Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Valiant Nap

No one talks about living with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in bracing terms of “a brave struggle” like they do with cancer and other more understood and fatal illnesses. Or perhaps more to the point: more “legitimate” and acknowledged illnesses.

So this is what I have. After a good three years of bouncing from specialist to specialist with every diagnosis from cancer to candida to allergies to Lyme to MS – all of which have proven not to be the case – I finally had several throw up their hands with a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue, AKA we don’t know what’s wrong with you.

Not so many years ago my friend and I were young go-getters on the studio lot and we prided ourselves on our incredible daily output. We could do our own jobs and at least two other people’s jobs on a daily basis and still have time for a stroll together to the studio café. I had enough energy to go to yoga class before work and a hike after. We were focused , efficient and effective. We were on top of the working world.

One day, my friend got an email from another friend of hers who was struggling with her MS diagnosis. This friend spoke in happy terms about the good days when she managed to brush her pet rabbit. That was all she accomplished that day and it took it out of her. Unless you’re dealing with a certain dreaded rabbit with “very sharp teeth,” this seems like it would, for most of us, be a simple task taking only a few moments. My friend and I scoffed. How could her friend do so little with her day and consider it an accomplishment? Did she have any clue what we worked through on a given day?

And now. Many days I can barely get out of bed. My head spins with dizziness that occasionally makes driving impossible. The fog in my brain comes and goes and makes it hard to remember conversations or sometimes string a sentence together. On bad days there is an annoying sore throat and stuffiness that never quite gets better or worse. I call the fog/throat “The Ick” and when I feel it creeping up, I always know the rest of the day – maybe week – is shot. I often wake up with it as my companion; the obnoxious house guest that won’t move along. Those days something as prosaic as walking to the kitchen to feed the cats makes me want to cry with its immensity.

Staying up past 9pm is a pipe dream and creates days of painful recovery when I do push it. Some days I get out of bed just in time to go teach my classes and return home as soon as they’re over to get right back into bed. My to-do list grows into an unmanageable mountain before me. I just can’t. To put it in what I assume are relatable terms: the tiredness feels like the mid-afternoon crash after an all-nighter with no caffeine to rescue you magnified by ten and nothing to make it go away. And you’re in the middle of an important but boring, long meeting and just have to focus. And you feel flu-ey minus the sinus symptoms. That’s what the bad days are like.

And some days I’m fine. I feel smiley and energetic. Not run-a-few-miles energetic like I used to be, but get up and function like a normal-ish person. On these days I get excited and plow through as much of my list as I can, knowing I may not have another day like this anytime soon. These days friends smile patronizingly and assume I’m faking on the bad days.

That’s the worst part; the unpredictability. I never know when I’ll be good or bad. I try to make plans but I often have to cancel last minute. So my friendships suffer. And that’s the worse worst part; the toll on relationships. Some mornings I’m up to a brief workout. That same afternoon I’ll get The Ick and have to cancel plans and I can hear that “but maybe if you hadn’t worked out this morning…” just under their understanding coos and promises to make plans again soon. But I know there is no cause and effect. It just happens when it happens.

Because what I have is not often recognized as a real disease, people often think I’m faking it, or being a baby, or that it’s not really that serious. “You don’t look sick,” they tell me. On one hand, that’s a compliment. On the other hand it would almost be easier if I had big oozing sores I could point to and say “no, see, it’s real.” Because people expect me to be healthy, I’ve gotten really good at faking health in short bursts. It’s easier than talking about it and seeing the looks on their faces of pity, skepticism, and rarely, empathy. My students have no idea that I often collapse after class. One day The Ick hit me hard just as I was leaving school. I crashed my car into a concrete pillar. I made it home sometime later in tears with shaking hands and a nice deep dent in my fender.

Family eager for another baby in the clan ask when my husband and I are going to get on with it. I smile and shrug. The truth is my body cannot support a pregnancy now. We just hope that this gets sorted out (and out of me) before the few short child-bearing years I have left pass us by.

I am at long last working with a doctor who not only understands but acknowledges what I have and can help me. She’s working with my body to get the root causes routed out and restore my immune system and energy. Thanks to her I have more good days and bad now. But I’m cautious. When the bad days hit they are a stern reprimand against taking anything for granted.

