Teacher’s Pet (Part 3)

In June of last year, I attended my niece’s high school graduation. I was happy for my niece, but I found the ceremony speeches tedious to sit through. The speech of an elderly English teacher told the story of a boy throwing starfish stranded on the shore back in the ocean. A man comes up to the boy and tells him that he can’t possibly hope to make a difference when there are so many stranded starfish on so many miles of shoreline. The boy picks up another starfish, throws it in to the sea and replies….

 

“Makes a difference to that one!” I said smugly to my sister as the teacher paused for dramatic effect. I’d heard that fable before. It was in one of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books I read when I was in middle school.

 

As tedious as that graduation ceremony was, I think it ultimately played a part in me finally returning to college to finish my degree the following winter. During the first week of class I had dinner with a friend of mine.

 

“Hey there, dinner date!” my friend greeted me, as I stepped in to her car from my driveway.

 

I kissed her on the cheek and asked her how her day was.

 

“Stressful. My students are driving me crazy.”

 

“Too bad you can’t have more students like me.”

 

Although I call my friend by her first name now, in a part of my mind she’ll always be Mrs. Walters.

 

“You’re looking good,” she said as she turned to me from the driver’s seat.

 

“Thanks. I brushed my hair and there’s no toothpaste in it…Remember when I got that sewing needle caught in my hair?’’

 

“Of course. I’ll never forget that.”

 

“Yeah, that’s what you said when it happened 20 years ago.”

 

“Gosh. Has it really been 20 years?”

 

We settled in to one of those diners off Route 1 that are so emblematic of New Jersey.

 

A loaf of bread was placed in the middle of the table. I told her she should cut it because her fine motor skills are better than mine.

 

I congratulated her on winning the teacher of the year award and told her no one deserved it more than her.

 

She told me she will be retiring at the end of the year and that next year she will be volunteering in the school with dogs. She showed me a funny cell phone video of dogs. We talked about our previous and current pets. She asked if I remembered Mrs. Staggard and I said that yeah, I remember I was jealous that her class had a hamster and ours didn’t.

 

“I like how you remember everyone by their animals.”

 

Throughout that dinner as the intervening years between middle school seemed to melt away and the past seemed to meld with the present, I was filled with the kind of joy that comes with catching up with an old friend that you connect with so genuinely and so completely, but I also felt tinges of sadness. I found myself wishing I’d “overcome” the struggles I’d faced in middle school and become a “normal” adult. Instead I’d become the kind of adult who can’t hold a job, live on her own, or have a romantic relationship.

 

Yet I knew the fact that I was sitting there right then having dinner with a long- time friend was a testament to what I have overcome. Maintaining friendships with other humans once seemed impossible for me. Now I have become a social animal. I know I owe it all to the good animals, good friends and good teachers in my life. I also know that those are overlapping categories.

 

On the drive home my friend talked about how special education has changed over the years, how she could never get away with being as friendly with her students now as she was with me back then. She said she’s seeing an increase in aggressive, depressive and suicidal behavior in students. She said she used to think she could make a difference as a special education teacher but now she’s not so sure.

 

That statement shocked and bothered me. As I reached across the car to rest my hand on her shoulder, that starfish metaphor entered my head and it was as though my arm had been transformed in to the arm of a starfish.

 

“You made a difference to me.”

 

 

Teacher’s Pet (Part 2)

“Hey, kid, want to go have lunch together?” Mrs. Walters asked as she approached me in the cafeteria on the first day of eighth grade.

 

I wasn’t sure why she was asking me to have lunch with her since she wasn’t my teacher anymore, but I acquiesced.

 

“I just loved all those letters you sent me over the summer,” she said sarcastically.

 

“Sorry. You know writing’s a chore for me.”

 

“So, how was your summer?”

 

“Good.”

 

“And how’s Frisky doing?”

 

“He’s doing well.”

 

“I’m glad but you can tell me if he died. I can handle it.”

 

“No, he’s alive and well.”

 

“I have two new rabbits. They’re black rabbits.”

 

“What are their names?”

 

“Midnight and Charcoal.”

 

I was thinking those were not very original names for black pets, but I just said “Cool.”

 

“How are you liking eighth grade so far?”

 

“It’s okay.”

 

“How do you like your new supplemental teacher?”

 

“I don’t like her. I wish you were still my teacher.”

 

“I’m still your friend.”

 

***

I knew I had a much friendlier relationship with Mrs. Walters than was typical for a teacher and student, but I was still pretty shocked when she suggested I come over to her house for dinner.

 

“What? Why would I do that?’’

 

“So you can meet my animals.”

 

“You’re allowed to take me home with you? Can’t you get in trouble for that?”

 

“As long as your mom says it’s okay, I think I can get away with it.”

 

 

For years my mom had been trying to facilitate playdates between me and my peers but with little success. I basically considered playdates to be a form of torture and getting me to participate in them was like pulling teeth. I rarely got invited on playdates and I never initiated them. On the few occasions that my mother was able to arrange playdates at our house she would stay home from work in an effort to facilitate appropriate social interaction between me and the other kid. Things like conversing with the other person, showing interest in the other person and making eye contact just didn’t come naturally to me. My friendships never lasted very long.

 

Being friends with a teacher was pretty weird so I figured this would be the most awkward “playdate” of all. I figured I would not be invited back. I figured this friendship would dissolve even more quickly than my other ones had. Yet somehow this friendship worked. Somehow, I was invited back over and over again. Somehow, I was readily accepted by her entire family-the two-legged members, the four- legged members, the members who had more than four legs and the members who had fewer than two legs. I’d never liked little kids when I was a little kid myself but now I took a liking to her kids and of course to her animals. The only issue that ever arose was the time I was playing with the family frog and it got loose. I started panicking but I was told to calm down. This wasn’t the first time an animal had gotten loose in the house.

 

One day as she was taking me to her house I said, “Oh my god! Let’s stop at my dad’s house and see my chickens!”

 

“Oh my god. You’re crazy. I’m not trespassing on your dad’s property when he’s not there to look at chickens under a trampoline!”

 

“Please, please, please,” I begged, flashing her my sweetest smile.

 

“All right. I’ll do it for you.”

 

Mrs. Walters wasn’t one of those friends I “just barely tolerated.” I completely and utterly adored her. Some people were confused by our friendship though.

 

“Why is Kira always having dinner at her teacher’s house? Is she in trouble at school?” my babysitter asked my mother.

 

“No, she likes her teacher. They’re friends,” my mother replied.

 

“She’s friends with her teacher?’’ my babysitter said incredulously.

 

“Yeah, they’re good friends. I’ve never seen Kira respond like that to anyone.”

 

 

While the dinners at Mrs. Walters’ house were not a sign of trouble at school, unfortunately I was experiencing some trouble there. I hadn’t been kidding when I’d told Mrs. Walters I didn’t like my eighth- grade special education teacher, Mrs. Robinovitz. Mrs. Walters and I had been a perfect match. She was someone who completely understood me. Mrs. Robinovitz and I were a terrible match and she did not seem to understand me at all. She was one of those teachers who tended to interpret my struggles as rudeness or laziness and would chide me accordingly. The problem was that now that I was an angsty teenager who had gained some social courage, I was reacting to those kinds of encounters not just by blushing and crying but by defending myself, sometimes a bit too aggressively. When Mrs. Robinovitz said she was going to write me up for I don’t even remember what, I replied “Fine, write me up, bitch!”

 

“Couldn’t you have just said ‘Fine. write me up’ and left off the bitch?” the school psychologist asked.

 

“You know, there’s a staff member in this building that I dislike and disagree with, but I realize I have to get along with her,” Mrs. Walters said, after the school psychologist had asked her to talk to me about the situation.

 

“Who is it that you dislike?’’

 

“It doesn’t matter. The point is…”

 

“Is it Mrs. Strachan?’’

 

“Kira…”

 

“Is it Ms. Maurer?  Mr. Glass? Miss Gi…”

 

“Kira! The point is how do you think it would go over for me if I called this person a bitch?’’

 

“Not too well.”

 

“Correct. And it didn’t go over too well for you either, now did it?”

 

 

I was also having problems at home that were carrying over to school. For years my parents had had this weird not really married but not entirely separated relationship but now the marriage was moving toward divorce. Things were getting ugly and I was getting blamed and caught in the middle. I started getting bad grades and running away from home. A meeting was called with my parents, the school psychologist and some of my eighth- grade teachers to discuss my situation and well-being. Mrs. Walters attended the meeting too.

