I am a racist.
That may be a misstatement. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say I committed Accidental Racism. Not intentional. I would like to think it never is these days. You can call me naïve. I believe people are essentially good; they do bad things from time to time. I generally consider myself a do-gooder. Tolerant. Loving. Accepting.
This exercise in kindness went terribly awry. It began when we decided to “adopt” a family for Christmas through a local charity. It was our teenage son’s suggestion, an opportunity to play Santa. To express our gratitude for the blessings we have received. To provide another with not only the necessities but also an extravagance or two.
We chose a charity that recruits, interviews and then matches participants with donors. Maintaining the privacy and dignity of all parties is vital to the process; the charity provides minimal information to donors, who remain anonymous to participants. Our assigned family consisted of a father, mother, son and daughter. They identified themselves as Hispanic. The parents’ “wish lists” were sparse. Housewares, work clothing, underwear. The children’s lists were just as simple. Clothing, socks, a winter coat, school supplies. Sizes and color preferences were included, along with a note about a toy or two, almost as an afterthought.
It is Christmas. A time for dreams, for hope, for gifts, for miracles, for faith, for belief in the goodness in ourselves and in one another. This family is struggling; their most basic needs are now reclassified as “wishes.” We have the opportunity to fulfill not only this family’s needs but also their wishes this Christmas. What these parents wish for their children (and what their children wish for their parents) is no different than what our family desires for one another. What teenage boy does not wish simply for “pants” but for “cool jeans” that allow him to blend with his peers, at least for a few hours? What little girl does not wish, quietly in her heart, for not only a doll, but for THE Doll? What parent does not put his child’s desires before his own and spend his last dollar on an unexpected present? What child does not delight in witnessing his mother unwrap a gift – a present for her – on Christmas morning? These children, this family, had gradually set their Christmas expectations lower and lower. Perhaps unintentionally, perhaps by choice. If you don’t hope, you can’t be disappointed. It won’t hurt as much when it doesn’t work out, when others let you down. This family’s Christmas expectations – their Christmas Bar – had fallen so far the bar had tumbled to the ground. We considered it our duty to dust off the bar, lift it up and carry it for a while, at least through Christmas.
We gave careful consideration to each item on the list as we shopped, consulting with friends and family on the particulars of which style to buy and where to buy it. We hoped we were truly raising the bar. The last item on the list was THE Doll: Baby Alive. As a kid I desperately wanted one. Who wouldn’t? She eats. She poops. She vomits. She’s like a real baby! As a recovering anorexic I could certainly relate to her food issues. I began my search for Baby Alive on Amazon. Thinking I was extra savvy, I selected a brown-haired, brown-eyed doll. Somewhere in my mind I noted that the price of this doll was slightly lower than the other Baby Alives, but I dismissed the thought. A bargain. I paid and anxiously awaited the doll’s arrival.
One week later Baby Alive rang my doorbell. I snatched the package from the unamused UPS deliveryman (I requested expedited shipping, of course) and tore into it with the zeal of a 6-year-old. I stared at the box. Something was not right. Brown eyes. Tiny T-shirt. Brown pigtails. Smiley mouth. Oh NO. Oh no oh no oh no oh no oh CRAP oh no. PIG TAILS. I examined the doll more closely, my heart pounding. Scissors. SCISSORS. A spray bottle. Barrettes. I furiously read the box as acid spewed its way from my stomach to my mouth and my eyes burst from their sockets. Baby Alive Beautiful Now Baby. NO. The wish list said Baby Alive. That meant Baby-Alive-Eats-and-Poops-and-Vomits Baby. This baby had SCISSORS. BARRETTES. She was a HAIRDRESSER. A brown-haired, brown-eyed hairstylist. Oh my God. I was a racist. What had I done?
All of my beliefs about myself were now lies, despicable lies. I thought I was culturally sensitive. I thought I was tolerant. I thought I was nice. I should have known. I should have figured it out when the lower price registered on Amazon. I should have figured it out when Amazon prompted me to look at “other items racists like you purchased.” I SHOULD HAVE FIGURED IT OUT WHEN I SAW THE SCISSORS. I profiled. I am a doll profiler.