So, valiant fight against a killer? Maybe not but I certainly struggle to maintain a quality of life punctuated by small accomplishments and lots of naps. I’ve learned to be gentle with myself which was never part of my skill set, born as I was to be a Teutonic task master pushing myself harder than any coach ever could. I’m learning to be gentler to others. A friend’s sig file of that famous Philo of Alexandria quote: “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle” has special resonance for me now. With that particular brashness of youth and health, I used to think that anyone who didn't accomplish as much as I did daily was just lazy or stupid. Now I understand that my former output level was a gift that I did not honor.

My friend's friend with the bunny doesn't know me but a part of me wants to write to her and tell her I understand now. I'm so sorry I ever mocked and discounted her struggle. It's been the most difficult object lesson of my life. And I am bravely struggling with is whether the world thinks so or not.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011


It’s been a long time. I would love to say it was because I was busy being fabulous or shepherding a burgeoning career along. Anyone who has been with me from the start will know I had a fairly Pollyanna outlook on life and my career potential as a writer. My tagline: ‘for the naive and hopeful’ pretty much says it all. As the years passed by I’ve lived a sort of Hollywood-adjacent life. After a while, I didn’t have a very Pollyanna outlook anymore.

I recently spoke with an eternally optimistic friend about life in general. He shared how great life was going for him and I was genuinely relieved. It felt so nice to hear about good stuff happening for a good person. When I replied with my laundry list of life he said “Jesus, how do you get out of bed in the morning?” It finally dawned on me: it’s not just me being whiny. I’ve had a shit-pile of a year and since that's what is, that’s what I’m going to write. I promise not to be morose or self-pitying (as much as I can). I will look for the humor and snark whereever I can. I’ll look for the lesson and the growth.

I’m going to start with the hard stuff: my mother is entering hospice care in a few weeks. My family is braced for that end and dealing with the emotional roller coaster as it comes. How does one go about saying goodbye to the person who gave you life? My father is aging and it’s not easy to watch. He forgets our wonderful, long conversations and chastises me for never calling. He is in a world of pain of his own making I cannot seem to reach or help him out of.

My husband and I live in a dark, noisy condo with a crazy shut-in for a next door neighbor who verbally assaulted and threatened me for the fact that my husband and I apparently spend our free time standing outside her door meowing to try to make her dog bark. Really? (Yes, I see the comedy potential there and I DID get to make my first police report so that was exciting.)

That same neighbor led the charge against us this year when we got a new puppy who had severe separation anxiety. In the end, we were forced to return to the shelter a beautiful dog who could have been a great family member given enough time and training. His loss ripped open the scab that was still fresh from losing my beloved Simon last year.

I do rewarding, important non-profit work that doesn’t pay much. It occupies my scant waking hours. I do the job of at least two people and am never able to get ahead of my to-do list or do the outreach I need to do in order for our organization to thrive. I spent a good chunk of time this year dealing with a vengeful idiot who was more interested in being right (though she was wrong) than in taking responsibility for herself. She, more than anyone this year, made me lose faith in humanity.

Underscoring everything is the fact that I’ve been sick for the better part of two years with what has generically been dismissed as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I’ve been poked and prodded by every specialist imaginable. I’ve been told I have cancer several times only to have the tests show nothing of the sort. (An “I’m sorry about the C word” would have been nice, Docs.) Most days I cannot function for more than four or five-hour chunks in between which I have to sleep. If I don’t, my body shuts down as in seriously: I crashed my car one day because I pushed too hard past shut-down.

I pretend that I am fine most of the time and people get irritated that I cannot be productive like I used to. They have no idea that it’s a struggle to be awake and that I can’t remember what I promised to do for them last week unless I wrote it down. Aside from the deep circles under my eyes, I don’t look sick so it’s hard when I find myself in the awkward position of convincing someone I am and not just making excuses for having neglected that to-do item. It has brought home to me the Philo of Alexandria quote that a friend signs her emails with: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.

Then there’s my life’s mission. To write. I don’t write anymore. Except for two weeks in the summer when we go on vacation, my life is absorbed by these duties, dramas and disappointments. I came here to write and I don’t. That, more than anything, breaks my heart.

When I did write something, it was stolen from me and produced without crediting me. Someone I’d known it was a mistake to trust had lied to me and I hadn’t seen it coming.

When I look at it all in a pile like this, it seems to be a year soaked in tears and heavy sighs. To put it succinctly, I can’t do another year like this.

So I am pulling myself out. My blog header used to say something about believing in the dream and the day I couldn’t say that anymore would be the day I’d pack up and leave. By all accounts I should have left by now. But I am choosing to stay. I don’t know why, really, except maybe force of habit. Maybe there is a tiny speck of me that does still believe.

