2: Dog Love

It’s my ninth birthday. I’m in the back seat of our station wagon clutching a fluffy, stuffed dog. I have a collection of them. I’m an anxious kid and they provide comfort and security. I bring at least one of them, everywhere I go.

We pull up to a ranch style house with dark, shaded windows. The front yard is overgrown with trees and bushes. The backyard is big, and the landscaping is limited. It reminds me of the backyard at the house where I’m growing up.

We follow a narrow dirt trail to an enclosed area in the back corner of the yard. There is a pile of black and white and brown and white puppies, climbing all over each other.

I am instantly in love.

Steps away from the pile, there’s one wobbly on her feet, getting the hang of walking, all by herself. Sniffing the ground near a collection of silver bowls, she appears to be frantically looking for food, even though it’s clear, she’s had enough. It’s one of the black and white ones, rounder and squishier than the others.

Two weeks later, we bring her home and name her Sallie. We picked the name on our family trip to Gettysburg, two years earlier. From the front-passenger seat of our rental car, an enthusiastic, middle- aged man points us toward a small monument, with a statue of a tiny dog. He tells us the story of “Sally” the Union army dog. Sally made her away through rows of soldiers and across battlefields, sometimes at the height of conflict. Sally searched out wounded soldiers and stayed with them until help arrived. She was loyal and brave and devoted, even in a war zone.

Our Sallie would prove to be the same way.

My belated, surprise ninth birthday present came not without effort. I dedicated many hours, of many days, over several months, to acting like a dog with my family. My aim was to demonstrate the pleasure and delight of having a dog around the house. I’d wag my tail when my mom entered the room and bark, quietly, to show my affection. I’d nuzzle up next to my brother when he watched TV.

Apparently, I was convincing.

Sallie fit right in. She was smart and eccentric and sensitive, with bursts of hyperactivity and playful madness.
For the next eleven years, she was the glue that held our family together, just barely.

She laid at my feet the night my parents left me in an empty house, during a power outage, so they could rush my brother to the hospital. We watched in horror as my dad carried my brother’s lifeless body down the front porch, then we huddled inside by the only working phone, waiting for the worst call of our lives.

She was five years old then, and I was 14. It was my first awareness of the specialness of dogs and the uniqueness of their relationship to humans. For the first time that night she saved me. And she’d come to the rescue of each of us, many times after that.

Sallie lived through the hell of my brother’s alcoholism and died two months after he finally got sober for good. She survived the screaming and threatening and hysterical crying. She endured moments of insanity and unimaginable conflict. She witnessed the worst of us, and loved us through it, just the same.

She stayed faithfully at our side on the battlefield, waiting for help to arrive.

Sallie was my first dog, and my first love and my first teacher of how it looks and feels to love without condition. She taught all of us how to be loyal, and patient, even when things got hard. She showed us how to forgive and let go. She never let old pain interfere with a new chance to be loving.

Every dog I’ve met since then reminds me of her lessons. Every dog I’ve ever met, shows me how to love.

Turn Around

That summer, Michael Phelps swam for nine gold medals. We watched every race, screaming our heads off, in Amy’s living room.

“We” are me, my best friend Amy, two of our summer camp counselors, and one under-achieving junior counselor who is the only person ever to crack into the Camp Have-a-lot-of-Fun inner-circle without being an extraordinary stand out of skill and motivation at work.

We spend our days chasing tiny kids around the world’s best summer camp. At night we turn “Footloose” on high volume and dance like we’re Kevin Bacon, alone in an abandoned warehouse, in 1984.

In between, we drive around Sacramento blasting this cover of Total Eclipse of the Heart. It’s the theme song of the summer: passionate, epic, completely ridiculous. We sing with the windows down, even when it’s one hundred degrees outside. We play air drums and pound on the dashboard. When the chorus comes up, we close our eyes, tilt our heads back and belt it out like it’s the last time we’ll ever sing it.

We are an unlikely group of inseparable friends. We range in age from 14 to 25. Out in public, we look like a throw-back family singing group or mixed bag of step siblings with varying degrees of babysitting responsibility.

We make each other laugh and hold each other up. We throw a slumber party, almost every night.

Some nights we are just the three of us. Me, Amy, and Jaimie. Jaimie is fifteen. Amy and I have been best friends since junior high school and are notoriously incapable of sharing our relationship with anyone else. We are college graduates moving towards demanding, professional careers. Jaimie is barely a junior in high school. Amy and I are agonizing over “who are we?” and “what is the purpose of this?” Jaimie wonders who she’ll have algebra with and if that boy she likes will text her back.

