Chapter 3: I Might Be A Criminal Now

I pulled up to the house and as the garage door opened, I was met with a wave of devastation—the likes of which I had not experienced since the night I lost her 14 months ago. I pulled my car in and shut off the engine. Everything still looked the same. “Good,” I thought, “they haven’t changed anything yet.”

You see, when the house sold, all of its contents went with it. When I found that out it was like my most fear-inducing nightmare had been realized: Someone else was going to move into my home and live my life. I’d had the dream before, the one where I’m a ghost in my own home or maybe a I’m stuck in a parallel universe and everything is just as it is in my world except now different people are there. It’s not my Nonna walking down the hallway and it’s not the wheels of her buggy clicking against the cracks in the tile. It’s a different woman and a different man and different family using my kitchen sink, breakfast nook, TV, and backyard. It’s not my dog looking in through the window. And it’s not me reading at the counter.

In the dream, I’m standing in my kitchen and watching strangers go about their morning as if this is their life. But it’s not—its mine. They neither see me nor know me and I’m just trapped, watching it all happen. And now that dream has become a reality.

I got out of the car and closed the garage door behind me. I was about to unlock the door to go inside when I first noticed that something wasn’t quite right. There were paint cans on the work table and it was apparent that they’d been opened. The brushes looked to have been freshly cleaned and laid out as if to dry overnight in time for reuse in the morning. I figured it odd but continued into the house.

I had prepared myself to say goodbye to my grandmother’s house just as we had left it, with her paintings on the wall and dishes in the cabinet and big chair sitting in the middle of the room. But what I hadn’t prepared myself for was those paint cans and everything they brought with them.

Each room had been altered ever so slightly. The new owners, not set to officially be “owners” for another 24 hours, had already come in and begun to make themselves, well, at home. They had painted, moved furniture, and even brought in a few things of their own. The paint was all of one—maybe two—shades darker than the color currently on the walls and the furniture had been rearranged into a setting that we had tried a few years back and ultimately abandoned because it was absolutely ridiculous. And the items they had a brought in? There were three: A giant, horrendous painting of themselves (which now hung over the mantle in the great room), the ugliest recliner that I had ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot of ugly recliners… I lived in the Midwest for awhile, after all) and finally, the worst thing imaginable—a Tupperware container of gluten-free flour.

“Is this my Upside-Down,” I questioned as a chill ran down my spine and the tears welled up in my eyes. Why paint but not really paint? This middle aged couple whom I didn’t know and had only briefly met immediately became the enemy. I flew into a mad rage. Had I not been alone, I’m certain that whoever I was with would have gotten out of my way for fear of being pierced by the daggers that now flew from my eyes. Maniacally, I began pulling things off the wall, out of drawers, and from the cabinets. I imagined that I was rescuing the salt shakers from a cruel, totalitarian dictator whose most terrible exercise of power was in bad taste. These monsters didn’t deserve a malfunctioning tea kettle especially considering the fact that they were probably going to use it to warm up water for the atrocity that is instant coffee. And the cookie sheets… Oh, the cookie sheets. I had to keep them safe! How could I let such innocence be defiled by gluten-free baked goods?

It was well past midnight when my rampage finally ended. I must’ve looked crazy. How could I not with the hot tears of anger running down my cheeks as I occasionally muttered “Thanks, Obama” while stuffing large paintings of sailboats into the trunk of my Challenger in the middle of the night. This was clearly not Obama’s fault and I felt bad about dragging him into it but, you know, there we were.

Once my car had been sufficiently stuffed with my Nonna’s things, I returned to the house. “There,” I thought. “Now it doesn’t look like hers anymore. It doesn’t look like mine.” If I couldn’t leave it exactly as she did then the least I could do is leave it totally and completely void of her. So I did. I walked through each bedroom, including my own, for one last look around. I shut off the lights as I went and when I reached her bedroom, I walked over to where her bed used to sit; where she used to sleep and dream. They had begun painting that room as well and had thus moved everything out. I stood where I had stood a thousand times before, remembering how I used to help her into bed and kiss her on the head before saying goodnight. Sometimes, just as I would start to leave the room, she’d grab me by the hand and say, “I love you, kid. I don’t know what I’d do without you.” And I’d smile and assure her that she would never have to find out. And she never did.

