The Vacation that Wasn’t.

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Let me tell you a story about how I’ve been living in a hotel for two weeks.

I’m not currently homeless, so don’t worry about that. I have a home, I just can’t go there.

A few weeks ago in the process of moving a file cabinet in our bedroom, we found mold. We called our insurance, who sent out a guy, who sent out a different guy, and then we heard nothing at all for several days. And then one Friday about three in the afternoon, they called and said we had to go, they had People coming out to Do Mold Removal Things.

While it’s probably typically not a hard thing to find a hotel room to stay in, our adjuster had a bit of a problem because our family is larger than what is allowed by law to stay in one room because of fire code hazards, so they had to find a place with two adjoining rooms.

And we needed a place that allowed dogs, because I’ve got two of them.

After much back and forth, the insurance found us a couple rooms at a Holiday Inn Express about a half an hour away from our home. It’s a nice enough place, don’t get me wrong, but the glamour of living in a hotel rubs off pretty quick when you’ve got six people and two dogs in an enclosed space for a long length of time. It’s not that my kids don’t love each other.

It’s that having to share beds and breathe air in the same room together for so many days in a row is turning them into zombies who crave the brains of their siblings.

The additional drive time whenever someone needs to go to school or work is draining our gas money in an insanely fast manner, and while at first it was kind of fun to eat dinner out every night, after two weeks I think we are all craving some of my own spectacular home cooked Burnt Food, or maybe just some cheap spaghetti that I make way too much of and cook way too long.

As a writer and human being who spends probably an unhealthy amount of time in my house and alone, it’s painful to be trapped in a hotel with strangers who want to start random conversations with me. I take my dogs to go out for a pee, someone strikes up some small talk. I sit in a dark corner alone in the morning for breakfast, people bring their conversations over to me and try to pull me in. It’s really a ridiculous amount of talking, to be honest. Like, in the hallways at 7:30 a.m. people smile at me and yell GOOD MORNING like they are some particularly horrible kind of monsters. One early morning as I was sitting alone, eating a biscuit and reading a Stephen King novel, some strange man in Very Ironed Clothes suddenly stuck his face in mine and yelled HAVE A NICE DAY! for no good reason at all. How am I supposed to respond to that kind of nonsense?

It’s a very clean hotel and housekeeping must come in every couple of days to make sure we haven’t trashed the place like the drunken rock stars we are, so every time I get things settled into some semblance of comfortable chaos, they come and straighten and fiddle and scrub until everything is back in order again. Not gonna lie, it’s pretty awful. I cannot create while trapped in this stark, overly organized space. And can we talk about how horrifying it is when housekeeping actually comes in to clean? The night before, my husband and I take out the trash and pick up and try to make like we are halfway decent human beings. Then when the lady does come in to clean, I sit or stand here awkwardly because it feels bizarre to have someone else cleaning up my mess but if I offer to help or give her, I don’t know, a pudding cup or a muffin or something she looks at me weird.  Today when I answered the door, the housekeeper lady asked me if I was going to let my dogs bite her.

Yesterday, the toilet backed up. I waited nearly an hour before I amped up the courage to call the front desk (because hello, it’s more talking to strangers) and then the maintenance guy came and I had to talk more to someone else I don’t know and apologize for making him do this Terrible Thing.

Not one to dwell on doom and gloom, I will admit there are perks:

There is a swimming pool.

The complimentary breakfast is delightful. I’m not certain the eggs are really eggs, but the biscuits taste like they were stolen from the kitchen at KFC, which is not an entirely impossible notion, as there’s a KFC across the parking lot here.

I haven’t had to wash dishes in two weeks.

But I find the idea that I don’t know when I can go home makes me feel really stressed. People keep telling me to treat this like a vacation, but I think those people have likely never been abruptly stuffed into a hotel room with six people and two dogs for an extended period of time.

Last week, my son got really sick and had to spend some time in the ER. He’s doing better now, but I felt I had to ask the universe what bad thing was coming next, because I think we all know that Bad Things come in threes and I like to be prepared.

That was right about when we found out my daughter’s cosmetology school closed, three weeks into her first semester, with no warning. Just a post on the school’s Facebook page stating they were very sorry, don’t come to class tomorrow, they were closing down all 79 campuses. Of course, she’s distraught and we are left trying to find her a new school and deal with her loans and in general, it’s an entirely unpleasant experience.

BUT THEN

It got worse.

When my husband went to pick up dinner last night, we found out that Little Caesar’s is discontinuing their cream cheese dip.

I know. I KNOW. It’s okay, I cried a little bit, too.

I have been working, though. In addition to my regular freelance writing, I’ve gotten a few thousand more words on my current novel, and the other day fiddled around a little bit with a New Shiny Idea, which seasoned writers advise we shouldn’t do when we are writing a novel already, but I don’t understand how to get the voices out of my head if I don’t get them out on the page.