When she next saw me after the meeting she held her arms out to me and drew me in tightly.

“You don’t deserve any of the hard stuff you’re going through, kid. People say things about you that aren’t right. I’d stop it all if I could.”

 

I did not doubt for a second that she would move heaven and earth to help me and in that moment in spite of everything, I felt incredibly lucky.

 

“I love you,” I said as I leaned my weight against her, absorbing the comfort she offered.

 

My next neurologist report said that I was now expressing affection and humor towards others in a way that I never had before, and that people were flocking towards me in a way that they never had before.

***

 

Perhaps no female coming of age story would be complete without a mention of that time when the girl “becomes a woman.” It happened for me a couple of weeks before the end of eighth grade. As close as I was with Mrs. Walters, I was not inclined to discuss my period with her, but she ended up finding out about it anyway and in a very dramatic fashion.

 

As you might imagine, first periods are particularly rough for the hygienically, socially and fine motor skills challenged and particularly when they’re accompanied by gastrointestinal upsets.

 

I sat in a stall of the middle school girl’s bathroom moaning and unable to cope with what was happening to me. Someone must have noticed and tried to help but I was overwhelmed and unresponsive. A teacher was called in to the bathroom and then so was the vice principal. They tried to get me to come out, but I was in pain and having trouble cleaning myself up. I just wanted to be left alone. Their efforts to get me to come out became more demanding and forceful. It was when the teacher climbed over the wall of my stall that I really lost it.

 

“I hate you!” I screamed.

 

The vice principal threatened to knock down the door of my stall.

 

“Go away, asshole!”

 

I burst in to tears. I could hear frantic discussion being carried out over stalls and across walkie talkies. More people entered the bathroom.

 

“Go get Mrs. Walters,” a voice was saying

 

“She’s busy now.”

 

“We need to get her. She’s the only one who’s going to be able to calm Kira down at this point.”

 

I buried my head in my hands, feeling hopelessly trapped and wishing for an escape. The walls of the bathroom stall had become a pink prison.

 

A blur of pain and hysteria and then Mrs. Walters’ voice.

 

“Kira, it’s me. Are you okay? Can you come out?’’

 

“Make everyone else go away first.”

 

On this day of becoming a woman I couldn’t have felt more child-like. I heard hushed voices and retreating footsteps.

 

“Okay, everyone else is gone. Can you come out now?”

 

“I’m bleeding…and… and… my stomach hurts…and…I can’t get this pad on….and…”

 

“It’s all right. It happens. Just do the best you can.”

 

After adjusting my underwear and making ample use of toilet paper, I finally pulled myself to my feet. I cautiously opened my stall door and walked over to the sink where Mrs. Walters was standing.

 

Mrs. Walters pressed a wet napkin to my face and rubbed my back. As she took me in her arms, I spilled tears all over her and prayed to God that was the only bodily fluid being spilled.

“They said they were going to break the door down…and she climbed over the stall…and…” I spluttered.

 

“I know, honey. It’s okay now. I’m here now. You were just scared.”

 

She dabbed at my face some more, then sighed and said, “But for the love of God, you can’t call the vice principal an asshole!”

 

I was suspended from school the next day, although Mrs. Walters told me not to think of it as a suspension but a day of rest.

 

She took me to her house for dinner that night and as she drove me home, I fretted about facing the music at school the next day.

 

“You’re making a mountain out of a mole hill. Just write an apology letter and you’ll be fine.”

 

In my apology letter I compared my actions in the middle school bathroom to the actions of a trapped and terrified animal and emphasized my need to behave in a manner more appropriate for a human being.

***

 

The day before school ended I sat in the gym with the rest of my eighth – grade class rehearsing for the graduation ceremony that would occur that night. Although my period was over now, I was once again experiencing pain. This was emotional pain but the pangs it was producing in my body were not entirely dissimilar from menstrual cramps. It was the pain of anticipated separation and loss.

 

The mood in the gym was jubilant. My peers had every reason to be happy. Soon they would be leaving middle school and next year they would be entering high school along with all their friends. I, on the other hand, would be leaving my best friend behind. It was enough to trigger another meltdown. After a teacher noticed that I was crying, I was removed from the graduation rehearsal and Mrs. Walters was once again called in to attend to me.

 

“What am I going to do without you?” I asked plaintively, reaching for her hand.

 

“What do you mean? I’m not going anywhere.”

 

“But I am.”

 

“People don’t stop caring about each other just because they’re in different buildings. That’s not how friendships work.”

 

“But I won’t see you anymore.”

A pregnant pause filled the air. I could tell Mrs. Walters was measuring her words carefully.

“I can’t promise that I’ll see you every day or every week or even every month, but I can promise you I’ll be your friend forever.”

 

My mom took me to the store that night to get goodbye presents for my eighth- grade teachers and of course for Mrs. Walters too. I got her a birdhouse and an accompanying birdwatching book. This time there was no need for my mother to write a note thanking her for all she’d done for me. I wrote that note myself.

 

After putting the note in its envelope, I laid on my bed and cried some more. My mother tried to comfort me. She assured me that Mrs. Walters would keep in touch with me and would always be there for me. She said she could tell she was that kind of person just by looking in to her eyes. She also said that while she was sorry I was hurting so much, she was glad that I had gotten attached to someone. For a while she was afraid I would never be attached to anyone besides her.

 

“You’re so sweet,” Mrs. Walters said the next day as she read my card.

 

I thought I was all done with crying but when I said my goodbyes to Mrs. Walters at the end of the day, I shed some more tears.

“Crying again? You are such a turkey.”

In spite of my distress, I found myself amused by that animal reference. I told her that I was really going to miss her.

“We’ll keep in touch,” she reassured me.

“I don’t know how I’m going to survive high school.”

“You’ll be fine. You can connect with other people.”

I could feel my old argumentative streak flaring up.

“I don’t want other people! I want you!”

“You’ll still have me, and you can also make new friends. You’re a very genuine person. People appreciate that.”

“The word is pronounced genu-WIN, not genu-WINE,” I corrected through my tears.

“Well, however it’s pronounced, you’re a lovely person and you have so much to offer.”

I thought back to the first time I cried in middle school-that time when Ms. Maurer confronted me in the hallway over my tardiness and Mrs. Walters came to my rescue. I realized that Mrs. Walters had rescued me in so many ways since then and I had changed so much as a result. Although it sounds trite to say I’d changed from a caterpillar to a butterfly, considering how heavily animals played in to our relationship, it feels like an appropriate metaphor.

 

***

The summer after eighth grade a card arrived for me in the mail, written in the familiar flowing cursive of my favorite teacher.

 

Dear Kira,

Thank you for the gifts. They weren’t necessary! I have enjoyed our friendship greatly. You are a very special young lady and always will be! I will be calling you soon to get together. Keep enjoying your summer. See you soon!

Love,

Mrs. Walters

I put that card from the best friend I’d ever had in my drawer of special things, next to the first one she’d sent me.

Teacher’s Pet (Part 1)

Editor’s note: Here’s an essay I wrote for my writing class last year about a teacher who made a difference in my lie. Enjoy.

 As I walked the hallways of my new school building on the first day of seventh grade, I noticed that the first class listed on my schedule was supplemental. “What on earth is supplemental?’’ I wondered. When I entered the designated classroom, I noticed that it was a small classroom with a table instead of desks. There were only six other students seated around the table. At that point I realized what supplemental was. It was the special education class.

I’d had special education services my whole life, but it had been a while since I’d been in a special education classroom. Back when I was in first grade it was referred to as resource room.

My second-grade teacher had suggested that perhaps special education services in a public school were not enough for me so in the summer my parents sent me to a school for the learning disabled for a trial period. That school said I was welcome to come back in the fall, but they weren’t sure there was much they could do for me because their school was catered toward kids with language- based learning disabilities and my language skills were advanced. My parents asked me whether I wanted to return to the public school in the fall or remain in the special school. I was initially indifferent but when I heard that the third- grade teacher I had been assigned to in the public school kept a pet rabbit in the classroom I decided I wanted to return to public school.

I preferred the company of animals to the company of humans. Animals wouldn’t criticize my poor social skills, poor fine motor skills or poor visual spatial skills. They wouldn’t complain that I was disheveled, disorganized or inattentive. When I flapped my hands, they wouldn’t ask me why I did that or inform me that it’s not something normal people do. Some of them would just flap their wings in return. Friendships with humans were elusive to me but friendships with animals came naturally.