For the last time, I walked away from her bedside and flipped off the light. “G’night, Non. Love you,” I said aloud. And standing there in that empty room, filled only with my imaginary life, I swear I heard her say it back.

Then I left. I made sure that all of the lights were off and the doors were locked and I told myself that time would take care of the feeling that was gutting me. I prayed not for relief or comfort or escape. No, I prayed for endurance. Because at that point, all that was left to do was endure and take the next thing that comes. So I grabbed a couple of wooden spoons that had been missed in my burglary, thought about how technically I might be a felon now (albeit a yet-to-be convicted felon) and I left.
With a car full of my grandmother’s things and the only regret I had ever felt regarding her being that I wasn’t able to take the area rugs, I left.

——————————–
“Where did all of this come from?” my dad asked. It was early in the morning and my father and I stood in front of the open trunk of my car, both donning house slippers with coffee cups in hand. Steam rose from his mug as he leaned in to get a better look at my car’s contents.
“Uh, I stopped by Non’s last night.” He paused and looked at me—very obviously trying to decide what to do. I waited, expecting him to tell me to take everything back because this all definitely belongs to those new savage people. Instead, he pointed and drew my attention back to the trunk.
He gestured to the pile of obscure objects to the right, “Is that a lone salt shaker? Where’s the pepper?”
“Yeah. Couldn’t find it,” I said without taking my eyes off the trunk.

Then he nodded to the left, “Isn’t that kettle broken?”

“Maybe.”

“That’s a lot of throw blankets.”

“I get cold.”

“How did you fit those end tables in there?”

“…Magic.”

“And shoving?”

“A lot of shoving,” I said, this time looking down at my feet.
“Well,” he started. He sipped his coffee and nodded his head, accepting the fact that he was now complicit to my larceny. Then he closed the trunk. “Do you want some waffles?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said. “I could eat.”

A Tail of Escape

The following is a true story. All people, events, and dog are real. The opinions expressed may or may not be partially assumed by a human on account of the fact that dogs don’t type.


I heard it before I saw it. There I was, lying in the sun in a yard that wasn’t my own but had recently become quite familiar, when I heard the unmistakable roar of Her car barreling down the street. I say unmistakable because I hear it at least twice a day, every day: in the morning, when she leaves for work, and in the evening, when she returns home. I like to sit by the door and listen for her; I’m proud of Her every time she goes out, even if she doesn’t always take me. Anyhow, I sat up, confused because it was way too early for her to be back… Usually the sun would be just dipping behind those trees to the left (I believe that’s what she and the others would call “west.” But I’m simple: I’ll call it left.) side of the yard when she gets home. But now, that sun was still hung well above the left-trees and something must be wrong for her to return so early. Then again, maybe I’m mixed up and today isn’t a normal day. All I know is that every seventh time the sun hits these other trees (right ones, to be specific) I find that gate open and for awhile, I live like her. But I guess it’s possible that I lost count of the days… I never was good at days. Here’s what I am good at: She left this morning, that gate was open, and I walked out like usual.

But now that I think about it, this might not be so usual, after all. Because she just slammed on her brakes, it looks like her eyes have been watering her face again, and she’s looking at me and the Old Man like she’s never seen a dog and his friend before.


I didn’t know that gate was open. Every week, the gardeners come and rarely do they close it so usually I do it when I get home from work. But it’s Sunday afternoon and I must’ve forgotten because when I left 3 hours ago, Mac was in the yard and now he’s not. I didn’t know that gate was open.

And I didn’t know that dog would run. After all, he never had before. Every Friday, I come home to an open gate and my dog still in the yard, as usual. But it’s not Friday; it’s Sunday. And this day apparently isn’t so usual.


