Christine's Blog

Space for Kyra

 

Kyra is my "what I'm thankful for" on this Thanksgiving. Anyone who has ever loved a dog knows that watching them grow old is both wonderful and horrible. There are a multitude of touching stories recounting the joys and heartbreaks. This is the story of my gentle, loving Kyra. 

 

Space for Kyra

I wiggle my toes, tucked under the silky fur of Kyra’s belly, waking her from her nap. Her brown eyes meet mine, and I smile as she moves her head onto my lap. I slide my fingers over her head and scratch her ears. Her eyes close, her head tilts back, her entire body almost fluid in a posture of pure contentment.  That same contentment seeps into me. We have this connection, Kyra and I.

She was one of a litter of twelve. From my kitchen window I’d caught glimpses of her and her litter mates wandering around my neighbor’s yard. I was careful and didn’t allow my gaze to linger too long. There was no room in my aching heart for a puppy. I had just learned my father lost his battle with heart and kidney disease. I could no longer walk around the block, enter my childhood home and find my father sitting at the kitchen table enjoying a cup of tea. Everything had changed. 

I looked past the puppies in my neighbor’s yard, into my parents’ back yard, and stared at their barren garden. I’d planted flowers in my parents’ garden every spring to welcome them home from Florida where they spend the cold winter months. I struggled with the decision, should I plant the garden this year? I thought of the flowers already purchased, waiting on my front step and resolved to keep my tradition. I loaded the flowers into my car and drove around the block to my parents’ home.

My movements seemed slow and uncoordinated, weighted with sadness, but I was determined to clear the dead remnants of last year’s flowers. I replaced them with my mother’s favorites: the snapdragons, moss roses, dahlias, and impatiens transformed the lifeless patch of dirt into a vibrant, colorful feast for the eyes. I sat back on my heels and looked over my work. My father would never see this year’s garden, never water and tend this gift. I sat there for a time lost in memories, tears blurring the flowers into a kaleidoscope of color. The garden was finished. It was time to go.

The short trip home took me past my neighbor’s house. I stopped the car and, for a long moment, watched those adorable golden balls of fluff scamper playfully behind the brown picket fence. I told myself holding one of those puppies would soothe my broken heart. I stepped into the yard and was immediately attacked by a dozen bodies of pure puppy energy, yapping and jumping over one another, trying to climb up my legs. My hands held tight to the waistband of my oversize sweatpants as sharp little nails caught in the fabric.

I was wrong. The chaotic puppy energy did not make me feel better. I turned to leave. It was then that I noticed her, the tiny pup with copper-colored ears who came to sit calmly at my feet. She locked eyes with me and tilted her head. She had an expressive face with warm intelligent eyes that seemed to say, “Don’t pay any attention to my crazy siblings; I’ve been waiting for you.” I picked her up, and she snuggled into my neck. It felt like a hug, as if she sensed the sadness in me and was offering comfort. I was still ambivalent; I didn’t feel ready for the responsibility, but I couldn’t leave the yard without her.

I brought her home with the permission of my neighbor for a trial. When my husband saw me walk through our door with a beautiful golden retriever pup tucked under my arm, he smiled knowingly and asked if he should get the checkbook. It didn’t take long to realize what everyone around me already knew — I wouldn’t be bringing her back. 

Kyra was remarkably easy to train. The basics: sit, stay, come and potty training all accomplished within a week. She ran off once, escaping through a small, unknown hole in the far corner of the fence hidden behind the Rose of Sharon bush. As my chest constricted around my furiously beating heart, I searched the neighborhood, imagining the worst. I found her in my neighbor’s yard, her purple collar alerting me that she was indeed trotting gleefully among her former playmates.  

Within a couple of months we moved onto more advanced tricks. Bringing in my morning newspaper was her favorite, and it was amusing to watch her tenacious struggle with the oversize Sunday paper. She also thought it great fun during our morning walks to collect my neighbor’s newspapers as well. Despite my order to “drop,” it was impossible to get the newspapers from her. She would play bow, her butt in the air, the paper clenched between her teeth, ears perked, an eyebrow cocked, a look of pure mischief twinkling in her eyes. If dogs could laugh I imagined the sound of her chuckle: it would start deep in her belly rising up to her throat coming out of her mouth in gleeful giggles muffled by the newspaper held in her mouth.  My laughter sounded just like hers, lighthearted, uncontrollable giggles hanging in the crisp morning air. I wanted to join in the fun game of collecting all the neighborhood newspapers, throwing them up in the air, and tearing them to shreds. 

