We met the day I drove my family two hours north to look at their house. We were planning on moving the next summer and this house had just shown up “For Sale by Owner.” It was a few days before Christmas, and Marion and her family were about to decorate their tree. With enthusiasm like the Energizer Bunny, Marion buzzed around setting all our kids up with a game. She was great with my shy children, and her two girls were friendly and kind.
The old Vermont Cape was awesome, but Marion was even more awesome. We stayed and visited as if we were old friends and my kids even helped decorate the tree. Even though the house was beautiful, it wasn’t right for us. But that’s not why I was disappointed. I was sad that Marion and her family were moving away to another state. I was so comfortable with her that I just came right out and said, “Hey, why do you have to move anyway?”
In her Marion way she smacked me on my arm (my first smack from Marion!) and said, “Oh, you goof.”
By the time we found a house and moved, Marion’s family had long since left. So imagine my surprise when I saw Marion and her children swimming at the local pond that summer. She told me that they were moving again, this time back to Vermont, but still hours away. And even though we barely knew each other, we chatted like old friends.
Over the next couple of years, Marion would show up here and there as her family came back to visit. I ran into her at a few parties and she always gave me that same quirky smile, and the now famous smack on the arm. One time we met at a mutual friend’s house for an all-women’s clothing swap. The dining room table was piled high with our clothes to trade, and we tried on all kinds of treasures. Everyone ooohed and ahhhhed when I showed off a skin-tight black suede skirt. “It’s so you!” they said. “You look great!” I wasn’t so sure. “It’s kinda tight,” I said, but my words were quickly covered up with, “No it’s not! It’s perfect! It’s you!” I searched the crowded room until I met Marion’s eyes. With the slightest, tiniest movement she shook her head and gave me The Look. I could almost hear her saying, “It’s not you, it’s not perfect, you look like a sausage in that thing. Take it off right now.” Later she tossed me a skirt that was perfect. When I tried it on and showed her she smacked me on the arm and said, “You goof, listen to me from now on.”
When her family decided to move back to the area, I was thrilled; Marion and I could finally have a real friendship. Never did I realize how strong this friendship would be. My twelve-year-old daughter had gotten very sick and the recovery was extremely difficult. On her own, Marion thought of something that she could do to help. With a pixie-like twinkle in her eye, she showed up at our house one Saturday with a gallon of paint and a handful of wallpaper scrapers. Painting has never been my thing, and I had not even noticed that my daughter’s walls were covered with wallpaper more suited for a nursing home than a preteen. But Marion noticed, and she knew that for my daughter’s recovery, a purple room was going to make a difference. And it did.
It took many Saturdays to peel off the layers of wallpaper; the bottom one must have been there since the 1800s, when the house was built! Through the weeks, Marion and I peeled and painted and laughed, our children played together, and the color returned to my daughter’s cheeks. As her room took on new life, so did she, reemerging healthy and beautiful.
Even through our laughter and joking, Marion knew how much I had been hurting during my daughter’s illness. She listened to me when I needed to talk, and held me when I needed to cry. But she’s not one to let sadness rule. She always had a funny story to tell, usually about her own childhood — talk about a wacky family!
Even now when I try to thank her, and tell her how much it means to me that she was there during such a difficult period, she just gives me her quirky smile, smacks me on the arm and says, “Oh, you goof.”
While sitting across the table from my friend, Nancy, tears rolled down my face and splashed onto my plate. “I don’t think we’re ever going to receive a baby,” I wept.
“You will,” Nancy comforted me. “When you least expect it, the call will come, and you’ll be a mommy.”
“It’s been several years since we applied for adoption, and still… no baby. The wait seems endless.”
“The waiting seemed endless for us, too. But then one day, when we least expected it, the adoption agency called and told us that our baby had just been born. Don’t lose hope, Debbie. The Lord will provide at just the right time.”
I hoped she was right.
After we finished eating, Nancy drove me home. Before I got out of the car, she reached over and put her hand on my shoulder. “Remember,” she smiled, “when you least expect it, your baby will arrive.”
“Thanks for the encouragement. I really needed your support today. It’s been a painful and difficult journey.” I got out of the car and waved goodbye as she drove away.