I didn’t always go out when the gate was open. I mean, why would I need to? For as long as I can remember, I always had some one to bum around with. Even when She left for work, the Old Lady was still around. I’d peek at her through the windows and let her know that I was there; I liked to think that I’d protect her, should she ever need it. Luckily she never did, at least not in the way I thought she would. She always sat in the same chair in the same room on the left side of the house, the same side as the trees. Cold sun after warm sun after hot sun after gray sun, she sat in that chair and read books and watched TV and called Her and made plans. As time went on, I noticedthe Old Lady changing. She spent less time sitting up. She walked a lot slower. I kept thinking that if she’d just use all four of her legs like she should then she might move a little faster but, much like Her, they preferred to just use the two. Humans, right? Anyhow, every day I watched her change. It made me heavy inside. I don’t know what to call it. Look, when She brings out the leash to take me on a run, my insides feel light and all four of my feet can’t stay still. But seeing the changes in the Old Lady made me feel heavy inside.  And She didn’t seem to notice them, either. Every morning, She’d kiss the Old Lady on the head, like she does to me, and then She’d leave and come back awhile later.

As much as I love Her, I also loved being with the Old Lady because we had secrets. You know, the way friends do.

I remember the day that everyone else noticed the changes. The Old Lady was taken away and She came home alone, her eyes watering her face. I didn’t see much of Her for awhile until the day the Old Lady came back. And this time, there was no mistaking the changes. I watched all of them, Her and all of these humans I’d never seen before, sitting around the Old Lady. I remember it being very late and still very hot out when She came outside and sat down with me in the dark. She didn’t say anything but I heard every drop of water fall from her eyes and hit her face. I licked some of them but, to be honest, I think I might’ve just been thirsty. Look, it was really hot outside. But I also think I might’ve known that it was going to be just me and Her from then on.


I opened the garage door and dialed my dad. As I pulled out of the driveway, I cried to him, saying that Mac was gone and he needed to come over and help me start looking for him. The past 6 months have been hard enough and knowing that this dang dog was the linchpin in my sanity, my dad came running. 

Every night, I take Mac on the same running route, in hopes that he would become familiar with it and be able to find his way home in an event such as this. So as soon as my tires left the driveway and hit the pavement, I gunned it. Engine roaring, I took off down the street that we run every night, telling myself that I would find him.

I just didn’t anticipate who I might find him with.


She’s been lonely. I know this because that warm night that we sat in the dark together wasn’t the only time it’s happened. They say we haven’t gotten rain but I say they haven’t seen her when no one else but me is around. She’s started staying in, only leaving for work or the woods. She doesn’t talk much any more. She doesn’t write or read much either. She’s just sort of… there. Every now and then, I see Her walk by the Old Lady’s chair but she always speeds up her pace when she does. I wish she wouldn’t do that… It’s an awfully comfy chair. It isn’t hot outside any more. It isn’t gray out, either. It’s cold. It’s cold and she still won’t go in that room.

One morning, on a gray-cold day, I heard Her leave and that was when I noticed that open gate. I noticed the gate and I went and double checked the window, just to make sure that no one was there, and when I saw that no one was, I decided to see what She did all day. I stepped one foot out beyond the fence and I realized that it was the furthest I’d ever been from home on my own. And I loved it. I went right because that was where She always took me so I figured that must be where She also takes herself. I made another right, the way we usually do, and that was when I saw it: The Old Man. And he was smiling at me, just how the Old Lady used to.


Every night, Mac and I take two rights and a left to get out of the neighborhood and then we go west, south, east, north then west again until eventually we take a right and two lefts to get back home. I took the first right and thought about how stupid I was to forget to close the gate. I took the second right and wondered what I’m going to do about missing the dog and Nonna. I was about to take the left when I saw him laying there next to a seated old man, looking up at the sun above the westernmost trees in the yard. I slammed on my brakes and leaned over, opened the passenger door, and watched my best friend in the world nudge the old man with his nose and then trot over to my car and hop in like it was the most normal thing.

Apparently, it was more normal than I thought.


