Friday, October 21, 2011


We lost our cat Winnie, aka Fuzz, this past Monday. After nearly sixteen years, our little hairball succumbed to old age and went peacefully to wherever beloved pets go. Heaven, I suppose. She deserves it after eight years of Gavin. If never fighting back despite having pacifiers and bottles jammed in her mouth, being chased with a kid wielding a kid-sized shovel, and running for her life when he had a bottle of hand lotion doesn't merit a reward, I'm not sure what can.

About three weeks ago, we noticed that she was barely eating and was becoming skin and bones. A two weeks she stopped using the steps. The last two days were spent in increasing confusion, and if she wasn't laying down, she was wandering as best she could as if she wasn't sure where she was.

Gav was wonderful with her, carrying her to her litter box and water bowl during her last days, speaking gently to her, and making sure she had her cat toys by her when she was sleeping. On Monday morning, when we left for school and work, he told me he was worried that she would die -- but he was more worried that she would be in pain while she died.

We can only hope she wasn't. When we got home that night, she was gone. She laid down and died. It looked like she was sleeping. Gav cried a little, as did I, and I held him while we looked at her body and while I wondered what to do next. Surely he would be too broken up to do more than cry.

How wrong I was.

Gav knelt next to her and picked her up. "I want to hold her," he said simply, taking her onto his lap and petting her one last time.

When we wrapped her in a small blanket, he helped. And, as we prepared to bury her, he insisted on putting her little wrapped body in the plastic bag. When we took her out to bury her (not on our property), he took the laundry basket that we put her in and carried it to the car. He helped dig her grave.

Not once did I see him shrink from the tasks he set for himself. He did what he had to do. But this was a had to do that he set for himself. He decided to see Winnie's burial through to the end. Gavin himself decided.

Once before I wrote about how I know that Gav is his own person, and that I am only allowed to borrow him for a while. Watching him lay Winnie's box in the grave and then take the shovel from his father so that he could bury her himself... I can only say I was humbled by his strength. My gentle little son, who fretted that morning not about her death so much as her being alone and in pain when she did pass away, knew what he needed to do to heal himself and face the loss. As he shoveled the dirt back into the grave, I swear that I caught a glimpse of the man he will grow into.

Like any parent, I worry about how life will treat my child. I worry about disappointments and successes. I worry about bullies and broken hearts. I dread the day when a mother's hug can't solve everything. As I tucked him into bed that night, I told Gav how proud I was of the way he helped us take care of Fuzz and helped us bury her. And he looked at me, a bit confused by the idea. "I was worried how you would react," I explained. "I was worried that you would scream and cry and run away." After all, previous to this, he'd buried only hermit crabs and an occasional goldfish.

And he looked at me, again a bit confused. "Why would I do that?"
The thought of not being a part of her burial, I realized, had never crossed his mind.

As I gave him one more hug good night, I kissed the top of his head and managed not to cry. Life won't be easy for him, it never is for any of us, but I'm a little more okay with that now. He'll be able to handle it.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Haven't forgotten.

For several years now I have managed to dodge talk about September 11 with Gavin. For the last three school years, in fact, I've held my breath hoping that nothing would be said in front of him that would cause me to have to explain it in any way, shape, or form.

That changed May 2 with the death of Osama Bin Laden. Between the screaming headlines and the news media broadcasting alternating clips of celebrating Americans and raw footage from the compound, there wasn't much dodging possible.

"He looks like one of the thuggies in my Lego Indiana Jones, mom," he announced, looking at the front page of the Tribune-Review.

"I suppose he does," I said.

"Why did we kill him?"

"He's a bad guy," I replied, hoping that he would change the subject.

"What did he do?"

My throat tightened and I couldn't think of what to say to an eight-year-old to explain any of it. He convinced men to hijack four airplanes full of innocent people and slam them into buildings full of even more innocent people all in the name of his personal, twisted version of a jihad. He aimed at symbolic locations in effort to twist the knife as deeply as possible. He and his followers supposedly cheered when the towers fell.

"He had people steal airplanes and fly them into buildings."

Please stop asking questions, honey. I can't answer any more without wanting to cry because I remember it and I don't want you to know what I know about how horrible men can be when they...