This teacher who sat in front of the table in my first class on my first day of seventh grade was middle aged with shoulder length blond hair and deep blue eyes. She introduced herself as Mrs. Walters. She said she was going to tell us a little bit about herself and then we would take turns going around the table telling everyone about ourselves. I groaned inwardly. I hated telling people about myself. I hated talking to people in general. Elective mutism was one of the many diagnoses that had been given to me over the years and then discarded. I did not fit neatly in to any one diagnostic category.

I was only half listening as Mrs. Walters told us about her husband, her kids and the town in which she lived but my ears perked up when she told us about her menagerie of pets. While my educational and psychological reports often noted that I showed little interest in other people, I was, however, interested in other people’s animals. Mrs. Walters obviously was too since as we went around the room she encouraged the students to talk about their pets. Mrs. Walters had an impressive collection of pets and so did some of the other students in the class but since I was going through my animal hoarding phase at the time, I had the largest menagerie of all. When it was my turn to speak, mouths dropped open as I shared my list of pets. I’d kind of enjoyed  speaking about myself in that instance.

The next day Mrs. Walters decided to ask us if we knew why we were in her class. It was the first time I’d ever heard a special education teacher address the issue.

“Because we don’t do our homework?” a girl named Patience ventured.

“No, actually that’s not why you’re in here. You’re in here because you learn differently….”

Just then something in the corner of the room caught my eye.

“You got a fish?” I asked Mrs. Walters, pointing to the swirl of rainbow colored fins gliding through the water of an oblong tank.

“ Oh, yeah. I just got him yesterday at the pet store.”

“What’s his name?”

“I think I’m going to call him Frisky. He seems pretty frisky, don’t you think?”

“He’s a Japanese Fighter Fish, right?”

“Yeah. How did you know?”

“I have a fighter fish.”

“What’s his name?”

“Mr. Bluefish.”

“That’s a cute name.”

“Did you know that sometimes when fighter fish shit, the shit comes out of their neck?”

“Please don’t use that kind of language in my classroom. Say poop instead,” Mrs. Walters finally replied, breaking the awkward silence that had settled over the room.

Fish shit-I mean poop- may not have been the most appropriate conversation topic but it was a rare instance of me choosing to spontaneously engage in conversation and share information with someone I didn’t know very well.

As the days wore on I continued to open up in Mrs. Walters’ class, which was an unstructured class that was in place of the study hall my more typically developing peers got. While conversations were discouraged in study hall, they often took place in Mrs. Walters’ class. Since we were a group of animal loving kids with an animal loving teacher, the conversations often centered around animals. Animals were a subject I was interested in and a subject in which I prided myself on my experience and knowledge, so I took part in the conversations. My contributions weren’t always socially appropriate but after I told a kid that I thought his basset hound was ugly and told Mrs. Walters that I did not like her dog’s name, Mrs. Walters helpfully informed me that I was going to get beat up if I kept insulting peoples’ pets.

I was always the last one out of Mrs. Walters’ classroom. Sometimes I would linger behind with my face pressed in front of Frisky’s aquarium and sometimes Mrs. Walters would hand me pellets to feed to him. Often, I would be struggling to cram all my crumpled papers, battered books and pens without caps in to my backpack. Mrs. Walters would help me get my materials together and since we were both headed towards language arts class, we would walk to class together. While many middle schoolers would walk to class conversing with a friend by their side, I did not. At first walking to class with a teacher felt even more weird and unnatural but I soon got used to it. We mostly talked about animals.

 

Unfortunately, I had a hard time in some of my other classes and I had a hard time adjusting to middle school in general. I struggled to get to class on time and to finish my assignments on time. I struggled with opening my locker and keeping my papers organized. I struggled with math and science and gym. I struggled to sit still and pay attention throughout the day.

Since I struggled so much in school, Mrs. Walters had to periodically provide me with support throughout the school day. Sometimes I would have to spend my lunch period with her working on skills such as opening my locker. At first, I resented it but soon I not only tolerated but looked forward to having lunch with her. I related to her in a way I couldn’t relate to my peers. She would talk to me about her dog Daisy who was a mutt that looked like Lassie and I would talk to her about my chickens that lived under my trampoline. She would ask me what pet I thought she should get and I’d give her my best advice. She’d lament on the pets she wanted but her husband wouldn’t let her have and I’d commiserate with the pets I wanted but my parents wouldn’t let me have.

The struggles I’d been having in middle school came to a head about a month in to the school year. My social studies teacher, Ms. Maurer, called me in to the hallway. “Why are you always late to class?” she demanded to know. I lowered my head and said nothing.

“Please answer me.” She was growing increasingly irritated.

“I don’t know,” I said softly.

“You don’t know?’’ she retorted incredulously. Her face was just inches from mine.

My heart was racing, and I had a terrible sinking feeling in my stomach.

Just then Mrs. Walters was walking by in the hallway. “Hey, Mrs. Walters, can you come here for a minute?” Ms. Maurer asked.

“Sure. What’s going on?”

“Kira is five minutes late to class every single day!’’

“Okay. I walk to class with Kira sometimes. I’m sure I can help her figure out how to get to class on time.”

“She better figure it out because this behavior is unacceptable!” She was outright yelling now.

My lip started quivering. I struggled to maintain composure, but I lost control and burst in to tears. There I was, twelve years old, and sobbing in the middle of the school hallway like a baby. I hadn’t felt this humiliated since I’d peed my pants in front of the class in first grade.

Mrs. Walters wrapped her arm around my shoulders. “Everything’s going to be okay, honey. Why don’t you go in to the bathroom and freshen up while I talk to Ms. Maurer?”

Unfortunately, this was just the first of many indignities that I would face in middle school. Fortunately, it was also the first of many times that Mrs. Walters would comfort me and save the day.

One day as I was getting ready to hand in my homework in science class, I realized I’d forgotten to write my name on it. As I started to write my name on it, Mrs. Strachan, my ill-tempered science teacher, noticed and said, “Kira, I’m going to have to mark your homework as not finished.” My face flushed. Then Mrs. Strachan turned to Cara, the girl who was sitting next to me and the star student of the class.

“Kira, thinks she can get away with slacking off but we’re not going to let her, are we, Cara?”

I slunk down in my seat and wished the floor would swallow me. Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Mrs. Walters.

“It’s okay, Kira. Let’s go to the back table. I’ll help you with your lab.”

***

While many of my developmental milestones had been delayed, my speech came early. I spoke my first word when I was nine months old. That word was no. My second word was cat. Those words ended up being a good summation of my personality. I love animals and I have a stubborn argumentative streak. When I argue about animals I am particularly tenacious.

While I was happy to have a class pet, there’s only so much gratification you can get out of a fish. I longed for a fuzzy class pet I could interact with. I longed for the days of third grade in which in addition to Pumpkin and Marshmallow the class goldfish, there was Eppie the class rabbit and the caterpillars we kept on our desk and released when they turned in to butterflies. I knew Mrs. Walters loved animals so I decided to try my luck in convincing her to purchase more class pets.

“Mrs. Walters, can we get another class pet?” I asked hopefully.

She sighed. “No, Kira, we can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because we’re only in this room for an hour a day and I have enough animals to take care of at home.”

“Why can’t we get a hamster? They’re easy to take care of.”

“Mrs. Staggard has a hamster so if you want to see a hamster you can go over to her classroom.”

“How come her class can have a hamster and ours can’t?” I countered.

“It would be nice if you were a little less argumentative.”

 

Then there was the issue of homework. I could be a good student when I wanted to be, but I didn’t always feel like putting in the effort and I found the workload in middle school to be rather overwhelming. In regular study hall the teacher just sat at her desk and left the students alone, but Mrs. Walters was always on her students’ backs about homework and I couldn’t help but resent the intrusion.

 

“Kira, did you do your science homework?”
“No.”

“Did you do your math homework?”

“No.’’

“Well, I guess you decided to take the night off!”

“I don’t want to do homework.”

“I don’t want to clean my bathroom, but I still do it.”

 

 

One day after she told me I had to re-do a worksheet I’d just done because she knew I could do better, I snatched the pencil and paper from her and threw daggers at her with my eyes.

She smiled assuredly. “You love me. I know you do.”

I could not argue with her there.

 

When Mrs. Staggard brought her hamster to visit our classroom, Mrs. Walters cooed over it and said, “I missed my calling as a veterinarian.”

