. If I take a long time to get anything accomplished, it’s not the end of the world. If I can’t find the silver lining in any dark cloud, it’s not because the silver lining isn’t there. Just keep breathing.

I know that grief eases after a while, even if the loss is felt for a lifetime. I know that I don’t have to do anything in particular to get through this awful time, except just get through it. We humans are a lot more resilient than we think, and the human heart will heal itself, eventually leaving a scar in the place of the wound.

We could have stayed put: not resigned the good job, not vacated our darling little bungalow, not exchanged blue skies for gray. But this pit-of-the-stomach, sickening sadness would still descend on us all, anyway. Grief plays no favorites. Despite knowledge about the process, regardless how much support we have, none of us are immune to this particular kind of suffering. Whether it’s six minutes after the loss, or six months, regardless what we do or where we go, grief will come to call. At some point, we realize that what we are going through, is what we all go through.

The trick is to not be overcome by being overcome. Short of launching into full-blown self-destructive behaviors, whatever we can do to distract ourselves a little while still feeling the bulk of the pain is just fine. Whether we throw ourselves into our work, or feel frozen to the spot and unable to move around in our own lives, the particulars of how we get through the worst of the grief don’t much matter. Whatever we can do to fill the hours between the heartbreak that has happened, and the daybreak that is still to come, is really just six of one, half a dozen of another.

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Coffee, Love

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“I was having a cup of strong coffee first thing this morning, and that got me thinking. Literally!”

One morning last week, I was making a single cup of decaf for my elderly mother-in-law, getting ready to dump the grounds from the Mellita Javajig reusable single-serve canister I use with the Keurig and I saw that the bottom part had fallen into the trash, leaving a perfect heart in negative relief staring back at me, as if to say, “Ahhhh…. I love you, too.” It was sweet.

I’m not a coffee snob, but mostly that’s because I’m too impatient or lazy or cheap, or half-asleep at the brewing hour. I don’t freeze my coffee or even grind my own beans. I keep a stash of K-cups around and use them more than I would like, but panic if I run out of the little filters for the do-it-yourself Javajig contraption. I don’t use ice-cold water in the coffee machine like I think I should. I am not a Barista. I rarely do Starbucks.

If I’m completely honest, I feel a little guilty about coffee most of the time, and not even for the right reasons. I will buy a cheaper brand of Arabica grind even though I know sustainability practices dictate I pay about $16 per pound and choose the manufacturer wisely. I go through a lot of coffee, and I have since I was in my teens. So I make the selfish choice, often as not, choosing the best bean for the buck.

When I first started caring for my in-laws, to my mind, the coffee situation was a bit rough. Since there was essentially no food in the house when we first got here, a quick run to Walmart meant that I had a decent, if small, stash of pretty good coffee to work with. Unfortunately, their second-hand, twenty-year-old coffee pot no longer heated the water well enough to make a rich brew, no matter how much coffee I used, and the element didn’t keep the coffee warm once I had made it. It wasn’t what I was used to, but I adapted and made it work.

Jack and Mollie were always coffee drinkers. Jack took his with cream but no sweetener (like me), and Mollie prefers it with plenty of cream and sweetener (like Annette). They each kept an individual cup warmer on the little table/lamp that sat between their easy chairs, and sometimes the very hot elements would cause the coffee to evaporate before it had really been touched. But since they had always used powdered creamer, their coffee didn’t curdle up into a nasty, gloppy goo as it did when I used real cream. Since Jack in particular was so attached to the little warmer gadgets, I sometimes resorted to using the powdered stuff, at least for their second cups, which were more likely to sit there and fester. Still, I felt bad any time I served them coffee that didn’t come up to my sometimes-shifting standards.

Whatever route I took in creating the morning brew, Jack and Mollie never seemed to notice the difference. Jack was appreciative of any coffee I gave him, and expressed his gratitude in tones of delight every morning, as if each cup was an exciting discovery. Mollie doesn’t usually comment on food and drink either way, but if pressed, always says, “Coffee’s good!” Even when I suspect it’s not.

A couple of months ago, a trip to the neurologist with Mollie ended with the order: switch to decaf. Now, I’m no stranger to decaf. We had switched Jack to decaf, not on doctor’s orders, but because we had run across an article that suggested decaf enhances cognitive function, and at that point, we were desperate.

