Knee Jerk

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Amy E. Robillard

When the birds wouldn’t stop shitting on our new patio furniture, I tried everything and then I called our friends who have guns. I asked them a) if it was legal to shoot birds within the city limits and b) if so, did they want to help us get rid of the birds who were making a mockery of us.

It’s not like this was just a pile or two of dried bird shit. No. I’m talking about multiple fresh globs of shiny white liquid bird shit. So many that they bled into one another. The birds weren’t flying overhead and shitting from the air. They were coming specifically to our furniture, resting on it, and shitting. The chair at one end of the table seemed to be a particular favorite. They were using our new teak furniture as their personal toilet. And the stoop right outside the sliding glass door, what we called Essay’s perch, where she liked to lie and sun herself.

We thought we had solved this problem two years earlier when we’d just moved into this house. At the old house, we kept two bird feeders, and my husband Steve diligently refilled it when it ran low. This was his project. I didn’t hate the birds the way I do now, but I didn’t participate either. When we moved into this house and the birds we were feeding began to show their gratitude by shitting all over the patio and our furniture—not quite as nice as the new teak, but not the point—I suggested moving the bird feeders to the back of the yard. When that didn’t help, we removed the bird feeders altogether. When they continued to shit, we bought a bobble-head owl and a falcon and staked them into the yard, moving them each time we mowed the lawn. Problem solved.

Until this spring. Looking back, I think it may have had something to do with the two dead birds we found in the yard within the space of three weeks. Were the birds who wouldn’t leave our airspace—the ones who constantly flew overhead cackling and cawing and landing on our end chair to shit—actually grieving? Was there a mourning period they had to observe before they could move on to shit in someone else’s yard?

To the branches of the trees I tied shiny reflective tape specifically designed to detract birds. It looked like we were gearing up to have a party. Festive streamers blowing in the wind. The damn birds flew right past them.

I ordered plastic snakes from Amazon. When they arrived a couple days later, I was pleased with their life-like slithering tongues sticking out of their pebble-sized heads, satisfied that they might make even me jump if I happened to forget that they were fake. I distributed them on the patio and on the furniture, paying special attention to the favored end-chair toilet. Steve and I ate dinner that night on the patio beneath the stars with three rubber snakes at the other end of the table.

I ordered yellow eyeball balloon detractors from Amazon. Three balloons per package. Except they’re not really balloons. They’re more like beach balls decorated with six red “eyes” that are supposed to resemble the eyes of predators and cause birds to redirect their flight patterns. When they arrived, I went to the basement to find the foot pump. I came back up to the kitchen, attached the silver stickers to the six red circles on each of the balloons, and set to pumping. Both dogs cocked their heads, puzzled by my project. By the time I got them inflated and hanging from the branches of the trees in the yard, I was sweating, my hair was falling loose from my ponytail, and I was desperately thirsty. But before going inside, I stepped off the footstool to admire my handiwork.

From each of the biggest trees hung reflective streamers, two per tree, each five or six feet long, and one yellow inflated balloon decorated with six red eyeballs. A bobble-head owl and a falcon each staked its claim to the lawn. A dozen rubber snakes littered the patio and the table. The overall effect might be described as quasi-festive, and I could imagine a newcomer backing away slowly upon entering, wary of the invisible traps surely hidden strategically throughout the yard. I may have lost my sense of perspective.

•••

I have never once shot a gun. I’ve never held a gun or even a bullet and I’ve never had any interest in doing so. We do have three guns in the house, all given to Steve by family and all kept in cases primarily as family heirlooms. Two are shotguns and one is a Winchester rifle and I wouldn’t be able to name the differences among them if my life depended on it.

We have friends who hunt. They’re gun enthusiasts, you might say. One day Steve and AJ got to talking about Steve’s guns, and AJ asked to see them. Steve told him about their history, and AJ offered to teach Steve how to clean them. They set a date to do so, and they spent hours taking the guns apart, AJ showing Steve the tiniest details and intricacies of cleaning them. The one he couldn’t quite get apart, though, was the Winchester. “Okay if I take this home with me and ask a buddy to help me figure this out?” he asked Steve.

“Of course. No problem. Do whatever you can.”

“And then I’ll bring it back and one of these days I’ll teach you to shoot.”

I had been teaching most of the time they’d been cleaning the guns, but I was back home by this point. AJ looked over at me and chuckled. “And Amy can join us.” He looks at me. “If you want.”

“Yeah, I’m thinking I’d probably shoot my own foot off or something.”

When AJ returned a few weeks later with the Winchester reassembled and cleaned, he also brought with him his AK-47 to show Steve, who has an avid interest in military history. It was a monstrous case. He heaved it up and lay it on our kitchen counter, opened it up, and I saw, in my home, an honest-to-God military-style assault rifle. I had never seen one before. I took a quick look and backed away, uneasily, as if it might jump out of its case at me. I made a joke about knowing some people I’d like to use it on, and even as the words escaped my mouth, I was shocked. But I kept going. “I now have access to an AK-47,” I said. “Somehow that makes me feel better.”

I think sometimes we don’t have control over the words that come out of our mouths. Maybe they come from the most primitive part of our reptile brains, the part responsible for regulating our breathing and our balance. My words were a knee-jerk reaction, and while we commonly think of a knee-jerk reaction as something we say without thinking, it is also something that literally provides balance with little conscious thought. Our knee jerks out reflexively to keep us standing when we might otherwise collapse. The words that come from our reptilian brains, the deepest parts of ourselves, are those that keep us balanced, the ones that help us maintain equilibrium.

The family I grew up in did not communicate well. We were not taught how to express our emotions and we were not affectionate with one another. We isolated ourselves from one another, my mother with her soap operas in the living room, me with my books in my bedroom, and my siblings with who-knows-what in their bedrooms. We walked past each other on the way to the refrigerator at home and in the hallways at school. My sister expressed her own frustration and anger by beating me. “As soon as Ma leaves, you’re dead. I’m going to kill you.” I stored my anger inside for years, feeling it solidify into depression and shame, and ever so very gradually, as an adult, working to alchemize it into a tentative and ultimately confident belief that I have a right to my own feelings. Some days I still have to work at it.

What I am trying to say is that, though I make my living teaching others about the value of language, the power of the written word, the lingering, life-or-death effects of the words we choose to speak, I understand that sometimes we don’t choose our words and sometimes violence just seems easier, so much more efficient.

•••

When I teach undergraduates about the concept of ideology, I ask them to think about it using the metaphor of marinade. As products of an ideology, we are the meat that is being marinated. The marinade is the ideology—the coherent set of values, beliefs, and ideals that guides our thoughts and actions, that shapes our perception of reality, and that largely remains invisible. When a piece of meat has marinated in a mixture of seasonings and sauce for a long time, the marinade becomes part of the meat. It infuses and is therefore inseparable from the meat. One can no more easily remove the marinade from the meat than one can remove the brain from the body. And a piece of meat needs time to marinate. One cannot marinate a piece of meat in five minutes, just as one cannot subscribe to a new ideology in a week.

The marinade I grew up steeped in was this: Your life is not valuable. Nothing about you is valuable. You’re fat and ugly and stupid. I’m going to kill you.

You’re dead. You’re dead. You’re dead.

My life was not precarious because my life was not valued. I have never been afraid to die. I am still trying to understand that most people value life. Most people love their families. Many days there’s still a mental hitch I have to get past when I consider this. Infused in me is a belief that I am not valuable. I marinated in it for too long a time when I was too impressionable. Beliefs can change. Of course they can. But the original beliefs, the original flavor of that first marinade is still there. It cannot ever be removed. It can only be masked.

There’s a certainty for me in sadness. I know sadness. I know boredom. I know depression and I know fear. I’m comforted by disappointment because I know how to respond. I don’t know how to respond to good fortune. It’s not where I live.

I have always felt most comfortable in discomfort. I learned from my mother that when things were calm, when nothing was unsettled in the house, the way to make it so was to pick a fight. What are you thinking about? Why don’t you ever talk to me? Why don’t you ever fill up the sugar canister when it gets low? Why am I always the one who has to do the grocery shopping? You don’t really love me, do you?

Bring what’s inside out: the self-loathing and the bottomless insecurities. Share them so that you’re not so alone loitering in your despair.

•••

When the birds would not stop shitting on our patio furniture, I wanted to shoot them. I thought of AJ and how I had access to guns now. I tried shooing them off using the jet setting on the hose nozzle, but that didn’t work. It didn’t stop me from trying. Picture me standing there in my yard on an early summer evening, on a quiet street in a quiet city in the Midwest, in my shorts and tee-shirt, no bra, among my plastic birds of prey and my predator eyeball balloons, shooting the jet spray straight up in the air, onto the roof and into the dense branches of the trees, cursing under my breath at the birds who would not leave us alone.