I had taken the Christmas Bar of Expectations, sharpened the end, set it ablaze, and launched it javelin-style into the hearts of this child, her brother and her family, decimating any belief they harbored regarding the kindness of strangers, the magic of Christmas, the goodness of man. I ruined Christmas when I selected a brown-hair-brown-eyed doll with a pair of scissors and a spray bottle and believed she would perform eat-poop-vomit stunts identical to the blonde-hair-blue-eyed doll. I did not see the scissors. How many different Baby Alives could there be? Turns out there are a LOT. A glance at the Hasbro website revealed 41 results. FORTY-ONE. I mentally kicked my ass over and over.
So I did what anyone else in my position would do. I panicked. I confessed my inadequacies and crimes to my husband. I told him I could not live with myself knowing the vile truth of my actions. This child was dreaming of a High Performance Baby. She did not want a doll with Fashion Bangs and Partial Highlights. What if it were our daughter? I would never crush her spirit this way. I could not destroy this child’s dreams and ruin her Christmas wish. My husband patiently listened to my Rant of Absurdity. Because he is a good person and has access to Xanax, he assured me that we would remedy the situation in the morning.
The next day we loaded the car, including Weapon-Wielding Hairstylist Baby Alive (she rode in the trunk with her fake scissors, which do not actually cut anything but your soul, by the way), and began the hunt for Eat-Poop-Pray Baby Alive. We located a store, armed ourselves with sharpened elbows, and entered the Belly of the Beast. Aisle 9: Dolls. “I’m going in,” I muttered, sliding through a puddle of soft-serve ice cream in my sensible navy Ann Taylor kitten-heeled pumps. I found a display of Wet and Wiggle Baby Alives stacked to the ceiling like soup cans, seizing in their boxes like earthworms after a rainstorm. “Where are the ones that eat and poop and throw up?” I cried to a mother shopping nearby with her little girl.
With her help I located a doll that not only engaged in bulimic-like behavior but was also an overexerciser; a baby walker accompanied her. I heaved a sigh of relief. It was over. Then a sticker on the box caught my eye. “I speak English and Spanish!” Oh no. I don’t speak Spanish. Should I take the bait and buy the bilingual doll? How could I be sure of what she was saying? What if it was something like “%#$* you. Take me out of this box and get me a snack.” I gulped and fought my way to the register with an eating-pooping-exercising-English-speaking doll tucked under my arm. I prayed I was doing the right thing. I could not ruin Christmas again.
We paid for the doll and hurried to the car. “Thank God that’s over,” I said to my husband, buckling Baby Alive into her car seat. “You are the greatest husband in the world. You put up with so much from me, and I can’t tell you how much I love and appreciate you.” He leaned over and kissed me.
We gave Wrong Baby Alive to a little girl at the charity’s donation drop-off point. She exclaimed “Baby!” again and again, because she could not say “scissors” and her Christmas Bar of Expectations was set to a different level. We gratefully brought in our boxes and bags of presents, properly labeled and sorted, and left them with the project coordinators for distribution to our participant family on Christmas. I hope they have a happy day. I hope we came through for them in the end. I hope they never read this story. I waved goodbye to Correct Baby Alive and wished her a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year in her new home. “I want a drink,” she declared. Me too, I thought, as we headed to a different type of Christmas Bar for the rest of the day.
Meet Devin McKinney. Let’s try that again. Meet De-vin MC-KINNEY!!! Because that is how he will introduce himself. The 3-year-old with cerulean eyes and a tousled mane scrambles to the door to greet me. He is sock-footed in pajamas on a cold December morning. So am I (not really). His intense gaze locks with mine. “Heather. Heather. Heather. I want to write letters on your computer.”
I am here to provide Devin with his first formal piano lesson. I am a pianist but not a piano teacher. Devin does not care. Devin recalls the iPad that accompanied my previous visit. He is fascinated by the alphabet, and any modality that will allow him to interact with, manipulate, or create letters is a boon. Devin also reads, perhaps as well as a sixth grader. “I didn’t bring my computer today,” I say, shrugging my shoulders with exaggerated disappointment. “Do you want to play with my computer phone?”
Devin was recently diagnosed with autism. “Recently” as in less than two months ago. “He’s ‘on the spectrum’,” The Experts said, leaving his befuddled parents to untangle their words. What does that mean? Are you sure? What is the spectrum? Where on the spectrum? Are you sure? What should we do with this information? What does this mean for Devin and his future? Are you sure? What does this mean for us, for our family, for his sister, for our marriage, for our future? Does this change how we parent? Should it? What does Devin need? What do we need? How much do we need? Do we already have it? Where can we get more? Are you really sure? Extraordinary times. Extraordinary parents. Extraordinary child.