Kyra loved water and bath time quickly became another favorite activity. Unfortunately, she had trouble distinguishing my bath from hers. One evening, after preparing the tub for myself — anticipating a long soak with scented bubbles, candles and a glass of wine — I left the room to grab a book. When I returned, Kyra sat in the center of the tub with goofy grin and a mound of bubbles covering her head. 

She celebrated her first snowfall by racing around the yard with her tongue hanging out trying to catch snowflakes and then diving in the snow, spraying a cloud of white powder over her red-gold coat. If she possessed opposable thumbs I imagined snowball fights might be our favorite game.  

Kyra’s face is now gray, her puppy playfulness abandoned for frequent naps, the mischief in her eyes replaced by wisdom. She is never far from my side and continues to be a constant source of pleasure and delight. When I think back to those early days, I remember experiencing life brand new through her eyes, and although it was my hand holding the leash, it was Kyra who led me out of my grief. That day, when I looked into her waiting eyes and felt her warm body snuggle into my neck, a space opened, and that space was filled by her remarkable spirit.


The Way Home

During the years I wrote and edited, Dear James, I occasionally took a break and wrote essays and short stories: some were reflections on my past; and others, just wanderings of my imagination.

This essay was written about a new beginning.

 

The Way Home

It is new still, the feel of this old house. My things surround me: geranium placemats arranged on my kitchen table, four-season tapestry pillow displayed on the chair my grandmother left me, seashell collection lining my bathroom shelf. And Linzie is here, softly snoring, snuggled around my feet. New for her too, to be allowed up on the bed, no longer exiled to the cold kitchen floor each evening. He is the one who made that rule, the man I exchanged vows with. The man whose heart is as cold and unyielding as that kitchen floor. 

I was careful when I left, to leave the bad behind.  I dodged the names as they flew from his mouth, letting them bounce off walls, hang in the air, shatter glass, finally refusing to take them in. I maneuvered around the wounded parts of myself. I was careful not to pack them. The tiny particles of hurt that gathered together into a sharp knife of pain, those were not allowed into the boxes. 

When I unpack in my petite new house the air is light and sweet, my movements smooth and unhurried. I decide: the walls will be yellow, the windows open. Linzie will sleep curled upon my bed nuzzled in the soft mattress. In the dark of night I will run my hand over her velvet-soft coat, smell the mustiness of her paws, feel her heartbeat beneath my palm. And my breath will slow, my eyes close.

On the first night I remove my contacts, brush my teeth, lock the doors, and climb into bed. Linzie paces the floor, lets out a small whine, and heads for the kitchen. My voice stops her, “No girl, no more kitchen. Come here.”  She turns around. Her eyes glow in the darkness.

I keep trying. “Come here girl, it’s ok.” Tentatively she walks into the bedroom stopping at the foot of the bed. I pat the empty space beside me and say, “Up!” The look she gives me is human; it says, Have you lost your mind? I almost laugh. We compromise; she circles first and then finally curls up in the open bedroom doorway. 

When I wake the doorway is empty. I find her in the kitchen curled up in the corner. Beside her nose is my shoe, a habit she’s had for years, carefully carrying only one shoe, placing it near her while she sleeps, her version of a security blanket.

At times I find her habit endearing, my scent close as she sleeps. Other times, when I’m late for work, going room to room searching for the missing shoe, I am greatly annoyed.  

But today, as I look for my missing tennis shoe, I feel unruffled.  I plant a lilac bush beside my bedroom window. The breeze will bring the delicate scent across my face each morning. Linzie does her part assisting with the digging, and then lays panting in the shade.

That night, when I turn out the lights, Linzie again heads toward the kitchen. I call her; she comes quickly and places her nose on the bed. I pat the space beside me. She curls up on the floor at the end of the bed—progress. 

In the morning I again find her in the kitchen asleep on the floor. I spend the day clearing dead leaves and debris off the tattered stone patio.  I haul out two chairs along with a small table from the basement and arrange them on the patio. I sit in the sunshine, sip a glass of iced tea, toss the ball for Linzie, and watch the setting sun turn her coat into an explosion of golden color. 