We had a meeting with the contractor a couple of days ago, who cheerfully announced it would likely be another two weeks before we can go home, and that’s barring any problems.

I’m beginning to feel a bit like Bilbo Baggins. This little adventure has been nice and all, but I really just want to go home where I have all my books and my yarn and mountains of dirty dishes in the sink.

By the way, does anybody have a pair of ruby slippers I could borrow?

There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s…

See what this nightmare has done to me? I’m already mixing up fictional characters. I’ll be utterly daft by the time I get to go home.

Probably not the worst things that could happen. I hear all the best writers have lost their minds.

 

Sixteen Tomorrow

I decided a while back to write a birth story for each of my four kids. I wrote one for each of my girls within the last couple of years and since tomorrow is my oldest son’s sixteenth birthday, today I’m writing his.

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My due date was April 2nd, 2000 and I was already four days past that. My two little girls were two and a half and almost four and my husband worked third shift a couple of towns away from where we lived. We had planned to drop our daughters off at my sister’s house when I went into labor, but it felt like it had been so many years since I had passed my due date that we had sort of given up thinking that might ever happen. Clearly, I was just going to stay pregnant forever. And ever.

On April sixth, my husband left around ten p.m. for work and I waddled to bed to try and sleep. I couldn’t get comfortable, and just about quarter after eleven realized I was having some contractions. For some idiotic reason I can’t even explain other than I read it somewhere in some magazine, I got up and decided to take a shower. This was a poor choice on my part, because this labor started out really fast and strong and within just a few minutes I was in so much pain I could no longer stand up. I was stuck in the shower and had nobody home to help me other than my little girls, who were sound asleep.

Eventually, I was able to crawl out of the tub and to the kitchen to the phone (remember, this was back before we all had a cell phone attached to us every second of every day). I called the factory where my husband worked at the time and gave a breathless message to the person in the office. Several minutes later, he called me back, listened to me shrieking for a minute or two, and headed home. It never crossed my mind to call my doctor. Again, I have no way to reason that out. It was dumb but I was tired and in a lot of pain. I very seriously thought I might have the baby on the living room floor, before my husband ever made it home.

Finally, he arrived and called our family doctor. She asked him to time my contractions, then listened to me screaming for a few minutes and told him they were WAY too close together for me to still be at home. Get going, she said. Go fast.

During a brief break between pains, I woke up my daughters and packed them a bag. Clearly out of my head with agony and excitement, I packed them a bunch of licorice. Can’t tell you why, only that in the moment, it seemed absolutely imperative. Then we called my sister, because that was our plan.

Problem was, she never picked up the phone. We called over and over again. No answer.

Instead, we drove the (very sleepy and confused and tightly gripping their licorice) girls to my husband’s parents’ house. At that point, I really, really thought I was not going to make it to the hospital in time.

One thing I knew I wanted to do was get some pain relief. I had had an emergency C-section with my first child, and my morphine line had a hole in it so I was in a lot of pain for a lot of hours after I woke up. With my second child, I requested an epidural, but it failed. This time, I was determined to get some wonderful pain meds, the kind I’d heard friends describe as “heaven”, which would reduce the hip-shattering agony I was currently experiencing to something along the lines of mild cramps. I thought about this all the way to the hospital.

When I shuffled in to the labor and delivery triage area at the hospital, I was breathless and barely able to talk. There was nobody at the desk, and I was certain that if I sat down in one of the chairs I would never get back up, so I just leaned forward on the desk, propping myself up with my elbows, and stood there. Shaking. After what seemed an eternity, a nurse found me and got me into a room.

“Tell me what’s going on,” she said.

“I want pain meds this time,” I replied.

She laughed. I didn’t.

After a quick check that told her I was already well past eight, she told me I was too far gone for any sort of substantial relief. Sorry, kid. That baby is coming too fast.

Things went pretty fast after that. I was moved down to a regular room, my doctor arrived, and so did my mom and siblings. My sister, as it turned out, had taken a few Tylenol PMs before bed and didn’t hear the phone ring when I called.

My first son was born at 2:52 a.m. on April 7th after just about three and a half hours of labor. He shares a birthday with my sister’s daughter, just fifteen years apart.

He was a big boy. Eight pounds, thirteen point two ounces.

My doctor looked up at me and said, “All right, Val, I need you to push again, get that placenta out.”

I looked back at her and replied, “I’m done. If you want anything else, you can go in and get it yourself.”

I wasn’t kidding. Fast labors are kind of cool but the thing about them is, you end up feeling a lot like you’ve been run over by a semi truck once everything is said and done.

We had considered naming him Andrew, but couldn’t decide on a middle name. My husband went out to the nurse’s station and borrowed a baby name book. He came across the name Donovan and asked what I thought of it.

Andrew Donovan.

We thought about that for a few minutes, and then turned it around.

Donovan Andrew.