Devin enthusiastically reaches for my phone. He scans the screen, stopping at a game called Kick Off. “I want to play this ball game,” he says.” “Ok, press the button,” I respond. The program loads and Devin impatiently jabs at the screen. “Devin, please look at me.” Devin’s intense eyes meet my gaze. “The computer is thinking. We have to wait.” Devin immediately returns to the computer phone. “We have to wait. The circle means we have to wait.”
The game menu appears and Devin reads the instructions under his breath, pausing to ask for assistance with a word. He begins the game, which requires the player to “kick” a football across the screen to score a field goal. “MIS-SED!” Devin says, mispronouncing the word that flashes at the top of the screen as his ball bounces off the goalpost into the crowd. “Missed!” I say, with ridiculous overanimation. He looks up and parrots my correction. He plays again and again, each time relaying the result of his effort. “Good Job! Great! Missed! PERFECT!” His voice rises with excitement as the words are displayed. He is an excellent color commentator.
“PERRRRR-FECCCCT!” I singsong. “High five! You’re the man!” Devin lunges towards me with a clumsy high five. More field goals. Another high five. Another “Perfect!” “What do you say when it says ‘Perfect’?” I ask Devin. He thinks for a second and breaks into a broad grin. “I’m the man!” We laugh manically. This kid is fun. He thinks I’m fun too.
Devin’s Mom glances at the clock. Time to begin the piano lesson. She has more than one child, more than one thing to do today. “Devin, please look at me,” she says. Devin stares at the game screen. “It’s time to play with the piano. You can play more computer phone later.” Devin protests but eventually relinquishes the phone. “We will play with the computer phone later Heather,” he says to me without punctuation. He repeats himself, twice. “Yes,” I say. “We will play again later.”
I sit down on the piano bench. “Devin, please show me the letters on the piano. Show me letter music. I will show you ‘A’.” Devin reluctantly moves toward the piano. After jockeying for position on the bench he allows me to identify the “A” key. Devin then recites the alphabet from A to Z as he scales the keys through the treble end of the keyboard. Makes sense. “Good job Devin,” I say. “Did you know the piano is silly? It can only say 7 letters, over and over again.” Immediately Devin begins signing the alphabet. He pronounces each letter in an exaggerated fashion as he perfects each hand symbol, ending each with a curious arm flourish. Upon reaching “Z” in the sign language alphabet he strikes the “A” key on the piano. “A, B, C, D, E, F, G.” He looks at me. “Silly piano, here’s A again.” He continues through the octaves, A through G, until he reaches the end of the keyboard. He’s got it. Then he reverses the operation, descending through the bass keys. “G, F, E, D, C, B, A.”
“Great job Devin. Perfect!” I say, mimicking the football game. Devin wanders away and returns with a toy microphone. He presses a button and music begins. Itsy Bitsy Spider, Old MacDonald, Alphabet Song. He raises it to my mouth. Jams it into my lips, actually. I’m supposed to sing. I do my best to keep up as he frantically cruises through the tunes. He finds the Alphabet Song again and presses another button to adjust the tempo downward. He listens closely as I sing slowly and methodically, then turns off the microphone and hands it to me. “Please hold it.”
Devin faces the piano. “I will play the ABC Song,” he states. He pokes at the keys with one finger and the melody emerges. The notes are correct. The tempo is correct. The time signature is correct. Neither of us care about hand position. I sing along with the microphone in my lap, my heart overflowing. “Excellent job Devin,” I say. He smiles and plays the song again. I continue to sing as instructed, watching his hands, listening to the notes, remembering the songs he played on the musical microphone. These are the songs he will learn next. I had planned to take a student-led approach to teaching music theory. I had planned to teach him to read “letter music,” music with letters written in place of notes. But I wonder if I will teach him anything at all.
Devin stops playing mid-song, looking slyly at me. I scramble to remember where we are in the alphabet. “Peeeeee!” I sing off-key, the only way I know how to sing. “That silly P. You stopped at P!” Devin dissolves into fits of giggles. He repeats the trick again and again, stopping at a different point in the song each time so that I will guess the letter. “K! X! M! Ooooooooo!” I sing. We both double over with laughter. My sides actually hurt.
Thirty minutes pass. Devin spontaneously demonstrates the piano A to G “alphabet” for me again. After he completes the task he looks at his hands. “Devin, please look at me,” I say. He looks up. “Great job. Would you like to play with the computer phone again?”
