The Dog Who Rescued Me

This is Leo.

He’s an American bulldog mix, ostensibly, although there are moments that I suspect he is actually a very large cat. Such as the times he is indifferent to my arrival home, or how he always manages to be underfoot in the most inconvenient places when I am trying to do something, or how he gets irritated with me when we’re in bed and he’s trying to sleep and I won’t stop petting him because he’s so cute, and he’ll give me a dirty look before he jumps off the bed to sleep on the floor.

All in all, these are honestly points in his favor. Although I’ve loved every dog I’ve ever had before Leo, and I adore my sweet pomeranian mix, Daisy, the truth is I’ve always been more of a cat person. Dogs tend to be a lot higher maintenance, emotionally. Very in-your-face in pushy, slobbery, smelly ways. I admire a dog who is a little more independent. And the reality is (sorry, Daisy), I’ve honestly never fallen quite so in love with any other dog as I have with Leo.

In the meantime, the past few days have been awful.

The kind of awful that has had me asking myself hard, dark existential questions, and not being able to come up with any answers that give me comfort.

I’ve been through enough tunnels to know that there’s always a light at the end, but right at this moment, it’s pretty pitch black where I’m at, and I’m honestly not sure that what’s waiting for me in the light is anything I’ll want to see.

I’ve been trying to manage the dark with beer and ice cream and zombie comedies on Netflix for the time being. Don’t judge. The other option right now is ruminating in the dark. If I gave into that completely, I don’t know if I’d ever find my way out. But every so often, the questions still creep in.

It happened just a little while ago, and I suddenly found myself sobbing over my tablet.

And then this good boy, you guys.

Usually when he gets into bed with me he keeps a little distance. He’ll lay back to back with me, or, after he’s checked in and let me scratch his ears, he’ll stretch out with his head by my feet.

But while I was lying here shaking with sobs a little while ago, I felt him climb onto the bed, and then suddenly, a cold nose pushed its way under my arm. He crawled up so his head was next to mine on my pillow. And he stayed there while I cried. Sometimes he watched me, and sometimes he laid his head down and closed his eyes, until I took a shuddery breath and he would look up and just watch my face for a minute. Checking in.

I’ve always agreed with the statement that we don’t deserve dogs, but I’ve never felt it like this before.

I still don’t have any answers. I still am lost and aimless in a way I’ve never been before. But I’ve taken a lot of hits over the last couple of decades, and nothing has kept me down yet. I’ll figure it out.

And while I do, I have this good boy by my side.

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Why Kids Don’t Tell

Though I started formal piano lessons in first grade, I had already loved the instrument throughout my childhood, and my father had already taught me to play Chopsticks and the chords of Heart and Soul. Despite my small hands and short, stubby fingers, I displayed an aptitude for music, and picked it up quickly under the tutelage of the sweet music teacher nun at my Catholic school.

At the end of second grade, though, Sister decided that she had too much on her plate and would only retain a handful of private piano students. I was one of the students jettisoned to take lessons instead from the young, pretty Miss D.

Initially I was excited about this, largely because Miss D gave little gifts to her students, dropping off little bags of candy for them at Halloween and Christmas. When I watched my classmates accept these small tokens with envy, I was grimly informed that the bags of candy were basically bribes to buy their silence for how mean Miss D actually was behind closed doors.

This did not worry me as much as it should have.

I will add here that I was one of Miss D’s favorite students. I say that not to brag or pump myself up. It’s simply the truth. I was chosen for various music themed outings with her. I was entered into multiple music competitions, and have an assortment of ribbons and trophies to show for my efforts. I don’t even think it’s an exaggeration to say that Miss D loved me, in her own self-serving way, to the degree that my ribbons and trophies were a reflection of her teaching.

Which makes the way she treated me all the more horrifying, and makes me wonder how awful it was for the students who didn’t have my Teacher’s Pet standing.

From third through eighth grades, I continued to take weekly lessons from Miss D. And I lived those years in a constant state of anxiety about the verbal beat-down I would get during those thirty minutes each week. I didn’t even get a break during the summers – she continued to offer summer lessons with her star pupils.

It’s been over 25 years since I last saw her, and I couldn’t tell you anymore what she said when the yelling and berating began, but I can tell you exactly how it felt. How my fingers would shake and go cold in fear of hitting a wrong note. How dread would settle in the pit of my stomach. How the inevitable mistake would make it that much more impossible to play correctly.