While walking up to our front door, I spotted a colorful package on the porch. I picked it up and carried it into the house where I eagerly tore open the wrappings. Inside the box was a beautiful pastel mug that read, “No mom is half as good as you!” Puzzled by this strange gift, I read the attached card from my husband, Tom. “Congratulations on your new arrival! Call me!”
I rushed to the phone and fumbled to dial the number. It was April Fool’s Day, and I was hoping this wasn’t a prank. “Tom, this isn’t a joke, is it?” I asked nervously.
“No, Debbie. I’d never do something like that to you. I have great news!”
I could tell by the tone in his voice that he was excited. “The social worker at the adoption agency called while you were out to breakfast with Nancy. Our baby is here!”
“Our baby is here?” I paused, absorbing the shock. “I can’t believe it. I sure wasn’t expecting this today. Is it a boy or a girl?”
“I’m coming home for lunch. I’ll give you all the details then.”
I couldn’t believe that Tom wanted me to wait until lunchtime to learn more about our baby, but I sensed that he wanted to share the news in person. To honor his wishes, I accepted his proposition. After I hung up the phone, I climbed the stairs and went into the smallest bedroom reserved for a nursery. When I opened the door and stepped inside, I wept. My lifelong dream to be a mommy was about to be realized, and I was overwhelmed with emotion.
For a while I stood thinking to myself. I wondered what our baby would look like. I hoped that our child would be healthy and strong. I thought about different personalities, hobbies, and talents, and I pondered those possibilities in my heart. I was so excited to meet our precious little one, but I had no idea what to expect.
When Tom came home over his lunch hour, he told me all about our blessing. We hugged each other excitedly, and then called our friends and family members to share the wonderful news. There was so much to be done before our baby’s homecoming. From decorating the nursery to shopping, packing, and making travel arrangements, our days were going to be busy as we prepared for our baby’s arrival.
A few days later, in the midst of our joy, unexpected trouble came. We had already decorated and stocked the nursery, packed our bags, and made flight reservations when we learned that our home study had expired by one week. As a result, governing officials gave us strict orders not to leave the state until these important papers were brought up to date and reapproved. That could take weeks!
By this point, physical and mental exhaustion had taken its toll, and I crumbled under the weight of stress. But the Lord was watching over us and saw our tears. When we called our local agency, it happened to be after closing. Even so, to our surprise, a very kind man answered the phone. He informed us that the social worker we had been working with was no longer employed there, but after he heard our dilemma he encouraged us. “If you can leave right away, I’ll wait for you and see what I can do to help.” After our interview with him, he assured us that he would move things along as quickly as possible.
We flew out of town as originally scheduled; however, we were warned not to go to the out-of-state agency or anywhere near the baby until all the paperwork was cleared. If we did, we would lose all rights to ever adopting a child. Once we got to our destination, there was more waiting and uncertainty. By this time, Tom and I had resigned ourselves to the fact that if this was indeed the child the Lord had selected for us, things would come together before our flight home. If it wasn’t meant to be, we would return empty-handed. While waiting and hoping, we made special time to pray and do some sightseeing in the area.
One week later, we returned home, and signs of spring were everywhere we looked. When we drove into the driveway, we noticed that not only were the trees in bud, but the branches were also covered with bright pink balloons. A large sign hung above the garage door and read, “Welcome Home, Mommy, Daddy, and Kylea!” Our hearts danced with joy as we carried our precious little girl up the stairs and into her nursery.
The moment I sat down in the rocker, Kylea snuggled against me, cooed, and closed her sleepy eyes. What a blessing! The Lord had answered our prayers. We had waited so long for a child, and now all those intense feelings of pain and discouragement suddenly melted away. The paperwork had gone through without any further glitches, and the adoption ceremony was beautiful. Happiness blossomed within our hearts and the reality of parenting hit hard the first time we heard her cry. She was indeed a beautiful little girl created by God especially for us.
The next day, I thought about our adoption experience and realized that God’s timing was perfect! Easter Sunday represents Christ’s resurrection and new life, and we had just experienced those principles in our current situation. I thought it was extra special that Easter was going to be our first Sunday together as a family. God’s ways are always right and wonderful, and it’s good to be a part of His plan.