“YESSSSS!!!!” Devin shrieks, scrambling off the piano bench and lunging for the phone. As the Kick Off program loads I hear him talking. “It has to think. We have to wait.” And then, “Perfect! High five, I’m the man.”
Thank you for the piano lesson, Devin. You are The Man.
You are likely reading this twice. Either with the music on, for full effect, or in search of personal details to better target your hate mail response.
We have a rabbit infestation in our neighborhood. They winter in their dens, craftily constructed in the nooks of the rock wall that borders the south side of our yards. They multiply like, well, rabbits. And then they spend the summer eating our grass, our flowers, and selling crack to our children. Occasionally a bull snake will wander through in search of a meal. Bull snakes are not that bright, so they slither into the dens to swallow the rabbits whole instead of ringing the doorbell, thus becoming lodged in the rock wall. Then the snake dies and someone has to pay $1,000 to Animal Control to remove its carcass and repair the wall, while the rabbits just stand around laughing and counting their cash.
Brian knows full well about the rabbits' scam. Today he hunts furiously through the backyard, zigzagging across the snow-covered grass, circling a tree, stampeding through a pile of leaves. He blasts through a wintering lilac bush like The Hulk tearing through a cowering skyscraper. Sniffsniffsniffsniffsniff. Sniff sniff. He lifts his head and stares at the horizon, listening intensely as the air wafts through his nostrils. Back to the ground. Sniffsniffsniffsniffsniff. His pace quickens, his tail sharpens to a point. He leaps over a fallen log, scatters Bambi-like across a frozen puddle, and crashes into the rock wall. Shaking himself off he focuses on a hole between the ground and a small boulder. SNIFFSNIFFSNIFFSNIFFSNIFF.
Brian has a song stuck in his head. If you listen you can hear it.
Annie are you ok
Annie are you ok
Are you ok Annie
You’ve been hit by
You’ve been hit by
A smooth criminal
Cue the horns and sirens. Okay, I Want Everybody To Clear The Area Right Now! Brian paws at the hole. Rapid pawing becomes deranged digging, and then yelling. The kingpin rabbit is in sight.
(Annie are you ok)
I don’t know!
(Will you tell us, that you’re ok)
I don’t know!
The rabbit furiously burrows into its den as Brian’s digging and yelling escalate.
(Then you ran into the bedroom)
I don’t know!
(You were struck down)
(It was your doom – Annie!)
Brian refuses to relent. He will bust this crackhouse-running rabbit and remove its kind from his neighborhood. There are kids here. He cranes his neck and shoves it deeper into the rabbit hole. Crack Rabbit zigs. Brian zags.
You’ve been hit by
You’ve been struck by
A smooth criminal
The rabbit is taken into custody. Another Bri-by in the backyard. Like it or not, there is vigilante justice here on the prairie.
Brian has a song stuck in his head. And now you do, too.
My friend Gay scribbles notes in the basement office while my husband Michael provides tips on website optimization. They both have ADHD, one focus of Gay’s blog, so this could take awhile. On the main level I entertain her tiny, precocious 9-month-old daughter. Brian and Shiloh stare helplessly through the door into the kitchen. The Baby Maya is about. She smells of sweet potatoes. I like sweet potatoes. Let me in. Brian communicates telepathically as I hurry between the kitchen and family room, warming a bottle while mobilebaby slithers out of her stroller and takes off for the Christmas tree on all fours.
“Sweet potatoes taste yum yum yum yum,” I singsong like an idiot to the tune of Little Drummer Boy, swooping in to retrieve the glittery ornament approaching Maya’s lips. Her jaw is unhinged, like a cobra preparing to swallow a crocodile. “Isn’t this fun.” Maya giggles as I swoop her up and over to the sofa, handing her the bottle. She rejects the offering. “Glegbruffgog,” she declares. “Put me down. This room is interesting.”
Fine. I turn on Christmas music and she bounces and wiggles as she scales the front of the TV cabinet. “Shake it Maya!” I say, removing her from the makeshift ladder of death she devised from the furniture shelves. Maya laughs, spying a computer cable and partially obscured electrical outlet. “Nope,” I say, scooping her up. “Let’s see the dogs.”
Maya and I stand at the door. Brian and Shiloh stare back. “Let us in. We are interested in that small thing.” Reluctantly I open the door and they charge past us. WE ARE IN. I hold Maya tightly above their over-exuberant slobbery reach. “I am very excited about The Baby Maya,” says Brian. “Calm down. Sit,” I command. Eventually Brian sits, eager to sniff the baby. I slowly lower the baby for their inspection.