How my knees went weak with relief and I felt like a boulder had been lifted from my shoulders when my 30 minutes of torture ended each week.

The real kicker, though, is that I did have that Teacher’s Pet status, so it wasn’t like that every moment that I spent with her. I also had effusive praise heaped upon me. Both directed at me, and, at competitions and recitals, directed at my family, who were told in ebullient detail about my natural ear for music.

This made it worse, for two reasons.

The first was that the praise naturally made me crave Miss D’s approval, but the threat of her ire was ever present underneath it. She only got upset with me because she knew I could do better. It was for my own good. It was not unlike being a battered spouse, hoping that this time I would make a good enough dinner to avoid a beating, never understanding that the quality of the dinner was never what the beating was actually about.

The second was that the praise that my parents heard ultimately made it impossible for me to ever tell them what those lessons were actually like. By then, I knew that what my classmates had told me about Miss D back in first and second grade – classmates who, incidentally, had long since quit piano lessons – was horribly true, but who would believe it of someone so outwardly sweet and generous who obviously thought so highly of my talent and skill?

As far as I can remember, I tried, once, to tell my father, in about fifth grade. I had to work my courage up to initiate the conversation, and when I did, I lacked the adequate vocabulary to describe what really went on in those lessons. Miss D is mean, I told him. She yells at me. I hate the lessons, and I want to quit.

My dad was patient and kind, and he listened, and then he told me gently how he wished he hadn’t quit guitar lessons, and he didn’t want me to give up on something I was so good at – and wasn’t it true that I could probably stand to practice a little more?

In saying this, my father was not being cruel negligent of my emotional health. He was genuinely trying to do the right thing, and he did not have the information he needed to know how bad it really was.

It confirmed my worst fears, though. I would not be believed.

I never tried again to quit.

If I’d had the vocabulary then that I have now, I would have told him that Miss D was verbally and emotionally abusive. That she was cruel and vindictive in her words. That her gifts were grooming, and her praise was gaslighting. I would have told him that I spent the night before my lesson lying awake in fear of those 30 minutes, and her verbal barbs were as painful as being slapped.

I didn’t know how to say all of this to him. And after the first time he didn’t believe me, I stopped trying.

The end of eighth grade finally provided a welcome separation point. I was going on to a different high school, and my parents agreed that I could try out a different teacher. The only caveat was that I had to tell Miss D myself. The final lesson when I told Miss D I would no longer be her student was fraught with stress. I have always been conflict-averse, and I spent the entire conversation on pins and needles. She tried to manipulate me into staying under her thumb, telling me that the music teacher at my new school wouldn’t be entering me into the competitions and recitals that she always had. I think it was the first time I actually realized that those events were far more important to her than they were to me. I just wanted to play music. I don’t remember how the conversation ended, but I do remember the relief of finally walking away from her for the last time.

And here’s the thing: she was a piano teacher.

Not my parent. Not a family member. Not someone I depended on for food and shelter and love. Not someone I loved and needed to love me back.

I was an adult before I ever revealed to my parents how bad it actually was with Miss D. That it was, in fact, abuse. And clearly I was not alone in this. (In fact, I ended up attending high school with Miss D’s niece. When I mentioned that I’d taken lessons with Miss D for years, my classmate’s response was, “Oh, God, I’m sorry.”) She was teaching before I started lessons with her, and she continued to teach after. No one ever fired her. No one ever investigated her. Some kids were at least able to convince their parents to let them quit lessons, but to my knowledge, no parent ever called the school to complain about her methods.

In the meantime, I had a family that loved me, parents who supported me and were proud of my accomplishments and who, while as imperfect as any other parents out there, were warm and kind and never let me doubt my value. I was able to emerge from the experience relatively unscathed.

Imagine what it must be like for children who have someone like Miss D as a parent. Or a grandparent. Or a family friend who everybody likes.

If it was as hard as it was for me to talk about the abuse of my piano teacher for fear of not being believed, how hard do you think it must be for a child to tell anyone that their parent is hurting them? Or that mommy’s boyfriend is touching them in ways he shouldn’t, even though he makes mommy so happy?

How hard must it be to tell when telling might have one of two outcomes: either you won’t be believed and you’ll get in trouble for telling, or you will be believed, and everything you know will be torn apart?

And how hard must it be to tell on someone you love?

Look.