Knowing that I had access to an AK-47 changed my thinking when I couldn’t get rid of these nuisance birds. I was being reasonable. I was doing all of the things the internet told me to do. They were still in our airspace. “This is a no-fly zone!” I yelled at them as they flew by. My rational approach wasn’t working and I knew something that would. Shoot the motherfuckers.

Not that I would actually use an AK-47 on the birds. Of course not. I would ask AJ to come over and use whatever kind of gun one uses to shoot birds. I had figured out that these weren’t random birds. It seemed to be just four or five birds who kept coming back to the yard to shit, stopping on their way to our neighbor’s yard for food. This strengthened my theory about their being in mourning. Maybe it was a family.

After the horrifying shooting in Orlando, I decided to give blood not because I thought it would help anybody there, but because I felt helpless after signing the petitions to ban military-style assault weapons and imploring Congress to do something about terror suspects’ access to guns. Doing something physical felt good. While going through the preliminary health screening, the technician was surprised to find that my pulse was just fifty. “Is it always this low?” she asked me. I shrugged my shoulders. “I have no idea.” A pulse of fifty is the Red Cross’s minimum for blood donors, so I just made the cut-off. Usually it was my iron level that was a cause for concern.

Later, when I told Steve about my pulse, he remarked that that’s the heart rate of an athlete. It means I’m really healthy, that my heart doesn’t have to work very hard to pump the blood throughout my body. “Maybe it’s all the walking I do with the dogs,” I said. “Or maaaaaybe it means I’m dying.” This was a familiar trope in our home. I was always turning the slightest problem, the tiniest bump or bruise, into a life-threatening disease. I was always dying. I am always dying. I have never really learned how to expect this life to continue, to believe that what I do matters, to think of any of it as permanent.

Just the other day I read a piece in the New York Times about therapists’ developing understanding of depression being rooted not in past traumas but in an inability to anticipate a positive future. And it occurred to me how much of my life I have spent unable to anticipate a future. Yet here I still am.

I heard a rumor a few months ago that one of my colleagues has a gun and he wants to use it. This comes to me fourth- or fifth-hand, so its veracity is anybody’s guess, but though my response when I heard it the first time was an exaggerated disgust, I think I understand that desire. When you have something shiny and new, you want to use it. It occupies your thoughts. You shape your actions and plans around it. You think, When I get home, I’m going to switch my old purse for my new one right away. You think, I can’t wait to find an outfit that works with these new shoes. You think, I can’t wait to try that new lens on my camera. You think, I can’t wait to use my gun.

Possession of a shiny new object changes your thinking. Likewise, knowing you have access to that object changes what is possible. This knowledge affects the ways you troubleshoot problems.

Writing this makes my pulse go up a little. It scares me to think of myself as somebody who professes to believe in the power of language but at the same time sometimes understands the will to violence.

I recently lost respect for somebody in almost an instant, and it occurred to me just how long it takes to build up respect for somebody, how long it takes to earn somebody’s respect, and how quickly we can lose it. Respect is earned slowly, over time, in tiny increments, through actions that show again and again what kind of person one is.

•••

The bird shit all over our brand new patio furniture was the ultimate sign of disrespect, day after day. At first it seemed so trivial. I mean, I was being driven to distraction by bird shit. But each morning, before I could go outside to enjoy a beautiful early summer morning with a cup of coffee on the patio, I’d have to get a roll of paper towels and the spray cleaner, grab a plastic bag, and gag my way through cleaning up globs of fresh shiny liquid white bird shit. I could feel my pulse rising. I took it personally. Why this yard? Why this furniture? Why us?

I wanted to reason with the birds, to show them that I’m really a good person, that we’re good people, that my dogs are lovely, that we deserve a little bit of peace. I’d have to do it slowly, over time, but birds don’t understand language. I knew I couldn’t really shoot them.

Violence is a perceived shortcut to respect. And a gun is nothing if not a symbol of violence. To have a gun or have access to a gun is to have near-immediate respect. A gun says, You will respect my power to snuff out your life in an instant.

A gun says, I don’t have time to earn respect. Instead I demand it.

A gun says, Look at me. Now.

A gun says, I don’t have time to persuade you. What if I can’t?

A gun says, I am afraid.

•••

My knee-jerk reaction to other people’s families, to animal families is to believe that they love one another. I never experienced that love, and I can name dozens of friends who have similar experiences with their own families, yet still I simply assumed, when considering why it was the same four or five birds flying over our yard, that it was probably a family in mourning. It seems that at the same time that I’d been marinating in the belief that I was worthless, that nobody loved me, I was also receiving and holding on to the message that other families were not like ours. Other families love one another. That’s what a family is. Never mind the stories you hear about domestic violence. Never mind the stories you hear about husbands shooting wives. Never mind your own experience.

I want to use this new understanding. It’s shiny and new, like a gun. It will not always seem so.

This new understanding says, Family members do not necessarily love one another.

This new understanding says, Blood is thin. It runs in times of danger.

This new understanding says, You were not alone.

•••

AMY E. ROBILLARD is a writer and a teacher of writing at Illinois State University. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People, and her essays have also been published on The Rumpus and in Kept Secret: The Half-Truth in Creative Nonfiction.

Read more FGP essays by Amy E. Robillard.

Pin It

Call My Name

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Amy E. Robillard

I first see him as I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed on a Sunday afternoon in August. I’m taking a break from composing syllabi for the approaching semester when I see the professional photos the Humane Society has commissioned for him because they want him to get more attention.

He’s ten years old. His name is Remi.

He’s a black lab mix who isn’t getting a lot of attention because of his age, but these photos ought to do the trick. In the photos Remi is stunning. He is out in a field of wild brush and wildflowers, staring at the camera with soulful eyes, the white hairs on his muzzle granting him a look of distinction. One is a profile pic, Remi’s tongue lolling lazily out of his mouth, his face lit up with happiness and contentment. Remi is clearly a happy, beautiful dog, and my heart can’t help but ache for him having no home at ten years old.

I call Steve over to the computer so he can see the pictures. Steve is a bigger softy than I am, and I know that all I have to do is give the slightest hint of a suggestion that we adopt him, and he’ll be in. He agrees that Remi is beautiful and he says, in response to my despair at Remi’s not having a mom or a dad, “We can adopt him if you want. But can we afford it?”

“No, of course we can’t. We can’t have three dogs.”

Thinking the issue is settled, Steve goes back to the living room, where he had been reading. “But honey,” I call out. “He’s ten. And he needs a home. And he needs two sisters. And we can name him Remington Elizabeth.” My mother had a habit of giving all pets, regardless of gender, the middle name Elizabeth, also my middle name. When I was growing up, I was never just Amy to her. I was always AmyElizabeth—one word—or just Elizabeth. When I asked her why she named me Amy, she said, “Your father and I liked the name.”

Steve responds with something I cannot now remember but which was probably perfectly reasonable, and I continue to think about Remi for a good two hours. Over the next week, I tell my friends about him and I show them the beautiful professional photographs the Humane Society commissioned of him. And always I end by saying, “But we can’t. Three dogs is just too much.”

Our home is full with the two we have. Wrigley is nine and a half and Essay is six. Both are black lab mixes, and while we’re pretty sure that there’s Beagle somewhere in Essay’s ancestry, we’re not sure what Wrigley’s mixed with. Whatever it is, it has made her coat softer than a typical lab’s, her ears smaller, and her disposition as sweet as honey. Wrigley is just a good dog.

Before we lost Annabelle, my soul-mate dog, four and a half years ago, Wrigley embodied her role of the younger sister in a way that most young Labradors will. She was, in a word, a nut. Energetic and playful and beside herself with excitement at times. Blinded by the love she had for the special people in her life. More than once we had to put her in time-outs to calm her down. Once Annabelle died, it seemed that she calmed down nearly overnight. She matured into what every dog owner dreams of when they adopt a crazy puppy. Wrigley will sleep in and snuggle as long as you want her to. She’s a dream on walks. She wants nothing more than to please us and, as a result, we want nothing more than to see her eyes light up in happiness.

In early October, the Humane Society reposts the professional photos with a note saying that sweet old Remi still doesn’t have a forever home. I mention it to Steve again and I show the photos to a couple of friends who hadn’t yet heard me talk about him. They take this moment to ask Wrigley and Essay if they want a big brother. They get down close to the dogs’ mouths. “They say yes,” they tell us.

That was on a Friday. On Saturday, Steve and I are sitting in the living room together, each of us reading while the dogs sleep between us. And Remi pops into my head again. “Honey,” I say. Steve looks up. “Remi.”

“I know. We can adopt him if you want.”

“But we can’t. We can’t have three dogs.”