Shiloh immediately licks Maya’s chin. Fantastic. Shiloh has breath like a komodo dragon. Maya laughs, a delighted, deep baby laugh. Shiloh keeps licking. The baby belly-laughs louder.
Brian leans in to smell The Baby Maya. She looks concerned. His head is twice as big as her body. He examines her ears, lips, fingers, toes. She doesn’t flinch. “Cool baby,” he says. “I will get my rope.” Brian bounds off in search of his toys. Maya looks after him. She thinks for a minute. “Dog,” she finally says. Did I hear that? “That’s right Maya, dog. Brian is a dog. Shiloh is a dog.” Maya tries again. “Dog.” The word is unmistakable. She does not enunciate, the vowel is not perfect. She is a baby. But you cannot miss the sound and the context. Dog.
Gay and Michael finish their work. Maya talks with Gay about her day. “Dog,” she exclaims as Brian stalks by in search of Michael. The Baby Maya just won’t play with the rope correctly. “Dog.” Gay looks at her daughter with love and wonder. “Did you say dog?” she asks. “Smart girl.” “Mmmmgick oh akgraf geee,” says Maya. “I have so much to tell you.” Check out Gay Freebern’s musings on ADHD, parenting, and raising a child on the autism spectrum at www.devinsadvocate.com.
"I have to study for my football test," my 10-year-old daughter Jordan moans, slumping onto the family room sofa. "Brian can help you," says Will, eyes locked on his idevice. Jordan stares vacantly at her brother. She'd rather resume her Littlest Pet Shop warrior cat game. Hundreds of creepy-eyed plastic cat figurines are positioned throughout her bedroom, prepared for a Hunger-Games-meets-beauty-shop epic battle. Will stares back at her. "Get up."
Will picks up The Kong as Brian comes to life. "Brian, go deep," he says. Brian bounds into the living room as Quarterback Will tosses the pass, the Kong neatly spiraling past the piano. Brian plucks it from the air in a leap that defies most laws of physics, nearly somersaulting to the ground but somehow landing upright. His center of gravity seems to be shifting downward towards his butt. Shiloh begrudgingly awakens from her 23-hour slumber, irritated that Brian lives in her house. Brian jukes past her into the family room. "Touchdown!" Will bellows, throwing his arms in the air. "Ok Jordan, come here." Will positions Jordan in a proper 3-point stance and hands her the Kong.
"What position are you playing?"
"So what do you do?"
"Snap the ball?"
Brian charges Jordan from behind as Shiloh walks directly into her face, seeking reassurance that we still love her. "Flag!" Will shouts. "Offsides. And you Brian, false start." "Sorry," says Brian. "I am very excited about this game."
They line up again. Jordan awkwardly pitches the Kong backward to Brian, who rockets downfield towards the family room. Shiloh wanders around him in a half-hearted attempt to destroy the game. Will turns to Jordan. "What should Shiloh do on defense?" he asks. "Tackle him?" says Jordan. "Correct," answers Will. "Shiloh, get low and take him down around the legs." Shiloh rolls over, exposing her belly. Brian gleefully leaps over her into the end zone. They don't bother with the extra point.
For the third play, Quarterback Jordan draws back to practice her own spiral, as Brian follows Will's order to "go long." Brian leaps again to catch Jordan's wobbly throw, and Silent Shiloh utters a rare high-pitched squeak, knocking a stunned Brian off balance as he descends from the circus catch. "I hate you," sneers Shiloh. "I love to nibble on your ears," Brian says.
"Pass interference!!!" shrieks Will. "Baby Girl Shiloh, did you swallow the whistle?" Shiloh stalks off to hide in Will's closet, glaring back at us once as she slinks up the stairs muttering expletives under her breath. Brian snatches the Kong and tears into the end zone, violently shaking it to and fro as he parades about.
"Is that excessive celebration?" asks Jordan. "You've got it," says Will, trying to yank the Kong from Brian's happy jaws. "You're ready for the test."