I don’t want to be alarmist here.

But my general philosophy is that when a kid says a grownup is hurting them, or is making them afraid, it is imperative to believe them. And then take action.

You might be the only person who does.

The Day the Worst Happened. Also: The Day I Learned to Cope.

Obviously, no one who was alive on this day 17 years ago will ever forget it. Even at the time, we all knew this was history in the making. There was a new permanent demarcation of time: pre-9/11 and post-9/11. For my generation, this was our first experience with the likes of D-Day, or Kennedy or King being assassinated. It was the day that we will remember for the rest of our lives where we were when we first heard that the towers had been hit, and how almost unnaturally blue and cloudless the skies were, and how strange it was to look up without seeing a single plane in the air.

But that’s not what this is about.

In all the accounts I read every year, one of the common themes is one of fear in the weeks following, and the feeling that nothing was safe anymore.

It’s notable to me to read these sentiments. I understand them. They make sense. In the aftermath of a massive terrorist attack, fear is a perfectly reasonable response.

But that was not my experience.

I was always anxious, growing up. Everything unknown was cause for anxiety. It would pool in the bottom of my gut on the way to school every morning: what work would I be overwhelmed by? What nasty things would the mean girls come up with to say? What awkward way would I stick my foot in my mouth?

I think I was about 11 when I had my first real panic attack. I had taken a CPR course, and became convinced that I was going to have a heart attack. In my pre-teens. With no history of cardiac issues. Later, it was that someone was breaking into the house. Every night. There was an entire summer that I mostly only slept during the day, because it was safer.

I recognized how irrational my fears were, so I didn’t tell anyone about them. I was also afraid of being teased about them, and having them dismissed as ridiculous. Especially since I already knew they were ridiculous.

This continued to manifest throughout my high school and college years in various ways. I was particularly terrified of diseases, because there was little controlling them. I took urban legends about intentional HIV infections at face value, and news reports about Ebola and flesh-eating bacteria kept me up at night. The one fear I did talk about was my fear of vomiting, only because it was hard to hide the hyperventilating when someone was sick around me.

It also seemed like a relatively reasonable fear. Nobody likes being sick.

My anxiety also manifested over approaching milestones and assignments I felt unprepared for, such as getting my driver’s license and applying for college and financial aid.

What I have come to realize in the last twenty-some odd years is that the anticipation was always worse than the actual event. When I had to take care of a sick and vomiting child, I dealt with it. When I got sick myself, I got through it. When I had to take my driver’s test, I studied for it and did well. Applying for college was far simpler than I’d expected (and they were paper applications back then!).

So when I woke up on 9/11/01, having skipped my first class of the day in favor of sleeping in, and turned on my radio to hear the president speaking gravely of a national tragedy, and then ran out to my living room to turn on the TV and watch the footage of the planes hitting the towers, and the towers collapsing, a strange sense of calm came over me.

When I went to class that day and we spent the hour processing what had happened and what might be yet to come, I felt a sense of cool detachment from the discussion.

When people I worked with panicked about the thought of biological weapons being released from air ducts in local malls and schools over the following weeks, I was the composed voice of reason pointing out that our small college town was unlikely to be a terrorist target.

It wasn’t that I was unmoved by the lives lost in those planes and buildings, or unaffected by the horrifying footage of people jumping from the towers to avoid a slower death by suffocation, starvation, or fire. I understood the gravity of what had happened. I was well aware that all of our lives would be forever changed by what had happened. I was as horrified and grief-stricken as anyone else about the lives lost, and the trauma of the first responders. I’m still angry about how we have failed those first responders who worked tirelessly to find survivors and recover remains without a single thought for their own safety.

But what I finally understood with perfect clarity 17 years ago today was that any sense of safety we had up to the moment the first plane hit was an illusion.

One of the worst possible things I could imagine happening had happened.

And all of us who are still here today survived it.

And to live through that made anything else I felt anxious about seem small and petty. I understood, on that day, that whether or not a mall in Lexington, KY would have anthrax spores released through the vents on a day I was there was completely outside my control – so why waste my energy freaking out about it?

I would be lying if I said I never got anxious anymore.

But that was the day I stopped letting fear rule me.

We’re never actually safe, but in order to live our lives, we have to pretend we don’t know that. But if the worst happens, and we survive it?

Then we pick up the pieces and carry on. It’s the least we can do for those who didn’t make it.