Pause.

“But maybe we can just go look at him,” I say.

“You know that if we go look at him, we’re gonna take him home.”

“But he’s on some kind of medication and we can’t afford that.”

“Maybe they’ll pay for his medication if we adopt him. Why don’t you call and ask?”

“I’m scared to.” I take out my phone. “Here, I’ll look it up.” I go to the Humane Society website and look again at the photos of Remi. His description says he’s on Thyrokare. I type Thyrokare into Google and see that it’s a relatively inexpensive medication. “It’s cheap. Like eleven bucks a month. We could manage that.”

Steve picks up his phone and calls the Humane Society. Tells the woman who answers that we’re interested in learning more about Remi and asks about his medications. He’s not on any others. Steve also asks if we should bring our dogs with us when we come to meet him.

When he hangs up, he tells me that she said it’s best if we just come alone. “We can always come back and get the girls later,” he says.

“Honey, you told her we’d be there shortly.”

“Yeah?”

“I’m scared. Three dogs is a lot. How’m I gonna walk three dogs?”

“You get one of those harness things that hooks two of them together.” He puts his sneakers on. It’s nearly noon.

“I’m scared that we’re gonna fall in love with him.”

“We probably will.”

“I need something in my stomach.” I grab a banana as Steve gives Wrigley and Essay each a cookie. He tells them we’ll be back soon, maybe with a brother for them.

I feel sick to my stomach. I’m shaky. I’m afraid that I’ll love him. I’m afraid that I’ll love him and then lose him too soon. “Honey, this isn’t a long-term commitment. What if we take him home and he dies in two months?”

“I know. I don’t know.” He shakes his head.

“What do I do if I need to go somewhere with all three dogs? Can I handle that?”

“Good question. I don’t know.”

“Where will he sit in the car? Is there enough room back there?”

“In the middle. It’ll be fine.”

“Remi sounds a lot like Amy. When we call him, it’ll sound like we’re calling me.”

In many ways, Steve and I are a good fit. We love so many of the same things, and two of our biggest passions—dogs and the Chicago Cubs—give us plenty to do and to share together. We’re both smart, sarcastic, and empathetic. We both love reading and are not just content but happy to stay home and read together, our dogs snoring between us. We love the same foods, hate many of the same foods, and split the housework fifty/fifty. Our worldviews are similar though not the same, leaving room for productive and sometimes testy discussions about current events.

The biggest difference between us is the way we respond to potential bad news. I immediately think the worst, catastrophizing even the smallest bump on Essay’s leg, playing out the entire scenario in my head, from hearing the terrible news to putting her down to the dreadful task of telling others about how our girl died. Pain in my side is automatically some form of incurable cancer. I learned early in life not to expect much and so this has become one of my primary defense mechanisms. I expect, always, to be disappointed or even crushed.

Steve, on the other hand, hopes for the best, often to the point of dismissing my concerns. When I worry about Wrigley not putting weight on her leg after her knee surgery, Steve assures me that she’ll be okay. She’ll come around. When I tell him that my pulse is fifty, he says that that’s the pulse of an athlete. That means I’m really healthy. Or, I say, it means I’m dying.

All of this is to say that, in Steve’s mind, there’s always room for another dog.

As we drive to the Humane Society, I say, “We’ve never had three dogs before.”

“Sure we have. We had three when we had Annabelle and Scully and Mulder,” he reminds me.

“Yeah, but that was different.” When Steve and I met, I had Annabelle, and Steve had three dogs: Kylie, Scully, and Mulder. Kylie died before I moved in with him, and then the two of us had three dogs together. But I told him before I moved in that eventually I wanted us to get to two. Three dogs is a lot, I’d said.

The drive to the Humane Society is not a long one. There’s not very much time for me to either calm down or to become more worked up, so I’m basically in the same state I was at home when we walk in and tell one of the two women behind the desk that we’re here to meet Remi. She hands us a three-page application to fill out. “There are pens on the tables,” she says. I take a pen from my purse and Steve gives me a quizzical look. “Germs,” I whisper.

For the next five minutes, I complete the form, answering everything from what kind of food we’ll feed him to how many walks a day he’ll get to which veterinarian we’ll use. Answering concrete questions with certain answers helps me feel a little better, though the young woman crying at the front desk about not being able to film somebody answering questions about the facility for a course assignment does more to distract me than the form does. I realize later that her crisis—she had come there on the only day she had access to transportation, and if she didn’t get this documentary done, she would fail her assignment, and this is why she hates living in Illinois—gives me a focal point for my own anxiety. It feels better to worry with her about this problem—one I could at this point in my life solve so easily—than to feel the nervous anticipation of meeting a dog I might fall in love with only to lose within a year.

When the worker finally opens the door to the room she’d just shown us to and Remi comes barreling in toward us, my heart sinks. I look at him and then look right back up at the worker. Steve asks her to tell us his story. “Well, he was part of an investigation—”

I interrupt her. “What does that mean?”

“It means we were called out to investigate because his owners could no longer care for him or they chose not to care for him.” She sighs. “We tell everyone who meets him that he’s old. We say ten, but we think—” and her she does the thumbs-up gesture and motions upward toward the ceiling. “He’s probably older. We’re not sure if there’s anything wrong with him or if he’ll live for two months or two years. We just want him to go to a good home for his golden years.”

“What about all of these lumps? Have any of them been tested?” Steve asks.

She shakes her head. “No. We’re not sure about them.” She’s closing the door behind her as she leaves us. “I’ll give you some time alone.”

I take Remi’s head in my hands. His eyes are cloudy. I wonder how much he can actually see. His ears are almost entirely white. His teeth are bad, much worse than what you might expect from a ten-year-old dog. I pet his spine, which feels bumpy. But it’s the lumps on his stomach that make it so hard for me. There’s no fur on his belly, and he has at least eight or ten black lumps of various sizes, some of which dangle from his middle. At first I had thought one of the dangling lumps was his penis, but it wasn’t. It was just an ugly misshapen lump that could be cancer or just fat, but it made me shake. Remi runs over to Steve, who is now sitting on the floor. Remi rolls over on his back so that his tummy is exposed, and Steve rubs it, avoiding the lumps the best he can. Remi flaps his tail happily.

Remi runs back to me, and I pet his soft fur. He’s such a happy guy.

“I don’t think I can do it, honey,” I say. “He’s just too sick. And there’s no way he’s only ten.”

He goes back to Steve, who rubs his ears and says, “You’re probably right.”

This I do not expect. I expect him to minimize what we’re both seeing, to say that he’s not that bad, that we can make it work, that he’ll be okay, that we can love him back to health.

He says, “He’s just going to need so much medical care, and we can’t afford it.” To Remi he says, “I’m sorry, boy.”

I call Remi back over to me. I hold his head in my hands again. “I love you, Remi, but we just can’t. I’m so sorry.”

I stand up. “I’ll go tell her.” Steve nods, and I leave him and Remi in the room together.

I go out to the main desk, shaking my head, tears in my eyes. “We just can’t.”

She’s got tears in her eyes, too. “I know. He’s a lot to take on.”

“He’s just so sick. He would need so much medical care. And he’s got to be older than ten.”

She’s looking at our application. “And you know, with your two dogs at home, I don’t know that I would trust him. I’m not sure how well he sees. He could easily bump into them and that wouldn’t be good for anyone.”

She is trying to make me feel better.

“He’s got his own huge room here with a big comfortable bed away from all the loud dogs. He gets three walks a day and he’s happy. It’s gonna be okay.”

I nod. I can’t say anything else.

I hear her go back to the room where Steve and Remi are. I hear her say some of the same things to Steve, about Remi’s bed and his walks and how he’s gonna be okay. Steve comes out looking as depressed as I feel.

We walk to the car slowly. He tells me he had a talk with Remi. When we get into the car, he tells me that he held him and told him about heaven. “I told him that there’s a place where there will be no more pain and he’ll get to see everybody he’s ever loved and everything will be wonderful and I’m sorry we can’t take him home with us.”

“Did you mention the beach?” We had taken the girls to Montrose dog beach in Chicago earlier in the summer and I had said that from that point on, whenever I imagined doggie heaven, I would think of that beach. It was the happiest place on earth.

“I didn’t get that far. That’s when she opened the door.”

On the drive home, we comfort one another, processing what we’ve just seen, each in our own way.

“Why don’t they start a GoFundMe to raise money for surgery for those lumps?” Steve says.

“There’s no way he’s ten. He’s got to be at least eleven, and maybe even twelve.” I say.

“He’s almost not adoptable with those lumps,” Steve says.

“Those lumps are just so awful. I guess I’m not the dog lover I thought I was.”

“Of course you are. We just couldn’t help him. He needs too much.”