My husband paces, circumnavigating a path around the deck, through the kitchen, down the steps to his basement office and back, his idevice attached to his ear. He patiently resolves a management issue. "Mmmhmm," he says, his brow furrowed as the caller becomes more animated. "Yes, it's..." He is again interrupted by The Voice on the other end of the call, increasingly urgent. "There's a problem with..." Another interjection. Now he marches through the house, frustration evident. Brian's curiosity is piqued; he follows Michael from room to room, up and down the stairs. Are we going somewhere? Michael listens with exasperation, fruitlessly attempting to resolve The Voice's issue. Now Brian is excited. He pounces on The Kong, violently shaking it to and fro. The Man is in motion, so we are going to play, he reasons. Michael stomps up the stairs, oblivious to the dog tearing past him with the energy of a cougar. He opens the door and begins his loop onto the deck. Brian charges past him into the yard, calling "Ok, I'll get my gigantic Horse Ball so we can play chase!" He is referring to the Jolly Ball, a large blue plastic ball attached to a rope that is marketed for horses, but also perfect for our pony-like Labrador. Brian wildly circles Michael before hurling the embattled orb into his shin. Michael grimaces, though it's unclear whether the The Voice or the Horse Ball crosscheck are the primary cause of his distress. He kicks the ball across the yard and Brian frantically scrambles after it. "I must retrieve this prey for him," declares the dog. Michael has reached his limit. "John, listen," he tells The Voice politely but firmly. "I understand what you're saying." Brian has reached his prey; in three nanoseconds he will plow into Michael again. There's a special flavor of Horse Ball insanity in his eyes. "We'll handle the details in the morning. Have a good night." He diplomatically ends the conversation as the dog careens up the stairs, securely stowing his idevice moments before Brian rockets into his knees. "Thank you Brian," he says lovingly, wrenching the Horse Ball from the dog's jaws. It's like removing the sword from the stone. He launches the ball into the yard, Brian gleefully galloping after it. The Phone Call has ended. Now we play.
It is any ordinary Wednesday at our house. Exhausted from a recent business trip, my husband has fallen asleep. It is 6:30 pm. My son Will and I sit in the family room, snacking on dinner and gleefully inventing answers to Wheel of Fortune puzzles. I call out my answer, vaguely associated with masonry, confident I have solved Pat Sajak's riddle. "No Mom," says Will, rolling his eyes as he gets up to let the dogs out. "Shooting Stars." Wrong again.
We clean up dinner and Will starts homework. I walk to the back door to retrieve the dogs. Shiloh comes lumbering up onto the deck like an aging bear cub. No Brian. I call for him and hear a faint noise in the dark. Still no Brian, which makes my insides churn. We live in the southeastern suburbs of Denver, where coyotes and the occasional mountain lion also roam. I turn to Will, who wordlessly comes to the door. We call for the dog in the cold, moonless night. My heart pounds in my ears and my blood pressure soars. Will turns on his phone, and I ask if he plans to text Brian. There's the eye roll again. The phone is a flashlight. It catches the glow of The Snuggler's eyes in the distance.
As I walk to the corner of the yard Brian comes fully into view, his head stuck under a wire fence near a rock retaining wall. I approach him, asking "What are you doing?" He struggles against the fence, his collar and tags jingling faintly. "Use your words," I admonish. "I ran headfirst through a 4 inch hole in the fence and up the hill to get to the deer," Brian gesticulates heatedly. He's a hand-talker. "Then you called me and I tried to reenter the yard through the same hole and got stuck." He demonstrates by struggling against the fence in vain. A glance up the hillside reveals a swarm of deer, smoking cigarettes and taking stock of Brian's dilemma.
I face Brian and consider my options. Then I hear Will: "Hang on Mom, I've got this." He hops over the low rock wall and quickly strides to the corner of the yard. He calls the dog, who backs up and away from the hole in the fence. Brian is now at Will's side, watching and awaiting his command. Will leads him along the hillside, past the deer, in through the front door of the house. Simple, elegant, confident leadership. Brian follows alongside obediently, gratefully.
Inside the evening continues. Will resumes studying in the family room, The Snuggler wedged comfortably in his lap, serving as a makeshift desk for books and folders. Neither could be happier. I tell Will that I appreciate what he did. "It was nothing Mom," comes the 14-year-old eye roll. Yeah, I know.
A delivery van is approaching our street. We don't own a diesel-powered UPS vehicle, so in 3 seconds Brian will alert me to it's uninvited presence. It begins with a guttural growl.