It all started about 8 open gates ago. I met the Old Man on my first outing. I didn’t stay long because I didn’t want to be gone when She got home so I left pretty quick. A couple open gates later, I went back. Then it became a regular thing. I always made it home before She did and I got to see the Old Man. They call that a win/win/win/win/win/win/win—that’s a “win/win” in dog years. That is, of course, until today because today she got home before me. I never figured out why but it didn’t matter. After all, I never was good at days. So I got in the car and was happy she left the window down because then I could hear what she and the Old Man were talking about. She’d stopped watering her face and had started smiling—But wait! Oh no. He just told her that I’ve been here before. But she’s still smiling! Only now, her eyes are watering again. Truthfully, I’m shocked that her cheeks haven’t sprouted weeds with the amount of water this girl has constantly trickling down her face.

But I’m glad She met the Old Man. I haven’t noticed any changes in him. But as for Her? Today, I’m starting to notice some changes in Her.


As I stood there, talking to the old man and looking back and forth between him and Mac, I found myself in a state of complete astonishment. I was dumbfounded when I apologized for the pup being a nuisance and the old man responded by saying, “Oh no, I love when he comes here!”

“I’m sorry,” I started, “when he comes here? You say that like this isn’t the first time.”

“Oh no, it’s not. He visits often. He’s been here for the past couple of hours, just sitting by me. Like I said, I love when he comes here.”

As the old man spoke, a teenage boy came walking out of the front door to greet me at the curb. I’d seen him before but I never knew where he lived. He was the old man’s grandson—and the two of them lived in the house directly behind mine. As the young man spoke, I got lost in my own thoughts for a second. Here, in the house right behind mine, was the mirror image of the life I’ve lived—the one that I had recently lost. And the tie between them was Mac.

I thanked them for looking out for MacArthur and promised to bring him back by sometime and Mac sat in the passenger seat of my car with his floppy-eared head sticking out the window, just waiting to go home. I liked to think that he was grinning about seeing me meet the old man. I loved to think that he knew what he had done.


We drove home in silence, silence but for the occasional sharp breath that came along with her eyes that were still running. Two lefts and we were home; I wondered if she knew that I was happy for her to meet the old man. I had been worried that she would think I’d forgotten the Old Lady in favor of my new friend but as I rode with her and looked at her face, damp with tears and her eyes familiarly heavy, I noticed the change that I mentioned before: This time, it wasn’t just heavy insides that I saw—there was something else. Something I hadn’t seen in Her in a long time.

We pulled into the garage and she shut off the car. I waited for Her to open the door and stayed still until she called me. Usually I would just hop over her as soon as her door opened but this time I thought she could do with the calm. So I waited. I don’t know what took so long but eventually she got out of the car and patted her stand-up leg with her strange front paw and I knew she was telling me to follow. So I followed. We walked in the house, side-by-side, and just as we were about to pass the Old Lady’s chair, she suddenly stopped.

She didn’t speed up like usual; she stopped. Like I said earlier, maybe this day wasn’t so usual, after all.


For several years, every day I would come home from work through the same door to find Nonna in the room on the west side of the house, reading in her chair. It’s a big, wing-backed, patterned chair that she’s had for as long as I can remember. It sits in the middle of the room with tables on either side of it, both overflowing with books, newspaper articles, and magnifying glasses so that she can read the books and newspaper articles. More often than not, she’d be waiting there for me with something that she wanted me to read. So I would come in and drop my work stuff, kick off my shoes, and read whatever it was while she decided where she wanted to go for dinner. Then, I’d go out and feed the dog, she’d tell me what a cute face he has, looking at her at her all day and what not, and then we’d go out.

Eventually, all of this became more difficult. She became more dependent on her oxygen and couldn’t go anywhere without it. It was ok though because she could breathe just fine with it. Looking back now, I can see how just not ok it really was. She was declining and just as you never see the flower blooming but you recognize it once it has, I didn’t see her deteriorating but I saw it once she did. August 15th was the last time I paused and looked at that chair.

I thought about how Mac saw Nonna more than all of us. He probably recognized her decline while we still couldn’t. Every time I came home, he was posted up outside of whatever room she was in. At night, he slept at her door. He had lost interest in his toys and didn’t care to chew on bones any more. For months, he just waited. Then, when we lost her that hot night in August, he turned all of his attention to me. I wondered if he knew that he had lost her, too.