I change the routine. I leave my bedside light on and pat the bed urging Linzie to jump up. She tilts her head, really? she says and places her front paws on the bed. I pat again, encouraging, “Good girl, up.” She hops up and stands on the bed stiff as a statue. “Lay down girl, it’s ok,” my voice croons.  

It doesn’t work. She jumps down and curls up on the floor next to the bed. I reach down and scratch her ears. I run my fingers through the silky tuft below her throat—we drift off.

The alarm wakes me; my feet slide off the bed and land in the soft mat of Linzie’s belly. She lifts her head, a good-morning-smile on her face. 

We take a short morning run before work. My feet gently slap the road; Linzie huffs beside me, her breath warm on my leg. I lose myself in the rhythm. Pleasantly spent, we arrive home; the gate squeaks as we pass through. I sip my coffee; Linzie eats her kibble. I perform the lost shoe dance, finding it behind the bathroom door and leave for work.

When I return home Linzie greets me with my one of my favorite sandals between her teeth. I wash the kitchen windows as the last rays of amber light warm my face. Before bed I open the last box and remove the silver-framed photos. I arrange them just so. I turn off the lights and try yet again, patting the open space on the bed beside me, “Come on girl, up, up on the bed.”   She hesitates only slightly before leaping up. She circles, once, twice, then with a sigh curls up around my feet. I release my  breath—a sigh of relief and gratitude. 

I awaken before the alarm and stretch. Linzie opens her eyes and belly-walks her way across the mattress. She lays her nose on my pillow and licks my cheek. 

We are home.

 

 

 

 

My Sister and I

My sister finishes almost every book she starts, no matter how boring or tedious that book may be. 

I’m older; my sister came along two years later, usurping the attention that was solely mine. I don’t remember being upset by sharing the spotlight. The conflict and sibling rivalry would come later, as we grew and it became evident that her skills far surpassed my own. If I were to describe two paintings, one representing each of us, mine would be a landscape by one of those commercial artists: ordinary, with everything revealed on the surface. My sister’s would be a piece of modern art with extravagant colors and broad brush strokes. The kind no one gets at first, like a Pollock, the kind of painting that gets more interesting as your eyes follow the colors and intricacies. 

My sister has very big feet, size 11, and she has a very hard time finding shoes that don’t look like eighty-year-old lady shoes.

As a child I never thought about how much I loved my sister. She was always just there: sleeping in the bed across the room, sitting beside me at the kitchen table eating her breakfast cereal, trailing behind me on our walk to the bus stop. When I was about 10 years old, I had a nightmare that never quite left me. I slept over at a friends house and dreamt my sister was decapitated in a gruesome accident. I often had bad dreams at that age, and my sister never objected when I slipped into her bed, snuggled up to her warmth and calmed myself by listening to her breathe. But that night, as I jerked awake in the strange room with remnants of my disturbing dream blurring my consciousness, I found myself unable to move. I lay awake barely able to breathe as I struggled to orient myself. I was shaken to my core at the thought of anything happening to my sister. The amount of grief I experienced at that moment compared to nothing I had felt in my young life. 

My sister does not like most vegetables, and canned green beans make her gag.

I seldom felt superior to my sister. I envied her long, thick, blond hair, which was the exact opposite of own. Our mother cut my thin, mousy, brown hair into the dreaded pixie cut (yep I’m still not over that). My sister had a button nose covered with an adorable sprinkling of freckles. My large nose, which I’d inherited from our dad, dominated my thin, angular face. In the looks department I could never compete with her, but I excelled at something that she couldn’t, or didn’t care to master: I kept my bedroom clean, or my portion of our room. Now this may not seem like a big deal, but I assure you in our family it was. Our mother was the classic fifties housewife whose identity was measured by how clean she kept her house. And our normally laid-back dad joined in her obsession in a peculiar way. Whenever something bothered him—a bad day at work or other incidents that as kids we were not privy to, or, I suspected, at my mother’s urging—he would climb the stairs to our room and make a surprise inspection. I was never bothered by this; my side of the room rarely failed his inspection, but my sister’s half was a different story. Her side was almost always a mess, and I took such pleasure in this fact. I got a small thrill in the pit of my belly as I witnessed the look of alarm on her face when we heard our dad’s footsteps echoing in the stairway. I realized even then how small and petty this was and what it said about my character, which made this small victory over her bittersweet. Still, I relished our parents’ praise over my clean room and shamelessly gloated while she tearfully suffered banishment to her room until it passed inspection.