It fit him perfectly.

And tomorrow he turns sixteen.

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When Spring is Just a Memory

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I’ve lived all my life in the middle of Michigan. Forty winters.

Unlike many people who have opinions, I actually enjoy winter. Perhaps because as a child, my family was big on outdoor activities. We did a lot of sledding – not the typical oh-here’s-a-little-neighborhood hill type sledding. I mean the sort of enormous hills generally found in the area known as “Up North” Michigan. The kind so big your legs start to wobble as you drag your sled up to the top. The kind you start to regret sledding down as soon as you take off from the top, because you realize you’ll probably die by the time you get to the bottom. And while we were trying to murder ourselves sledding down enormous hills, my folks would hang a couple lines on trees, toss a tarp over them, and start a fire. We ate whatever Dad could fit in the snowmobile saddle bags, and generally that was a couple packs of Koegel’s hot dogs.

Snowmobiling was another thing we were big on. Most Fridays after school and work, we’d head Up North to the cabin and spend the winter weekend out on what my dad affectionately referred to as “the sleds.” I learned to handle my own snowmobile when I was ten, and huge groups of us would take off early on a Saturday morning and remain gone the entire day. Regardless which trails we took, eventually we always ended up at a place called Timbers, where everyone ate with their snow pants on and we needed an extra table to set our helmets at.

Even though I have so many fond memories of winter, there’s a point every year right about the end of February and beginning of March when I start to feel a little panicked. It seems there is always a long, drawn-out blizzard right around that time that leaves me staring out at the bleak, snow covered world and thinking it will never end. Never ever ever ever. We’ll be trapped in the house, the kids will never go back to school, the snow will cave in the roof and we’ll suffocate in a mountain of fluffy white death.

Two weeks ago, my kids had a four day weekend for their mid-winter break. Went back to school for two days, we got blasted by a few feet of snow and they ended up with Thursday and Friday off. Went back to school on Monday this week, and then we were inundated with another blizzard. Snow days for yesterday and today. Even all the government offices have declared a state of emergency and closed down. My dogs had an appointment at the groomer today but it had to be rescheduled because none of the employees could get down their roads and in to work.

It feels a bit apocalyptic to look out the window and see no activity out there. Few vehicles are braving the roads. When I take my dogs outside, there is no noise. The snow has silenced our neighborhood.

It seems as if spring will never come again. Logically, of course, I know it will. It always has. In a month or so, we’ll be running errands without having to wear heavy coats. A month after that, we’ll be hauling out our flip flops. But right this second, it feels like winter is here to stay, a never ending nightmare of unfit roads, school closings, and sniffly-nosed, coughing children.

We’ve all heard that saying, “It’s always darkest before the dawn” and I know it’s true. I haven’t survived forty winters without learning a few life lessons.

Whatever your winter is, whatever you are struggling with today, remember, spring is coming.

It always has. It always will.

We just have to wait out the winter.

The Weekend.

Let me tell you about my weekend.

Friday night was our 22nd wedding anniversary. We did not make enormous plans, due to various things, like my mother-in-law being ill and in the hospital, other family stuff, and the lack of much actual cash money to do anything with.

So we made plans to go out for dinner and a movie, because CRIMSON PEAK, amiright?

Before I go any further, let me recap the last two years of our anniversary celebrations:

Two years ago:

Went to a casino. Got a call from the eldest child. She’d gone outside and when she came running up the cement porch steps, she fell and gouged a big chunk out of her leg. She thought she needed stitches. I called my mom, who drove over and checked it out, thought, yeah, maybe it might need stitches, so we left early and came home. I took her to the clinic and while it looked rather ghastly, no stitches were needed.

Last year:

Tried an overnight at the casino again. Told the kids, STAY HOME. Multiple texts between us and the kids cell phones showed nothing amiss. We came home the next morning and found, courtesy of the cops who came over to visit, that the children in fact DID NOT stay home, had instead gone out for chili cheese fries, which in itself is not generally arrestable behavior. But my daughter had just started driving, and *scraped* another car as she was backing out of the restaurant parking lot. She panicked, and bolted. So, the friendly neighborhood policemen came to serve her with papers about her little misdemeanor. THAT WAS CUTE.

This year, we were only leaving for a few hours. Just long enough to devour some delightful steakhouse food and watch Tom Hiddleston be amazingly dapper. NOT EVEN LONG ENOUGH FOR KIDS TO GET INTO TROUBLE.

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!

Dinner was good. Quiet. I lamented eating too much as I continued to stuff my face. It was wonderful. And the steakhouse makes its servers do line dancing when certain country songs come on the radio, which was delightful (if kind of awkward for us…where do you look? do you look at the servers when they dance? Is that considered gawking? Look up at the ceiling to prevent accidental gawking? Just keep shoveling food in face? What’s the proper etiquette there?) and even the dainty eighty-something-year-old woman seated across from us got up to do the Boot Scoot-N-Boogie down the aisle.