I remember March 2002. My son was almost three and the state’s largest autism clinic, after a six-hour drive, an all-day evaluation and an expensive overnight hotel stay, had just offered me their professional opinion and advice. He had low-functioning autism and was moderately mentally retarded. His IQ was in the low 60’s. I had anticipated the diagnosis, but not the dire picture that they painted.
That was more than ten years ago and a lot has changed since then. My son has blown every dire prediction right out of the water. With a lot of hard work from a small army of therapists, consultants, and educators, he is at present mainstreamed in a middle school classroom, earning high-honor-roll grades, and speaking without the use of his communication device. He still prefers to be a loner, but he has established friendly relationships with kids at school and in the community. We’re still working hard on behaviors, but his peers accept him just the way he is.
It’s been a long journey. On the way we spent a lot of time in the waiting room of the outpatient therapy center and I’ve met dozens of amazing moms and dads and kids with lots of different diagnoses. Every single family I have met has left me with a profound and lasting impression about how life goes on, love happens naturally, families adapt to their new realities, and finding your blessings to count them isn’t so hard.
Getting to know these families showed me over time that no matter the diagnosis, there were similarities. The kid with Down syndrome flaps his hands when he’s excited, too! The kid with the G-tube avoids eye contact, too! The hearing-impaired kiddo perseverates on topics that interest him, too! The kid with a traumatic brain injury lines up his crayons, too!
Eventually, my son was dismissed from outpatient therapy because he had met his goals. He continued to receive speech and OT in school, but we had to say goodbye to our outpatient-therapy extended family.
Volunteering at school allowed me to see my son and his peers in their natural setting and again, I realized that even kids without IEPs were stimming. Even the neurotypical kids had sensory issues. My son wasn’t the only kid who didn’t want to touch the putty or use glue or eat “wet” food at lunch. My son wasn’t the only one who didn’t really want to play in a group or didn’t like the echo in the gym. My son wasn’t the only one who had meltdowns and completely lost it for reasons that were never fully known.
So as the years have passed, as I have watched my son, now twelve, and my neurotypical daughter, now seven, both blast their way through school and exhibit their own wonderfully unique and amazing personalities, I have reached two important conclusions.
One is that sometimes mother’s intuition really does trump years of medical training and scientific testing. To the team of students and doctors and psychiatrists and mental health professionals and social workers from 2002, I emphatically say, “You were wrong.” They were really arrogant to think that the best of 2002 was all that the future had to offer us, and they were wrong to hold out so little hope. The last decade has brought us a ton of new information, new therapies, new technology, new resources, and new opportunities. I am so glad that I listened to my instincts when every fiber in my body rebelled against their professional opinions!
My other conclusion is that we all, every single one of us, have a little spectrum in us. If you look at all the criteria that define the spectrum diagnosis, every single person on the planet could identify with something on that list. They make us unique, individual, charismatic, maddening, dysfunctional, determined, joyous, anxious and everything else in between. You don’t need to have the autism or Asperger’s diagnosis to be obsessed with details or topics that might not interest anybody else, or to have a fantastic memory or a sensory dysfunction, or to prefer quiet time at home to a boisterous crowd, or to find eye contact a little too intense. We all have a little spectrum in us, and it’s part of what makes each of us a beautiful person.
I thank God for both of my children and our friends and all of their unique positions on the spectrum for giving me the chance to realize this facet of humanity, and to appreciate that we are all extraordinary beings. I look forward to seeing how my introverted, technology- and history-obsessed son (who still hates “wet” food and flaps his hands when he’s excited but is a pro at a proper social introduction), and my exuberant, fearless, creative and thoughtful daughter (who sometimes avoids eye contact), continue to mature into amazing adults, each with their own degree of spectrum perfection.
The tie which links mother and child is of such pure and immaculate strength as to be never violated.
A cry in the night. Whimpering turns to desperate screams. I hear it, but I don’t really want to hear it. It is dark and cold, and my bed is warm and soft.
I throw my feet over the side of the bed, as I grab my cell phone and give it a tap to light my way down the hall. The screaming sounds like death. Gruesome images flash in my mind. Broken limbs? Anaphylactic reaction? Chest pounding, I rush to the door and open it.
My silhouette is recognized in the doorway and the screaming instantly stops.