I am working with a new doctor now who finally has me on a road to recovery. My mother’s hospice is twenty minutes from me so I will get to spend many more hours exploring the mystery of life with her. I have a beautiful new niece who reminds me of life’s joy every time I see her. I have some wonderful new friends of wisdom and integrity and am slowly culling the crazies out of my life. I have some wonderful old friends who’ve stood by me. I see my daily work rewarded in the smiles of my students who find their power and live better lives because of me. Despite my best efforts, I find myself married to a lovely man who adores me and makes my days warm and safe. Together we run a screenwriting intensive in Tuscany in the summers and being in Italy yearly feeds my soul.

And I’m writing again. I have a wonderful new creative partner and there are interesting things brewing for us. I’m thrilled to have the energy and will to sit and write this right now. I may be a little rusty. But I am making a commitment to be back in the blogosphere for 2012 – this month marks the seventh anniversary of this blog. It’s going to be a strange, heart-breaking, wonderful ride. I hope you will take it with me.

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Monday, February 28, 2011

Nico and the Gaping Hole

Even as I love to deride Twilight and the anti-feminist, pro-chastity bent of it, I have to admit that I have read the entire series, gobbling it up like so much junk food. I get the appeal of being loved for having done absolutely nothing to be worthy of it – of finding that amazing Other who will just get you and love you for you. But that universal teenage girl desire is for another blog post.

The thing about it that I had the hardest time with was how helpless and lost Bella was without her Edward. How completely incapable she was of simply making her peace with it, valuing herself and moving on. Who among us hasn’t had their heart ripped out by someone for whom they were head over heels? Sure, you cry your eyes out for a while but then you have to get that he’s not coming back, pick yourself up, put away the Ben & Jerry’s and move on. The gaping hole Bella describes in her chest due to Edward’s absence doesn’t strike me as devoted and romantic but pathetic and self-absorbed. Her complete lack of a sense of worth or purpose – that need to define herself as valuable only in conjunction to him completely pissed me off as a feminist and someone who abhors co-dependence.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much the teen-angst-wired author had tapped into something. How much that hole hurts the first time you feel it and the work it takes to learn to close it.

After long and tortured high school years, I finally acquired my first boyfriend in college. His name was Nico. He was half Italian, half Vietnamese and in the real world far too short for me. But by god he was mine. I poured every Disney princess fantasy into our relationship. Like the velveteen rabbit, I finally felt real. I was worthy of existing because someone else finally saw my value and wanted it for himself. And so I prostrated myself before him. Cleaning his kitchen without being asked, spending hours making thoughtful gifts and mix-tapes (back when one made mix-tapes to prove one’s love), putting my schedule aside so that it worked with his. In disgusted retrospect, I completely lost myself in him.

To his credit, having a worshipper rather than a partner didn’t work for Nico and he dumped me. I completely broke apart. I couldn’t eat; I couldn’t smile or keep from crying for any length of time. I only listlessly dragged myself to classes because some part of me remembered why I was at college. I sat spacing out on campus benches oblivious to the beautiful spring days around me – even resentful of them. How dare they be so lovely when my whole world had collapsed into nothing? I was too young to realize that a relationship was not about giving yourself up.

One day as I was moping on a bench, Ayesha, the girlfriend of Nico’s roommate happened by. “Hey! How are you?”

I looked at her incredulously. How was I? I’d been crying for weeks. How could she even ask that?

She noticed my dour face. “Why are you so bummed out?”

“Nico!” I blurted, astounded at how thick she was. Didn’t she realize she was not looking at a fellow girl, but a gutted husk of a human? Didn’t she see the open chest wound I was harboring? The gaping hole that sapped my very life force?

“Really? You’re still hung up on him?”

Still? My life would never be the same. “Come with me,” she smiled and took my hand. She walked me into the library and while she made photocopies for a report, she told me all about the Nico I never saw. She told me he’d roll his eyes and deride me every time I left the room. That he and her boyfriend, made fun of all my homemade gifts and mix-tapes. That they’d purposely made bigger and bigger messes in the kitchen just to see how far they could push me. Her litany of denigration went on and on.

That did it. The thing in me that had broken fused together in a hot fire. Somehow hearing how much he’d disrespected me let me find the respect I’d lost for myself. I hugged Ayesha and walked back out into the warm spring sun feeling the kind breeze on my legs, the soft sway of my skirt, content with the proud blaze back in my eyes. I had poured myself into making his world a better place and he had ridiculed me. And why wouldn’t he? I had sold myself out in order to earn his love. I was embarrassed to see the desperate, simpering creature I’d become. I was furious with myself for being so spineless and with him for having been so cruel. I’d never been loved before; I didn’t know how it worked. At least now with what Ayesha had told me, I was pretty sure it didn’t work that way.