We are drawn together by a sisterhood that transcends time and age. By issues with our dads and striving for perfection. By being “good girls” and independent women. By discovering how those two identities intersect. By our love for puffy paint and elaborate costumes. By working with kids and our awesomeness at camp counseling.

By the type of strong friendship that’s rooted in unconditional love.

When the summer of 2009 begins, our family is reunited. Amy and I make space in our lives, and the backseat of our cars, for when Jaimie finishes her high school finals and we pick up where we left off. We all look forward to late night talks sharing a single, king size bed. To chocolate milkshakes at Jack in the Box after nighttime events. To feeling complete, again.

Two weeks later I’m in the most challenging conversation of my professional life. Amy and I are seated next to each other in the almost empty conference room at Mission North Park. We’re face-to-face with the first Camp Have a Lot of Fun employee we’ve ever had to fire.

I speak first because Amy cries just thinking about it. We all know what’s about to take place, but even up to the moment it happens, we hope, somehow, it won’t.

When Jaimie leaves, Amy and I burst into tears. We hug each other and take deep, cleansing breaths. The pain is raw and sharp. My face is hot and my shoulders are heavy. The tightness in my stomach becomes sharp and stinging, right around my heart.

There were so many ways, and reasons, to feel sad.

Amy and I had two more magical summers at camp. More special kids, of all ages, became forever a part of our beautiful, growing family. There were other theme songs and new dance-moves. There were sleepovers, and milkshakes, and puffy-painted clothes.

But we never replaced what we lost, with Jaimie.

We watched Jaimie walk across the stage at her high school graduation, but didn’t participate in her celebration. Each year we brought together every generation of camp counselors for Thanksgiving, but could never convince Jaimie to come. Our friendship became a distant memory and she became someone we followed on social media, a girl we used to know in real life.

This summer, we recruited the best of the best of our alumni camp counselors to compete with the current staff at Camp Have a lot of Fun. The brainstorming stages generated so much excitement we got overly ambitious with the invitations. We immediately dismissed the idea that Jaimie would participate, but couldn’t resist the urge to include her.

Minutes after Amy presses the send button in Sacramento, I get a call on my cell phone in Tahoe.

“Jaimie is in.”

I’m wandering frantically around the Southshore Raley’s looking for a private place to yell through the phone. Amy and I spend 15 to 20 minutes exchanging expressions of disbelief, intermittently interrupted by declarations of triumph, and excitement, and happiness, and relief.

We meet Jaimie in person, for the first time, outside of the conference room where we all thought it ended forever, four years before. We hug, cautiously, still wondering if the romance of this reunion is real.

The next five weeks are filled with friendship flashbacks, and fast-forwarding through updates from four, transformative years of our lives. Jaimie is twenty-one now and lives on her own. She bought a car and pays her bills. She’s survived more personal tragedy than she can share with us in a single sitting. She is a confident, strong woman, changed by the passage of time and the demands of maturity and life lessons. She has the same light, and humor, and spirit. And connection to us.

Over plates of Nachos at Dos Coyotes, we finally cry the tears, we’ve all been holding back.

We cry because we haven’t been there for Jaimie when she’s struggled so much. We cry for the time we’ve lost and the memories we could have made together. We cry for judgements, and mistakes and assumptions. We cry with gratitude for the chance to be together again. For the sisterhood that shaped us all, that’s survived so much. The love that lives on, that endures, that remains unconditional, no matter what.

When my phone makes the text message noise, I look down and see the names of my two best friends, side by side. I feel complete joy, all over my body. I think about the rarity of the miracle that brought us back together, the gift of forgiveness and the healing power of love. I reflect on the many stories in my life that ended differently than this one.

The ones where I lost track of someone I love and wondered how their life turned out. The times when my ego overshadowed my compassion, or completely got in the way. The relationships where I’ve refused to forgive, or let go, or move on. The places where I store resentment and anger. The hesitation to make amends and the refusal to take responsibility. An uneasiness in squaring up to the uncomfortable, when it’s so much easier to run away.

Back in 2009 we were all a part of it coming undone. We were all wrong, and all right, and all responsible. We were all hurt, and sad and angry.

And in 2013, none of it mattered.

All that mattered was our second chance: To hug and cry and sing out loud. To talk about boys, and our careers and drink chocolate milkshakes. To do all the things we’d always done, and all the things we thought we’d never do again.