The current desperation comes from needing to eliminate any possible contributor to dehydration, regardless how small. This week’s follow-up resulted in further insult to injury: drink two Ensures before any coffee, decaf or not.

Life is all about tiny details these days. Working with doctors to maximize the benefits of what little food and drink Mollie can take in. Removing the customary area rugs to minimize the risk of falls. Dutifully reporting the nuances of tiny medication changes so the doctors can tweak a little here, a little there.

I’ll have three cups before Mollie can touch her first, and this seems so unfair to me. Why can’t she do what she’s always done? Make her happy. Except that when she’s dehydrated, she’s not happy. Make her comfortable, then. But when she is weak because she drank when she should have eaten, Mollie is not comfortable, either.

What I wish we could do is let Mollie continue in habits formed over sixty years, give her the creature comforts that make her feel, if not happy or comfortable, at least familiar. It just seems wrong to ask an eighty-year-old person to change the little things that could give her a feeling that her whole life hasn’t been upended.

I have to continue along this road. I will try to find new (and unfamiliar) ways to make my mother-in-law feel good about life. Play old movies on Netflix she doesn’t remember ever watching (but owns on VHS). Go through her dresser drawers to excavate a few lovely, comfortable clothes she’s forgotten she owns. Move a bottle of her perfume down from the high shelf, close at hand, just in case she wants it.

Every morning, I go through the new coffee routine, doctors’ orders ringing in my ears. I long to throw caution to the wind in exchange for a smile, but I just can’t do it. I remind myself that in the grand scheme of things, the little things do matter. Despite all the micro-changes I struggle to accept, I’m happy to say Mollie is feeling a tiny bit better. Not only that, but no matter whatever I throw at it (or into it), evidently my Javajig still loves me.

World’s Best Italian Shortbread, with Almonds, Brandy, and Lemon (Fregolata)

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I can’t say how excited I am to have received permission to share this spectacular recipe! The shortbreads take just a little more ‘doing’ than other recipes, but once you taste it, you won’t soon forget the experience! I waited years before making these, and I regret the delay! I am including the recipe exactly as written in my very favorite cookbook, Pasta & Co By Request. Thanks to Pasta & Co (based in Seattle) for allowing me to share this recipe. If you have a chance, check out their amazing food shops, they are outstanding!

“Our Italian shortbread is more than a cookie and less than a cake – a real toasty-brown, peasant-style dessert. Though it can be cut into wedges, the shortbread is meant to be broken into rough pieces and served with fruit, cheese, and wine. For a picnic or as part of a dessert buffet, it will bring raves.

This recipe uses an 8-inch tart pan with removable bottom, but the drama of the dessert only increases with size. For a large group, use a 12-inch pan and double the recipe.

Prepare-ahead/serving notes: Tightly wrapped, the shortbread keeps well for a couple of weeks. Essential Gear: 8-inch tart pan with removable bottom.

Pam (nonstick spray coating)

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon butter at room temperature

1 cup sugar

2-2/3 cups white flour

1-1/3 cups finely ground blanched almonds

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon brandy

Zest of 1 lemon

Pinch salt

2 tablespoons sugar – coarse preferred (we break up sugar cubes or use Whitworth’s brand Cane Demerara Sugar)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Generously coat an 8-inch tart pan with removable bottom with a nonstick spray coating.

Place butter and sugar in a food processor bowl equipped with a steel blade and process until mixture is creamy. Add flour, almonds, lemon juice, brandy, lemon zest, and salt. Process just long enough to thoroughly blend. Spread mixture into the prepared pan. Refrigerate 15 minutes. Then, using a frosting “comb” or the tines of a table fork, cut concentric ridges into top of dough. Sprinkle with coarse sugar. Bake for 20 minutes. Lower heat to 300 degrees F and continue baking – about 45 minutes longer – until shortbread is golden brown. (Since you want the shortbread quite crunchy, so not underbake.)

Remove from oven and let cool on a rack before removing from pan.

Serves 4 to 6.