And we were thinking, you know, this is nice. Nice to finally have kids old enough to leave alone for a few hours without being constantly harassed via text or phone call about silly little things. All those years of near death experiences with toddlers and young kids has been worth it. Now we’ve gotten to that easy part. HAHAHAHAHA.

We got our tickets for the Hiddleston Show, I mean, um, Crimson Peak, and a couple of drinks and a giant box of Junior Mints that we were kind of giddy about not having to share with extra greedy little hands. And the movie was getting  good, lovely and creepy and filled with gorgeous velvety looking costumes, and that’s about when our phones started to go off.

I ignored mine. My husband tried, but his kept going off, over and over. Finally he checked it and texted, “Can’t talk right now.”

Response: I need you to call me right now.

HUGE SIGH.

Husband gets up, out of the theater and out to the hall to call our daughter. Dad, she says, I came out to buy pizza and locked my keys in the running car. I don’t know what to do.

Of course, the only extra set of car keys we own was sitting there on my lap, in my purse.

Adamantly, we refuse to leave the movie theater. They are adults. They will have to figure something out. We’ve got an entire box of  Junior Mints still to eat.

Our phones go off again.

Okay, they’ve figured out for my younger daughter’s boyfriend to come and get the keys from us. But he has to first find a ride, so it might be a while.

Text: Are they there yet?

Text: Should we go ahead and get the pizza?

Text: Are they there yet?

Text: Did they get the keys?

Text: Dad? Dad? Dad?

Text: Are you sure they aren’t there yet? Did you check?

Text: They’re on their way!

Text: They’ll be there in a minute!

Text: Are they there yet?

Text: Sorry we ruined your anniversary again.

Text: Did the guys come to get the keys yet?

Finally, the guys DID come to get the keys and we were left to eat our Junior Mints in peace.

Yesterday morning, my 15-year-old son knocked on my bedroom door, shouting something about blood.

I leapt up, okay, I don’t much leap anymore, I’m forty, I slowly uncurled my frozen body from the bed and inched my way straight, rolled off the side of my bed and began to stagger, while shouting, I’m coming! Hang on!

Turned out to be an unfortunate bagel incident. Rather than microwave a frozen bagel and then cut and toast it, he decided to try cutting the solidly frozen bagel with a steak knife and plunged the serrated blade into the webbing between his thumb and forefinger. The blood was gushing, he said, and it went on my bagel but I just put butter over it and ate it. So I didn’t waste the bagel.

Well, I don’t know about you, but that was my main worry.

Anyway, three stitches later and a long time spent trying to come up with an acceptable battle story to tell the guys (I suggested chupacabra attack), that particular wound seems to be doing okay.

But the highlight of the weekend was going to be watching The Walking Dead last night, because WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO GLENN and COULD IT BE POSSIBLE THAT HE REALLY IS A TIME LORD AND THE DUMPSTER IS A TARDIS, so I ran to the store last night to get some Moose Tracks ice cream, because HELLO, zombies and ice cream are what really makes a Sunday holy, and lo and behold.

Our television froze, for no apparent reason, for thirty solid minutes.

So we missed TWD.

That was my weekend.

The Writing Machine.

“Be a machine.”

I read a lot of advice for writers that demands this of us. Stick to daily word counts. Be a machine. Write every day. Be a machine. Ignore distractions. Be a machine. Let nothing deter you.

This is great advice. If you are, in fact, a machine.

But I’m not a machine. I’m a person.

Writing is a job, sure. Like any other job, if you want to make headway, you’ve got to be committed.

And like any other job, you have to balance time. You might turn out more work if you’re a machine, but do we really want to just churn out work at the risk of missing out on other important life events?

It’s so easy for me to withdraw. So easy for me to not return calls, not answer the door, not make plans outside of my writing schedule.

It would be easy for me to drop off the face of the planet, just stay in my house and write, write, write. I like to be alone, typing away. Sometimes I think I like it too much.

I could stay inside and write forever. Rarely leave. I could churn out book after book after book. The ideas are there. The movies of future manuscripts play like a loop in my mind, over and over. Because of this, sometimes I forget.

I forget the fragile beauty of late autumn leaves.

I forget how wet concrete feels beneath bare feet.

I forget about the wind.

I forget my kids will never be this exact age again. Of course there is always tomorrow – but tomorrow they will be one day older.

I forget to have real conversations with my husband, conversations that don’t involve me talking while typing.

I forget to call and check in on my mom.

I forget to nurture friendships.

I forget I’m not a machine.

I’m a human being who is a writer. I need to stop and take breaks. How sad would it be if I died tomorrow, and my last significant touch was that of a keyboard?

Stop.

Stop, play with the baby. Look into her eyes.

Stop.

Hold my husband’s hand.

Listen with full mind about my son’s day at school.

Stop.