Even as I resented the fact that she wouldn’t let our class have a hamster, I recognized that she’d found her calling as a teacher.

 

 

One of our projects in language arts was a speech project about a family tradition that required us to bring in a prop. My speech was about my family tradition of playing an egg knocking game on Easter. In addition to not looking forward to speaking in front of the class, I was unsure about what prop to bring in.

“Why do I have to bring in a stupid prop?” I whined to Mrs. Walters.

“Hey guys, what do you think looks better, Kira standing in front of the class with nothing or Kira standing in front of the class with colorful Easter eggs?”

“I know! I’ll bring in my rabbit!’’

“I don’t know about that….”

“Come on. It would be so much fun!”

“Yes, it would be fun but I’m not sure the teachers would be okay with it.”

“Can’t you convince them?”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

By the end of the day I had permission to bring my rabbit to school.

The next day, Mrs. Strachan who I had the misfortune of having as a homeroom teacher, insisted I keep Scarlett O’Hare in her carrier but Mrs. Walters was quite happy to meet her, as was the rest of the class. “Aw, she’s so cute!” they all squealed in delight. They asked me questions about Scarlett, which I eagerly answered.

Mrs. Walters decided we needed a class picture with the rabbit and left the room to get a camera. I held my rabbit as my peers gathered around me and I smiled. Mrs. Walters handed me the polaroid.

As I moved from class to class that day, students and teachers alike continued to fawn over my rabbit. They continued to ask me questions about her and I continued to engage in conversation with them. When the time came to give my speech, being able to pet Scarlett throughout it calmed me down and I performed well.

“I wish you could bring your rabbit to school every day,” Mrs. Walters said to me.

 

While I too would have liked to bring my rabbit to school every day, I recognized that I was still reaping the benefits of my one bring your rabbit to school day months later. I could not find a way to incorporate my rabbit in to my next speech but the confidence I had gained as a result of my successful previous speech served me well when it came to giving a speech as civil rights hero Shirley Chisolm. Despite the awkward crying incident in the hallway, Ms. Maurer had really taken to me after I’d brought Scarlett O’Hare in. She did my hair and makeup for my Shirley Chisolm speech and it was quite a change from my usual disheveled appearance. By the time I’d finished my speech, I was the one making her cry. Mrs. Walters was crying too. So were my other teachers.

 

I faced my biggest struggle of seventh grade when I had to take a sewing class. I was just terrible at sewing and not even the fact that I was sewing a type of animal could make up for the trauma that pig pillow inflicted on me. Mrs. Walters tried her best to help and encourage me but eventually we both conceded defeat.

“I hate this! I can’t do this anymore!’’ I exclaimed, throwing my hands up in frustration.

Mrs. Walters considered for a moment and then said, “I know you can’t and I see that you’ve tried your best so give me the needle and I’ll do the rest for you.”

“Thank you.”

“No problem. Just don’t tell your sewing teacher.”

“Damn it! I can’t find my needle.”

“Keep looking. It’s got to be around here somewhere.”

Suddenly she was laughing.

“What’s so funny?”

“I found your needle.”

“Where?”

“In your hair!”

I touched my head and sure enough there my needle was.

“Hold on, honey. Let me help you. There’s toothpaste in your hair.”

“I will never forget this moment,” she said as she reached in to my hair.

I knew I would never forget it either.

 

 

It was in seventh grade that the beast called depression first started clawing at me. As I didn’t have many friends, I didn’t have many people to talk to. However, I did have one friend, whose name was Jessie. We’d initially bonded over a discussion about her pet rabbit. I was described as just barely tolerating Jessie, but I did sit with her at lunch and sometimes I even talked to her.

“Jessie, do you ever get depressed?” I asked in the lunchroom.

“No. what would I be depressed about?’’

It figured that Jessie would have nothing to be depressed about. She was the kind of kid who easily got straight A’s and whose school materials were always perfectly organized.

That evening at home my mother came in to my bedroom to talk to me.

“Hey, Kira. Mrs. Walters just called me. She’s worried about you.”

“Why?”

“She thinks you’re depressed.”

“Why does she think that?”

“ She says you’re always arguing with her and giving her a hard time but suddenly you’ve stopped doing that.”

 

“So, did your mom tell you I called her last night?” Mrs. Walters asked me the next day.

“Yeah.”

“I’m worried about you, kid.”

I stared at the floor.

“Your mom tells me you feel badly about yourself. Is that true?”

“Yeah.”

“Why do you feel bad about yourself?’’

“I’m just bad at everything.”

“That’s not true. You’re good at arguing with me, you’re good at making me laugh, you’re good at writing.”

“My handwriting is terrible.”

“I’m not talking about handwriting. I’m talking about the things you write.”

Her eyes were full of concern.

“You do well in all your subjects.”

“No, I don’t. I get C’s in math and science.”

“So? If you try your best you should be proud of a C. You don’t have to get A’s in everything.’’

“Other people do.”

“You don’t need to compare yourself to other people.”

“You have to help me with everything! No one else needs this much help!”

I was afraid I was going to cry in school again. Mrs. Walters looked like she might cry herself.

“Oh, honey, I know some things are hard for you, but I enjoy helping you and you’ve taught me something. You’ve taught me that there are things people can do and there are things they can’t do. You’re a very bright girl. No, you’re never going to be a seamstress but that’s okay. You have other talents.”

I made my way over toward Frisky’s tank.

“Will you think about what I said?”

I nodded.

“So, what are you asking for for Christmas?”

“A goat.”

“Oh, Kira. Can you take care of all these animals?”

“I don’t think you have much room to talk. You have quite the menagerie yourself.”

 

 

Over Christmas break Mrs. Walters allowed me to take Frisky home with me.

“Hi, Kira!” she greeted me when I returned

I fiddled with the strap on my overalls

“Can I get a response?’’

“Hi,” I said softly

“Did you get a lot of presents for Christmas?”

“Yeah.”

“What was your favorite present?”

“I don’t know.”

“I heard you got an aquarium. I bet that was your favorite present.”

It was true. The twenty- gallon aquarium had been my favorite present, but the encyclopedia of mammals had been a close second. My mom had persuaded me to invite Jessie over for a sleepover during Christmas break. When she asked us if we wanted to watch TV, I’d replied that no, we’d watch the aquarium instead. For a while Jessie enjoyed and then tolerated all my talk of aquarium fish, which carried on in to the school cafeteria but eventually she tired of it. No matter, Mrs. Walters was happy to continue discussing aquarium fish with me.

 

One day Mrs. Walters was sitting in one of the main classrooms helping me with a reading project and talking to me about chickens when my math teacher walked by. The project was a self-representation collage that involved cutting and pasting materials from magazines so of course it was taxing on my fine motor skills and of course most of the pictures in my collage were of animals. I was talking about how the neighbors had been complaining about my rooster crowing in the morning so my father had decided that my rooster would have to sleep in a hamper in the closet at night rather than in the garbage can under the trampoline with the other chickens and now my rooster had been trained to jump in to the hamper in the closet at night all on his own. This was typical conversation between the two of us, but the math teacher was understandably a bit perplexed by it.

“So, you have chickens and a rabbit?” he said to me.

“Oh, Kira has a lot of pets. Tell him about your animals.”

I clammed up and shook my head.

“You seem to know Kira pretty well,” he said to Mrs. Walters.

“I know Kira like the back of my hand.”

 

In April I missed a day of school for a neurologist appointment. Mrs. Walters was asked to submit a report for the neurologist and since I was a nosy child I took the report out of my mother’s desk and read it. She’d written that I was a great young lady and a proficient writer, but that unfortunately fine motor skills deficits interfered with my achievement. When asked if I had trouble getting along with other students, she said it wasn’t that I didn’t get along with other students, but I chose not to interact with them much and that I tended to only converse with people I knew well. She remarked that I was inattentive and fidgety throughout the school day and that since I struggled with opening my locker, I chose to carry around a backpack that weighed about seventeen pounds. She noted that I often came to class with my hair unbrushed, my shoes untied and toothpaste on my face but that none of those things bothered me.

 

Based on the unusually large discrepancy between my superior verbal IQ and borderline performance IQ, the neurologist diagnosed me with nonverbal learning disorder. It was a complicated and poorly understood disorder that seemed to account for all my symptoms except the flapping.

 

My mom accumulated all the books and articles she could find on the disorder. Several of them noted that middle school is the time when things start to become really challenging for the child with NVLD. They gave examples of kids who were repeatedly misunderstood and judged by their peers and teachers to the point that they felt hopeless and helpless. They came to the conclusion that they lived in a world not built to accommodate them.

