2006 and two more weeks

Kids have weird ways of coping with disasters. In my case, my biggest coping mechanism seemed to be escapism through video games and movies. I was a pro at extracurriculars, academics, and friends. From the outside looking in, I was totally normal and I wanted it that way. Smiling has always been my strong suit.

I say this because as a result of that escapism, I also became a pro at compartmentalizing. They say that the most successful CEOs advocate for a little bit of compartmentalization. I read one article in which a man described it as the only means to success. I wonder if that’s true. For most, I bet it is.

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I think about disillusionment a lot and how things really aren’t what they seem. Like Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman. Mostly, I’ve been experiencing a lot of “full circle” type moments leading up to my mom’s release. It’s pretty wild. Sometimes it feels like I’m all-in. Other times, I’m watching from a stranger’s window. That balance is required.

Netflix recently recommended a movie to me from 2006 The Covenant. I think it was a 96% match. In 2006, I was obsessed. So no, Netflix, you got that one wrong. 100% match. My mom went down that year I think. Might’ve been 2005, I’m not positive. I saw that movie and all I wanted to do was go to boarding school. I think I saw it a dozen times. In the great ol’ days of AIM, I somehow found a kid about my age who went to boarding school. He lived in Massachusetts and I genuinely believed I would be leaving California to go off to some prep school in the middle of the countryside. I wanted to be anywhere but home. We talked online for hours about absolutely nothing. It was great.

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I told my dad I had a headache or a stomach ache probably every other day so I could stay home and play the Sims. I was never an architect in that game. My designs were always so vanilla. I’m at artist so I feel like I’m qualified to say that. Even now, when I rev up the game and play for a couple hours, my designs and layouts are mediocre at best. Something about computers make me literally think in boxes and grids. It helps me focus.

Imagine, I’m at the front doors of puberty, fantasizing about a boarding school boy in Massachusetts living the life I imagined would be perfect. Meanwhile, I’m sitting in my closet -because that’s the only place in my room where I wanted my computer- eyes actually glazed to the screen, playing the same DVDs over and over and over until the theme songs and words became ingrained in my mind. My sister and I shared bunk beds. There wasn’t much privacy except in that little computer closet of mine (even if the doors weren’t on it). I would sit there after school (or during school if I was pulling a “sick day”) in my uniform, blast AC, turn on the Sims and watch the same movies on repeat for what felt like forever. Everything else was on, but I was totally switched off.

One of those movies was The Incredibles. I think I watched that movie hundreds of times, even if I was just listening and not really watching. The main menu theme song played about 7 times in a row before I realized it had ended and I’d start it all over again. I don’t know why I remember 7. I think I must’ve counted it from the other room.

At school, you can’t really turn to the kid in line and update them on your mom’s prison sentence without things getting a little heavy. So I kept it light. I played sports, board games, computer games, everything that was a game, I was in on. Even when I did my homework, my friends and I played games or competed to see who could get through algebra 2 the fastest. Private school was surreal. I hopped from one bubble to the next. I never had to interact with the real world at all. It didn’t even matter that I had no idea how to dress myself because we were all in the same colored uniforms. That kind of routine was exceptionally helpful for me. The only times I had to feel anything was at visiting and I stopped going very often after a couple years. I needed the world to blur again.

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I made an art project once and flashed people with an electronic flash from my camera. I described my life as a series of bright white lights. The time between those were just as important as the flashes, but I remember the flashes for their contrast and intensity. You can’t just slam someone in the eyeballs with bright lights all the time, you’ve gotta give em a break.

Today, I saw The Incredibles 2 with my dad and my sister for Father’s Day. It was the best one we’ve had so far. There’s been a lot of emphasis placed on the amount of time they took between the first and the second movie and every time someone brings that up I think, ‘14 years feels like a lifetime ago.’

When I was watching it, I kept thinking, ‘I’m so glad they waited. The content is so much better now than it could’ve ever been if they’d made it sooner.’ I think that parallels a lot of my feelings right now. That it’s opening weekend coming up and I’m stoked to see what the plot line is, who the villains are, what the solution is. I’m not really afraid or anything because it’s definitely happening no matter what and in many ways I need it to happen.

In visiting, I always walked by the glass walls filled with women on LWOP (life without parole) sentences. I saw them talking to their families through the glass. I could literally watch them living out their lives in a fishbowl. They were always really young. Maybe prison makes you look younger sometimes. I don’t know. But I always reminded myself that no matter how long it was going to be, she’d be coming home one day. Maybe that’s why they keep the LWOP ladies in with the general visiting population. It keeps you quiet, humble, and grateful all at the same time. Two more weeks. 