“You told him about heaven.”

“Yeah. I told him he’d have no more pain and he’d always be happy. I need to go home and hug the girls.”

Years ago, when Annabelle was nine and we went through a cancer scare with her, I wrote about Wrigley, wrote that she would always be a baby, that no matter how old she got, she would always be young. I was wrong about that. Wrigley’s eyesight is deteriorating and she is showing signs of her age. She gets up in the night and seems confused about where she is. It’s killing me slowly.

It took me only a few days to realize that part of the reason I wanted to adopt Remi was that I wanted a buffer between me and the brute fact of Wrigley’s age. We could tend to Remi as the old one and thereby continue to distract ourselves from the fact of Wrigley’s aging. She would become young again by comparison. He would be our senior dog. Not Wrigley.

In this way she would not die.

This story has a happy ending for Remi. He found a forever home just a week after we met him.

And yet. I’m not as relieved as I thought I would be about his forever home. Maybe because I know that his forever isn’t going to be very long and I know that no matter how much love he gets, he will still die.

I think there’s a part of me that wants to believe we can out-love death.

But no matter how much we love the beings in our life, death will come for them or for us.

I’m scared.

When Wrigley is called home, it will sound like they’re calling me.

•••

AMY E. ROBILLARD is a writer and a teacher of writing at Illinois State University. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People, and her essays can also be found on The Rumpus. Wrigley does not share her last name; instead, she is Wrigley Field.

Read more FGP essays by Amy E. Robillard.

Put Out

lab
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Amy E. Robillard

I wish I could count on both hands the number of times Annabelle had gone missing, the number of times I’d found myself standing in the middle of a street or a stranger’s yard or a cemetery yelling her name, sometimes with a hint of irritation, sometimes with raw desperation. But I can’t. It happened too often.

She was my first dog and, as is true with so many firsts, I measured all dogs that came after against her, believing that all dogs possessed this mischievous streak, that all dogs were whip-smart, devising ways to test the limits of their person’s love as they chased squirrels and cats and bunnies and the occasional opossum. Some years later now, I know that this isn’t so, that Annabelle was something special, that she was an old soul, wise beyond her years, able to love and know me in a way I’m not sure I’ll ever experience again. Annabelle was not a people-pleaser, though she loved affection and was particularly sensitive to my moods. The one or two times I made the mistake of crying in front of her, I stopped when I realized she was scared to death and shaking. She didn’t like being hugged, but she was just so huggable. When I’d get down on my knees and put my arms around her and squeeze, she was the perfect size. When Steve met us and saw the way I hugged her, he always said she looked put out. But I couldn’t help myself. I just loved her so much.

To be put out by another’s love: to acquiesce to the affection of the ones who cared for and cherished you. This, I think, is what Steve meant when he said Annabelle always looked put out when anyone tried to hug her. I did most of the hugging, of course, and he’s the one who had the best view of the look on her face. After she died and we’d gotten to the point where we could laugh at the funny things she did when she was alive, Steve and I recalled the look on Annabelle’s face when she was put out, and he uttered the line that captured Annabelle better than any I could ever come up with. “Annabelle,” he said, “made acquiescence into an art form.”

Annabelle was a black lab mix, all black with some white speckles on her chest, her toes, and her nose. She had a white tip on her tail, as though she’d dunked it in a can of white paint in order to dash off a quick letter home. Steve and I had been dating for almost two years when I called him late one weeknight, frantic, because Belly had gotten loose and I’d called her and called her and she wasn’t coming back.

He hopped in his car and came over right away to help me search for her. As I walked along the sidewalk in the dark calling her name, I nearly brushed up against the hideous opossum that was surely the cause for her darting off when I went to bring her in for the night. The house I rented had a fenced-in yard, but there were stairs and a couple feet separating the back door from the fence gate. Lately I’d become lax with her and just opened the gate to let her walk back into the house. I’d begun trusting her to come to me because she’d shown me enough times in a row that I didn’t need to lead her by the collar. This opossum sat frozen on the top of the chain-link fence and I shivered and instinctively pulled away when I recognized what it was. Ugly little thing.

•••

We were fifteen, Hillary and I, walking together to her boyfriend Gary’s house when we spotted the flowers. Hillary and I did a lot of walking together—our houses were six or seven blocks apart and, even as we got older, we had no access to our own transportation. So we walked or rode the bus. This time we walked from her house to Gary’s, though I cannot, all these years later, recall why we were going there together. Hillary’s attraction to Gary bordered on obsession, but then, that was typical for us. When we found somebody we liked, we went all in. In the days before email and texting, we wrote endless notes to our loves, even long after our loves were no longer interested, had broken up with us, had told us to please stop. Some might call what we did a mild form of stalking. We called it devotion. Dedication.

•••

Belly had gotten loose in this neighborhood before, but it had always been daytime. And more often than not, as I’d gone out searching for her, she’d found her way home and would be waiting for me on the front porch as I made my way back around to the house. But this was different. It was 11:30 at night. It was dark. She was black. We lived a block away from a street with heavy traffic.

Steve arrived and I got in the passenger seat of his car. He drove very slowly around the streets of the neighborhood, both windows open, listening carefully for her bark—she was a vocal dog—in between calling her name. The neighborhood was made up of a number of one-way streets, so our route was somewhat restricted, but we regularly made our way back to my house to see if she was waiting for me on the front porch. After fifteen grueling minutes of this, I was losing my grip on what little hope I had that she’d be okay. She was a black dog. It was nighttime. Nobody would be able to see her. I was utterly dependent in that moment on chance, banking on nobody being out driving at the very spot Belly was running. I kept waiting to turn the corner to see a big black splat in the middle of the road. My Annabelle. My Bug. The love of my life.

•••

The first object of my devotion was Gerry. I believe I ran over his mother’s foot while rushing to escape his dead-end street after spying in his basement window. I didn’t yet have my license. I’m pretty sure she was fine.

As we were walking to Gary’s house, we passed a family-owned restaurant. Flower boxes on the windows held colorful bouquets of plastic flowers. Why not bring some to Gary, we thought. We walked on over, picked some like we owned the place, and kept walking until we heard a woman yelling at us to get back here. Young ladies! Get back here! Those are not your flowers to take! Hillary and I looked at each other. We really had no choice. What were we going to do, run?

Heads down, we shuffle back to the restaurant, which we now see is only the front of what is actually a very large home. The woman calls us up to her porch and tells us to stand and wait while she calls the police. We’re not going to just get away with this, she tells us. We can’t just steal something that doesn’t belong to us and walk away. She goes inside the house to make the phone call and her children peek at us from behind the screen door. We are an example for them. What not to be.

What made us stand there? Why didn’t we run?

•••

Steve continued to hold onto hope, reassuring me that she was going to be okay, that we’d find her safe, that she was just out on one of her adventures. “You know how she is,” he said. Perversely, the part of me that endlessly worried that I was never able to give Annabelle the amount of exercise she needed felt relief that when she did come home, she’d be good and tired.

As we were driving very slowly up one of the one-way streets, we realized that a police car was behind us. We pulled over so he could pass, but we signaled to him to roll down his window. “We’re looking for our dog. She’s black,” I called over to him.

“What’s her name?”

“Annabelle.”

“I’ll keep an eye out for her,” he said, and he drove off slowly.

•••

The police officer arrives and we’re whisked away. I recall his making some remark about the silliness of the whole thing, but that could just be me looking back. But let’s say he did say something like that. We took Hillary home first—her house was closer. I stayed in the car while he escorted her up the stairs to her older sister. Her mother wasn’t home. The officer came back, asked me where I lived, and drove me home. When we got to my house, I had to wake Ma from where she was sleeping on the couch, the tissues she’d stuffed between the cushions falling to the floor. Groggy. “What is it!”

“Um, Ma, there’s someone here,” I said, gesturing to the policeman, his presence dwarfing us both in the small dark living room with its wood paneling and its console TV that seemed never to be off.

He apologized politely for having woken her, told her why he’d brought me home, and promptly left. Ma didn’t blink an eye. She barely lifted her head from the couch. I called Hillary and we went back out.

•••

Our search continued ever so slowly, up one street, down the next, calling and calling in between attempts to keep myself from completely falling apart. We drove by the house again. No Annabelle on the front porch. The streets were so quiet. My stomach felt so sick. Around the block again. Up and down the one-way streets. Back around to my street, in front of the house.

That’s when Steve heard it. The faintest sound of Belly’s bark. “Did you hear that?”