 

I could certainly relate to those feelings, but I knew that I was extremely lucky to have a teacher like Mrs. Walters. She had shown me a part of the world that did accommodate me. She accepted and appreciated me as thoroughly and completely as animals did. I liked her as much and felt as comfortable with her as I did with animals.

 

The trouble kids with NVLD had making friends was well documented. It was said that they tended to prefer the company of adults to the company of their peers. Mrs. Walters wasn’t just my teacher. She had also become my friend.

 

Soon preparation was being made of for the end of the school year. At my IEP meeting we talked about how I’d done in seventh grade. My mother said, “I think she hasn’t done as well this year because it was hard for her to deal with things like switching between classes and using lockers.”

 

Mrs. Walters got along very well with my mother but on this point, she felt the need to correct her. “Actually, she has done well this year. I’m very proud of her.”

 

As I was feeding Frisky his pellets during the last week of school, Mrs. Walters told me that she didn’t think she could keep him over the summer or in her classroom next year. She asked if I would like to have him. I said I would.

 

The day before the last day of school my mother took me to get goodbye presents for my teachers. I selected chicken stationery and a matching chicken bookmark for Mrs. Walters. As I was putting the cards in the envelopes, my mother told me she’d written a note of her own to Mrs. Walters that she wanted me to give to her.

 

“Why’d you do that?”

“Because Mrs. Walters takes such good care of you and I wanted to thank her.”

 

“Smile, Mrs. Walters!” I said as I sat in her classroom for the last time and pointed a disposable camera at her.

She smiled obligingly.

“Another one!”

This time the other students posed next to her.

I flashed the camera a third time.

“Okay, Kira. I think that’s enough pictures.”

“I have something for you.”

I handed her the gifts and the card.

“Thank you. That’s very nice of you.”

She opened the card and read the note I’d written to her saying that I’d tried to sew her a sweater as a goodbye gift, but it hadn’t worked out too well.

She laughed. “You have such a great sense of humor.”

 

“Are you sure you have everything you need, kid?” she asked me as the day drew to a close and the busses began to arrive.

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Promise me you’ll take good care of Frisky?”

I vowed to take as good care of him as she had taken of me.

“We’ve had a lot of fun this year. I’m really going to miss you.”

I crammed the last of my wrinkled papers in to my seventeen- pound backpack and zipped it up.

“And I think you’re going to miss me too.”

I smiled slightly and then started to frown.

“But we’ll see each other around the building next year,” she added.

The last bell rang.

She drew me in for a hug. I wrapped my arms around her waist.

“Write to me over the summer,” she called after me as I made my way towards the bus.

 

A few weeks later a letter arrived for me in the mail. It was written on chicken stationery.

 

Dear Kira,

I love my new stationery and the great bookmark. I will be using it all summer because this is the time of year I enjoy reading for pleasure and writing letters. I am waiting to receive some kind of correspondence from you…a postcard ..a letter…anything so I know how your summer is going so far. I have enclosed several cards with my address. I figure you should put them around everywhere so anytime you see one of them you will think about writing to me and if you lose one you’re bound to find another somewhere. You are a wonderful young lady and I’m so happy that you were in my class! I have to tell you that you are my favorite student! I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Mrs. Walters

 

I put this letter from the best teacher I had ever had in the drawer at my bedside where I kept things that were important to me.

 

 

Thanksgiving with the Family

I spent this Thanksgiving with my mother, my father, my brother, my dog and my cat in our house in the suburbs with its white picket fence. My brother flew in from Texas to spend the holiday with us. While my mom prepared Thanksgiving dinner, my brother and I watched The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade followed by The Purina Dog Show. As my brother snuggled the dog and cat I told him he should have been a veterinarian instead of a doctor.

My parents argued over how to serve the turkey and my mom was driven crazy by a mysterious beeping sound, the source of which took a while to find. We took those snafus in stride though, as they’re pretty par for the course. When my brother was a kid he was given a school assignment that involved describing his family’s Thanksgiving routine.  He wrote that before his mother prepared the meal she covered the fire alarms with tinfoil.

Once we discovered that the beeping noise was coming from the oven we gathered around the table to enjoy our meal. It was a meal that included turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, asparagus and a dish my brother and I dubbed ‘junky corn mush’ as children.  Dessert was pumpkin pie with whipped cream. We reminisced about the past, we pondered the future and we enjoyed the present.  My dad promised to sweep the leaves off the porch later and my mom reminded him that next week he needed to bring her to the train station.

After we finished the meal we squeezed together on the sofa, smiled and took a family selfie. Then we turned on the television and laughed over a sitcom together.

We’re like the perfect, stereotypical Norman Rockwell portrait of a loving, cookie cutter family.  Except for one small detail: My parents have been separated for twenty- five years and divorced for sixteen of those years.

The mom in this portrait recently left her second husband and now has a significant other in Chicago. The dad has a significant other in France who has two teenage children of her own and is around the same age as his daughter from his first marriage. The child of the mom’s second husband died of a drug overdose. The son in this portrait is a Trump supporter. Anyone who’s a regular reader of this blog knows that the daughter has some pretty severe mental health issues.

The dog is currently at the center of a custody battle between the mother and her second husband. The cat- well, I guess the cat has the cleanest record of us all but he did begin life as a stray and has a chunk missing from his ear to prove it.

For the past 15 years or so my brother and I have gone to Connecticut with our father to spend Thanksgiving at my sister’s house, while my mother spent the holiday with our stepfather’s family. This Thanksgiving was her first Thanksgiving after leaving my stepfather. She didn’t want to spend Thanksgiving alone so we decided the four of us would celebrate Thanksgiving 2017 as ‘the original gang’ in her new house (That she shares with me. Another mark against the daughter is that she’s failed to become an independent adult.)

My dad was already well acquainted with our new house. In fact he paid for half of it. Sure, he was a little frustrated the last time he bought my mother and me a house so we could escape my stepfather and we returned a month later (right after our last dog died tragically and unexpectedly) but he was willing to take the risk again. This time we would be living closer to him. To my father family is everything.

It means a lot to all four of us actually.  Life didn’t turn out as planned for any of us. We’ve never been the most conventional family and we’ve had our fair share of conflicts with each other but through all the hardships, hospitalizations, deaths and divorces life has thrown our way we’ve been there for each other.  That is something to be thankful for.

Besides, sometimes even when life throws you lemons and curveballs, even when it breaks your heart and fractures your family and becomes abnormal in a thousand different ways, in the end you still get to enjoy a lovely holiday with your first husband, your pigeon pair of children and your color coordinated pair of pets in your cozy little house with a white picket fence in the suburbs. Just ask my mother.

Underdog

via Daily Prompt: Underdog

We call my dog ,Lily, Underdog because she’s always going under things. If you’re looking for her and can’t find her, there’s a good chance she’s under the table. At our old house she was always going under beds but at our new house she’s discovered much to her chagrin, that the beds are constructed in a way that make it impossible for her to get under them. She’s just too big

She’s usually driven under furniture by sounds she doesn’t like- that sound could be thunder, fireworks, music, beeping, glasses clinking together or some sound that is perceptible only to her. She has very big ears and is very sensitive to noises. One time we were walking her through the neighborhood when fireworks started going off.  As there was no furniture around, she darted under a parked car.

Aside from noises, the other thing that tends to drive her under furniture is seeing an object she wants there, usually one of her toys. I said that she can’t fit under beds in our new house but she hasn’t quite accepted that fact. She still tries to get under the beds.  She thrusts her head under the bed and whines and barks, hoping that if she just tries hard enough the bed will magically shift to accommodate her or she’ll magically shrink.

While Lily is too big to fit under the beds, the cat, Dr. Zeus, is not. He goes under them quite a bit, especially when he’s mad at his humans and as you can imagine this drives Lily crazy.  The two of them like to play-fight and while Lily has the advantage of being bigger, Dr. Zeus has the advantage of being able to retreat under furniture. He’s taken an especial liking to the footstools in front of the sofa. I’ve taken to calling him Undercat.

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Daily Prompt: Fluff

via Daily Prompt: Fluff

When I was a kid I had a pet chicken named Madame Fluff. She was a black hen with a fluffy hairdo. She was actually named after my mother in a roundabout way. My mom had told me that a man she shared the train with on her daily commute to work had nicknamed her Madame Fluff. She didn’t know why he called her that and he didn’t either. I’m guessing it had to with the fluffy hats and ear muffs she wore. They were black just like Madame Fluff the chicken.