"He looks like one of those thuggies on the Wii game."

Wii! Maybe he'll change the subject.

"How did he kill all those people?"

Oh God.

"There were people in the buildings that the planes hit."

Please stop, Gavin. Don't ask me about the airplanes and if there were people on them. Don't connect the fact that we're flying when we go on vacation this year.

"Oh. I thought maybe he had a big sword like the thuggies."

In truth, Osama's death made September 11, 2011, a bit easier. Not much, but a bit.

We had "the September 11th talk" this past weekend. We watched a few televised specials together. We talked a little bit about what happened that day. His questions were basic, factual, and easy enough to answer. After watching the videos of the planes hitting the towers, Gavin was more interested in how the towers fell than anything. He was fascinated by the physics of it all, which was obvious as he talked about how the towers would fall when hit at different levels and how he thought they would fall more like dominoes.

They covered September 11th in class, and it was done well. Sterile. Basic. Non-emotionally scarring. Ten years after, it's easier to talk about -- particularly when the students weren't even alive at the time. Past history, things that happened before one was born, is much more elusive. Too abstract. Nine-eleven to Gavin is Pearl Harbor to me. We didn't live it, but we know we should be sad about it.

There's not much to say, ten years later. I still cry, or want to cry, when I talk about that day. I still remember the first words I heard as I tuned the radio in. I still don't understand a damn thing. I still don't know how to explain hatred to an eight-year-old.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


I'm not very good at talking about myself in terms of accomplishments. I'm quite happy to let my actions speak for themselves and leave it at that. However, this time, it's all about me and the last three years.

From the moment I started at RMU, my life became papers, papers, and more papers. I wasn't allowed to have an opinion because, as we first-year students were told, we didn't know enough to have that right. I was to read and to write.

As you can see by the picture, by year three, papers ruled my life. I was even allowed to have an opinion. In fact, as of last Tuesday, I'm also allowed to be an expert.

You see, as of April 26, 2011, after 90 very long minutes of defense and deliberation, I earned the title of "Doctor of Science."

So what do I know? I know a lot. For the last two years, I've been studying the personas of typefaces used in e-mail and their influence on us, which is a fancy way of saying that I studied the fonts we use in our e-mails and how we emotionally react to them. I found out, in fact, that I was right -- we do react to typefaces in e-mails AND we use the typeface to determine the personality of the person sending the e-mail.

If I try, I can count the number of papers and presentations that I somehow managed to pull off over the last three years... but I'm really not up to it. Let's just say that I did enough to make an assignment of "8-10 pages, double-spaced" sound like a really good deal. And should I ever hear "PowerPoint presentation, no more than 20 minutes," I'll jump for joy at getting off so easy.

You see, despite my cavalier approach to education up until... oh... now, I am an over-achiever, academic Type-A personality. And so were my classmates. By year two, several professors had learned to give us maximum page counts, not minimum.

The hardest part of graduation (Friday!!!) will be leaving my friends. All of the sentimentality I never had before has been threatening to drown me since August. For three years now, Matt and Janusz and I spent just about all of our residency nights in the Iron City Grille.

With the free drink coupons, why go anywhere else?

We would drink just enough to have fun and not enough to have a headache the next morning.

What do doctoral students talk about? Everything. From Appalachian ways of life to rhetoric, from data warehousing to the brilliance of Phineas and Ferb. When were weren't being academic, we were catching up on slang in the Urban Dictionary and trying to figure out how to maximize our drink coupons. We never topped the day that Matt used our excess of 24 tickets to "buy" as case and bring it to class the next day. It apparently helped strengthen our class's reputation of being "difficult."

We didn't actually drink in class. We just gave a bottle to everyone to take home. In class we were too busy to drink. More than likely we were playing Tetris or Risk, instant messaging, posting Facebook editorials, or taking copious notes. I don't think we were difficult in the least. We were talkative and opinionated, that's all. Really, the only difficult thing about us was our (in)ability to count.

Why drink coupons, you ask? Why would a university give its students license to indulge? Take a look at the board to your left and imagine that for eight days straight for roughly eight hours a day.