Once again, I cradle my child’s head against my heart in the wee hours. I rock gently to soothe my tear-soaked baby back to sleep. My bare feet touch the cold, hardwood floors in rhythmic movement. My back starts to ache and my arms quiver from the strain, but I don’t stop moving until I am sure it is safe to put him down, so that he does not notice he is no longer in my embrace.
I am tired.
As I make my way back to bed for the third time this night, images of my own mother fill my mind. She was there for me when I cried out in the night, too.
There was a time when I was sixteen and angry with my mother. She and I had not been on speaking terms for a while, even though she didn’t know it. She had abandoned me. She did not show up for my school events, she didn’t know my friends’ names, and she didn’t care if I came home at two o’clock in the morning. She had a new infant to wake her in the night, and her new husband. I was left to cry it out on my own. So, I lied to her that night. “Going to the movies, Mom.”
Instead, I got into a 1978 yellow Peugeot, packed with teenaged girls and Olde English 800, and headed up a long abandoned logging road that ran alongside a cliff, hanging over the Snake River. The forty-minute switchback ride up the hill promised a kegger party at the top.
Our chauffeur was sixteen years old. A girl named Dorothy. She had just gotten her driver’s license. She beamed at every twist and turn the road made, like she was playing the latest Atari game. But she wasn’t at all familiar with navigating on slippery gravel. Sometimes our back tires didn’t go straight as our front tires turned a harsh corner.
Our car fell off a cliff. The only cedar left on the clear-cut logging road twenty feet down caught it.
The fall threw my friend, Jana, from the car and her arm was pinned under the left front tire, broken, but keeping her from falling to her death. The children that remained in the car with me, although mildly injured, were covered in my blood. My face and torso slammed through the dash and front windshield. I shattered the glass with my cheekbones and rib cage.
Screams in the night for our mothers.
Out of a dead sleep, in the darkness, a ringing. My mother reached out to the sound, startled, as her feet hit the cold floor for the third time that night; but this time, it wasn’t the scream of her infant. The voice on the other end of the phone said, “Your daughter Jennifer is in the ER. Hurry, we don’t know if she will make it.” My mother rushed out of the house, forgetting all details of the phone call. Gruesome images flashed through her mind as she drove.
Because I had lied to my mother and told her I was going to the movies, she went to the wrong ER demanding to see her baby girl who wasn’t there. Confused, she went to another ER, and yet another, until she found me.
She was too late. I had already left my broken body behind to become one with the light. Surrounded in a warm glow that comforted me in a divine embrace, I felt no pain, just love.
I looked down on my naked body lying on a gurney. I watched a frantic emergency room doctor and three nurses pump an air bag on my face and do chest compressions while a blaring EKG flatlined. There was panic in the room.
Just then my mother burst through the ER double doors, exhausted, yelling, “My baby, my baby!” In an instant, my breath was back with a painful force, and I cried out for my mother.
She stayed by my side for days, picking the glass out of my face with tweezers for hours, feeding me ice chips, and telling me that everything would be okay, only slipping out of the room when I didn’t realize that I was no longer in her embrace.
The night comes. Mothers get up and go to their children. My babies cry out for me and I cry out for my mother. It never stops being important. But it is more than that. Sometimes it feels like life and death and mothers help us choose life.
The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.
“How about this guy?” I asked Lucy T. Cat, who was sacked out on my desk. The computer screen showed a dating profile that wasn’t half bad—okay, maybe it had more pictures of trophy fish than the fisherman, but one of the things on my wish list was “has a hobby of his own.” And the other pictures got my attention, as did his math degree and writing flair.
Lucy glanced up and yawned. I wasn’t sure if that meant, “He’s younger than you and lives on the wrong side of the Sound,” or “Pipe down, trying to sleep here.”
“Yeah, you’re right. It’s like three hours each way.” I clicked back to my inbox without sending him a message.
Dipping a toe in the dating pond after the implosion of a fifteen-year relationship, I was happy with myself but aware that, as in high school, most guys weren’t looking for a nerdy tomboy. But I figured that online dating widened the pond . . . and, besides, I was through with trying to change myself for someone else. So I had written a quirky, geeky dating profile and become WriterChick.
There was a new message, one of those, “I think ur hot. Want 2 hook up?” e-mails that spawned more eye rolls than excitement, along with the suspicion that “hot” meant “local and female.”