The hen we got along with Madame Fluff was white and named Kathie Lee. She was named after Kathie Lee Gifford and also after my mother in a way. She shared a first name spelled differently with Kathie Lee Gifford and she’d talk about how she couldn’t stand Regis’s co-host. She didn’t care much for the chickens either. When my brother and I asked for pet chickens she refused so we asked our father. He agreed to keep them under our trampoline and surrounded it with chicken wire. Since my mother did not live with him her objections to chickens did not matter. I guess that’s one of the benefits of having parents who are separated.

I was proud of my creativity when it came to naming pets but one day when I was sharing the names of my chickens with my peers a girl said “Madame Fluff? What kind of a stupid name is that?'” After that I became self conscious and the next time someone asked me the names of my chickens I just referred to Madame Fluff as Fluff.

A family friend has a cat named Fluffhead. He’s orange and white and very mean. Sometimes he’ll act like he’s nice and wants you to pet him but he’s just luring you in to a false sense of security so he can bite or scratch you.  “Wow, that cat is really an asshole!” my uncle exclaimed one night after he had become a victim of Fluffhead’s evil tactics. He never saw Fluffhead again after that and he also never forgave him. To this day he talks about how much he hates ‘Mr. Fluffhead’. Even though he hates him the addition of ‘Mr.’ suggests he has a certain amount of respect for him.

I’m afraid I haven’t said anything meaningful or profound in this blog. It might even be considered fluff.

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Dr. Zeus

I’ve wanted a cat for a long time. My longing intensified when my soon to be former stepfather got half custody of my dog Lily  (I’m not sure why he has a claim to a dog that he did not adopt just because she was adopted by my mom while she was married to him and yet my mom has no claim to a house he bought while he was married to her but that’s another issue.)

I found Lily and the dog I had before her on Petfinder so I decided to look for a cat on Petfinder. I was especially interested in black cats because I find them beautiful and they’re harder to adopt out due to superstitions surrounding them.  I saw a picture of a beautiful and cute black cat named Dr. Zeus.  His adoption profile read:

Dr Zeus is a sweet 1-2 year old neutered male. He is very loving and always has to be by your side, even when it’s bed time and he tries to take up the whole bed! Dr Zeus is great with other cats and dogs once he gets to know them. He gives love bites but does not break the skin. He loves to play with toys and his favorite is the laser pointer. He came to us with a bite wound on his head and chin but we got him cleaned up and fully vetted. Now Dr Zeus is ready to find his furever family!

I was charmed by the description of his personality. He seemed like quite a character and like Lily in feline form. We filled out an application for him and the rescue group really liked us. Last Friday Dr. Zeus became ours.

True to his description, he is very affectionate.  He loves to cuddle with me, nuzzle up against me and hog my bed. He’s a very vocal kitty. Although his meows sound rather mournful, I think he’s just being dramatic. His purring is one of my favorite sounds in the world.

He’s also very curious, adventurous and playful. He leaves no corner unexplored and jumps or considers jumping on every surface he can find. He’s jumped on the counters, the dressers, the washing machine, the refrigerator, the tables, the desks, the sink, the bath tub, the toilet and the towel rack. He’s crawled in to closets, pantries, drawers, cabinets, boxes and sheets.

He loves to play with his laser pointer, his feather toy, his catnip toy and balls. He gets bursts of energy in which he dashes up and down the hallway like a black streak of lightning.  He’s a very slick, sly cat with an amazing ability to appear and disappear without you noticing.

When he first met  Lily he was hissing and swatting at her but  now that he’s gotten used to her he’s good with her. They’ll now lay in bed together and last night they even started playing together.

There are no longer any traces of the bite wounds he had on his head and chin but a small part of his ear is missing from a fight he got in with another cat. I think it’s the cutest injury ever.

A not so charming aspect of his personality that was not mentioned in his adoption profile is his tendency to scratch furniture. He wouldn’t touch his scratching posts and he was undeterred by the cat repellant we sprayed on the furniture. Luckily we seem to have found the solution with SoftPaws, caps that were put on his nails by a groomer at PetSmart.  They have to be replaced every month or so but they’re worth it (declawing is considered inhumane and we signed an agreement not to do it.) Next month we plan on getting him orange claw caps for Halloween.

The other day a message popped up on my computer screen that said “Stop! This is a browser feature intended for developers. If someone told you to copy-paste something here to enable a Facebook a feature or hack someone’s account, it is a scam and will give them access to your account.” They neglected to consider the possibility that a cat had walked across my keyboard.

Although Dr. Zeus looks very handsome in a collar, he refuses to wear one. Oh well, you can’t win them all.

When I told people his name was Dr. Zeus, they asked me what we were going to call him- Zeus? Doc? Z? No, we call him Dr. Zeus. I think it’s a cute, clever name that suits him well.

Black cats are considered to be unlucky but I consider myself lucky to have Dr. Zeus.

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Losing a pet

It was Rainbow Bridge Remembrance day a few days ago and unfortunately my godmother lost her dog a few days ago.I have lost many pets myself so I thought now would be a good time to discuss pet loss.

Some people have moments in their lives that they define as the loss of their innocence (Not that kind of loss of innocence. Get your minds out of the gutter.)  I think I lost my innocence when I was 11 years old. One morning I heard a scream. I looked out the window and saw my fluffy white puppy that I had just gotten two months before lying in the middle of the road with a pool of blood widening beneath her as my brother stood crying on the sidewalk.By the time I rushed down the stairs and out the door my dog had been brought to the other side of the road where my babysitter and some construction workers were standing over her limp body. The person who hit my dog had not even bothered to stop the car after she was hit. I asked my babysitter if my dog was dead and she said yes. And with that my world came crashing down.

That was my first real experience with death. I often hear it said that small children are not able to understand that death is tragic and permanent. I cannot recall a time when I did not realize death was tragic and permanent. However, while I logically knew that one day I would experience the death of a pet that I loved and the death of a human that I loved, I engaged in a kind of magical thinking, that tragedies were things that happened to other people, not to me.

I went to school late that day. Many people expressed sympathy for me when I told them my dog died and many people just didn’t know what to say. I held it together until the end of the school day but when my mom came to pick me up and gave me the look that acknowledged that our dog had died I lost it. I put my head down on my desk and sobbed.

No one had ever told me that life was fair but this seemed particularly unfair. I had been begging my parents for a dog for years. I finally got one and then two months later she died in a tragic accident. There was also the issue that I’d only had her for two months. When I told people that my dog died they would often ask how long I’d had her for and some people flat out asked me if I’d had her for a long time. I felt uncomfortable telling them I’d only had her for two months because it made me feel as though I was not entitled to my grief, as though there was no reason for me to be so upset over the loss of a pet that I’d had for such a short period of time.

I felt that I understood death pretty well as a child but there were some things about grief I did not fully understand. Just like there is no time limit on how long you can grieve the loss of a loved one, there is no minimal amount of time that you’re required to spend with a loved one in order to grieve the loss of them.  Losing a pet that you had for two months might sometimes hurt less than losing a pet you’ve had for ten years but sometimes it hurts just as much and sometimes it hurts more.

My lack of understanding of grief caused me to say something that really makes me cringe when I think about it. A friend of mine who was consoling me about the loss of my dog told me she needed to go console her other friend who had lost her hamster. I replied “Losing a hamster is not as bad as losing a dog.” Yikes.

I was a very uncoordinated kid and would have failed miserably at any sport I played but I would have been better off attempting soccer than attempting to compete in the grief Olympics because that is one shitty sport to play. I was only 11 years old when I tried to compete in the grief Olympics but unfortunately there are many adults who have done the same. I’ve seen online debates about whether a miscarriage is as bad as a stillbirth and I can not think of a more pointless waste of cyber space.

I think Emily Rapp said it best in The Still Point of the Turning World. It’s her memoir about losing her son Ronan. When Ronan was 9 months old he was diagnosed with Tay Sachs, a degenerative and fatal disease. She watched as Ronan experienced physical and cognitive decline, as he lost his ability to see, to eat on his own, to breathe on his own, to sit up, to move his arms and legs. He died shortly before his third birthday.