I froze. Turned my ear to my window. And that’s when we both saw Annabelle booking it down the street perpendicular to ours, slowing down just enough to take the sharp corner onto our street, and then speeding up again into my long driveway. Steve stepped on the gas. I jumped out of the car and ran up the driveway. She stood there near the back steps panting, tongue hanging down, body shaking, and I held her. I was so mad at her but I was so happy to see her that I just held her and hugged her and told her how much I loved her. Not two minutes later, the police car pulled up in front of the house, and Steve went out to talk to the officer. It turned out that the officer had seen Annabelle running the streets and, keeping his promise to us, rolled down his window and called her name. That was all it took to send her running home.

•••

To put out is also to extinguish. What had extinguished Ma’s ability or willingness to rein me in, to set boundaries? Perhaps it was just the same old story: I was the last of five children. She was tired.

Or maybe she felt put out by the love and affection her children tried to show her until they finally gave up because something had extinguished it in her.

Or maybe it had something to do with the possibility that the last time she’d seen a police officer standing in her living room, he had been trying to comfort her because she had just learned of her husband’s death. Eleven years earlier, he had left her to finish raising all five of us by herself. She’d been put out in ways I still cannot imagine.

Or maybe all of this is nonsense. Maybe this is what we do as adults. We make gross and inexact comparisons between what our mothers did with us and what we did with our beloved dead dogs and we try to find a through line, a way to make sense of it all while making ourselves seem the more ethical party, the more mature actor. But in the end what we’re really doing is grasping so desperately and so terribly transparently at a way to understand how to make sense of the things we cannot bring home because we never lost them because we never owned them in the first place.

•••

AMY E. ROBILLARD is a writer and a teacher of writing at Illinois State University. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People. She and her husband Steve are the guardians of two very special mutts, one named Wrigley Field, and one named Essay. They all love the Cubs.

Read more FGP essays by Amy E. Robillard.

Little Mouse

frozen scissors
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Amy E. Robillard

Because they could not get everything they needed to get laparoscopically, they cut into him. They cut through his fatty tissue and his muscle to get into his abdomen where his gangrenous gallbladder was swollen and bloody and actively disintegrating. When Dr. Robinson tried to remove it, he told us, it fell apart in his hands. When he tried to clip off the bile ducts afterward, Steve’s abdomen was so swollen and bloody that the clips would not hold. They fell right off. Dr. Robinson used a sealant called Tisseal, and as he told us this, he swooped his hand down and back to mimic the motion one imagines using to seal off a hole. All I could picture was a driveway.

Steve had been wheeled into the operating room at one-thirty that afternoon. I had been expecting surgery to last about an hour and a half. While Dr. Robinson was pretty sure from the exam that Steve’s gallbladder was infected, he still believed he could remove it laparoscopically. After I kissed Steve goodbye, I went over to the surgery waiting area and introduced myself to the two volunteers who answer the phones. Steve’s name wasn’t on their official list of surgeries for the day, so they wrote his name at the bottom of the page and noted that I was here. “I’m just gonna run out and get something to eat. I’ll be back soon,” I told them.

I had imagined, as late as that very morning, that I’d be able to teach my classes that day, the day of Steve’s surgery. The hospital was so close to the university, and we didn’t know what time Steve’s surgery was going to be, so I’d just run back and forth, keeping my phone on me in case I was needed.

Walking the dogs that morning before we left, it hit me that my husband was having surgery and I was his next of kin and if I wasn’t there waiting for him, nobody would be. What kind of wife was I? Of course I wouldn’t be teaching that day! Later, when I told Steve’s stepmom Janet this, she laughed. “You’ve never had to do this before, have you?” I said I hadn’t. “It’s a steep learning curve, that’s for sure,” she said.

•••

I grew up in an abusive home, and the further I get from that environment, the more clearly I can identify the characteristics of it that have had a lasting effect on the person I have become. Two things stand out. The first is that I have an overabundance of empathy. This comes, I’ve recently figured out, as a result of being told again and again that it was in my best interest to identify with my abuser.

“Stay away from her,” my mother told me.

By telling me this, my mother was also telling me that the perspective on the world that mattered was my sister’s, not mine, that the person responsible for the abuse was me, not my sister, and that the way to remain safe was to take on the perspective of the other. Your perspective—that your sister is hitting you—is not the one that matters. The one that matters is your sister’s. Appease her.

One result of this overabundance of empathy is that, for a long time, I had trouble with friendships. Simply put, I gave too much and didn’t expect much in return. I took on others’ perspectives on the world and negated my own. I gave and gave and gave until, as happens in every life, a point came when I needed love and care and found that the friends to whom I had given so much were unable to reciprocate. This prompted essential self-care work, including reassessments of more than one friendship.

The second effect of growing up in an abusive environment is that I, as all children do, built my understanding of myself based on the narratives I had available to me, and those narratives I had available were that I was nothing, a nobody, destined to amount to nothing because I was no good, not worthy, stupid, fat, and ugly.

Because of this, I developed an early habit of calculating my chances at things as basically zero, not—as popular reasoning might have it—so that others might encourage me, but because it is what I believed deep in my body was true about me. This means that anything good that happened to me—that happens to me—is essentially icing. This has always gotten me out of existential dramas. I was persuaded early that I wasn’t meant to be here, so I don’t necessarily have a need to make some big meaning of my entire life, to feel that I was somehow meant to be here or that I have a purpose, to feel like I’m here to do something good. Anything I do that is good is better than the nothing I was supposed to have done. Some may read this and characterize me as a pessimist, but I think that those who have been abused could perhaps help me articulate why that’s not quite the case. It’s not that I expect the worst. Rather, I expect nothing.

One effect of this is the ingrained habit of imagining and preparing for my death. My oldest friend Hillary and I have been promising each other since we were kids that, should the other one become incapacitated in any way, the other would swoop in and take care of things. Neither of us is afraid to die. We grew up thinking we wouldn’t make it much past twenty-seven.

•••

Muscles provide strength. We get the word muscle from the Latin musculus meaning, literally, “little mouse.” Our strength comes from what we might otherwise perceive as small and insignificant.

•••

When I return to the surgery waiting area at two-thirty, I see that a few people are gone, but there are still probably ten families waiting for news on their loved ones. The electronic board tells me that Steve’s surgery officially started at 1:59. I settle in to a chair, take out my laptop, and begin working on revising the calendar for my rhetoric course. At about three-thirty, one of the volunteers comes to tell me I have a phone call. Steve’s nurse, Brian, tells me that things are going well and they’re hoping to be able to finish the surgery laparoscopically, but they may have to make an incision if they can’t get it all. This will mean three to five days in the hospital. “We should be done in about an hour,” Brian says. I ask if this would be a good time for me to run home and take care of the dogs. He asks how close I live and I tell him I can be back in an hour. He says yes, this would be the time to do that.

I tell the volunteers that I’m running home and I’ll be back in about an hour. They’re both elderly women dressed in baby pink hospital jackets. One tells me that they leave at four, so when I get back, they won’t be here. “You’ll have to answer the phone yourself.”

Sure enough, when I return a little more than an hour later, the surgery waiting area is nearly desolate. A man and I are the only two still waiting. At 4:45 the phone rings. I look around, as though somebody else is going to answer it. “Surgery waiting area,” I say as I pick up the phone. It’s Brian calling to tell me that they’ve had to cut Steve open and they’ll be working on him for about another hour. “Shit,” I say. “But he’s okay?” Yes, he assures me. He’s okay.

I text the friends who are waiting to hear how Steve is doing. The news that they’ve had to cut him open isn’t good, as it suggests things were more serious than even the doctor had anticipated.

This is not the first time I’ve imagined what my life would be like as a widow. Mostly when I imagine this, I think about how others will respond because I know I have the constitution to be okay. I’m self-sufficient. Icing, remember?

The hour passes without a phone call. It must be because they’re finishing up and they want to call me when they’re finished.

Meanwhile, two friends come to visit for a little while and distract me with hilarious stories about their early vacations as a family. I can’t help but envy them their stories. But they have to leave before too long.

The phone rings. I answer it, “Last one standing.”

“Amy?”

“Yep.”

“It’s Brian. I know your voice by now. We’re still working. We’ll need about another hour.”

Deep sigh. “Okay. Everything okay?”

“Yeah, he’s okay. Things were messy.”

I sit back down in the waiting area. It’s seven. He’s been in surgery for five hours. The lights go out in the waiting area.

I’m sitting alone in the waiting area. In the dark. My husband has been in surgery for five hours. I’m beginning to get scared.

Instead I get angry. I think about all the love and care and empathy I’ve given over the years since I arrived in Illinois. So much love and empathy. And none of it is coming back to me right now as my husband is lying cut open on an operating table and I’m all alone.

Later, with a clearer head, I’ll think back on this moment and say to myself, well, what could you expect? Your friends didn’t know you were sitting there alone in the dark.

And the answer, of course, was nothing. Of course I could expect nothing.

