Life has a funny way of teaching us lessons. Most recently, I learned an important lesson through a most unlikely source, my dog, Moose. Let me explain.
As my sons neared and entered their teenage years, I have had a nagging feeling in my heart. I know, it is normal and necessary for my sons to distance themselves from me as they navigate school, peers, and work on their path to becoming men. Yet, as a mother with a husband who has traveled and still travels for work most Monday through Fridays, I poured every fiber of my being into raising these boys with the hope that every sleepless night, diaper change, temper tantrum, vomit-covered shirt, skinned knee, hair-pulling homework assignment, classroom party, and life-saving maneuver on my part would one day have its payoff. I thought my sons and I, through our years of sweating it out together, would one day be thick as thieves. I would be their “go to” person and much like in the past, I would be the “fixer upper” too, but that is not the case. These days as they journey life’s ups and life’s downs, I often feel like i am watching from the stands with no hope of playing in the game.
Currently, I receive information about my boys and their emotional well-being on a “need to know” basis. Most of our conversations revolve around Fantasy Football, sports, classes, and currently, the election. If I want to know more about my sons’ social lives, their friends, and the undercurrent of hurt and emotional stress I sometimes sense emitting from their bodies, asking them will get me nowhere. They will dig in their heels, deflect my questions, and simply, shut down. About a year ago, my husband returned from running an errand with one of my boys and was ecstatic about the heart-to-heart conversation they had in the car and the emotional exchange they shared. Since that day, this has been a reoccurring theme, and while I should be happy for both my husband and my sons, truth be told, it really pisses me off! My sons’ “go to” person is not the one they peed on during diaper changes, but instead, the one who heard about the battles and bruises of their childhood through a phone line. Don’t get me wrong, my husband is a great father and given the choice, he would absolutely prefer to be home with his family. My beef is not with him, instead, it lies grounded in the fact that I am ready to cash-in my paycheck, but the bank has closed.
Polly became a part of our family on December 7, 2015. She is a rescue dog, found on the side of a road, starving and petrified. Through the amazing work of some incredible women, Polly eventually made her way to our doorstep and in doing so, has enriched our lives beyond measure. Polly suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Our best guess, she was abused or was living in an abusive home. Polly is at her best in the mornings but as the day progresses, she becomes increasingly nervous and any teenage boy, man, loud noise or yelling will trigger her PTSD. Once this happens, she will retreat to her kennel and sit huddled in the corner, wide-eyed, shaking, and panting in fear. It is heartbreaking to witness, but through the help of a few professionals and with loving patience, she is slowly making progress.
NFL Sunday is especially challenging for sweet Polly. My boys often have friends over to watch the games and track their Fantasy match-ups. Our house becomes filled with noises of slamming doors and cabinets, the raised voices of the sportscasters blaring from the television, and loud cheers of joy and cries of frustration as the games get underway. While to most other dogs, this activity is totally normal and nonthreatening, to Polly, it is traumatic. One recent Sunday, I took Polly upstairs with me to my room. I needed to study and thought we would both benefit by escaping to a space removed from the chaos and gain a little peace and quiet in the process. Polly was relaxed for a few minutes until the gang of boys came up to the kitchen to fuel up before going outside to play football. As my bedroom is directly above the kitchen, their voices carried up through the floor into the room and triggered Polly’s PTSD. Recently, a trainer advised me not to coddle Polly when she is in this mode as it only reinforces her fear. She said to “pet the behavior you want and to ignore the behavior you don’t want”. Paying heed to this advice, I watched my girl flinch and shake every time a cabinet door was shut or the door going outside was slammed. It was as if she was playing a memory over and over again in her head and every banging door and raised voice served as a direct hit on her defenseless little body.
It is devastating to witness Polly in these states and on this particular day, I was overcome with helplessness and without the option to comfort, I did the only thing I could, I prayed. Through tear-stained eyes, I finished my prayer and stared at Polly still shaking on my bed. About 10-seconds later, I heard a thunder of paws racing up the stairs and barreling down the hallway towards my bedroom. Moose, my 70-pound, crazy, adolescent, and rascal mutt, came charging into my room (which is totally off limits, by the way), jumped onto my bed, and started licking Polly’s face. The transformation in Polly was immediate. Moose turned, jumped from the bed and as Polly raced to the edge to watch him, her tail wagged her body and the chase was on. Ten minutes later, a worn-out Polly, jumped up on the couch next to me, curled up in a ball, and fell fast asleep. She was finally at peace and as I stroked Polly’s petal-soft ears, I said “thank you” to God, for sending my prayer, straight to the source of help – my four-legged, pain-in-the-ass, but extremely lovable, Moose.
Why is it Moose could get through to Polly when every attempt on my part failed? Why is it my sons seek out their dad for the heart-to-heart conversations? I have realized, it is not personal. It is not a slight against me or my efforts to love and care for them. Simply put, I do not speak their languages. I do not speak dog. I do not speak teenage boy. I do not speak many of the languages my loved ones need to hear in the exact moment they need to hear it. Reflecting on the day with Moose and Polly, I came to understand, the nudge on my heart was a feeling of failure. Failure to be the “go to” person and the “fixer upper”. Through watching Moose transform Polly, I learned my role in being a loving wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, and caregiver, was not about the emotional payoff nor the success in fixing a problem. I can best serve the ones I love by recognizing when to step in, to fall back, to let go, to ask for help, and, most importantly, be grateful to the one who is willing to give it. I may never learn to speak dog or teenage boy or the million other languages circling the globe, but that is okay. There is only one language I need to know and with practice, patience, and understanding, I am becoming fluent. Love. Love is the most perfect language. It heals, it comforts, it supports, it nurtures, it endures, it is all encompassing, universally spoken, and most importantly, seldom requires the physical act of speaking to best serve its purpose. Sometimes in life, it is necessary to sit the bench and let someone else do the work, but that doesn’t mean I am not suited up and ready to play when called. To paraphrase St. Francis Assisi, speak love at all times and only when necessary, use words.