I knew it would be emotionally difficult to read a book about a small child dying from a horrible disease but I thought it might help me come to terms with my own losses, both animal and human. I thought that in watching  Ronan die Emily had experienced the worst loss anyone could possibly experience.  I thought that reading about her loss would put my own losses in perspective. This woman had lost a child. I had just lost some pets, grandparents and a stepbrother. My losses were insignificant compared to hers. This woman had managed to deal with the loss of a child so it should be easy for me to deal with the loss of a dog. Emily showed me how flawed my thinking was.

While Ronan was dying, Emily would read memoirs about grief and loss but she would often come away from those books feeling furious. Those books were about losing a spouse, a parent, a dog. She was losing a child. Her loss was so much worse. Then she realized that this  idea that grief existed on some ladder of loss with the loss of a goldfish at the bottom rung of the ladder and the loss of a child at the top rung of the ladder was a ludicrous notion. What if the goldfish that died belonged to a five-year-old who was having his first experience with death and his parents had to explain the concept of death to him?  Did that bump Goldie’s death up a few rungs on the ladder? What if the child, parent or spouse was suffering for a long time before they died? What if they weren’t suffering at all before they died? Did that bump the loss up or down on the ladder? Did the people who were on the top of the ladder experience authentic, earth shattering grief while the people at the bottom of the ladder were just super sad? She concluded that loss  like any profound human experience is not quantifiable and if there did exist a competition for grief, who would want to win it?

I read that as someone who had never had a child but I was still a bit incredulous. There had to be a “grief ladder” and anyone who had lost a child had to automatically get placed on a higher rung than someone who had lost a pet. They just had to because losing a child was so much worse. And yet the more I thought about this concept of the “grief ladder” the more I realized just how right Emily Rapp was.

I realized that even if we did decide that someone who had lost a child automatically got a higher rung on the grief ladder than someone who lost a pet how would we then divide up the rungs among the types of child loss? Why would a stillbirth be worse than a miscarriage? What if the woman who had a miscarriage desperately wanted children and felt strongly bonded with her baby from day one while the woman who had a stillbirth had never felt much of a bond with her baby and had never really wanted children? Would they then have to switch rungs on the grief ladder? Would Emily Rapp get the higher rung for losing her small child to a devastating disease that had been taking her son from her for years or would that rung go to the guy whose three-year-old daughter was killed in a car accident?

Why had I decided that losing a dog was worse than losing a hamster? A hamster was a tiny animal and a dog was a big animal but if that’s the case was losing a golden retriever worse than losing a chihuahua?  In general dogs tended to be more responsive and affectionate than hamsters but what if we were talking about an exceptionally affectionate hamster and an exceptionally aloof dog? Dogs were canines and hamsters were rodents but then I would have to decide how I felt about people who lost their pet mouse, gerbil or guinea pig. Did they get a higher or lower rung on the grief ladder than someone who lost a hamster? I felt like I was not entitled to my grief because I had only had my dog for two months but this girl had her hamster for longer than I’d had my dog.

While I was in the process of writing this blog and after I had written the section on the concept of the grief ladder my mother decided to express her belief in the existence of the grief ladder. She told me that someone who had experienced a stillbirth did not have it as bad as her friend who had lost a child to SIDS when he was five months old and losing a child in utero was even less bad. Was she fucking kidding me with that shit?  After I expressed that sentiment to her in slightly nicer words she informed me that she knew what she was talking about because she thought she might lose me to ectopic  pregnancy and she thought she was going to lose me again to premature labor. The thought of losing me to premature labor was so much worse. So because she knew how she felt about her own threatened losses she got to decide how someone else felt about their actual losses? She got to decide that one person’s loss wasn’t as bad as another person’s?

It doesn’t work like that. Emily Rapp nailed it. The concept of a grief ladder is nonsense. Complete and total nonsense.

As the days, weeks and months passed after the death of my first dog, I began to feel a bit better. There was still sadness but the sadness didn’t feel as crushing or all encompassing. Still, there were times when I was hit by waves of intense grief. One day a group of seeing eye dog trainers came in to my classroom with the seeing eye dog puppies they were training. I was reminded of my puppy and I started crying. I had to leave the classroom and see a school psychologist. That psychologist was a kind and funny person who made me feel better.

A few months after my first dog died I got a second dog. There are people who think you can just replace one pet with another, that once you get another pet you won’t miss the first pet because you won’t even notice the difference. I have never felt that way. Getting a new pet can help with the grief and you may love the new pet as much as you loved the first pet but the second pet is not a replacement for the first pet. You will notice the difference because every pet is different. Every pet has qualities and characteristics that cannot be entirely replicated by another pet. Not many people would say that you could replace a human friend with another human friend, a lover with another lover or a relative with another relative. I feel the same way about pets. Many years later when I was facing the prospect of a pet loss not from death, but because a relative of mine was threatening to keep the dog someone else told me to give up on fighting for the dog because I could just get another dog. I told that person that would happen over my dead body.

I did love my second dog but in addition to her not being a replacement for my first dog, I was terrified of losing her in the same way. There’s a memoir about grief called The Year of Magical Thinking*. I think that the year after my first dog died was a year of magical thinking. Before my dog died I engaged in the magical thinking that tragedies happened to other people, not to me. After my dog died I decided that she had died because I had never thought anything like that would happen to me. God or the universe or whatever force was out there had punished me for that type of magical thinking so I substituted it with another type of magical thinking: If I constantly worried about my dog being hit by a car that would protect her from being hit by a car just as much as the fence we put around our yard would. My year of magical thinking came to an end in the worst possible way.

One day we came home and couldn’t find my dog. We didn’t understand how she could have gotten out since we had a fence around the yard. Than we saw that construction workers had left a pile of rubble near the fence and realized she had used that pile of rubble to jump over the fence. My babysitter and I searched the neighborhood for her while my brother and my mother stayed home. When I got home my brother was sobbing. He screamed to me that our dog was dead. The nightmare was happening all over again.

An animal control worker had called to deliver the bad news. She had seen my dog running on the streets and had tried desperately to catch her but had been unable to do so before she was hit by a car. Once again the person who hit her didn’t bother to stop the car. The animal control worker approached my dog as she lay bleeding on the street and my dog, who had never bitten anyone before, bit her. She tried desperately to save my dog’s life but was unable to. She told us how sorry she was. She knew about the death of our last dog and when she saw that we were putting up a fence she thought this dog would be safe. My mother asked if she knew anyone else who had two dogs who were killed by cars and she said she did not.

There’s a quote that says something along the lines of “To lose one parent is a tragedy, to lose both parents looks like carelessness.” The quote is meant ironically and it’s meant to poke fun of the kind of people who would actually say something like that but being the literal minded child that I was, I took it literally. I had lost two dogs in the exact same way within a short period of time. No one else had lost two dogs like that so it had to have been my fault that my dogs had died. It had to have happened because I was so careless and irresponsible.

When I lost my first dog I told everyone at school about it. When I lost my second dog I did not tell a soul. This time in addition to grief and sadness I felt shame and embarrassment. My family members and I were fools who were foolish enough to lose two dogs in the same manner. Some of the people at school knew about the death of my first dog. If I told them about the death of my second dog I could imagine them thinking “Seriously? You lost another dog in a car accident? Did you learn nothing the first time?’

Unfortunately this was not just a thought in my head, it wasn’t an instance of thinking people were more critical and judgmental than they actually were. When my mom sent an e-mail to an animal rescue inquiring about adopting another dog the woman in charge of the rescue replied by saying that she would not give a dog to someone who had lost two dogs in the manner that we had because we were obviously irresponsible pet owners. We obviously had a lot to think about before we adopted another pet.

Last year I was talking about my dogs who had been killed by cars and about my bad luck with pets. Someone told me that I would have trouble adopting another dog from a rescue. She said that she’d lost multiple dogs in a short period of time but her dogs had died of disease or old age. She said the rescues were okay with those kinds of deaths but they looked at repeated accidents very closely. Someone else told me I should stop thinking of the deaths of my pets as “bad luck” and start thinking of ways to prevent the deaths of future pets. At that point it had been about 20 years since my dogs had been killed by cars but those comment really raised my hackles.

You see that kind of thing all the time. When a little boy falls in to a gorilla enclosure at the zoo and is grabbed by a gorilla many people decide that it’s because his mother was negligent and was not watching him closely enough, was not taking the proper precautions to prevent something like that from happening. Things like that only happen to the children of bad parents, irresponsible parents, parents who are not careful. That kind of thing would never happen to the children of these people because they are good parents. They are careful parents, responsible parents, parents who take the proper precautions to ensure their child’s safety. Therefore something like that would never happen to their child and their child will always remain safe.