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I put your ashes in my room

I think in some ways I’ve come to understand the distress of a mother who loses one of her children. By that I mean also, a mother who has other children to care for.

I took a psychology class last semester and during our first lecture, my professor went on to do a short “meet and greet” in which she discussed her background and her family. It was at this point that she disclosed that she had lost her first child when he was 9 months old and she said he would be 5 now. She showed us photos of her twins who are about 3. She told us that every class she teaches, comes from a place of love. She lives her life in the shadow of her late son’s memory. I remember how that brought tears to my eyes.

Lou was not my favorite out of our pack but she definitely became my favorite. She was always the one who wanted her space and really didn’t give/receive affection the way that I was used to. Because she was sick, she’d gotten so cuddly and loving in the last few months of her life. It was a gift I wasn’t aware of until after she’d gone. I’d totally forgotten she preferred her space. For some reason, I kept remembering it as if I’d intentionally left her out. I felt guilt and horror that I’d done that to my little baby.

Before her death, I can say with total honesty that a part of my heart was fused with my dog Mookee. Her needs, her wishes, her happiness felt like it was literally a part of my own. I would look at her sleeping and I could feel warmth radiating all over my body. Whenever she got sick, I ended up feeling a little under the weather too. I’m sure it was all stress related but we had a hugely unhealthy dependency on one another. Lou’s cancer got to the point where I could no longer be that unhealthy dog mom. I became so closely linked to Lou and I rarely left her side. We had a 24/7 care schedule worked out towards the end after her first stroke. I simply did not leave the house.

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And then Lou died.

I can’t explain the mixture of grief and relief I felt. Mostly, I felt guilt and agony but there were moments where I would forget to grieve and then chastise myself because I wasn’t honoring her memory long enough. ‘How dare you enjoy this movie Ashlee. You aren’t thinking about her’ or I would get excited about finally being able to go to the grocery store and become inundated with the memory of her and wish that I was not actually there but back beside her, comforting her. I became angry with my beloved Mookee that she was so needy and wanted my love and affection. I was angry at Moo for not being Lou.

As much as I tried at first, I could not muster the same love and devotion I once felt for Mookee. It was like a balloon popped in my heart and I could not fill it up again. Even today, I still feel like I’m somehow putting on a show, acting out the parts I used to play.

It’s a little bit better now. Some time has passed. But that attachment is still lacking. I don’t know if it’s temporary or what but I do know, Lou’s passing ripped a hole in my heart. I still chastise myself for not thinking about her more. Sometimes days will go by before I remember her little face. Other days, I hear words coming out of my mouth and I’m transported back to the same times I said those things to her. It’s both constant and infrequent. I have no regrets, I did everything I could but I still miss the feeling of her ears under my palms, the sound of her nose grunts, and the look of total trust and adoration in her eyes. Mookee is never satisfied, she always wants something. I hope in time I can wrestle out this conflict. I really miss who I was before.

The craziest part is that it hasn’t even been a month since she passed. Just shy. It feels like a lifetime ago already and some part of my thinks it’s because the dog I knew died last year when her disease started catching up to her. I’ve been grieving for so long and I didn’t even realize it.

That’s the hardest part about sickness. Watching the sick. I understand now why people want their loved ones to leave them to die in peace when they get sick. All the good memories are gone. I only remember her sick. I can’t picture her walking normally anymore. I can’t remember her playing. Thank god for videos and pictures because without them, I fear I’d only ever see her deathbed in my head.

 

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I need dogs

Ever since my dogs started aging, my pops has made it his mission to recant the tales of his own furry friends. Mostly, he talks about how the heartbreak was eventually too much for him to handle and so, has never found it in his heart to make room for more pets. The duration of the stories change each time he goes through them. First, it took him six months to recover then it was six weeks. It may seem like a huge difference but I don’t think he’s wrong either way.

It’s been 10 days. The time that has passed already feels like a lifetime. We still haven’t even gotten her ashes back yet. The vet said they made a clay paw print at the crematory.

Seemingly insignificant things bring me to tears. We saw the new Avengers movie and when Vision is telling Wanda it’s okay to do what has to be done “I’m so sorry it had to be you”, I broke. I was a wet mess in that theater. My dad turned to me, confused that I would be so emotionally affected by this movie. In my defense, I cried for the last twenty minutes of Guardians of the Galaxy. Groot’s sacrifice to save his friends totally decimated me.

I started watching Grey’s Anatomy again the other day and remembered something very vital about myself. Maybe I’m still high off of volunteering at a blood bank or maybe my hormones are out of whack but I don’t think either of those are true. Watching shows like Grey’s or movies like Guardians of the Galaxy remind me why I love living. They remind me to have hope in the world and accept that bad things will also bring good things. The cycle must continue and we should laugh. Laugh a lot.