4 hours 13 minutes remaining

Back in the day, circa 1994, I was excited to be on the ‘task force’ (idiots who volunteered) to test drive Windows 3.11. Our company was preparing for the big upgrade and our company owners understandably wanted to know what could go wrong before they put the whole operation in jeopardy. I was one of the few secretaries who wanted to mess with the new software and management was happy to have me on the team. In retrospect, I think I was smart enough to learn what the software would usually do, and if my work was lost or corrupted, it just didn’t matter that much.

In those early days, one of the first things we learned was to save our work frequently. We learned it the hard way. Microsoft Word has matured a lot since those days. In 1994, if you didn’t save your work, it was gone. Sometimes if you did save your work, it was gone. There was no prompting. No autosave. No intermittent background save. No nothing. Microsoft Word in 1994 did not sit there stifling an out-loud laugh at your expense, but it sure did feel that way.

Programmers have learned to help out the user. Make it Idiot-proof. Programmers and project leads the world over have figured out that if we (the end users) do something stupid, we are going to blame the software, not ourselves.  Unfortunately, I can hardly get rid of anything on my computer at this point without seeing so many warnings and are-you-really-sure-you-know-what-you’re-doing’s that I start to doubt myself. But I haven’t accidently lost my work for a long, long time, and that’s a good thing in my book, despite the occasional self-doubt.

Fast-forward 2013. I almost always use my two-year old netbook plugged in so I don’t have to worry about draining the battery and thereby losing my work, or at least my place. But, every now and then, I just want to be free. Untether this baby and go outside to write on the back deck in one of the hard metal deck chairs, or on the little front porch in the old plastic lawn chair.  

If I’m completely honest, what I actually do is go cordless so I can watch Netflix while I work in the kitchen, without having yet another electrical cord dangling into the dishwasher or across the cutting board, tempting fate as I chop carrots and potatoes. If I had to stay connected, I don’t think I’d notice cutting the cord until it was too late.

Unlike the unexpected, unannounced major fail situations we had with Windows 3.11, now technology tells me when it’s about to fail. “4 hours and 13 minutes (8% remaining),” it tells me. I think it’s the only calculation this machine knows. If it could, I’m sure my little Samsung would display “Holy crap, Holy crap, I’m going DOWN!!!” 4 hours and 13 minutes sort of means T-minus thirty seconds to serious crash.

Mostly life doesn’t give us the 4 hour 13 minutes warning. If I could change that, I probably would. Still I’m grateful it doesn’t. I don’t always plan as well as I should with the little things I can see coming. Some years from now, I’m sure I’ll look back and tell myself that we saw everything coming. The life-changing events, the little changes in routine, the changes in health, the challenges to long-held beliefs… So much has changed and in retrospect it makes perfect sense. One change predicates the next. It’s all logical, it all hangs together, it’s all part of life. But there’s so many different ways each little thing could go, a thousand options, nuances we can’t calculate. Our health and our histories are so specific, complicated. We do what we can to alter the trajectory of life, to extend and improve it. We do a hundred little things, we do our best, and then we do a little more.

If I got advance notice and the particulars of the awful life events that will someday break my heart, I’m not sure I could function at all. I’d like to think that even if I had a crystal ball, I would leave it on the mantle alongside the collection of thirty-year-old snapshots, covered with dust and half-forgotten. Like those photos, every now and then I bet I’d take the crystal ball down and take a peek past time. I hope in that moment, I’d remember that even with advance warning, 4 hours 13 minutes remaining doesn’t always mean what we think it means.

(3 hours 47 minutes remaining. WordPress post saved. Actual time to crash, five minutes.)

A Meandering Line (of Work)

It’s Monday morning and I’m not going to work, I’m starting to look for work. Again.

We had a relaxing but productive weekend, complete with a nice Sunday dinner and a couple loads of laundry, and no panic about finding a new job. I did a couple of errands, and Annette and I managed one medium-sized project, but it was relaxed all-in-all.  No printing of resumes, no role playing interview questions, no contact emails, no on-line job apps. It’s the sort of Sunday I love.

I’m paying for my easy-going couple of days by floundering in large vats of guilt. As I see Annette off on her hour-and-a-half drive into the city where she is doing a job she recently hired others to do, it’s clear to me that I am falling down on the job, so to speak.

It never occurred to me that at this point in my life, I would be adopting the stance of “Oh I can do anything.” That statement doesn’t really mean what it sounds like, especially when it comes down to jobs which I could legitimately apply for.