I shook my head. “Seriously, dude.” But I shot off a quick, “I’m flattered, but no thanks. Happy hunting.” Because, hey, to each his own.
They weren’t all like that, of course. In a few months as WriterChick, I had e-mailed with several nice guys, and had even progressed to long phone calls with a slogan writer on the other side of the state. Things had fizzled out, though, when “Let’s meet halfway for dinner” turned into “I’m beat. Why don’t you pick up some take-out and come to my place?”
Um, no thanks. First date equals public place. Plus, I’m worth the drive.
After that, I’d had a brief instant message fling with an amusing fellow who claimed to be a professor at a nearby college. But he was vague on the details, I couldn’t find his name on the college website, and he wanted to meet at a motel. Red flag, red flag, red flag!
I had gone on some actual dates, too, always with a friend waiting for me to check in. I went to a haunted house with a nice guy scientist and wished for sparks. I met a politician whose picture was ten years out of date, a neat fellow who was just looking for a good time, but was at least honest about it. I had planned dinner with a comedian whose e-mails made me smile, but the timing hadn’t meshed yet. So far, though, none of the matches had been quite right.
“Well, that’s it for today,” I said, logging out. “Ready for dinner?”
It was amazing how quickly ten pounds of tabby can go from sleep mode to a striped gray blur headed for the kitchen.
The next evening, Lucy and I went through the same routine, except that this time there was a real message waiting for me, one that had me giving a little, “Oh!”
It was from the fisherman.
I hesitated before clicking. “I hope he doesn’t think I was stalking him.” The dating site kept a running tally of profile views, so I could see who had been checking me out . . . but the same was true in reverse. And, yeah, maybe I had looked at his page more than once. “Oh, well. Only one way to find out if this is a ‘hey, baby’ or a ‘stop staring.’ ”
Opening the message, I found a short introduction in perfect online dating format: he mentioned something from my profile, added a detail about himself, and invited me to write him back. Even better, he had written it like he was a crusty old sea dog, turning things playful. If he had sent me a drink, it would’ve been a polite white wine wearing an umbrella.
I replied in a similar tone, then focused on my other e-mails, having learned that the more pressure I put on a conversation, the more I was headed for disappointment. It was far better to take things as they came and treat life—and late-thirties dating—as a wonderfully strange adventure.
The next night, I heard back from the fisherman—a witty missive that ended with: “I’d like to get to know you better. Want to write a story together?”
Well, hello. That got my attention. It also sounded like a neat way to skip the usual twenty questions. Plonked in front of the TV with my laptop on one side of me and the cat on the other, I wondered if I should wait so it didn’t look like I was haunting my inbox. Then I answered anyway, signing off with: “The story idea sounds cool. You want to start?”
His first chapter was waiting in my inbox the following morning, and I was pleased to find it a decently written setup with pirates and a lady captain. “I can totally work with this,” I told Lucy, who was sitting on her window perch, watching Bird TV.
She flicked an ear back, which I interpreted as, “You’ve got a book due in less than a month.”
I wrote the next chapter of the pirate story instead, crafting an utterly ridiculous sea battle, complete with a killer bunny and a red-skinned alien admiral who stood on the prow of his ship, shouting, “It’s a trap!”
Geeky? Definitely. But I figured that if he didn’t get my sense of humor, it wasn’t meant to be.
His reply? “Bravo! Round of applause!”
For the next few weeks we traded e-mails, bouncing the story from sea to swamp to land and back again, complete with a hero and a romance. We didn’t always get each other’s inside jokes, but there was plenty of common ground. And most of all, it was fun.
Between the ferry ride and my book deadline, it was more than a month of e-mails before I headed out to meet him at the dock, driving an ugly green truck affectionately known as the Fug-150 (we had debated who drove the worst heap, which was another point in his favor). I fought a solid case of nerves, telling myself it was just another first date.
Only it wasn’t.
The walk-ons were just coming off the ferry as I drove in, and I saw a guy take one look at the Fug and head in my direction. I got out of the truck, and as he drew near, I realized he was all of the six-three he had listed in his description. Bundled against the cold of December in New England and wearing a fur-lined bomber hat, he looked about eight feet tall, making me feel small and girly.