Go outside. Touch the leaves. Feel the raindrops.

Stop. Remember. Feel.

We aren’t created to be machines.

A Little Ball of Fluff.

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Mid-August, 2010. It’s been just about exactly five years now.

In April of 2009, my dad died suddenly and I know I’ve written about that here before. It was unexpected and difficult to absorb for  a long time. After all, for so many years he had been such a big part of our family. My parents had always been a huge part of my children’s lives.

There is that strange numbness that happens after a death, when grief seems to have hold of every piece of your body and everything you do seems to become mechanical. You’re on autopilot, without even realizing it.

At some point that year, through the stupor of mourning, it clicked with me that my children had stopped laughing.

I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed it before, other than I guess I had just been lost in my own head, my own feelings. But it struck me hard that day, when I realized I couldn’t recall the last time I had heard one of my kids burst out in laughter.

I didn’t know how to fix it. I could not even fix myself at that point.

One day, my two boys who at the time were about eight and ten came out of their room hauling filled-to-overflowing trash bags.

“Mom,” they said, “we need a pet. We want to sell our toys to get a dog. PLEASE.”

Now, the subject of getting a dog had come up before. But as a kid I had developed an allergy to most furry animals, and even as an adult, I could not even visit my sister and her min pins without a large supply of Benedryl and still having the delight of spending a couple days afterward with swollen eyes, hives, and an asthma flare. There are a lot of things I’m willing to sacrifice for my children, but I didn’t think oxygen could be one of them.

At the time, my husband was in college and had been talking to a classmate about the kids’ request. She told him she had a litter of puppies that were hypoallergenic, and he could have the pick of the litter. He came home and told me this, and I had a hard time believing such a thing existed. It sounded a whole lot like waterfront property in Arizona. After doing some research and finding such a thing was actually possible, we agreed to go and take a look at her pups, mainly just to see if handling them caused me to have trouble breathing or break out in a rash. But by the time we had come to this decision, she had already sold her litter.

Neither of us had had a dog since childhood, and we were both unsure of how to proceed from where we were. The last time I had a dog, my parents had gotten a Yorkshire terrier/poodle cross puppy from a friend. We named her Dixie. She was my best little buddy and she was run over by some little jerks on four wheelers when I was ten. That had been my last pet.

I was honestly reluctant about getting a puppy. I wanted to see the kids happy, I really wanted to hear them start laughing again. But as a mother of four kids already, I knew full well the majority of the work would fall squarely on my shoulders, and I didn’t really want a dog. But I was willing to give it a go. We called some local breeders and asked if I could come by and see if I had any sort of allergic reaction to their puppies, but they were not willing to let me do that.

At this point, my daughters had also caught the bug and were begging for a dog.

It was the middle of August, 2010. We had taken the kids to the mall to shop for school clothes and shoes. There was a newly opened pet store at the mall and we went in. They had little fenced in areas where potential buyers could take a puppy in to play, and we thought this might give us an idea of which dogs would not cause me to hack and wheeze.

If I had the information then that I have now about pet stores and puppy mills, I might have made a different choice. But at the time, I didn’t have that information. I didn’t know anything about dogs or shelters or breeders. I just knew that if we were going to do this thing, I first needed to make sure the animal wasn’t going to kill me.

So we went in and had a couple of puppies brought out. They were cute, for sure, and after explaining about my asthma and allergies, the staff was careful to only bring me puppies that shouldn’t cause me a reaction.

But there was this one pup. Up in the top corner square of glass, a little tiny ball of fluff. She was white with big brown eyes and a few brown spots and brown ears. She put her paw up on the glass and stared at my husband. He put his hand up to her paw and stood there, staring at the glass. A few seconds later, I saw one of the staff taking her down from her space.

I played with her a bit and held her close to my face and waited, but my eyes didn’t itch and my breathing was steady. I put her down for the kids to play with, and she turned on the charm. In what seemed to be a fraction of a second, my oldest son began to cry, big, fat tears streaking down his face. “Please Mom,” he begged in a broken little boy voice, “please. I love her already, Mom. Please don’t make us leave her here in this place. Please.” As I turned around, I saw my husband handing over a credit card. “Wait, wait,” I wanted to say. “I’m not sure…”

But the kids were so happy, and my husband was grinning and his ears were turning red, which was a sure sign of happiness. So we left the pup there and drove across the street to the pet supply store to buy a harness and leash and a crate and a few other necessary things. We went back to pick her up and bring her home. I felt completely unprepared and still slightly in shock of this huge commitment we had just made. I thought to myself about all the responsibilities I would now have, about getting up at night with this baby dog, and all of the extra expenses.

We had no idea what we were doing. We brought the puppy in the house and sat on the floor in a circle around her. She ran in crazy circles, her tiny fluffy white legs a blur. We laughed, all six of us.

We laughed.

I looked at my kids and they were grinning, laughing, falling over each other in glee.