I cannot perform brain surgery, nor even take someone’s blood pressure properly. I cannot defend someone in court, nor take the transcription of a court hearing. I cannot run a manufacturing plant, and I have no experience assembling widgets, either. I have no special qualifications whatsoever, although there actually are a lot of things I think I could do, if only because I’ve done them in the past.

Annette’s best friend, Bob, came by to visit over the holidays. Bob is an amazing man who went from working his way through college building houses, to developing a successful financial services business, to dumping that line of work and going into plastics design and manufacturing by way of port-a-potty sales and leasing. That guy really can do (just about) anything.

As it turns out, I have a newly discovered fascination with all things mass-production. When I think back, I realize I’ve always had some of this fascination, but I didn’t know it was a ‘thing:’ I thought everyone loved conveyor belts. School field trips to the cheese factory in Tillamook, Oregon, and trips to the bread factory in Portland were like brain candy to me. It simply never occurred to me that people go into that line of work, and that there is a career and education path that makes it possible.

On Bob’s first visit, he told us about the work he and his company are doing, and I sat in my chair trying to keep my continually-dropping jaw closed so as not to embarrass Annette or myself. Fascinating. Riveting. Amazing. If you didn’t know me, you might think I was flattering Bob, or flirting. But in my defense, he was talking about molds and presses and giant ovens. How cool is that!?

On Bob’s second visit, he brought a laptop with 3D images of many of the products and systems they are working on. I sat on the couch next to Bob, gaping at the screen in profound amazement, asking the kinds of questions only the truly uninitiated ask. How does that thing work? What’s that piece called? Can’t you just… and then the patient explanation as to why my idea was completely off the mark, illustrating my total lack of knowledge and operational insight.

Still, I was having a grand time hearing about Bob’s adventures in plastic and eco-innovation, until the logical question came up. Maybe he was really interested, since he is a very nice man. Maybe he felt uncomfortable with all this talk about his work. Very probably he didn’t mean to twist that metaphorical knife that sticks three inches out of my gut, the knife I constantly move through life trying not to jiggle or touch, because it hurts too much. “What kind of work do you want to do?”

The question makes me groan in dismay. I just don’t know.

I can come up with a good answer, or several, each as reasonable as the next. But that’s the problem. I sort of wish I had one thing. I wish I could confidently declare, “I just want to go back to school and become a network security expert.” Or “I’d love to be an ultrasound technician.” Or “All I’ve ever wanted to be is…” What? A professional singer/pianist. A writer. A professor. A clinical psychologist. A motivational speaker. A quality control expert in a giant factory that makes all kinds of cool gadgets on big machines, one right after the other at 60 units per hour. I want to do all that stuff.

Some days it feels like it’s a little late in life to be having that kind of freedom, in other words, vocational meandering. Most, if not all, the things on my quick list of things to do when I grow up require me going back to school and getting qualified and credentialed to do one basic but quite complicated thing. I’m not likely to ever find myself a professor who sings her lectures to standing ovations by adoring fans/students. I’m also not likely to become a writer who pumps out 60 songs per hour, or even per week. Or a speaker who analyzes the audience and then writes novels about how they got to be however they are. I’m going to have to choose something, and it would be good to get going on it.

I know that people change career paths in mid-life. There are books written on the subject, and generally speaking, reschooling and retooling are entirely appropriate things to do when what you’ve always done becomes the one thing you’d rather poke your eye out than keep right on doing.

I decided recently that I will go back to school once again and finally finish my master’s degree in psychology, after which point this angst I’m feeling will probably be replaced by a different kind of angst.

In the meantime, I need to be working, contributing finances to the household, getting out of the house on a regular basis. Annette and Madison and I will work out our schedules so that my mother-in-law has someone with her at all times. It feels like a stumbling block to not be able to tell prospective employers what my availability will be, but as Annette reminds me, we will work it out.

As to the skills I’ve picked up along the way since I was working full-time in an office environment, I don’t think helping an elder with personal hygiene and learning to type 90 words a minute on my phone using only my thumbs are going to be a big help. Somehow, I will find a way to spin my most recent experience into something that sounds less than lame and slightly schizophrenic. I will point out improved time management skills, a razor-sharp ability to prioritize, more effective communication, and the ability to work well with people who are under extreme stress.