Pick Me Up

My first car was a 1983 Toyota Station Wagon. It was turquoise on the outside. And the inside. I  took it over from my older brother in an uncontested transfer. The year I got my driver’s license, my brother lived at a therapeutic boarding school, three hundred miles north of our house. He had no place, or reason to drive. I was moderately grateful for the freedom, but deeply resentful of the vehicle that gave it to me.

My brother got his driver’s license the summer before his sophomore year of high school. Six months later, he was tasked with picking me up from middle school, while my mom was in the bay area, visiting her best friend.

Ten minutes after the bell rang, I gave him travel time from his high school parking lot. At the thirty minute mark, I assumed he got caught up talking to his friends. At forty minutes, I wrestled with the idea of disturbing my mom.

An hour and a half after it’s scheduled appearance, the turquoise Cressida rolled into the parking lot.

I was too sad to be angry. I climbed into the back seat behind my brother’s squirrely, teenage passenger. I don’t remember greeting anyone, or that anyone greeted me. My brother took recklessly to the road, and we all traveled home in silence.

That afternoon, my future first car had a particularly pungent odor. The thick, soft upholstery, smelled faintly of Hugo Boss cologne, but powerfully of something else. I was a high school senior, driving my passed-out boyfriend home from a party, before I could identify the smell.

My brother disappeared quickly into his bedroom and my mom returned later that night. I weighed the consequences of full disclosure against my desire to air my afternoon grievances and have my neglected, little sister voice heard.

I wasn’t up to the emotional challenge posed by another, fiery, family fight.

By December of that year, I was a high school freshman. I’d passed my written driver’s permit test, and my brother had been shipped out of state to the first of his many stints in rehab.

He left our house a week before my fifteenth birthday and we never lived together again.

I had my first kiss, went to my first prom, and on my first date, with my first boyfriend, all without my big brother around.

Growing up I pictured us together as teenagers. How I would come home after soccer practice and sit at the end of his bed. He’d struggle through calculus homework and listen to me complain about my friends. He’d have hilarious insight and infinite wisdom. He’d universally evaluate the boys in my life as immature losers who were good for nothing but wasting my time. We’d commiserate over the eccentricity  of our parents, and the plague of the performance pressure inflicted by my dad. We’d laugh and bond over an upbringing, and identity,  no one could understand but us.

We’d have favorite tv shows and weekend rituals. We’d shamelessly flirt with each other’s friends.

He’d be my classically overprotective older brother and we’d be life-long best friends.

Reality felt like an empty promise. Like high expectations left completely unfulfilled. Like abandonment. And Loneliness. And betrayal.

My brother missed many of my adolescent landmarks, but the heartbreak of missing him felt most powerful in my every day life. During Sunday morning football hype and on warm summer nights. Drinking Hansen’s soda on the trampoline in our backyard. Driving to school in the morning down the route we first commuted together on bikes. I was a Kindergartner and he was in second grade. One afternoon he triumphantly escorted our first pet home from school. A goldfish, named Ed, who died three days after we got him. My brother comforted and encouraged Ed through the bumps and turns of suburban sidewalks and our narrow, tree-lined street.

“Hang in there, Ed” “We’re almost home.”

Some nights I spread my whole body out flat on the floor of his empty bedroom. I let the woven carpet soak up my tears and filled myself with his memory: Christmas morning whispering in anticipation before dawn. Keeping each other entertained during 12 hour drives on family vacations, a decade before DVDs were playing in back seats. His laugh and the way he told jokes. How it felt when stood up for me, and rooted for me, and that with him, I was always safe.

Last Saturday night I was stranded in San Francisco. Poor planning and inattention to logistical details left me without a ride from a BART station in Berkeley, to my car, eight blocks away. The night was creeping past my bedtime and although I’m typically brave and bold in the face of solo-woman night walking, something felt eery and dangerous about the plan to make the trip alone. I spent several minutes agonizing, unable to shake the sensation of risk.

Then, it hit me.

Minutes later my brother is narrating my route to our rendez-vous point. I complete his instructions by climbing the steep concrete staircase out of the 19th street station and I see his hand wave out of the driver’s side window of his big, black sedan.

Right on time.

En route to my car we talk about my dad, and my new job, and the perils of crowded music festivals. He has hilarious insight, and infinite wisdom. He walks me to my car and watches me close the door as I buckle up.

My eyes get glassy and my heart bursts. A flood of old hurt and new gratitude rush through me. Forgiveness, and healing and love and hope.

The feeling that I’m never too old to be rescued by my big brother. And that it’s never too late for us to be who we’ve always been.