We named the puppy Zoey, because it means ‘life’, and as cliché as it may sound, we really felt she had brought new life to our family.

I know there were a lot of ways we went wrong, trying to train this dog. Housetraining was a nightmare and I took a lot of bad advice from people I thought knew better than I, but I also read a lot of books about raising dogs and learned a lot in the process. And sometimes I would be cleaning the dog crap or vomit from the carpet and grumbling about how I never even wanted a dog.

But in the last five years, that little ball of fluff has grown on me, and somehow I’ve become her particular human. When I’m writing, she curls up on my feet. She’s my walking partner. When my sister was dying and I was lying in my bed, unable to function or care for my family, she stubbornly sat next to me in my bed, or if I sent her out, she refused to leave my door, sitting there outside my room for hours. When I’m sick, she’s right next to me.

As it turns out, I’m more of a dog person than I thought I was.

And the sacrifices I thought I was making to give this dog to my kids have come back to me tenfold.

I can’t imagine our family without this goofy ball of fluff.

We have another dog, a little yorkie, named Ziva. The two of them are partners in crime.

Every day we laugh, watching them run around the house. We take them on vacations with us, camping and to Ren Faires.

Even though they are a lot of extra work, and money spent when we don’t always have it…

It’s been worth it. Because no matter how much I spend on them, I’ll never be able to pay back the one thing they gave us when we needed it the most.

Laughter in the midst of grief.

And that has been well worth every penny.

The Camping Hell Vacation.

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For the last two weeks, we’ve been camping.

We haven’t been that far from home, as my husband didn’t actually have time off work. But we went anyway, seeking a bit of respite from the everyday noise we live day in, day out.

Before we left, we talked about how we’d relax, sit in the sun. Swim every day. Take the kayaks out.

These were nice thoughts.

We came to the campground on a Saturday and set up the trailer. If you’ve ever done this, you’ll know it’s pretty well an all day job. If you haven’t, watch the movie RV with Robin Williams.

Then you will know. You will understand.

That first day is sort of exhausting, especially when you add in four kids and two dogs.

So anyway.

We get in, right, find a good spot with enough of a back lot to set up a few games and it’s got a good fire pit. Close to the outdoor pool. We pull in, get the rig leveled, get it unhooked from the Yukon.

At that point in the day, it was about six thousand degrees in the sun. We all were drenched in sweat, carrying around equipment, getting the electric and water hooked up, hauling out camping chairs.

Finally, we were done.

Problem: we had not yet purchased any food for this impromptu little trip. The trailer was too hot to leave the dogs in while we left, so we took them with us, even though my 5 year old dog, Zoey, is hysterical about car rides.

I don’t mean hysterical in a good way, either. Everyone was hot and hungry, and of course the kids were complaining, when do we get to eat, Mom, Mom, Mom, we’re dying Mom, Mom? Mom! We’re starving to death! MOM! So we think, God, we’ll just grab Taco Bell right quick, then go buy groceries. No campfire tonight.

But it was still awfully hot outside, and we worried that if we left the dogs in the car it would be too hot, and if we rolled the windows down while we ate, there was a likelihood that Zoey would attempt escape, due to her aforementioned vehicle hysteria.

Problem: What to do with the dogs while we eat and shop for groceries? Bingo! Husband has a brilliant idea, he’ll drive up the road a few miles, leave the dogs with his brother. Pick them up when we’re done.

So we drop the dogs off, and as we’re pulling out, they’re staring at us out the window, forlorn, clearly we’ve abandoned them, Mom? Mom? Mom! Where are you going? MOM! DON’T LEAVE US HERE TO DIE!

And the kids in the backseat: Mom? Mom! Are we going to eat now? Can we eat? What are we going to eat? Why can’t we eat right this second? Is food going to happen soon?

So we get to Taco Bell. Manage a fairly uneventful meal. Head to the local grocery store.

This was about eleven at night. My daughter decides she’s too exhausted from the day to be able to shop with us, so she stays in the car. Husband, me, and three kids head in. This is an unfamiliar grocery store, so we’re walking slow, trying to find everything. Trying to think what we need, why didn’t we write a list? Our brains are too hot and too tired and too filled with tacos to think straight.

And the children all have their own sugar agendas. They take advantage of our zombie-like state. Mom? Mom! They wave boxes around at us. Can I have this? Please! I need this! Mom? Mom! I’ve never had a triple berry cream cheese chocolate icing covered Danish! I NEED THIS! PLEASE! Lemon bars? Mom? Mom! MOMMOMMOMMOMOMOM! Fruit snacks? Bananas! OH MY GOD! Look! New flavors of Doritos! PLEEEEAAAASSSEEE! We give in on things we never ever buy. What the heck. It’s vacation. Sort of. In some way. We’re camping five miles from home. Still.