Maybe during this process of translating recent experience into a cohesive set of skills, I will find that I really do believe in what I’ve been doing, and I’ll be able to convince prospective employers that they should, too.

Of course, if I can pull that off, maybe I should go into marketing.

New Year’s Day Fool

It was New Year’s Day. My partner, Annette, and I had gone to her workplace. I had helped out for a few hours, taking the dogs who were boarding for the holiday out to the bathroom so Annette wouldn’t have to tackle the stairs. I cleaned a few kennels, helped out with laundry, and pitched in with some of the baths. When the treatments were administered, phone calls to the doctor on call and the owners out of town finished up, we headed out. We both felt good about what we had accomplished.

We are trying to find ways to deal with how rough this temporary part-time job is on Annette’s legs. After multiple surgeries and almost-constant pain for 35 years, hauling big dogs up and down several flights of stairs is not good. Not good for her, and therefore not good for me.

Annette and I make up an extremely effective team. I have fairly good lower body strength; she has impressive upper body strength. She is amazing in a crisis, and I have learned I have the strength of perseverance, which I didn’t always know I had.  We have stuck by each other through hard times and good times. After thirteen years, I can’t imagine going through life’s ups and downs with anyone else.

It was about 1 o’clock, and we were looking for tacos. There are times when only a plate of tacos will do, and I had worked up an appetite. Navigating our way from the clinic back home was all about which restaurants were on the way and likely to be open (and not too packed).

We remembered a Mexican restaurant we had enjoyed a couple of years back, which was more or less on the way. As we took the off-ramp, I was excited about impending taco goodness, but more excited about using the bathroom. I told her, “I’ll just have water to drink if you’ll order it. I’m going straight to the restroom, I’ll find you when I’m done.”

The restaurant was closed. It’s located in a little strip mall next to Lowe’s and across the street from Walmart. Walmart won out because their bathrooms are usually closer to the front door than Lowe’s. It was that kind of urgency.

She dropped me off at the front door and I made a bee-line for relief.

Afterwards, I sailed out the front entrance, feeling so much better physically and a little guilty for using the facilities without buying anything.

 It was a grey sort of day, cold and drizzling rain. The parking lot was mostly full, and shoppers dashed out to their cars, or had their partners pick them up at the door, everyone hunched over against the weather.

No Annette. I looked around the parking lot, looked up the road to see if she was just looping. No Annette. Don’t freak out. She’s here somewhere. Just wait a minute. No Annette.

As I stood in front of the front door, watching shoppers with certain transportation rush out and off to the next thing on their list, I had a moment or two of panic. I called her cell phone, but it went straight to voice mail. I sent a text, “I’m ready.”

The weirdest thought zipped through my head: Is it April Fool’s Day? Did she ditch me?

What the hell? Here is the one person in the world who has never played a joke on me. She has never once failed to let me know where she is and what she is doing. I mean, she just does not do that sort of thing with me, ever. I love that about her.

What’s alarming is that it took me less than five minutes in bad but not horrible weather to go to a place of distrust about the most trustworthy person I’ve ever known. And I know her well.

I was halfway through chiding myself for this idiotic thought stream when she pulled around to pick me up. Someone had called her about work, her phone vibrated when my text came through, and she figured it was me. Simple as that.

The important thing is that the second this nonsense notion that somehow Annette was putting one over on me, I knew I was being a moron. As soon as the thought really formed, I knew I was completely off-track.

What if she had really been tied up, if something had happened at home with her mom? Another stroke, maybe even the Big One? Annette would have been simultaneously getting an update, formulating a plan, and circling the wagons. Another couple of minutes waiting, and I would have gone from thinking about myself being abandoned, to realizing there was something actually happening and I needed to get on board with the solution. Forget about me, what can I do to help? It would have taken me just a split second to switch gears again.

I don’t think it’s just me that does this sort of thing. All the normal give and take, the years of trust and shared history, threaten to go right out the window when the slightest little thing doesn’t go as we expect it to go.

For me, when I have a stupid impulse to start accusing and doubting for no good reason, I just need to get a grip. When I start thinking crazy, I just need to be a reasonable person who doesn’t lose her mind and make a fool of herself in front of the Walmart entrance on New Year’s Day.