While we stood there quietly, I thought about how badly I wished I could’ve told her what was coming. She loved the Old Lady like I loved Her and so naturally I, too, loved the Old Lady. I tried to tell Her—I really did! But of course she misinterpreted everything. She does it all the time. I mean, she thinks that when I lick her face while she’s watching TV it’s because I want her to play with me. She couldn’t be more wrong—I just really don’t get “New Girl” and I want watch something else. Anyways, She did the same thing every night that we ran by the Old Man’s house: I would go over there and start sniffing around and she wouldn’t get it and she’d pull me back to the course.

Look, I just wanted her to make a new friend like I had. I wanted her to talk more and laugh more the way she used to with the Old Lady; the way the Old Man still does with the Young Man. I wanted her to know that she isn’t alone. I wanted her to feel light on the inside.

And while we stood there, staring at an empty chair, I stopped looking at the chair and started looking at her. I hoped that she knew that I looked out for the Old Lady when she wasn’t there to do it; I hoped she knew that from now on I would be looking out for her. I don’t sleep outside the Old Lady’s door any more but I do sleep right next to Her. And she stays still all night now—I think that helps. She loved the Old Lady like I love Her and right now, I think she’s starting to see that.

Because she just started scratching me behind the ears.


I didn’t rush by her sitting room like I usually do. I don’t know why I did but I realized for the first time since losing her that this will get better. I realized that moving on doesn’t mean forgetting; letting go doesn’t mean losing out; and looking forward to the future doesn’t mean being ungrateful for the past.

And after the events of the day, losing him and then finding him and then finding that he had also found another, I was given the courage to do what I hadn’t been able to: Pause.

I knelt beside Mac and scratched his ears, thinking about how this dog maybe wasn’t a dog, at all. He seemed dang-near human, sometimes. After all, he seems pretty good at days if he’s been leaving and getting home before me for the past couple of months.

“That’s a nice thought,” I said to myself.


Honestly, I’m worried that she’s going to be more careful about closing that gate. She still doesn’t know about all of my other adventures.

And what’s a nice thought? She needs to quit mumbling stuff like that and not telling me more. I’m no mind-reader. I mean, I’m not even good at days.

Usually.

Good Grief

I thought I wanted to sit down and write about sadness and loss and pain. Not my own, of course. I just thought I would talk a bit about those experiences in theory, maybe consider my own situation briefly but move right along. I thought it would be a good idea to keep the darkness at arm’s-length, to just not even open the door that leads to my true heart. So, I began to write. And you know what happened when I wrote that? Garbage—Garbage happened.  Seriously, it was the worst thing I’ve ever written. It was so dumb and shallow that it was actually laughable. I realized that the words that I need to communicate are stored up on the other side of that door, they live in the dark part of my heart that I want to pretend doesn’t exist. So, I went in.

When I opened that door, I didn’t find what I was expecting. I’ve suffered the most catastrophic loss in my life and here, in the deepest, darkest part of my heart, I am just not seeing what I thought I would. I feared that experiencing the depth of my emotion would send me into a spiral. I thought I would drown in it; I figured I’d go under and just never come up again. But, here I am, standing on my own two feet in the soft, vulnerable, broken part of my heart and all I can think is, “I’m gonna be ok.”


In the early hours of the morning, I knelt at my grandmother’s bedside with my hand on her back, feeling the shallow rise and fall of her failing breaths. A few hours earlier, I had leaned down and spoken words that I didn’t believe into her ear. They told me that sometimes folks need permission from their loved ones to go on to the great unknown, so I told her that it was ok for her to let go, it was ok for her to leave me on my own. I didn’t believe the words when I said them and I didn’t believe them as I sat there, watching the life leave her body. How could I have meant them? She wasn’t supposed to die yet. She was supposed to go to dinner with me, like usual, and order the tilapia and be disappointed when it came out with sauce on it. She was supposed to take my phone call every day at 11 AM, she was supposed to tell me again that she was just having some coffee and getting around and then ask me when I’d be home from work. She was supposed to help me pick out a wedding dress and see me get married and have children. She was supposed to see me climb mountains, run races, and break a couple more bones while having the time of my life. So… no. I didn’t believe that it was ok for her to let go. I didn’t believe that it was ok for her to leave me on my own.