Also, we are too tired to read ingredients. Husband and I meet eyes over the yelps of the children. We know what we want. Oh yeah. We nod at each other, smiling slowly.

Sleep. We want sleep.

As long as whatever the kids are throwing in the shopping cart doesn’t sport a poisonous decal on the side, we don’t care. Whatever. Let’s just get this miserable job done.

Also, I slipped a couple of clearance rack tank tops and a sweater in, because I’ve lived with my husband for over twenty-two years now, and I perceived he was too tired to realize what I was doing.

But I mean, heck. It’s vacation.

Finally, we finish. Pick the dogs back up. Drive out to the campground. Try to keep everyone quiet so no cranky neighbors call security on us, because it’s happened before (when one of my kids was laughing out loud at two a.m.) and we haul all the groceries into the trailer. Put them away. Think longingly about sleep. Sleep. SLEEEEEEEP.

Tomorrow will be fun, kids. Mom promises. But right now you all need to just shut up and go nighty night, okey dokey artichokey?

After a brief episode about people fighting over which beds they get, the kids start getting their beds ready. This is where the vacation started to take a left turn.

Sort of, veered off the road and off a cliff, into a lake, as it were.

My daughter was folding down the couch bed and froze. “Uh…Mom?” She sounded sort of panicked.

I mumble something to the effect of, “Whaaa…sleep…sshhhh…”

“The floor is broken. I mean, cracked. I mean, the floor under the couch is ripping apart.”

Oh. Yay.

Surely this can’t be right. The floor was perfectly fine at the end of last summer, the last time we used the trailer. I go to inspect.

But she’s right. There is a long tear in the linoleum. I slump my shoulders and go to tell my husband.

He kneels down to check it out. Grabs a piece of linoleum, rips it right apart. “There’s water under here,” he says. “Standing water. I wonder where that’s coming from. Get the flashlight.”

I get the flashlight. He inspects further. “Oh,” he says. “There’s bugs down here, too.”

“BUGS!” my daughter screams, grabbing her bedding and jumping to the bunk bed, where her brother is already half-asleep.

Probably termites, I think. That would be our luck.

We get towels. Soak up the water. Husband takes a knife and cuts out a giant chunk of the linoleum. He is fascinated with the bugs. I am fascinated with the thought of sleep.

He asks Siri about the bugs. Siri says they are mold mites.

“OH MY GOD THE BUGS!” my daughter is shouting. “THIS IS THE MOST DISGUSTING THING TO EVER HAPPEN OH MY GOD!”

So by the time we get the mess cleaned up, and the bugs safely vacuumed away, it’s about four in the morning. Finally, time to sleep.

Except, it began to rain. It rained and it rained and thundered and the lightning was so bright, it kept lighting up the entire trailer. And my husband kept getting up to check on the floor, see if more water was coming in. At some point, he went to the bathroom, where he found water coming in from the little skylight, and mopped that up, left a towel down. Mumbled something about fixing it tomorrow.

Eventually, the rain stopped. And that’s when we heard the clack-clack-clacking sound coming from the air conditioner.

We turned the fan up, then down. Fooled with the temperature. Husband took some mysterious part of the AC unit down, inspected it. Couldn’t figure it out. Swore. Mumbled. Put it back together.

Monday he had to work. And at work, he kept thinking about the reason the little skylight might be leaking. So when he got back to the campground that afternoon, he grabs the ladder, climbs up on top of the trailer, and instructs me to go into the bathroom, and crank the handle until he says stop.

So I do. He’s crouched up above the thing, this little plastic dome, pushing, pushing, as I crank. I can see his face turning red. It’s hot outside. He’s determined to fix SOMETHING.

But the thing would not shut all the way. And I had cranked it all the way down. I see this look of resolve pass across his face, and I think, DON’T. But…he does.

He takes his palm and slams it against the plastic. It shatters, and little bits of plastic and sawdust rain down on my head. I think, this is beginning to feel like we are trapped in some version of a National Lampoon’s Never ending Miserable Camping Vacation movie.

So now, he’s stomping around on top of the trailer. Muttering, cussing, talking about burning the trailer down, the stupid piece of bleep bleep bleep, wishes he’d never bought the mother effing bleep bleep bleep, can’t get a break no matter how hard he tries, etcetera.

My son stands frozen for a second, then hollers, “Um, Dad, I’ll run up to the camp store, see if I can find anything to fix it! Maybe they got…I dunno…duct tape or something!” and off he runs.

Smart boy, I think. I wish I had thought of a reason to run.

Instead, I stay put, cleaning up the mess. Listening to husband have a breakdown on top of the trailer.

Lightbulb! I say, Hey, I’ll go up to the camp store and see if they have a service out here, or know a company that does on site repair.

Husband waves at me to go on and go, disgusted with the trailer, with himself for pushing too hard, with camping, with life in general, why can’t he just be a single guy with an easy life, living on a beach in Florida.