I’m still recovering from my baby’s passing but I looked at my dog today and thought for the first time in a long time “god, I love dogs”. He just looked at me with these big round eyes and sort of asked ‘what’d I do?’ And it made me laugh and I instantly felt surrounded by love. I don’t know how my dad could be so blinded by his anguish that he would close himself up like that to all the goodness that dogs bring even if they steal away parts of our hearts we’ll never get back.

I wouldn’t trade my heartbreak for anything.

Rest now, baby girl

Little Lou passed today. She ruptured something internally because of the cancer and there was nothing more we could do for her. I stayed up with her all night until my sister got home and we took her to the vet. It all happened so fast. It was so sad. She’s cried maybe a handful of times in our 10 years together. Last night, she cried a lot.

Just 7 hours ago I was still holding my little baby. I miss her so much already. Her presence is everywhere. I did the math wrong, we had her for about 10 years. 10 years she gave us, just love.

I think she sent me a dream. My sister sent me a video of me and Lou at the beach. I remember thinking in the dream, ‘See! We went to the beach, I forgot about that. We did take her places. She did feel happy.’ We were swimming in the ocean, the water was clear and warm and inviting. It was all peaceful. Lou kept getting swept up in the current and I kept saying “Lulu! What are you doing little girl?” and laughing and catching her. Finally I picked her up, she kept sliding out of my arms and rolling around my body but I smiled in the video and started walking back to shore. My legs were still knee deep in the beautiful water (that really looked more like a pool than the ocean) by the time I woke up.

From that, I realize that she felt safe with me always. She trusted me and she loved me and she was never scared because I was with her the whole time. She wasn’t afraid to die because she was in pain and it was her time. She knew I did everything I could and she didn’t feel like I cheated her out of a good life. She was happy and she loved, all the while knowing she was loved.

We aren’t a trio of little dogs anymore. We’re two.

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My dog is dying.

That concept is really hard for me.

I know a lot of people who say their dogs are like their children and while I believe them, these dogs have been through a lot with me. For many years, they gave me the will to live. Sounds dramatic but it’s really not an understatement.

My little one is dying and that’s harder for me to grapple with than my mom’s release in less than two months. I know my little Loulou’s absence will hit me harder than my mom’s presence.

She’s got late stage breast cancer because when we found her (she was a stray), she was already so old we thought any surgery would be a risky undertaking. Plus I’ve read up on it and even if we had fixed her, she still would’ve had a high risk of cancer because she was part of a puppy mill and then abandoned on the street. After the first heat, it’s all statistics from there.

I feel guilty because she’s sort of the black sheep of the family. We have 4 dogs and 2 cats. The 2 cats and the biggest dog have their place with my parents. My sister has her little pup and I had mine. Then came Lou.

My uncle Mike named her after his crazy ex-wife and his daughter (my cousin) brought her home. My sister and I took her in the day we asked, “has she eaten today?” and he responded by throwing a raw steak on the floor. That was it.

I have the hardest part of the job now. She’s gifted me with 8 years of her life and love and now I’m her caretaker. Things wouldn’t be so stressful except one of her tumors became infected a couple months ago and she’s been in a lot of pain. Even through the pain, she was still her chipper, sweet self. As of last week, she’s had 7 seizure/strokes (the vet doesn’t differentiate, it’s the same medications either way).

Now she can’t walk or stand. Which means I hand-feed her with a spoon, take her to the bathroom, give her water on a plate, and ultimately do everything for her. I haven’t thought twice about it. Anything she needs, I’m there. I can tell she’s so depressed and it breaks my heart.

I made a clay impression of her paw. I got it shipped overnight when she had her first stroke. I wasn’t sure how long she’d make it. My sister wants to do an ink print so that we can get tattoos together. I’m onboard.

I started this post because I wanted to mention the realization that came to me about pain being universal, regardless of the issues motivating it. This experience has been excruciating and while it won’t last as long as my mom’s incarceration, it has reiterated that idea that we are all human, we all feel the same things. The spite and resentment I used to feel because of my teenage classmates threatening suicide -over what I believed were tremendously silly things to be upset over- has long since dissipated. But I think now, I question it a little more. Was I really that judgmental? I know I was angry. I’m really not that angry anymore.

I am grateful though that the stuff with my mom happened first and then all the “normal people” problems came afterwards. I mentioned in class what was happening with my dog and I had this bizarre “moment” with a girl who I thought sort of hated me. People really do want to connect to one another. Be it for egoistic reasons or not, they do and that lifted me up a lot.

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