•••

As he recovers, Steve needs to be reminded every so often that Dr. Robinson cut through his abdominal muscles, so things he used to take for granted are going to be hard for a while. The first time he sneezed was particularly painful. He’s sneezed a total of five times since the surgery.

Cutting through muscles is, I imagine, a gruesome task. As they heal, muscles that have been severed settle differently.

As I walked the dogs the morning before Steve’s surgery, it hit me that I could no longer rely on my own habits of thought, on my own muscle memory, to get me through this kind of situation. I couldn’t just maintain my identity as some kind of teacher hero who manages to teach her classes even while her husband is under the knife. I had to accept that, despite the earliest and most profound lessons of my life, I am important to people and that this recognition brings with it responsibilities that I cannot simply brush off with claims that my students need me. Until Steve’s surgery, when I was the one person in the world responsible for the well-being of another human being, I had never had to puncture, let alone cut, that muscle memory.

I don’t really trust myself to be that person for Steve or for anyone, really. I have never wanted to be the one solely responsible for anything, but especially another person’s life.

My muscle memory has been cut, just this once. It may not be enough, but it’s a start. The cut will send the little mouse scurrying just a bit, into cracks and crevices of my constitution that I don’t even know are there, settling perhaps the tiniest bit off-kilter, surprising even me.

Things I’ve taken for granted may be harder for a while.

•••

AMY E. ROBILLARD is a writer and a teacher of writing at Illinois State University. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People. She and her husband Steve are the guardians of two very special mutts, one named Wrigley Field, and one named Essay. They all love the Cubs.

Read more FGP essays by Amy E. Robillard.

Grounded

headw:greenery
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Amy E. Robillard

This, honey, is crabgrass. It’s the stuff that’s been driving me nuts all summer,” I say to Steve as I point with my foot to a particularly large weed. “It’s all over our front yard and I pull it up and it leaves a huge hole and I could do it for hours, but at some point I just stand up and walk away ’cause I know it’s a hopeless fight.”

We’re walking to the hospital’s parking lot. I’ve just had a CT scan of my brain. Steve has taken a couple hours off work on this Thursday morning to drive me to the hospital because I’m so shaky from the migraine that I’m not sure I can do it myself. I drove myself to my doctor’s office this morning, but the drive to the hospital and the waiting in the waiting room and the potential need for food and drink all seemed too much at once, so I called Steve and asked him to meet me at home. I got home first and, while I waited, I Googled “brain aneurysm” and learned that what we normally think of as a brain aneurysm—the kind that kill people—is actually a burst brain aneurysm. So I could have a brain aneurysm right now without knowing it and it could be the cause of this excruciating migraine.

•••

There’s something so satisfying about pulling up crabgrass because it all comes up at once. Find the center, gather the tendrils, and yank. At first I’d used the super duper fancy stand-up weeder I bought earlier this summer, with its eject button, but it turned out to be too slow. I wanted to be on my hands and knees pulling more than one weed up at once, digging into the earth, ridding it of the intruder that, for so many years, had passed for grass for me.

Until we moved into this house, the first house I’ve ever chosen, I paid little attention to the grass except to mow it. I always made sure that we kept the lawn mowed. There was a deep satisfaction that came from seeing the immediate transformation from unkempt to kempt. And surely at the old house we had crabgrass. But it had been Steve’s house before I moved in and I didn’t feel the same sense of ownership that I do here. The crabgrass here is maddening.

I sometimes worry that my neighbors, walking their dogs, judge us the way that I, walking our dogs, judge neighbors whose lawn has been taken over by weeds. Last year, our first summer in the new house, I quickly identified the house in the neighborhood with the tallest weeds. They were like a huge “fuck you” to the rest of us who pulled the ugliest and most obvious weeds. It doesn’t help that we live next door to a woman whose yard and garden are damn near perfect. I imagine conversations with her in which I defend the state of our yard by pointing to the work I do as a professor and a writer. While you’re out here perfecting your yard, I imagine saying, I’m inside prepping my classes or writing an important piece of scholarship. All she does in this scenario is look down at my feet, where the freshly mown crabgrass taunts. And on the afternoons when I find myself outside on my hands and knees pulling crabgrass, I imagine her shaking her head and telling me that I’ll never win. I know I’ll never win, but still, it’s so satisfying. When the entire weed comes up like a mop of hair, there’s nothing else like it. No other weed offers such a huge reward.

•••

I’ve always been the kind of person who immediately jumps to the worst possible conclusion. Recently when our dog Wrigley began limping, I assumed it was bone cancer. When the anti-inflammatories helped, I relaxed. When the limp came back a month later much worse, I spent the night imagining our lives with a three-legged dog. Dogs recover from these things much better than people do, I told myself. We see it all the time. It’s the people who are taken aback by a dog with a missing leg. The dog herself is usually fine, running and playing like any other dog. Steve, on the other hand, always thinks the best, minimizing what I take to be life-threatening situations. For Steve, Wrigley’s diagnosis of severe arthritis on both hips was a shock. He thought for sure she’d just pulled something.

When I was a kid, I didn’t expect to live much past my late twenties. It’s not that I thought something terrible might happen to me; rather, I knew something terrible would happen to me. It’s a mindset born from years of abuse. The trauma theorist Kai Erikson wrote that traumatized people calculate life’s chances differently.

So when the doctor told me she wanted a CT scan of my brain because of the frequency and severity of the migraines, I immediately jumped to the worst possible scenario. “I’m convinced I have a brain tumor,” I said as she examined my ears.

“It’s not a brain tumor I’m worried about,” she said. “Usually with a brain tumor, a patient will come in very confused, unsure how they got here. What I’m more worried about—and I don’t want to give you more to worry about—but I worry about an aneurysm.”

Despite the migraine, I chuckled a bit. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t know enough about the brain to imagine the worst-case scenario. I was an amateur at this thinking-the-worst business, it seemed.

•••

One afternoon when I was outside with the weeder pulling up crabgrass, the UPS guy stopped by to deliver a package. “Are you pulling crabgrass?” he asked.

“Yep. It’s hopeless, I know.”

“Can I hire you?”

“I think I’ve got more than my share here, thanks.”

He shook his head and smiled as he got back into his truck.

What am I doing? I thought. I should be inside writing important scholarship.

•••

I woke that morning with the headache. It seemed manageable for the first hour or so I was awake. But then my head really started pounding. I took a couple tramadol. Nothing. I tried to imagine going in to school, teaching my class, talking with any coherence about anything. I started crying, holding my head with both hands, massaging my temples with my fingers. It had never been this bad before. My first migraine lasted a month, my second one three days, and the last couple just a day because I’d finally gotten medicine that helped. But with this one it was too late to take an Imitrex and the tramadol wasn’t helping and I understood what it was like to want to die. I couldn’t escape myself. I couldn’t think. I canceled class for the day and called my doctor.

In the radiology waiting room, Steve and I sit quietly until my name is called. The radiology technician asks me for all of my vital info, checks the name on my paper bracelet, and asks me whether I’m pregnant. “No,” I say.

“How can I be sure of that?”

“My husband had a vasectomy.”

“I’m still gonna need you to sign a form before we do the scan.”

I shrug my shoulders. Fine with me. As he walks across the room to find the form, I say, “I’m too old to be pregnant anyway.”

He tells me that they’re now required to ask women up to age fifty-five about pregnancy.

“Ha! I can just imagine some of the answers you must get.”

“Oh, I’ve gotten some good ones. At first it was hard for me to ask, but now I just laugh about it.”

“You should write an essay about those responses.”

On the ride home, I realize that being the passenger is making me nauseous, so I ask Steve to pull over and I take over at the wheel. Somehow I feel a little better after the scan. Maybe it’s the promise of certainty. We’ll finally know how I’m going to die. Steve, of course, is convinced it’s just migraines. “If it’s just migraines, it’s gonna take years to figure out the right medication and I’m just not up for that,” I tell him.

My doctor and the radiology tech both told me that they’ll have an answer for me within an hour and a half. By the time we get home, I figure it’s more like an hour. Steve goes back to work and I sit on the couch with the dogs, imagining how this will play itself out. As the minutes and then the hours pass, the scenarios become bleaker.

  1. I have a brain aneurysm and I need immediate brain surgery to clip it. They’ll have to shave my head. My department chair will have to find someone to take over my classes for the rest of the semester. I might die. If I die, I’ll get to see my beloved dog Annabelle again.
  2. I have a brain aneurysm but surgery is too risky, so I must walk around for the rest of my days knowing it could burst any time.
  3. What they’ve found is so bad that they call Steve first, tell him to come home and get me, and we go to the doctor’s office to learn that I have weeks to live.
  4. They don’t find an aneurysm or a tumor, but they do find plaque and I’m diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

•••

At night sometimes, I close my eyes and I see crabgrass, its white webbed center with its blades growing in all directions. I open my eyes and try to concentrate on something else, but it’s no use. I close my eyes and the crabgrass taunts me. It knows I’ll never get it all. It will always win.