So when I dismiss Bella’s ridiculous crumble into worthlessness, I sheepishly remember my own. At first it saddened me to realize I could not hold myself above such foolish, self-loathing behavior but then that’s part of the series’ brilliance. Who among us has not known a weak moment? Because just like what I had with Nico was not real love, the impulses under Bella’s feelings for Edward are not love either, but obsession, and that desperate teen-age hope that we’ll find our value out there in his eyes.

We all have to go through that experience of learning how to close that gaping hole with our own hands. I learned how to have a therapeutic pity party, let all the pain out and move on. I learned that self-respect is about the sexiest quality one can have. I hope all the readers who idolize Bella will too.

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Saturday, February 19, 2011


This is a town full of those who wish to lose their anonymity. So when I say that being anonymous alternately pisses me off, frustrates me or even hurts, I’m not likely to get a lot of argument. Or notice for that matter. I wish this whole town knew me as a writer and celebrated me, of course, but that’s not even the kind of loss of anonymity I’m talking about.

At six feet tall, and a rather leonine personality, I’ve always thought of myself as someone who stands out in a crowd – someone you’re going to remember. Not necessarily just if we’ve been in the same room although my ego would like to assume even then, but if we’ve meet, talked, clicked over something or other I find it rather improbable that I’d be forgotten. Sure we’re not going to be remembered by every soul we meet just as we won’t remember every hand we shake. But being forgotten by those with whom you feel connected hurts.

I was at a meeting today and a woman I’ve meet several times, a woman I’ve complimented on her way with words and even been advised by, came up to where I was talking with a friend. The friend squealed a hello to her and turned to me “This is Heidi, do you guys know each other?” I smiled as the woman looked me over, her face blank. “No,” she stated, “nice to meet you.”

My ‘yes’ died in my throat. I shook her hand, wondering if I should correct her, remind her, and finally settled on a minorly defiant “nice to see you again.” I excused myself and walked away. Had my previous heartfelt compliments meant so little to her? Did she not see me as part of the community with which she met every week? Worst of all, was I really that forgettable?

In an instant I was back in high school. Or more accurately, a year after high school. I was home for my first college spring break. I made the usual pilgrimage back to my high school to visit my friends still there. I’d always seen past graduates return for triumphant visits, marveled at how mature and worldly they seemed, and been envious of the grand welcomes the teachers gave them, eager to hear what they were making of themselves out in the big world. I returned smiling and ready to be so lauded.

I walked onto campus, struck by how distant this world seemed from me now. How innocent and simple. Oh how grand I fancied myself after one year in another town. I went straight for the classroom of my favorite teacher. For four years she’d been a mentor and mother figure to me. She’d inspired me and helped set me on my university path. I couldn’t wait to see her light up, get a welcoming hug and regale her with tales of my freshman year.

“Michelle!” I called, striding into the room ready with any number of inside jokes.

She turned to me, a blank look on her face. Certainly nothing I would describe as lit up. “Hi?” she waited.

“It’s me! I’m. Visiting.” I faltered. This was not going according to celebratory plan.

“I’m sorry, what’s your name?”

I stood there for what seemed like an eternity. Her phone rang. “It’s Heidi,” I murmured as she turned to answer it. I wandered out of the room. Had I made so little of an impression in four years? Did she really not care about me? Was I so forgettable?

In college, I’d bonded with my Italian teacher. Having traveled all over Europe, I had chosen my true love and it was Italy. I came into her class ready to learn. I picked up her accent, mannerisms and regional curse words. She became part of my Italian personality. Later, when I returned from my Junior Year Abroad in Italy, I couldn’t wait to visit her, share stories of my year, compare with her stories of growing up there. I marched into her classroom with an ebullient “Ciao, Bella!”

She swiveled to study me. “Do I know you?”

The air went out of me. Even as I haltingly explained that I’d been her student and I’d just returned from her homeland, she stared at me with a bland ‘if you say so’ look.

“The teacher always means more to the students than the students mean to the teacher,” my husband, a former Italian teacher, comforts me as I recall that disappointment.

