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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Little Lou

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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These women would make ice if you let them

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            Feelings for me get pretty tricky. I used to feel them so much and so often, I had to turn them off for a long time. Eventually that would erupt into some kind of giant crying scene complete with me writing poems for hours and smudging around the ink with my tears, feeling very sorry for myself wondering how the world could have wronged me so. But then again that was fourteen for most I believe. Then all those angry years took all the tears and turned themselves into screams and broken glass from all the bottles I smashed in my alley when I couldn’t figure out what to do with all those feelings.

            It’s taken some time but I don’t really do any of those things anymore. I know part of the mess was hormones but it was also that my mom and I were learning how to grow up together. She went through a lot of passive aggressive attitudes and dirty maneuvers before she became someone I wanted to talk to. She told me I was a druggy (because I’d smoked weed and drank alcohol at a friend’s house in high school). She told me I was neglecting her because I didn’t come to visit more than twice a year – even though it’s a four and half hour drive (one way) and I was only fifteen. She called me repeatedly throughout the day to talk to me even if my friends were around and I couldn’t hang up because of the guilt I felt if I didn’t stay on the phone – not to mention the manipulation I’d be unwittingly forced to endure for days (even weeks) on end.

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            And then I she wrote me her last horrible, seven page “intervention” letter for my 18th birthday and I didn’t talk to her for a year. She stopped. We’ve both grown up since then.

            It took me a long time to visit her after I started talking to her again. I’ve been back once or twice since my 21st birthday.

            But it doesn’t fail to amaze me each time she makes me feel better when I don’t even know I’m down. Since I’ve never had a conventional mother-daughter relationship, I’ve never had one to compare myself to. I’ve seen things from a window I’ve always looked in on but never experienced. And I still don’t really know what it is that I’m a part of. It’s like a horribly unhealthy relationship that finally blossomed. I feel like our bond is kindred to tales of those old, aging sisters that live off in some secluded house on the top of a hill somewhere who spend their days making jam and painting.

            Whenever there’s a separation from someone who’s supposed to be an instrumental part of your life and they come back, there’s this awkwardness. What do we do now? How do we act? Where do I put my hands? Is it okay to laugh at this? Am I holding on too long? Can we sit in comfortable silence? What now? And even at visiting, there’s still a little bit of that. But over the phone and via letter, it’s completely washed away. Ironically enough, I feel closer to her when I only hear her voice than when I hold her hand. Because in person, she’s still a stranger to me — but her voice, I know it by heart.

            She tells me I’m a good person, that she wants me to dream big, that I’m smart, tough, strong, loved, needed, beautiful. She tells me things I’ve never known I needed to hear. My dad has always said those things (albeit sparingly, he stresses the intelligence thing, that I’m the spitting image of him and therefore beautiful, all in good humor of course) but for whatever reason, hearing it from her makes it feel a little realer. And I feel bad that I didn’t know I was unsatisfied with my dad’s validation but to be honest, a mother’s love is different. Plus, considering she’s somewhat of a hardened OG nowadays it’s even more of a ego boost than it might’ve been before.

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She told me today that she makes 15 cents an hour. That she’s happy she got a new job and took the pay cut even though she was making significantly more before (enough to support herself). She said being able to work at night and see the moon and be surrounded by quiet is worth more than money. She said it was the first time she’d been outside at night in nearly ten years. That made me cherish the moonlight a little bit more.