But I said it, anyways. And when she died, it felt as though my very soul had been torn from my body and every light had been extinguished. My world crumbled. This was my person. She believed in me, encouraged me, and challenged me. She was my namesake and my hero and the reason that I’m fair-skinned, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed while my family is exactly not. This was my favorite person in the world. I asked my mom if she was sure that Non was gone. “I’m sure,” she said. And right then, everything changed. I knew, for sure, that I was a goner.

Fast forward to today, to me standing in front of the door in my heart that surely leads to my demise, the one that houses my honest feelings and the true weight of my devastation. As I mentioned before, what I found in that dark place was not what I expected. I found a version of myself that was ok. A version of myself that was broken, devastated, and without Nonna but… was ok. There was the light of good grief, shed on the darkness of painful loss. The loss felt no less empty, the pain was no less severe. But the light shed on my struggle revealed unto me that the emptiness caused by her loss was room made for new life. And that new life starts now. My pain, when illuminated, looks less like an irreparably broken person and more like a woman who is primed for growth and rebuilding. And recognizing this person as myself is the exact type of fresh air I never expected to find here, deep in my heart.

What I expected was to spiral, to rage against the world, God, my family, and myself. Why is that not happening? Why am I not getting a dramatic haircut, a neck tat, or thinking about dating some one who is truly, apparently, obviously incredibly terrible for me? How am I still sane? How am I already sure that I’m going to be ok?

Allow me to go ahead and answer my own question. A few months ago, on Father’s Day, I was having a sprinkler problem and I called my dad. Instead of coming and fixing it himself, he talked me through the solution. I identified that as a loving act because, yet again, my dad was giving me a new skill that would render his useless. I put my finger on that moment and said, “That is what love is. Fearlessly allowing some one else to no longer need you but trusting them to want you, anyways.” And thinking about that moment with my dad has got me thinking back on the countless moments I’ve experienced, just like it, with my Nonna. For the last 26 years, this woman has been teaching me how to make it without her. And I didn’t realize that until just now.

She probably didn’t realize that was what she was doing, either. But that’s the thing about the pure-hearted—their love is transformative without them even trying. She has been pouring into me since I was just a small child. She gave of herself and created in me this sustainable, joy-filled human with the capacity to love and thrive with or without her. For the past several years, I’ve chosen her over so much. And I thought that I would find myself regretting that when it came her time to die. I thought I would miss out on my life because I was so busy living hers. I could not have possibly been more wrong.

Because, you see, the life I lived with her gave me the tools and laid the foundation for the life I’ll live without her. My heart aches when I think about all of the big things she’ll miss in my life. But, maybe she’ll miss the big moments because I couldn’t have had them while still having such a beautiful life with her. How was I supposed to fall in love with a handsome fella when I was so busy listening to her talk about how she fell in love with one in the 1940’s? How was I supposed to live in Peru when I lived with her in Clovis? How was I supposed to chase my dreams when I was already living one with my favorite person on the planet? I’m 26 years old and my entire life is about to change.

And it’s going to be amazing.

Not a day will go by that I don’t miss her; I’m probably going to absent-mindedly try and call her a few times before it finally sinks in that she’s gone. There are some really, really hard days ahead. But those days will be faced as this new version of myself. The version who fills the emptiness with a new, incredible life using the tools that my grandmother gave me. The version who combats loneliness with friendliness, sadness with joyfulness, and the loss with the realization of just how truly blessed I was to have her.

When I sat there, telling her that I would be ok, that she could leave me on my own, I didn’t believe it. But that new version of me did, the person, deep down in my heart, the one who Nonna built without even trying, the one who says, “I’m gonna be ok.”

For 26 years, I’ve lived a most incredible life. And tomorrow, when my eyes open and I realize that everything has changed, I’ll look upon a new life with zeal and excitement.

I’ll say, “I’m gonna be ok.”

Then, I’m going to take my good grief and I’m going to live.

And my new life will be as beautiful as the old.