Now as a teacher myself, I understand how hard it is to remember names. With each class, I must work to recall a slew of new names and faces. I usually retain the names for a little while after the class – several years for the students who stand out. I always retain the faces though. I know who I’ve taught. And I know the students I feel a stronger connection with. Sometimes they are the ones who reach out to me during class. Sometimes they are the ones in whom I see a reflection of my young self. I’m sad when they go on about their lives and for them I’m just another teacher they don’t have any longer. So I would argue that in some cases the students mean just as much to the teacher. I was sure I’d been just such a student.

As the woman from this morning’s meeting brought me back to those other disappointing moments of presumed connection it hit me just how much a sense of being known by one’s smaller community counts for more than the larger anonymity of show biz. A bit of a ‘duh’ moment, I’ll grant you. But it underscored for me that the woman’s feeling of connection or lack thereof was a key component to my own. How often had I gone out of my way to be there for Michelle in high school or chat with my Italian teacher in college? Aside from just taking in their lessons, how much had I acknowledged them for the contributions they were making to my life in the moment? Mattering to someone is what we all crave; being valued by those whom we value. Next week I’ll make a point of greeting that same woman so that she knows someone, no matter how inconsequential to her larger world, someone remembers her. For whatever it’s worth, she’s not anonymous.

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Saturday, February 05, 2011

In Case Of Fire

We’ve all asked ourselves that question: the house is on fire, you have one minute, what would you grab? I think we all have similar answers: photos, computers, pets, heirlooms… In my mind I had it plotted out too. Grab the laptops, the cats, my jewelry box, as many photo albums as I can carry and go.

We heard the screaming around 8:30 one night after dinner. It was my next-door neighbor who is generally silent. There was something to her voice that made me prick up my ears – an edge of panic. We muted the TV and that’s when the fire alarms went off. Not just a little beeping smoke detector but whole building siren.

“I smell smoke,” my husband said as he yanked open our door.

Our next-door neighbor had been screaming for her dog who she couldn’t find for all the smoke in her condo. “It’s the unit below me,” she blurted having finally gotten her dog. “Not again!”

“We can stop it!” shouted the guy across the hall matching her panic. There had been a fire in this building shortly before we moved in. It had destroyed several units and its terror was still fresh in our neighbors’ memories.

My husband and I looked at each other. Was this the real deal? Are we evacuating or just going down to handle the situation?

The guy across the hall slammed his elbow into the emergency glass over the hallway fire extinguisher. “Come on!” he shouted to my husband who grabbed our fire extinguisher and followed. I ran back into our kitchen for another. I put on shoes and a sweater, grabbed my phone and keys and followed after the guys. I was sure we’d be right back up after we’d put the fire out.

I reached the first floor and found the hallway thick with smoke. My husband and the guy across the hall pounded the door. “Is anyone in there?” shouted the guy. My next-door neighbor informed us that a woman and her dog lived there. We had no idea if they were home. The guys made a few kicks at the door. My husband realized that his flip flops were a poor choice. As the smoke thickened it was clear: this was a fire out of our league. We joined the flow of neighbors trooping outside.

Neighbors who’d never met stood together on the sidewalk watching the smoke billow the curtains of the imperiled unit. The president of our HOA finished her 911 call. And we waited. It was still just that one unit. Surely we’d be back in soon. Surely we didn’t need to really panic and go back in for the cats, laptops and jewelry. Surely.

“In the last fire,” the president mused, “we evacuated and were barred entry for two weeks while they made sure the structure was sound.”

Two weeks? Neither of us had wallets, my husband didn’t have his phone or decent shoes. How would we pay for a hotel or food? How would our cats survive for that long? Our next-door neighbor took that as her cue to walk to the hotel around the corner and settle in before we all had to head there. We still didn’t know if anyone was inside the unit and where were the fire trucks? We lived less than a mile from the fire house.

The guy from across the hall couldn’t stand it anymore, “we’ve got to get in there, come on!” He and my husband took their extinguishers and ran back in. They’re not foolishly running into a burning building, I told myself, just a perfectly fine building with one small fire in progress. I stood rooted to the spot.

The fire trucks came. To our revved brains it seemed that they puttered around, slowly assessing the situation and getting the hoses out. My husband and the guy emerged. The guy’s elbow streamed blood from where he’d broken the emergency glass. The firemen yelled at them and barred entry for anyone else. The guys, however, had somehow managed to kick the door in and empty both extinguishers into the fire.

“It didn’t seem to do any good,” my husband murmured. “All we could see was flames. They’re in the kitchen right by the door. We couldn’t tell if anyone was still in there but I doubt it.” I hoped he was right.