If memory serves me correctly, that's from Dr. Grant's rhetoric class year one. I like the question he wrote on the board: "What's in your world?"

How does one even begin to answer that question? What's in my world? My world now is a new title, one earned with more effort than I knew possible. My world has been shaped by professors like Dr. Skovira, the mountain man who will threaten you with a two-by-four (though we don't have a picture of that) and who tells you to "write the sh*t down" because you never know what will be important later.

For Skovira, I wrote a paper on a math class at Seton Hill and -- because I wrote it all down -- discovered that the students in that class, in response to the 1970s paddle desks their classroom had, developed their own set of social behaviors to negotiate the limited personal space. Now I spend too much time watching others' behaviors. What's in my world? Where you put your coffee cup, believe it or not.

Our profs generally didn't put up with much, believe it or not. One or two were not against closing our laptops for us during class if we were unable to do so ourselves. But, when they weren't making us write and rewrite and defend out opinions, just about all of them knew how to have fun.

What's in my world? Dr. Stork. A prof who can not only shred chapters 3 through 5 in a single night, but will also send you corrections at 1 a.m. and sit with you for hours until you almost understand statistics. And who will karaoke with you.

When I tried to write my dissertation so that it was interesting, my committee showed me how to write it academically (trust me, interesting and academic are rarely the same). But without their taking their electronic red pens to my dissertation over and over (and over and over) again, and without Jay, my advisor, talking me down from the proverbial ledge during the last few weeks prior to my defense, I never would have finished and would have run off to live as an ABD (or so I threatened). When I sent my committee umpteen versions and twice as many questions, they answered. Patiently. Quickly.

What's in my world? At this point? Given the connections I've made, the knowledge I've gained, and the articles I've already published... well, everything is in my world. Everything.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


You think that you're able to handle anything -- or at least most of it -- and then the phone rings at 7 a.m. and you have to wake your husband up and tell him to go to the hospital because his mother, who just had surgery a few weeks ago, is suddenly hemorrhaging and they want the family there at once. And you have to get in touch with his siblings. And you have to call your mother to come and pick up your son.

And the phone rings again. You have to go to your mother-in-law's house to make sure that the door, which her brother kicked in when she didn't answer the door, at least looks like it's closed.

No, wait. Your husband is coming home to get you and the two of you will drive to Shadyside Hospital where she is being lifeflighted.

You can handle that, so far. This is old hat, really. You did this when Dad was sick. Besides, your mom has your son and he knows nothing except that he's going to spend the day with his cousin before going to a friend's birthday party that night.

So you drive to Shadyside while your husband sits beside you and tries not to cry, and you find the right waiting room, and you say all the right things to the family that's already gathered there. Her children, her brother and sister-in-law, her two sisters, her niece, and two friends of her daughters. You marvel at how close everyone is and, yes, even envy a little, too. How lucky she is to have them.

When the doctor tells the family that she's unable to clot and that he can't stop the bleeding yet, you stay calm because no one needs you falling apart.

And you sit. For nearly twelve hours in the dimly lit waiting room, and you go over how glad you are that they got to her in time, how glad you are that her hemoglobin is coming up -- from 4 to 7.5. You count blessings, like the fact that she was able to call for help and the fact that your son wasn't with her when it all started. You tell yourself a lot of truths.

You tell yourself a lot of lies, too. Big ones. Whoppers about how she's going to be okay. You think about her birthday in two months and wonder if you can talk her kids into buying her a new living room carpet. Somehow you almost convince yourself that she'll pull through, even though it's 7 p.m. and the doctor himself is on the verge of crying because he can't do anything more than slow the bleeding.

Even at 11:30 p.m. when you stand there and hear the doctor tell her children that nothing more can be done, you manage to keep it together. And so with the family's permission, he stops giving her fluids and, within minutes, she's gone.

You cry a little, holding your husband who is sobbing as is any son's right, but you can't really let go yet.

At home, some more tears. Just a few. Both of you are too worn out to do much more than that. Tomorrow you'll tell your son when your mother brings him home.

But the next morning you find a picture of her holding your son, a candid one someone took at his fourth birthday party, and they're looking at each other and you know that look.

And then you cry.