"RHRHARAHRHA RHRARRRRRR!!!!!" he booms, untangling himself from his spooned position next to me in an inelegant flying of limbs as he struggles to upright himself in a single movement. He kicks me in the ribs as he leaps off the bed like a deranged reindeer. "RHOARR!!!" he shrieks. "ALERT! THERE IS A DELIVERY VEHICLE BREACHING THE PERIMETER! I WILL GUARD YOU! GUARD!!!"
"Brian," I gasp, holding my ribs. "No. Not our truck. Sit."
Brian is now in the window, barking his ass off. Head thrown back, body in full alert. He can't hear me. He is in The Delivery Zone. The van is long gone, the driver now accustomed to chucking packages haphazardly at our driveway rather than face Brian's verbal tirade. Sorry about that camera you bought on eBay. You know kids can fix anything with tape and Kleenex.
I stumble down the stairs, still clutching my side. "Brian." Nothing. "BRIAN," I say, in all caps to let him know I mean business.
His head snaps around and he suddenly becomes aware of my presence. His ears fall back, his tail wags. "What? Oh hi."
"Get off my furniture." He dutifully jumps down. "Come here." He approaches. "Sit." He assumes the sitting position. "Good boy, sit," I praise. He is focused now, awaiting the next command and more likely the possibility of a COOKIE. "Ok, go play." He wags his tail and goes off in search of water. High alert has passed.
I lumber into the kitchen to start dinner. In the distance I can hear the hum of my neighbors arriving home for the evening. My son will be home in a little while, having spent the afternoon with friends.
A truck powers up the cul-de-sac, but this time Brian sits quietly, listening intently. "This is not a delivery," he declares. "Thank you for letting me know," I respond. The garage door opens, and my son and husband arrive. Brian greets them with the force of a moose taking on a house.
Thank God I have The Snuggler to alert me to such things.
March has arrived (good riddance to February), which means that winter has now begun in Colorado. Last night was particularly cold and snowy, and as you know Therapy Dog has a new habit of sleeping in our bed. We've been making some progress with having him sleep on Brian's Bed (or with one of the children, both of whom have queen-sized beds that can accommodate both a kid and starfish-dog), but last night the kids had had enough so it was our turn. When I went to bed Brian was comfortably snoring on his bed, laying on his back with all four limbs in the air, tongue lagging to one side.
Around 3:30 am, though, I woke up in horrible pain, with throbbing, stiff joints and muscle spasms, feeling as though I could not breathe. The cause: Brian was laying on my chest, curled up in a ball, slumbering away. No part of him was touching the bed. I writhed and wriggled and flailed in a breathless attempt to free myself, but between the stiff joints and the dog on my chest I was stuck. My mind flashed briefly to those extreme survival stories, when people are pinned under farm equipment or piles of rocks in the wilderness and live to tell their stories on Dateline. I pictured myself being interviewed about how I survived the ordeal by reaching across to my nightstand to sip tiny bits of Crystal Light through a straw until someone came to my rescue. I rolled back and forth in a desperate attempt to free myself from this creature, begging him to GET OFF OF ME. Brian groaned and remained cemented in place. After what seemed like hours (likely 10 or 15 seconds) I woke Michael by loudly but politely stating "Get the (expletive) dog off of me please." Michael woke immediately and so did Brian, who stood up on all fours, still on top of me, and shook himself. I quietly wailed at the top of my lungs. After letting Brian outside to run briskly around the yard, we positioned him on Brian's Bed, after which he repositioned himself next to Michael in our bed, so that as usual we were aligned like sardines. We gave up.
Brian fell back asleep, Michael fell asleep, and I remained awake. Around 6:30 I finally hobbled downstairs to begin the day, glaring at Brian. He didn't know it, but we were in a fight. I sullenly sipped at my coffee, Brian at my feet. I looked at Brian and noticed how much he's changed since his time at the Dumb Friends League. He came to us underweight and slightly malnourished. He has now filled out, and as I remembered the weight of this animal on my chest this morning and looked at him now, I can see that he's gained quite a bit of weight. Hmmm. Was this "winter weight" or simply normal growth and development? I decided to check it out.
I asked Brian if he wanted to go outside. That's like asking a crack addict if they want a hit off a crack pipe. The Kong accompanied us and I began to throw it across the yard. Brian bounded after it and dutifully retrieved it, 2, 3, 4 times. Each time he was a little slower though, a little more breathless. The fifth time I threw it he trotted out to retrieve it. The sixth time he walked over to it and threw himself on the ground, out of breath. I had my answer. Therapy Dog has become a little too content spooning in bed, chasing a tennis ball around the living room, and standing next to me as I walk on the treadmill. Spring is near, and it's time to get the leash out again, time to get back to the park, time for more running and less lounging in the backyard.