Our next-door neighbor returned from her hotel to check on the situation. “Why aren’t the hoses flowing yet?” she wailed. “My place is next!” And ours right behind, I thought.

The firemen set up yellow caution tape and we had to move down the sidewalk. The hoses finally started flowing as the unit’s resident came home. She was a wide-eyed girl in her mid twenties that I’d never seen before. She was horror-struck. She’d just left not half an hour before to run an errand.

“Stove was on,” a bustling fireman barked as he passed.

“I never cook! I didn’t turn it on!” the girl wailed. Confused and now in tears. “My puppy is in there!”

The girl sat down and I watched her. What was that like: to have your life going one way one minute and come home to chaos the next? I wanted to talk to her, comfort her, but had no idea what to say.

A short time later, a firewoman emerged from the building with a wrapped bundle. Thank God they found the dog, I thought. I wanted to see this reunion. The firewoman started to approach the girl but, seeing her in conversation with a policeman she stopped. My heart dropped into my stomach. It was dead. It had to be dead or she wouldn’t have delayed. The policeman wandered off and the firewoman went to the girl. I couldn’t tear myself away. I had wanted to see the joyous reunion, the relief at getting a treasured friend back. I wanted to see the utter despair, the pain even more. Not in a macabre way, not that I at all wished for her suffering. I just wanted to see the humanness of it. To see from the outside what I had so recently felt myself.

The firewoman presented the bundle and the girl shook her head and cried with renewed despair. She rocked the bundle back and forth and wailed into the night. I waited until the first shock had time to sink in and I went to her. I sat next to her and rubbed her back. I told her I was so sorry, that I had lost my dog too a few months back and knew just what she was feeling.

“You do? She was just a puppy. I only got her two weeks ago,” the girl sniffed. “It was my birthday yesterday.”

‘I’m so sorry’ seemed like an inadequate phrase so I just sat with her and rubbed her back with each crying jag.

After a while the fire was out. Thankfully the building was pronounced sound with only the girl’s unit a charred ruin. My husband said he was going in to check on our place and the cats.

“I’m staying with her”

A dog-loving neighbor joined us and called animal control to dispose of the puppy body.

“The fire marshall can walk you through now,” a policeman informed her. “It’ll be your only chance to see about any valuables or stuff before we cordon off the unit.”

“What do I do with her?” the girl gestured to her inert bundle.

“Just put it down, no one will touch it. It will be fine here”

“I’m not just leaving her on the sidewalk!” the girl spat. She brandished the dead dog at the cop like a threat, like a debt he owed her. “Will you hold her?”

“I gotta file a report,” the cop muttered and turned to use his cruiser’s roof as a desk. The girl stared in wide-eyed pain. “The fire marshall’s waiting for you.”

“I’ll hold her,” I held my hands up to the girl.


“I’d be honored” She delicately placed the wrapped bundle in my hands and I held the dead dog in my lap. Her grey head lolled out of the wrap. I briefly wondered how the firewoman had found such a clean white cloth for the dog and I petted the soft head, tucking it better into the bundle.

The crowd dispersed, filtering back into the building and to evenings interrupted. I sat alone in the chill January air with a dead dog on my lap. I told her she’d be missed, that we were all so sorry, that we tried to get to her. I asked her to say hi to my Simon. And then I started crying for the first time in the whole incident.

After a while animal control showed up. I asked the dog-loving neighbor who’d come out to check on me to get the girl. I couldn’t just hand the dead puppy over without her having her goodbye. The girl came stumbling out, numbly dragging a small carry-on behind her. I gave her the puppy and she petted her ears and head, told her how much she loved her and how sorry she was for her short life.

She looked at the mercifully patient animal control officer. “I can’t,” she squeaked. The dog-loving neighbor stepped in and handed the bundle over to the officer while I hugged the sobbing girl.

Her parents arrived to pick her up. I wanted to give her my number in case she needed anything. I watched dumbly as she walked away. I drifted back inside and found my husband on the couch comforting our freaked out cats. We looked at each other confused, relieved, guilty. We had just abandoned everything we said we’d grab in case of fire. We’d left with no money or supplies for survival. We felt we’d failed our fire test.

We heard later that despite their initial scolding from the firemen, my husband and the guy’s actions with their extinguishers probably helped stop the fire from spreading more. I never saw the girl again. Our building smells like smoke and the ground floor is missing its carpet but otherwise it’s as though nothing ever happened.

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