It occurs to me now that crabgrass is like cancer in that they’re both named for the crab. Cancer comes from the Greek karkinos because the tumor with its surrounding vessels resembled the shape of a crab. And the most common genus of crabgrass is digitaria, a name that likens the tendrils to fingers reaching out in all directions.

•••

It’s not that I want to die or that I want a brain tumor or an aneurysm. It’s not that I want attention, that most obvious of explanations. I think when I imagine these scenarios what I also imagine is the freedom that comes with knowing.

After my beloved dog Annabelle died, none of the day-to-day stuff mattered anymore. What mattered was that I no longer had my Annabelle and I no longer knew who I was. But I knew who I wasn’t. I wasn’t a person who cared about who in the department was dating whom or which professor had a crush on which graduate student. I wasn’t a person who cared about the way that the people I had thought were my friends couldn’t find it in themselves to support me. I wasn’t a person who cared about who liked me or who loathed me or who didn’t know I existed. I’d lost my girl. Nothing else mattered. I wanted that clarity again, the clarity of tremendous, soul-crushing grief.

•••

My doctor’s office called after about two and a half hours. My CT was normal. I’m normal. When she told me this, she pulled it all up at once, all of my imaginings about the end, all of the repercussions of the scenarios that allowed me the freedom that comes only with certainty. Like I do with a particularly gnarly crabgrass weed, she yanked it all and left a gaping hole.

•••

AMY E. ROBILLARD is becoming increasingly torn between her identities as Associate Professor of English at Illinois State University, where she specializes in rhetoric and composition and the personal essay, and as essayist whose work resists academic categorization. Her nonfiction can also be found on The Rumpus.

 

To read more FGP essays by Amy E. Robillard, click here.

Picking Sides

laughing
By Danor Shtruzman/ flickr

By Amy E. Robillard

We’d talked about going to the German restaurant in Gibson City for years. Well, my friends had talked about it and I’d played along, neither enthusiastically nor unenthusiastically. When I thought of German food, what came to mind was the German restaurant we went to in high school as part of the German class field trip. I didn’t love it. Sausage and schnitzel don’t rate high on my list, I guess. But then Elise reminded me about strudel. Who doesn’t love a good strudel?

So the six of us—Chris and Christy, Elise and Jeremy, and Steve and I—all drove the forty-five minutes through the cornfields of Illinois one Saturday night to give it a try. I’d been hearing wonderful things about Bayern Stube for more than ten years now, and Steve loves sausage. Oh, does he love sausage. He’d studied the online menu for days and he knew just what he wanted: the huge platter of assorted sausages.

We’re seated at a huge table in the very back room, past the rooms decorated in the dark tones we’d come to associate with German-themed anything. This room is too brightly lit and feels more like a banquet room. It’s decorated—if you can call it that—with both parts of and entire dead animals. A deer head here, an entire turkey splayed out and flattened onto the wall over there. Antlers. Bearskins. “Do you get the sense that Grandpa went a little nuts decorating this room?” Jeremy asks. But only Elise and I can hear him because the table is so big and the chairs so wide and the room so loud that conversation is limited to those sitting closest to us. There’s a party of six at a round table behind us, a party of probably ten at the table next to us, and a party of five or so plus a toddler over there in the corner.

The waitresses are wearing dirndl dresses with the gathered white blouse and it’s hard not to notice how prominent their breasts are. It’s like the German version of Hooters. Our waitress takes our drink orders and disappears for a half hour. A half hour. We beg a waiter for water. It arrives only after our drinks. Steam is coming out of Steve’s ears and I’m beginning to feel the stress of his frustration. I try to make him laugh. We joke that we’d get up and leave except that this is the only restaurant in town.

We study the menu. I’m still not quite sure what a schnitzel is, but the one with apples and gruyere cheese on top sounds good. The Bismarck. We watch our waitress deliver a tray full of drinks to the table of six behind us. We salivate. “I’m feeling a little parched,” I say, smacking my lips together. I tell them all about our plans to go on vacation with the dogs up to Door County in June. We’ll be staying at a dog-friendly inn right on the lake and, as part of the “Hot Dog” package, we’ll get a gift card to a local dog-friendly restaurant whose selling points include a doggy menu. It kills me to imagine Wrigley and Essay sitting at a table with us, looking over the menu, deciding what they’re in the mood for. Yes, we’d like four of everything, please, says Wrigley to the waiter. “They’ll probably be served before we are,” someone says.

At last, our drinks arrive. Steve’s full liter of beer is in a huge glass stein and he drinks it very quickly. Mine is in a smaller glass stein and not nearly as impressive looking. Soon our waters arrive and we order. We’re in it for the long haul, it seems, so we’d better get comfortable. These chairs. They’re huge and hard and the baby over in the corner cries every now and then, a sound that grates on some of our nerves. In order to hear each other, we have to practically shout and still some of us are lost in our own conversations.

I come from a long line of loud people. My mother’s sneezes could wake the dead and her laughter could be heard up the street. In nearly every job that I’ve ever had, my loud laugh has been the subject of attention, both good and bad, but mostly good. When I move my office at school from one in a long hallway of colleagues to a much bigger but more remote one, my colleagues tell me how they miss hearing me laugh.

Our food arrives to much fanfare. We’re hungry. We need another round of drinks. One of the tables behind us clears out, making the toddler’s cries more prominent. Midway through our meal, a woman from the toddler table comes over to our table, and I wish I could describe better what happened but I couldn’t look at her and only Jeremy and Elise and Christy and I heard her ask me to please stop laughing because every time I laugh it scares the toddler and she starts crying. I can’t look at her. Jeremy doesn’t look at her. I probably set my lips tight together and nod. Later I learn that Christy gives her the stink eye. I don’t know what we say to her, if anything, to get her to leave, but she’s apologizing as she’s asking me to stop being so loud. Steve doesn’t hear her and we have to report to him and Chris what just happened. I’m mortified. I try to summon anger as my friends respond with outrage as they process what just happened.

“Why isn’t that baby home in bed?”

“It’s clear who runs the show in that household. Baby gets what Baby wants.”

“A kid who’s afraid of laughter. Christ.”

“You are not too loud. I love your laugh.”

“Who does that?”

Steve, realizing what’s happened, says in their general direction, “We’re too loud?”

I want the subject to change. I’m mortified and all I can think about is how I couldn’t even look at her when she was talking directly to me. But my friends continue defending me and I almost can’t bear it. Because I can see the woman’s point. Almost too easily, I slip from my own perspective into hers and I imagine that if I were at a restaurant with my toddler and there was a woman at a nearby table whose laugh was particularly loud, I, too, might ask her if she could perhaps be a bit quieter. Maybe I would have done it differently, more kindly perhaps, but I couldn’t inhabit my own position, feel my own anger and self-righteousness for more than a minute or two before shifting to empathy for her position.

We’re a culture concerned with empathy these days, the popular sentiment being that we don’t have enough of it. But having too much of it and accessing it too quickly can be as destructive as not having any.

Christy asks me what I would have said if I’d been able.

“Probably something along the lines of ‘Fuck you.’”

“You should’ve,” she says.

Our table goes quiet for a little bit as we all absorb what’s happened. I remind my friends of the time that another friend of ours, sitting next to me at patio table on a summer day, got up and moved to another chair after dramatically covering his ear with his hand in response to my laugh.

“Well,” says Jeremy. “This puts a damper on the evening.”

Steve is upset that he didn’t realize what was happening when it was happening because he would’ve defended me better, he says.

I often tell my rhetoric students that once I’m done with them, they’ll never be able to see the world the same way. I tell them that I’m out to ruin their lives. Experiences they’d never thought twice about would become fodder for analysis, and they’d recognize dominant ideology everywhere they turned. As my friends rushed to my defense, I wanted the subject to change because I kept thinking that if they’d been sitting at the table with the toddler, they’d be rushing to the mother’s defense just as vehemently. And they would’ve been very good at it. Their defense of me, I couldn’t help but think, was so obviously biased.

And then, a few days later, telling the story to another friend, I found myself saying that it’s not as though I would’ve wanted the opposite situation: to be called out like that and to have my friends agree with the woman. Yeah, Amy, you’re way too loud. We’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. Could you please just stop laughing?

That would’ve been a nightmare.

A few more days later and now I think I get it. It’s never just about what we think it’s about.