We'll start tomorrow. I need a nap.
Several weeks ago we began to allow Brian to snuggle with me in bed during the day while I napped. You may recall that he learned to spoon, and it was actually very comforting to have my sweet (read: AWESOME) therapy dog curled up against me. At the time there was a strict boundary between nap time and bed time for Brian. If I was napping Brian was allowed on the bed. But at night he slept on the floor, on the $80, oversized, sherpa-filled, color-coordinated dog bed we purchased on a whim as we left the Denver Dumb Friends League on Brian's Adoption Day. Nothing but the best for our guy.
Of course Brian agrees with this statement: nothing but the best for Brian. And as the days have passed he has decided that our bed is a much more comfortable place to slumber through the night. Now, my husband Michael and I are newlyweds, and our children are older (W is 13 and J is 9). We have a king-sized bed and enjoy sharing it, just the two of us. And apart from an occasional 2 am visit from J, in which she declares she has had a nightmare and then proceeds to recite, verbatim, a Scooby Doo episode about a zombie before returning to her room, Michael and I have become generally accustomed to sleeping through the night. Cuddled together, alone. Now that Brian has moved into the bed, things have changed.
At first Brian stayed curled up at the end of the bed, so you would occasionally kick him as you repositioned yourself. Then he began to stretch out across the bottom of the bed, so that we formed a low "H" of sorts. Being confined to the end of the bed resulted in insufficient snuggle time for Brian, so he began the sneaky trek towards the middle of the bed. Now the three of us truly formed an "H," but Brian slept on his back, limbs flung everywhere, like a starfish or Jesus. Here is where I should mention that once Brian is asleep (he snores), there is NOTHING you can do to wake him up. Absolutely nothing. Once he is in starfish/Jesus pose, extreme creativity is required to reposition yourself around him should you become uncomfortable, which you will be. Generally this means that you will either sleep on the edge of the mattress or you will throw your arms up in frustration and move onto Brian's bed on the floor. Either way it doesn't help you sleep. But at least Brian is comfortable.
Regardless of his position, every night at 3 AM Brian stands up, shakes himself off, becomes completely animated and announces that he would like to go outside to take care of some business RIGHTNOW. And so one of us, usually Michael, takes him downstairs with our other much quieter, mellow, lazy dog, Shiloh, and lets both dogs out. Brian is back inside in approximately 25 seconds. Shiloh is still standing on the porch. Brian, because he does not wear a watch, now believes it is time to EAT. Breakfast Time! Nope, that's at 5:30 am Brian. Upon informing a disappointed Brian of the actual time everyone parades back upstairs to bed. Brian, however, is wired and ready to GO. The Kong makes an appearance. He runs all over the room, ready to show you all of his toys. He is SO EXCITED and today is going to be AWESOME. He can't WAIT to get going and can't figure out why you are still in bed. It's 3:18. After 20 minutes of this behavior I can usually get him back on Brian's Bed, on the floor at the foot of our bed, and then try to get back to sleep. He'll stay there for about a minute, and then the chewing will start. Kong chewing. Loud, 2-year-old dog chewing-on-my-favorite-toy sounds. You can hear it down the hall. The kids can hear it. If you try to take the Kong away he becomes even more animated because now we are going to PLAY WITH THE KONG. That's incorrect. So like a two-year-old who won't go back to bed and parents who are exhausted from the same middle of the night routine, we allow him back into our bed.
Now Brian has decided that the only appropriate place for him, the only sensical, logical location, is between Michael and me, with his head on a pillow. So he army-crawls his way from the floor up onto the end of the bed, slithering towards the headboard, elbowing and kicking along the way in his subtle Lab-like way, plowing through any embrace Michael and I may be locked in, and gets comfortable in between us. He lets out a loud, deep, Lab-like groan of satisfaction, licks both of our faces, and falls asleep. From this point neither of us can access the bedding, pillows or one other. Brian will drift to the right or left, throwing his leg over one of us and kicking the other until he is perfectly diagonal. Only light sleep occurs from this point, but it's better than listening to him play night soccer with a tennis ball.
This morning I awoke to find Brian curled up against me in bed; Michael was already up and in the shower. In his place Brian had propped his Kong against the pillows. It's time to move Brian out of the bed. I just can't share it with the Kong.