My sister hates to shop, and she finds shopping for clothes especially torturous.

Although my sister and I endured the occasional cruelty by the nuns at our Catholic grade school—and the embarrassment of those dreadfully ugly uniforms—we attended different high schools. I successfully coerced my mother into allowing me to attend the public high school. The big fat F I received in algebra reinforced my mother’s thinking that her acquiescence had been a mistake. My sister, however, did attend the Catholic high school. So we drifted apart during those self-involved, adolescent years. We existed in parallel universes with different friends, different interests. I thought of her as background, as just my sister. She only caught my attention when she drew the occasional ire of our parents over her conflicts with those dreaded nuns. I loved being present for those conversations because her arguments were so intelligent, so convincing, that they often muted our frustrated parents.  

My sister in an excellent speller.

I had my last child and my sister her first in the same year, 1982—my son and her daughter born only two months apart. We grew closer during this time, sharing our lives and our children’s lives. We celebrated every holiday together with our parents at our childhood home. Those times were complete bliss—in every clichéd and Hallmark meaning of the word. I have a catalog of memories: every Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, Halloween and Mother’s Day. The feeling of rightness when she walked through the door, children in tow, made each holiday complete. Together we watched our families grow, attended our children’s concerts, recitals, sports events. We savored it all, and the pleasure of those years became sweeter because of her. 

My sister, despite her loathing for shopping, is a very good gift-giver (and I love presents). 

A few years ago my sister gave herself a much deserved gift. She bought a horse and pursued her love of riding. I do not share her love of horses. They smell and are very big animals, (ok I will admit they scare me a little). I prefer to admire their beauty from a distance while I applaud her obvious talent as a horsewoman. A small amount of my selfishness and childhood jealously returns when I see the immense pleasure she receives from riding and spending time with her horse. How can she enjoy anything as much as she enjoys my company? Thankfully, I have matured enough to be grateful for the glow I see in her eyes when she talks about her horse.

My sister thinks she is a good driver, but she speeds—a lot.

We now live states apart and no longer see each other with regularity. I miss being part of her everyday life. But we talk often and share the details of our lives, which now includes grandkids. When we manage to bridge the miles and get together, it all falls into place—I’m with my sister, and my world is righted once more. I speculate on our future. I think about a daydream I had long ago: us sharing a house as happy, fat, old ladies, sitting on our front porch, the men in our lives long gone. Ending as we started: together. 

My sister occupies a huge space in my heart rivaled by no one. She landed there softly and has remained. She is a part of me that defies description. There is no replacement for her. 

My sister is my hero.

On writing Dear James

The question I've been asked most, so far, is, "What inspired you to write this book?" It's a logical question; after all, I've been a nurse for the last 19 years. What possessed me to think I could write a book? The voice of self doubt whispered that question into my ear many times. I told that voice to shut up, and kept writing. 

My dad was the inspiration for this book. His life, the man he was, the things he taught me, remained with me after he died. Thoughts whirled about my head for years until I decided to put those thoughts into words and just see what happened. I had only a glimmer of a story when I first began to type. And then it just came pouring out.

I enjoyed this experience in a way that is hard to define. As my children officially entered adulthood, and I officially entered middle age complete with hot flashes and sagging body parts, it was exhilarating to discover something new about myself: I had a creative side! The story kept my dad close; as long as I wrote, he was with me. For the better part of a year, I sat on my couch and typed away.

Then came the revisions... many, many revisions... years of revisions. I found help in some unexpected places. I took an online class with an agent, Paula Munier, who helped me immensely. She asked me, "What's the title?" I didn't have one yet; it was something I was struggling with. She told me, "When you have a clear vision of what your story is about, you will have your title." She was right. I remember the exact moment it all fell into place and the title came to me. Thank you, Paula. 

I have been asked if certain parts of the story are true. The answer is somewhat complicated. Some are based on my childhood memories, as I remember them, through my very biased point of view. The only true character in the book is my dad—my wonderful dad, Robert William Lechner.