When I was a kid, my older sister abused me. She hit me and insulted me and told my friends how stupid and fat I was. She told me to shut up when I sneezed. Margie’s bedroom was next to mine, and the house was configured so that to get to her room, she had to go through mine—just a few steps, but enough to make me feel like I could never really shut the door or shut her out. My door was always open.

Bedtime. Margie walks through to her room. “You little shit. You’re dead.”

Middle of the night. Margie walks back through to the one bathroom in the house. “Little fucker. Fat shit.”

Back to her room. “Skank.”

Morning. “You’re dead, you little shit.”

And so it went, with our mother doing nothing to stop it. I always had the sense that Ma didn’t believe me when I told her about Margie hitting me, giving me bloody noses. But now I think that she couldn’t bear to see it and so she just didn’t. She looked away. She told me to stay away from her. She made it about me, what I was doing or not doing.

When my friends sought every possible way to defend me, to protect me from the shame they knew I’d probably eventually be feeling, they were doing what my mother never did, and I didn’t know how to accept it. I just wanted to change the subject.

I never got my strudel. They had cherry or apple/raisin. Steve and I were going to share dessert, but he doesn’t like cherry and I didn’t want raisins in my apple strudel. Instead we passed around a piece of black forest cake and when the family with the toddler left, Steve said to them, in his most sarcastic voice, “Have a nice night.”

•••

AMY E. ROBILLARD is an associate professor of writing and rhetoric at Illinois State University, where her favorite course to teach—the one on the personal essay—garners the most enthusiastic responses from students. She and her husband are the guardians of two very special mutts, one named Wrigley and one named Essay. Her work has also appeared on The Rumpus.

Read more FGP essays by Amy E. Robillard.

The Bridge

covermouth
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Amy E. Robillard

He cuts off my bridge piece by piece and I can feel the spikes in the places where my front teeth used to be and I can’t look him in the eye and we can’t make small talk because I can’t talk but even if I could talk, what could I possibly say? With spikes in the places teeth are supposed to be, a person is not a person anymore. I’m no longer intelligent or self-confident or smart or funny or a professor or a wife or a sister or a friend. I’m someone you couldn’t bear to look at, someone whose eyes you couldn’t bear to meet.

“What happened to the tooth in the first place?” he asks me early in the three-hour session.

“Bad dental care when I was a kid.” I wish I could lie convincingly and say that there’d been an accident. It was my birthday and I’d gotten a brand-new Huffy bike and I was so excited as I was riding it and showing off and waving at my beloved family that I rode right into a parked car and knocked my front tooth out. We’ll never forget that birthday! She was just so excited about her new bike! But no, my story is much more banal and far more heartbreaking. My mother never took me to the dentist and the sugar wore a hole in my front tooth. White fillings could only go so far to cover it up, so eventually a dentist told me that my best move would be to do a bridge.

And so here I am twelve or so years later, age forty-one, having my mouth prepared to get a new bridge inserted. The technology has come a long way, my dentist tells me. There won’t be any more silver backing. All porcelain. Nice and white and shiny and new. “Do you drink a lot of coffee?”

“Some,” I say. “Not sure if you’d call it a lot, but I drink it every day.”

But before that, we’ve got to cut off the current bridge in order to make impressions, and I’ll go home today with a plastic bridge. No corn on the cob for the next two weeks.

My jaw hurts from being held open for so long. I can feel the sweat beads rolling down my back. As the drill is going, water sprays on my face, on my forehead, and it’s dripping down from my mouth onto my neck. Every once in a while he takes a towel and wipes my mouth for me. Oh, the indignity! My hands are clenched, my entire body is tense and he tells me to “turrrrrrrn” toward him. I wonder if he says that in his sleep. Can’t he just tell me to turn toward him? Does he have to stretch out the word like he’s speaking to a three-year-old?

In between drilling and cutting and pulling off pieces of the bridge, he actually does go and talk to children who I imagine can’t be much more than three. He tells them what a good job they’ve done today, asks them about school starting in a few weeks, and gives them a basket from which they can choose a toy. You can choose a ball or a bracelet or a dinosaur. I try not to perform a mental critique of the gendered choices because I’m lying back with spikes instead of teeth. I’m not smart or critical in this position. I’m just a body. I imagine what might happen if the power goes out and I’m stuck with these spikes instead of teeth and there’s nothing he can do for me. He’ll tell me to go home, to eat soft foods, and he’ll call me when the power comes back. I wish I had better control over my thoughts. They’re not helping. Meanwhile, he’s busy cementing positive associations with the dentist for these small children who will never have to lie back in a chair while a dentist cuts off the bridge they’ve worn for twelve years because their natural teeth rotted out of their heads. “Good job, Brynn,” he says. Then I hear him walking back toward me. He knows I’ve heard him over there with the children. But what is there to say? Except “turrrrrrrn toward me.” And I open my mouth again and my jaw still hurts and it wants to crack but I can’t open it wide enough. The water from the sprayer and the rubber from his gloves make things slippery. I close my eyes as his hands come toward me, open them when light seeps through. Close them again when I see the drill in his hand.

“Do you have a pacemaker?” he asks me.

“No.” One thing I can be proud of: my heart hasn’t quit on me yet.

He asks because he’ll be using electricity to solder off pieces of my gums. I want to say something about the smell, how I remember that this is going to bring the smell of death, but I can’t speak because he has his fingers in my mouth and I have spikes instead of teeth.

During one of the breaks I really have to pee, so with my mouth closed and a piece of cotton sticking out of my mouth, I make my way to the bathroom. I try very hard not to look at myself in the mirror. Just the cotton. That’s all I see. When I get back, he asks if I’m okay. Yeah, I mumble. Just had to use the bathroom. “I try to tell people not to look in the mirror during this process.” Finally, something I did right!

“I didn’t,” I say. “All I thaw wasth thisth cotton.”

I gag when he puts the goop in my mouth to make the first impression. He’s put way too much goop on the tray and it’s all over the inside of my mouth and I’m using my finger to swipe some of it out but it’s bad. “You’re a gagger,” he says.

Why, yes I am. I nod.

“Mmmhmmm.” And then I imagine that he’s imagining that I must be no good at blow jobs since I gag so easily and then I’m ashamed to think that I’ve assigned this thought to him and the shame, it threatens to eat me alive and it’s all I can do to close my eyes and try to imagine that I’m someplace else. It’s not working because I have spikes where my teeth are supposed to be. I can feel them with my tongue and I form a mental image and just as quickly try to erase it. We see with our tongues almost as much as we do with our eyes.

He examines the impression. It’s okay, but not perfect. He wants it perfect, so we do it again. This time he’ll put a little less goop because I’m a gagger.

From the back of the office I hear, “Mommy will go first and you can watch. Brendan, you’re so brave!” And I think about my mother with her false teeth. The time we were at the beach. She was in the water, bouncing up and down in the waves and for a minute there it looked like she was going to lose her dentures. But she caught them just in time. Mommy will go first and you can watch.

When it’s time to choose the shade of white for the new bridge, he has me hold up a mirror (the plastic bridge is in place by now). He says he really likes the white of the plastic bridge, that it brightens up my smile and that if it were his mouth, he’d go with that shade. It’s hard to exercise agency in such a situation. I have nothing to do here but trust him. He says we can whiten the bottom teeth to match, but if he were going to err, he’d err on the side of whiteness. I take a deep breath and agree. He asks again if I drink a lot of coffee. This time I just nod.

The visit lasts three hours. During that time at least four different children have had their teeth examined by my dentist in between his cutting and soldering and drilling and asking me if I’m okay. When I get up to stretch, I’m exhausted. “You were a real trooper today. The next visit won’t be nearly as long.”

I muster everything I’ve got so I can perform confidence with this man who has just seen me with spikes instead of teeth. And I think about how he is the only person on this planet allowed to see me that way. Steve wouldn’t love me anymore if he saw me like that. I imagine it’s an image that’s hard to shake. I’m standing and looking the dentist in the eyes and he takes a towel and tries to get some of the goop that has stuck to my chin and neck. His eyes are kind. He eventually stops trying and tells me I can go use the mirror in the bathroom to get it because he doesn’t want to hurt me. I tell him I’ll take care of it in the car.

I imagine him telling his wife about me, about how he felt shame for me as he cut out my teeth. I imagine that a case like mine makes him feel good about himself, that he’s doing good for people, that he helps them. I imagine myself as an object of both his pity and his pride and there are no holes deep enough to bury my head and I honestly can’t think of anything more shameful than bad teeth. Because bad teeth means not that you did something bad but that nobody cared enough about you to love you in the most basic of ways.

•••

AMY E. ROBILLARD is an associate professor of writing and rhetoric at Illinois State University, where her favorite course to teach—the one on the personal essay—garners the most enthusiastic responses from students. She and her husband are the guardians of two very special mutts, one named Wrigley and one named Essay.