And I, a romance writer who had always thought that love at first sight only existed in books, took one look at the fisherman, this stranger I already knew so intimately, and I thought: “Mine.”
The biggest lesson we have to give our children is truth.
Standing on the beach alone, listening to the gentle crash of the waves, my mind drifts through the last several months and the interesting ways the Universe has gently, and not-so-gently, nudged me towards my decision to return to work. A decision that was far from easy for me.
I have been trying for four years to love being home with my kids. I really have been trying. And there is a lot about it that I do love and very much appreciate. And I am so grateful for the many special times that I have shared with my children.
But the truth is that I just don’t love it. Not full time. And the more time I spend doing something that I really just don’t love doing, the more impatient, and angry, and snappy I get with my children and the more depressed and resentful I feel. And being an impatient, angry, resentful mother is really not the mother, or the person, I want to be.
I know I want to make some changes in my life so that I can be the loving, present, connected mother that I’ve always dreamed of being. But then I think if I just try a little bit harder, or really not even try, but just relax and be present and appreciate the beauty and just stop yelling and getting angry, maybe I can start to love it more.
But I just don’t love it. Not full time.
I enjoy and appreciate and savor my time with my children so much more when I spend less time being their primary caregiver. And I’m really excited now that I am finally giving myself permission to feel this, and say this, and imagine my life changing, so that I am spending more time doing things that I do love to do. I have seen over and over how this helps me to savor and enjoy the time I do spend with my children.
And yet it is still so hard.
Admitting to myself, and others, that I don’t love being a full-time caregiver to my children feels scary. I’m afraid that what people will hear when I say that, is that I don’t love my children.
And I really love my children. I love them more than words can express. And it is for them, as well as for me, that I am making this change in my life.
I have a quote hanging over my kitchen sink that says:
“My greatest gift to give is my happiness.”
And I really believe this in my heart.
So it is for myself, and my wonderful husband, and most importantly, my beautiful children, that I am giving myself the gift of time and space to pursue the experiences that make my heart sing and that help me to be the fullest expression of who I am.
I know that doing what I love makes it so much easier to be more present and connected to the people I love, most especially my children.
And being the fullest expression of who I am, invites them to be the fullest expressions of who they are, which is exactly the kind of mother, and person, I want to be.
You may have a dog that won’t sit up, roll over or even cook breakfast, not because she’s too stupid to learn how but because she’s too smart to bother.
~Rick Horowitz, Chicago Tribune
I opened the cupboard door under the sink and reached for a sponge. Ginger, our six-month-old Boykin Spaniel, darted in, grabbed something and disappeared, her nails scratching along the tile as she scooted away from the scene of the crime and crouched under the coffee table.
“She’s got a Brillo Pad!” I yelled, in hot pursuit. “Drop it, Ginger! Right now!”
Richard blocked one end of the table while I blocked the other. Ginger darted out between Richard’s legs, over the sofa and into the bedroom.
“Richard!” I screamed. “I can’t take it anymore! This dog has got to go!”
Ginger was the devil in disguise. As she grew, I waited for horns to sprout behind her soft silky ears. The amazingly cute, chocolate-brown puppy with a gleaming smile and sparkling eyes had captured my heart the minute I saw her. I soon tired, however, of chasing her around the kitchen table to retrieve socks, towels, eyeglasses and everything else she snatched when I wasn’t looking. Only a biscuit would make her relinquish her prize. I kept the treat jar filled at all times in order to retain my sanity.
I stomped my feet in frustration. “Take her to the pound! I’m done with her!”
Richard calmly snapped the leash on her while I picked pieces of steel wool out of the carpet. Ginger trotted behind him as he headed out the door. My heart began to pound. I leaped up and ran after them.
“She can stay,” I sobbed. Richard laughed. He knew full well Ginger wasn’t going anywhere. Ginger, oblivious to her close call, sniffed the garbage can.
“She’s going to obedience school,” I decided. Obviously I couldn’t train her myself and I certainly couldn’t let her get the best of me.
“Whatever you say, honey,” Richard answered with a grin.
I immediately signed her up for school at the local pet store. The instructor billed himself as a world-renowned dog trainer who could cure any behavioral issues. I laid down my credit card without hesitation.