So I get a name of a company, bring it back. He calls, leaves a message. We sit at the trailer the remainder of the day, waiting for the company to call back, or show up. They don’t.

Finally, later the next day, a big, burly woman in a van pulls in to our campsite. I show her the problems we are having. She checks the air conditioner. She checks the little skylight.

She tells me to tell my husband to quit trying to fix things. I do not relay this advice to my husband.

She fixes the skylight, but can’t do much other than super glue a piece of the air conditioner, something about the fan blade blah blah, but they don’t make them anymore, blah blah, hope this glue will just hold on for a little while, anyway kids. That’ll be two hundred bucks, thanks, call me anytime.

At that point, my kids had invited some friends out to stay over. They were looking forward to going up to swim, do some fun stuff. I stayed back at the trailer as the repair lady fixed our broken stuff. I think, well, anyway, I can enjoy the sun. Sit out here and crochet, read, work on my new novel.

I put on sunblock, but burnt through it anyway, as I generally do, because I got the fair Irish skin of my ancestors. I went in, put a little aloe on, came back out to work, tried to find a slightly shadier spot.

My skin feels weird. More than the painful feeling of burnt skin. It feels…I don’t know. Can’t figure it out. Itchy, I guess. Itchy on top of the sunburn. Several hours later, I realize this is not just sunburn. It’s a rash. A terribly itchy, painful, burnt, filled with hives, rash. I drink some Nyquil, as it’s the only thing with antihistamine in it that I’ve got at hand.

The next day the rash was worse. I went out, bought some Benedryl, and some Benedryl cream. I think, surely this will clear up soon. I can’t think of anything strange I’ve gotten into. I begin to wonder if the nice woods behind our lot has something poisonous in it. Wouldn’t that be just my luck?

We went up to go play mini golf with the kids. On the way, the service airbags light comes on in my Yukon.

Next day, husband goes to work, I take the Yukon in to be serviced. No problem, bad sensor, have fixed by this afternoon, that’ll be two hundred eight-three dollars, thanks, call us anytime, pleasure working with you.

By then, the rash had worsened and was making me so insane with the itchiness, I made myself a doctor appointment. Doctor looks me over, questions me, decides I am allergic to the sun, puts me on steroids.

“…and Valarie?” she says as I’m leaving. “Try to stay out of the sun.”

No swimming for me. No kayaking. This sucks.

But all of this was worth it, totally worth it, guys. Because of one conversation.

My husband was making a big breakfast the other day, outside. French toast, sausage patties, eggs. As he was getting ready to cook, the older man camped next to us wandered over, struck up a conversation. He was a nice guy, said he was seventy-five, and his eyes were lined from frequent smiles, and his skin was tan. The kids were still half-asleep, and I brought out my little crochet bag, sat down under the awning in my lawn chair, and got back to work on a granny square blanket I’d been working on.

The man looked at me and grinned. “Hey,” he says. “My wife used to do that. That thing…”he waved at my hand holding the crochet hook, “that thing with the, the hook there, and the uh, string. Er, thread. Yarn. Whatever.”

I smile pleasantly. “Oh yeah? That’s nice.”

“Yup. She did that for years, but she give it up now. Now she does needlework.”

“Mmmhhmmn.”

He suddenly slaps my husband hard on the back. “Do you know what she used to make? Peter warmers!”

My husband’s eyes widen. He coughs. He mumbles something indeterminate.

The man carries on. “Made them all the time. It was great. Birthdays, Christmas. Peter warmers, all the time. Like a gag, see.”

Husband says something along the lines of, “Oh yeah, hhmmn, nice, haha.”

They stand in silence for a few moments, sipping coffee, staring at the woods. The man breaks out into he-hawing laughter. “Goddam peter warmers, for Christ sake! Hahahahaha!” He slaps my husband on the back again. My husband laughs obediently.

“Warmers! For peters!”

Now they are both laughing so hard, they are bent down, coffees forgotten on the picnic table, holding their knees, quite literally hooting, laughing so hard the sound becomes just repetitive harsh, raspy breaths shoved out through ridiculously wide smiles.

As soon as they’d begin to settle down, the man would hoot again and shout, “Goddam peter warmers! PETER WARMERS!” and off they’d go again.

“Peter warmers! So they don’t get cold!”

Finally, the man says, “Well, I’ll let you get back to making breakfast. Good talking to ya!” and heads back to his trailer. My husband stands, spatula in hand, watching the man’s legs disappear around the side of his camper. Once they are safely inside and we’ve heard the door close, my husband slid over to me and whispered, “Was that guy talking about peter warmers? Is that really what he said? I wasn’t entirely sure…”

And that was when the dark clouds rolled in out of nowhere, and the winds were suddenly 60 MPH, and the kids and their friends started running around, trying to catch things that were suddenly airborne, like our yorkie, and the platter of sausages flipped over and blew away…