The Accident

I can’t remember why it was just my mother and I going to Grand Rapids that time.   I think now, looking back on it that my mother must have had to do more work on my Uncle’s estate, and had to deliver documents in person.    But none of my other siblings were with us;  my brother stayed with my father and my sister was old enough to be left home alone.   My mother and I trekked the three hours west in the late winter.

It didn’t seem that strange to me at all to be surrounded by adults when we visited.  In fact, I really loved it.  My elderly great aunts and uncles always talked to me with great interest in whatever it was I was doing or interested in.  They wanted to share things with me too; my Aunt Maurine always showed me her photo albums full of old photos and told stories of when she was younger.  Aunt Katie was always baking, and she taught me how to make her brownies and pie crust.  Uncle Dave was the writer in the family, and he eagerly talked to me about my own writing and how he got started.  I listened with interest to their dinner table debates on the Irish Republican Army or the death penalty.

We were coming home on Sunday afternoon.  The weather was horrible;  lake effect snow was falling hard and fast and it was slow going in the car.  I was seated behind my mother, even though I was the only passenger.  We had the dog with us, and my mother and I both agreed that it simply wasn’t safe to have the dog in the front seat.  So I was in the back with the dog.

It was slow going, but I wasn’t worried.  We had driven in a similar snow storm on the same route going up to Grand Rapids before.  My mother just drove slowly and stayed in the ruts made from the 18 wheelers that always were on the interstate, no matter the weather.   Slowly, slowly the miles peeled away…first we hit Lowell, then Grand Ledge, then Lansing, then Okemos.   My mother was tense but sure.

And then suddenly, we saw a car on the side of the road.   Inexplicably, the car started pulling out from the shoulder, even though we were approaching in the right lane.  Silently, I could see my mother gauge what to do; swerving into the unplowed snow of the next lane was not an option.  She eased up on the gas but it wouldn’t be enough to avoid hitting the car.  She tapped the brake to slow the car just enough to avoid hitting the car.

But it was too much.  The pressure was just enough to cause the car to lose control and start fishtailing.  As if we were in slow motion, I watched as the car came to a stop at a 90 degree angle to oncoming traffic.  I watched my mother, again, still silent, try to move us out of the position that put us directly in the path of any cars that might be behind us.  I looked out the window and saw a single pair of headlights coming directly towards us.  Without thinking, I leaned forward and put my arms around our dog in a protective grip and waited.

The impact didn’t seem that bad.  The car that hit us hit right in the spot where I was crouched forward, where the car door met the frame of my mother’s small car.  It didn’t hurt; I don’t remember it hurting at all right away.  My mother’s voice came from the front seat:  “Are you OK?  Are you OK?”  I answered that I was, so was the dog, was she OK?  She said she was.

I don’t remember getting out of the car, though I suppose we must have.  In those days before cell phones, I have no idea how long it was before the police came, and how much longer after that, the ambulance.  I do remember being loaded into the ambulance and the paramedics having to ask my mother and I to stop holding hands so that they could walk between us.  We were both in shock.  No tears, no hysterics, just discussions on which hospital to take us to.  We didn’t know exactly where we were on the interstate, and we weren’t familiar at all with the hospitals in the area.

My mother had broken ribs and I suffered a broken collarbone.   It could have been much, much worse.  The paramedics played with our dog while we were examined and x rayed in the ER.  Finally, they helped us find a dog friendly hotel and set us up with a cab to get there after we were discharged.

It wasn’t until we were holed up in our tiny hotel room in Lansing, with the dog curled up on my mother’s bed, that it finally hit us.  “Mom, I have stuff in my hair,” I told her, confused.  She reached over to me.

“It’s broken glass,” she said as she pulled a tiny, round bit of it out from my scalp.  Her voice was thick, and the tears that had waited for hours to come dripped onto the hotel blanket.

It was in that moment, when we both realized how lucky we were to be alive.  Neither of us slept well that night.

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Whose Dog Is It?

Ralph was supposed to be my sister’s dog.   She had just graduated from high school and was going to have more time than usual because of a commuter college student’s schedule, so we all agreed it would make the most sense for her to be the primary caregiver to the dog.

We set up a box for his bed in her bedroom.  Meanwhile, I started sleeping on the floor next to the box so I could hang out with Ralph as much as possible.

Ralph wasn’t taking to training well; he hopped up on beds, he made messes on the carpet and he walked us on the leash more than we walked him.  Still, Ralph was sweet and friendly and we all made excuses for his incessant puppy behavior.   We didn’t know anything back then about crate training; it wasn’t long before Ralph figured out that beds were much warmer, comfier and cleaner than his own little box in my sister’s room.

My sister was supposed to be his trainer, but she was often gone for long stretches on the weekend.  With my mother’s new job giving her her weekends back, she started spending more and more time at home.  Her favorite thing to do in the summer was to sunbathe in our tiny little patio area behind the condo; when the shadows populated the small space, she would move her towel, baby oil and cigarettes out to the green, grassy hill behind our fence.  Once Ralph came on the scene, he was her constant companion while she sunbathed.  He loved hanging out with her outside and would roam in search of doggy smells and rabbit smells while staying in my mother’s sight.