On that first night, we were six women gathered in the pet store parking lot. The drill sergeant, Gordon, barked orders at us.
“Wear flat shoes to class. No spike heels. No stopping at happy hour. If I smell alcohol, I’ll tell you to leave. And absolutely no smoking,” he said, emphasizing every word with his hands on hips. “Does everyone understand?”
We nodded in agreement.
“I’ve trained dogs for years and it’s the owner that needs the training,” Gordon bellowed. “No treats! Dogs can’t be trained with treats.”
On week two, owners and dogs lined up in the parking lot. Big scraggly-haired mutts of various shapes and colors towered over tiny Ginger. Not the least bit intimidated, she immediately stuck her nose in the pile of bags and purses lining the sidewalk. I jerked her away before she had a chance to steal a set of car keys.
“Sit!” yelled Gordon.
On command five dogs landed on their rumps. Ginger darted off to chase a squirrel dragging me along with her.
“Obviously you didn’t do your research on this breed before you bought her, did you?” said Gordon.
“Why do you think I’m paying you?” I snapped back. “When are we going to learn ‘drop it’?”
“That’s in the advanced class,” replied Gordon. “She has to learn how to sit first.”
I took Ginger to school the next week full of hope. We had worked on sit and stay every spare minute I had. She didn’t seem to get it but I had a feeling it would sink in soon. If she could learn one simple command, I hoped that “drop it” wouldn’t be far behind. The biscuit jar verged on empty.
On cue the class lined up as Gordon called out commands.
All six wagging tails hit the pavement. Ginger’s face lit up as I dealt out praise — along with a treat I’d hidden in my pocket.
“Stay,” Gordon called. Ginger was off like a dirty shirt, as my father used to say. But one out of two was progress.
“Stay,” I repeated. Ginger yanked her leash and I pulled her back. We played tug of war. I glanced at my watch. Ten minutes left. I prayed the time would go quickly. My arm hurt. A classmate’s screaming startled me.
“She’s got a cigarette! She’s got a cigarette!” someone said.
Gordon spun around. “Who’s got a cigarette?” he screamed.
“Ginger! Ginger’s got a cigarette.”
I looked down at the little imp to see a cigarette butt dangling between pursed lips as if she’d been smoking for years.
“Drop it, you little juvenile delinquent. You’re going to get us expelled,” I scolded her.
Ginger looked up at me as if I were speaking Chinese. I retrieved the butt from her clenched jaw and walked toward the trashcan, bouncing dog in tow, as she desperately tried to grab her smoke from my hand. She wanted that cigarette back. I wanted a dog that obeyed me. If I had had a match on me that moment, I’d have lit it so we could both take a drag, and I’ve never smoked a day in my life.
With my stomach in knots, I drove Ginger to the last class. We’d have to pass a final exam to get our obedience school certificate. I worked sit and stay into every interaction with her. My pockets bulged with treats just in case she responded to a command.
“Good luck, Ginger,” I said as she leaped from the front seat of the car into the now familiar parking lot. Excitement lurked in every corner of her asphalt playground. She couldn’t wait to find it. Each dog took its turn performing four different tasks: sit, stay, come, and down. Ginger got an “A” on sitting, and an “F” on everything else.
“I’m sorry, Ginger, you flunked obedience school,” Gordon said, breaking the news in his usual matter-of-fact manner. “Call me,” he whispered in my direction. “I’ll give you a discount to repeat the course.”
I led Ginger to the car, leaving the graduation party in full swing. I slid onto the seat and rested my forehead on the steering wheel, tears flowing down my cheeks. Lifting my head, I read her the riot act.
“You’re so bad. How can I keep you if you’ll never listen to me?” Ginger calmly climbed up on the center console and stared at me. “I’m mad at you. Go away.”
Before I could push her down, her soft pink tongue touched my cheek and licked my tears away. A little brown bouncing ball hopped into my lap and I could no longer resist. With her tail wagging, she kissed me on the lips.
“I can’t live with you. I can’t live without you,” I said as I hugged her.
Ginger kissed me again. Then she stuck her nose into my pocket of treats. I fished one out and she gobbled it down before curling up in my lap. She rested her head on my chest, and her warm, sweet puppy breath soothed me as we drove home together.