Good Dog, Bad Dog

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Every morning we go through the same routine. Peanut waddles to the front door at daybreak or just before, and lets out the most ear-piercing bark I’ve ever heard, insisting she has got to use the bathroom. Peanut is my mother-in-law’s 13-year-old Jack Russell Terrier, and she is convinced that she is an ‘only child,’ as if this were the one thing in our lives that is immune to change.

During the day, Peanut tolerates Lola and Boomer pretty well. Lola, our blue Doberman, and Boomer, our miniature poodle, have acclimated to life in the country pretty well. I think they are happy here. With a couple acres of fenced-in  land to roam, Lola ventures farther and farther from the front door, while Boomer stays close to the fence and barks at the obnoxious dogs at the top of the hill.

For all of their lives, Lola and Boomer have obeyed basic commands like ‘come,’ ‘go lay down,’ ‘quit licking,’ and ‘drop that this instant before I beat you to death.’  Good dogs.

Our dogs’ crates are their little houses, and they are usually happy to spend time in them. On the other hand, Peanut would probably try to bite my face off if I ever tried to shove her into a kennel for the night. Once in the crate, Peanut would just bark all night and probably create more health problems than she already has. I’m not that brave.

Once I let our dogs out around 9 a.m., they are anxious to go. I open their crates and give the familiar command, “Let’s go potty!” Out they trot, happy for relief and adventure. When they’ve been out about five minutes, I call them back in, and they mind. I used to think they were extremely well-behaved dogs. I’m starting to think it’s because they know breakfast comes next. As the weeks wear on, I notice they are a whole lot more obedient when food is being served in their kennels than in the afternoon when there’s no such incentive. Now that they have plenty of room to run, our dogs are more interested in seeing what’s out behind the shop or down in the garden than staying close to me when they have an interesting option.

When I first started caring for Annette’s parents almost a year and a half ago, Peanut was happily running the household. It sort of worked. She sat in Mollie’s easy chair and took bites of whatever I served. She went where she wanted, did what she wanted. I started thinking my primary job in caring for my in-laws had as much to do with pampering this little unpredictable dog as anything else, since their health didn’t allow them to safely cater to her as they once had.

As things changed with Jack’s health last spring, we made the decision to take the elders and their dog to Florida to my family’s home. An extended ‘vacation.’ Eventually Peanut learned not to eat off her mom and dad’s laps, and our dogs welcomed her into their family like the happy dogs they have always been. All three dogs went outside and right back in when I called them, ate dog food, and did not fight over toys.

We aren’t on ‘vacation’ anymore. We moved back to the ‘homestead’ with one fewer parent than we left with, and we are all heart-broken. Like most only children, Peanut is dealing with her grief by lapsing back into familiar habits.

Peanut still isn’t allowed to eat people food, but she is not happy about it, and she’s not giving up without a fight. We have our indoor cats here now, and the cat food bowl lives in the bathtub where Peanut can’t get into it. So now, instead of me waking up at the slightest noise from a baby monitor on my nightstand, I bolt out of a sound sleep at the slightest jingle of three years’ rabies tags clanking on the bathtub rim about ten feet across the hall from our bedroom door.

Some things are worse. Peanut no longer sleeps quietly through the night next to Mollie’s bed. She may stay put for a couple of hours before she starts up with that shrieking bark, and she may not. We quickly let her back into the living room, because Mollie needs her sleep more than we do.

I suppose Lola and Boomer would love to adopt more of Peanut’s happy-go-lucky ways. I catch them wandering around the kitchen with their noses to the floor once or twice a day, and the command ‘get out of this kitchen’ doesn’t hold the same clout it once did. It becomes more and more difficult to find a place to sit down in the living room without moving a couple of dogs first.

For all the smacks on the rump Peanut gets trying to climb into the tub to visit the cat food, she still runs to the door any time I come into the house, even though I’ve usually just been taking the trash out to the shop. Instead of barking like a rabid fool, now Peanut doesn’t make a sound, as long as it’s me coming through the door.

Maybe my dogs aren’t the saints I once thought they were, and Peanut isn’t actually the devil’s spawn. Maybe these three aren’t really great dogs, but surely they aren’t really awful dogs. If I had to go one way or the other, I’d say they’re pretty good dogs. Pretty good dogs, most days, with pretty good owners. Most days.