It’s another form of magical thinking. People engage in it because they don’t want to acknowledge the truth. The terrifying truth about living is that bad things don’t just happen to good people. They happen to careful people, responsible people, people who take all the proper precautions and do all the right things. You can do things that will reduce the probability of tragedy occurring but you can not prevent tragedy from happening. Despite all your careful plans and precautions, tragedy can strike at any moment and there is nothing you can do to stop it. The person or animal you love most in the world might suddenly die in a tragic accident. You might get no forewarning of their death and you might not get the chance to say goodbye. None of the thoughts you have or don’t have about the possibility of tragedy striking will cause tragedy to strike and none of them will prevent tragedy from striking.

Since the loss of my first two dogs I have lost many other pets. Some losses were more difficult than others but there was not a single loss that did not hurt me in some way. There was not a single loss that I did not grieve in some way. With some of the losses came some difficult, messy, complicated, feelings. Sometimes I questioned whether I was entitled to my grief. When I lost my parakeets I questioned whether I had a reason to be so upset over their deaths when they were just little birds, not dogs or cats. My therapist then told me about the hamster and the goldfish that were buried next to her son.

Sometimes when my pets died I didn’t blame myself for their deaths but I blamed other people. There was the time my babysittter poured my tadpoles down the drain because she thought we had insects swimming in a fish bowl in our bathroom. There was the babysitter who swore that she had just fed my fish fish food, not neutralizer but the color of my fish said otherwise (those babysitters had never been the sharpest tools in the shed.)  There was the time my cleaning lady killed my parakeets by closing the door after she sprayed her cleaning lady fumes. There was the time my dad decided he had found the perfect solution to the squeaking noise my mice were making by running on their wheel and that solution was to coat the wheel with oil, oil that got all over the mice. I told my dad the oil was going to kill them and he said that for every mouse that died he would buy me three new mice. He did not keep that promise but twelve mice would have been a bit excessive.

At first I was angry at those people for killing my pets but I realized I needed to let go of that anger because holding on to that anger was not going to bring my pets back and it was just going to damage my relationships with those people. Those people had killed my pets by accident. If they had killed my pets on purpose it would have been an entirely different story. If you come home one day and find your friend, lover or relative boiling your pet bunny on the stove you have every right to be angry at that person for a long time and it’s probably a good idea to distance yourself from that person.

Speaking of pet bunnies, my mother is a saint for expressing nothing but sadness and compassion when my rabbit died. She hated that damn rabbit and found her to be the biggest pain in the butt. She was dreading having to take care of that rabbit herself when I went away to college. My rabbit died shortly before I graduated high school. When we buried my rabbit I knew that my mother was thinking “Thank god that stupid rabbit died just in the nick of time!” but she put on a sad face and said that she loved my rabbit. If someone you love experiences the loss of a pet that you hate I suggest following my mother’s lead.

Today was the anniversary of my stepbrother’s death. My stepbrother died shortly after we got Dakota. Dakota was there for me when I was grieving my stepbrother’s death. Dakota was my best friend and my constant companion at a time when I did not have many human friends to interact with. Five years after my stepbrother died Dakota also died in a tragic accident.

Dakota slept with me on my bed every night and there was nothing I found more comforting than the feeling of her warm body snuggled up next to mine. I have a new dog named Lily that I like to snuggle in bed with but my stepfather takes her away from me and brings her in to his room. We have a deal that before I go to sleep Lily comes back in to my room.  Sometimes my stepfather puts up a fight about sticking to that deal and I will usually fight with him tooth and nail to take Lily in to my room. Last night I let my stepfather keep Lily in his room because he was going through a difficult time.

I woke up this morning without a warm, fuzzy animal snuggled against me. I thought of my stepbrother and of his death.  His absence was palpable and it filled me with sadness. I thought of Dakota and her death. Her absence was palpable and filled me with sadness. I felt a bit guilty because for me Dakota’s absence was just as palpable as my stepbrother’s was and filled me with just as much if not more sadness.

After Dakota died we searched Petfinder for another dog. We were drawn to a black dog who had been waiting for a home for over a year. Her description said “She LOVES to be snuggled! All of her. She isn’t satisfied just sitting by you, touching you, getting pet. She wants both hands, eye contact, and if she can, her whole entire body on your lap!  She is both obsessive and tenacious!”

This sounded like our kind of dog. When we called about her her foster parents seemed thrilled that someone was expressing an interest in her. When we went to see the dog she was wary and cautious of us at first. She barked at us and she kept her distance. Her foster mother said that because of the way she barked and snarled at people when she first met them they had stopped bringing her to adoption events and had just hoped that someone would read her description on Petfinder and decide to give her a chance. Her foster mom acknowledged that she could be shy, guarded and aggressive at first. She acknowledged that sometimes when you did something she didn’t like or she wanted something from you she could be sassy and demanding.

However, once she got used to you and you gained your trust, she was very sweet, loving and affectionate. We began to gain her trust with dog treats. After a few minutes she began to warm up to us. As the minutes passed on she began to live up to her description in her adoption profile. She sprawled herself across all of our laps at once, she leaned her whole body in to ours, she pawed at our hands, she showered our cheeks with kisses and she gave us love bites on our chin. Perhaps this was part of the reason she had gone so long without being adopted. Perhaps other people were turned off by a dog that was so intensely affectionate and so demanding in her need for affection but she seemed like the perfect dog for us. We had an appointment to see another dog the next day but we canceled that appointment because we knew that this was the dog we wanted.

I wanted this dog not just because she was a great dog but because she was me in canine form. I tend to be shy, guarded and sometimes even aggressive at first. If someone does something I don’t like or I want something from them it’s not uncommon for me to give them a sassy and belligerent attitude. People sometimes perceive me as being cold and uncaring.

Yet if you gain my trust and if I decide that I love you, I might remind you all the time just how much I love you. I might shower you with a million hugs and kisses a day, I might want to touch you and cuddle up against you at all times. I don’t think I’m exactly the best friend anyone could ever have, the best relative anyone could ever have or the best pet owner anyone could ever have. However, I think I am capable of loving with the kind of love that is fierce and unconditional, the kind of love that is non-judgmental and emotionally honest, the kind of love that pets often give. There have been some animals in my life and there have been some people in my life who have been lucky enough to receive that kind of love. I do not think I would have been capable of giving that kind of love without my pets.

When Dakota died and I was talking to a psychologist about how devastated I was over her death, the psychologist pointed out that Dakota had taught me unconditional love. I inwardly rolled my eyes at that psychologist and pointed out that while Dakota may have taught me about unconditional love, she could have easily taught me about unconditional love by dying peacefully of old age. The only thing I had learned as a result of her suffocating on a chip bag when she was about 7 years old, a month after I had moved halfway across the country, a month after I had faced the prospect of my stepfather taking her away from me, was that life could be very cruel and unpredictable.

For a long time I thought that it was only the lives of my pets that had taught me about loving honestly ,unconditionally and demonstratively. I thought that the deaths of my pets, especially the deaths that were tragic and untimely, had caused me nothing but pain and suffering. Now I realize that I learned something about love not just from the lives of my pets but from their deaths as well.

When Dakota passed away I was very sad that she died in the manner that she did and I was very sad that I didn’t get to say goodbye but my mother pointed out that I did not have to regret not letting Dakota know how loved and appreciated she was, how grateful I was to have her in my life because I reminded her of that every day just like she made me feel loved and appreciated every day. I think that since Dakota’s death I’ve become capable of loving even more deeply and appreciatively.

I’ve realized that since  life can be crazy, cruel and unpredictable, since at any moment an animal or human that you love and cherish can be snatched away from you by a car, a chip bag or whatever random tragedy the world throws at you, since you might not get a chance to say goodbye to your loved one, you should keep reminding them just how much you love them and just how grateful you are to have them in your life.

*To be perfectly blunt, a lot of people who have experienced loss write grief memoirs and a lot of people who read those memoirs pretend that they like them and that they’re good books because they don’t want to say anything mean to someone who has experienced a devastating loss. The truth is that while the pain of those peoples’ losses is very real and the lessons they learned from those losses are also real, the books they write about those losses are just not good books and they’re not well written. The Year of Magical Thinking and The Still Point of the Turning World are very good books that are very well written. I would consider both of those books to be essential reading for anyone who is interested in learning about grief and loss.