Slowly, over the months, Ralph became my mother’s dog more than my sister’s dog.  As soon as he heard her car pulling up outside our condo, he would hop into the bay window and wag his tail until she opened the door.  Moreso than any of us, Ralph looked for my mother and sought her out at the end of a long day.   And I think at the end of a day, she appreciated having him there, always happy to see her, always waiting for a pat and a smile, no matter what had happened that day.

Ralph

My sister and I had been working on my mother’s defenses about getting another dog.  Ever since the runaway Tasha episode, we’d all been missing the presence of a dog in the house.  We told my mother that we thought it would help with the ever increasing tension with my brother in the house; everyone softens up around a dog.  Plus, a watchdog was a great idea since our robbery.   Finally, one day that summer, my mother relented.

We all agreed that we would get a dog from the local animal shelter.  We liked the idea of giving a home to a dog that would otherwise have none.  However, my mother was working during the hours that the shelter was opened.   So she did what she did with every other errand that she couldn’t take care of; she sent my sister to do it.

So my sister and her girlfriend went to the pound.  They were armed with my mother’s strict instructions.  She wanted them to adopt an adult dog, one that was already house trained and fixed.  That would ensure the dog would be calm and not time consuming to train.  She asked them to find a dog that wouldn’t shed, like Tasha had been;  Tasha’s small Yorkie size would also be a good idea.  Finally, she told them that they had to find a dog that looked like a Ralph.  Ever since she was a child, she wanted a dog that “could say its own name”.   With just the right intonation, my mother could make a dog barking sound that could be interpreted as “Ralph”.

I waited for the girls to come home.  And that afternoon, they brought home their selection.

“Here’s Ralph!” she shouted as she walked with him up the steps.  He was pulling hard on the leash.

Ralph looked nothing like any of the instructions that my mother had given them.  Instead of an adult, non shedding Yorkie sized dog, my sister had brought home a twenty pound six month old Beagle mix puppy.  Adorable.  Friendly.  Not fixed.  And not even close to being house trained.  My mother was going to kill my sister.

She called him a “Roseville junk yard dog”.  She yelled at my sister for not following her instructions.  But Ralph jumped up on her and started licking her face and nudging her hand to pet him.  Finally, she reached down and patted his head and laughed.

Ralph was  here to stay.

Dog People

My family?  We’re all dog people.

They say that people can be divided into many categories, but when it comes right down to it, you’re either dog people or cat people.  I’m not saying there aren’t exceptions.  There are.  But for the most part, you either like the quietness and independence of a cat, or you like the neediness and loyalty of a dog.

We had a dog.  For  a few months or so when I was six, we had a tiny puppy called Snoopy.  Snoopy was a cute beagle mix, obviously black and white.  She was rambunctious.  She was adorable.  She was sweet.  She was a royal pain.   Full of energy and all of the best and worst of puppydom, she would love you one minute and bring you your mangled shoe the next.  Housetraining was not her strong suit.  She got into all manner of trouble, mostly because there just wasn’t anyone around enough to train her properly.  My mother had gone back to work, us kids were in school all day and my father was travelling for business.

One day, a few days before Christmas, Snoopy wasn’t there to greet me when I got home from school.  I later learned that my mother had taken her back to the pound, under my father’s orders.  The final straw was when she chewed the hose for our pool pump, a seventy or so dollar expense. Bye, bye, Snoopy.  We were all, including my mother, devastated.

So when our former neighbors had a stray Yorkie mix wander into their yard and make himself at home for several weeks, with no sign of leaving, not one of us had any hesitation at offering to keep her permanently.

Tasha was tiny.  I’m not sure how a male dog got the name Tasha; I think it was Mrs. E who named the dog before she realized the sex of it.  He didn’t shed, and he didn’t even bark that much.  We were thrilled to bring him into our home.  Even my mother would pick him up on her lap after a long day at work and pet him and kiss him and enjoy his curled up company next to her on the sofa.  Tasha brought a light into the little townhouse that was sorely needed after my mother’s twelve hour work days, my sister’s constant disappearances back to her old friends’ houses and my brother’s anger.

One day, though, after letting Tasha out of the front door to do his business on the tiny strip of grass outside, he bolted.  He ran down our small cul de sac and into the maze of townhomes that all looked identical.   He’d never be able to find his way back; everything looked the same.  I myself was still getting lost in the new neighborhood.

All of us went out to get him, shouting his name over and over until one of us found him.  The relief we all felt was palpable.  But I could feel the scratchy, raw worry under the surface of that relief; Tasha was a runner.  The reason he’d come to us is because our old neighbors found him;  he’d run from someone else.   And sure enough, the scene repeated itself over and over; neighbors would bring the dog back as he wandered farther and farther.  Soon my sister was having to use the car to hunt him down.

It was not a surprise to me one day when, after searching for hours and hours for Tasha, well into the darkness, that he could not be found.  We made posters, we told friends, we checked the pound.  Nothing.  As quickly as Tasha came into our lives, he vanished, without a trace.

Instead of turning to each other for support, we all pulled back a little bit more, into our own corners of existence; sharing the pain and sadness would mean acknowledging it.  Instead, we all swallowed it whole and moved on.  It was not the worst pain any of us would experience, but it chipped away a tiny little piece of who we were, as a family, as individuals, as people.

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