This Far

Author’s Note: This piece was originally written and read for the 2017 Listen To Your Mother show in Baton Rouge.

I don’t remember exactly where we were, but I clearly remember my best friend Janice’s words.

“Don’t do it! Don’t have children! You have made it this far without them.”

She said this six years ago when I was 43 years old, and throwing Hail Mary passes left and right to somehow, someway, become a mother before it was too late. She, I am sure, was caught up in some desperate, devastating fear regarding her own grown children.

And there was another idea that floated around although I am not sure anybody actually said it out loud. If I had not gotten pregnant in all these years, maybe it wasn’t meant for me to be a mother.

I ignored all doubts and warnings, and two days after Christmas 2012, I answered the phone and said yes. One of my proverbial Hail Marys had landed and brought a 5-year-old boy to my doorstep courtesy of the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services.

Nobody could have told me that the tasks of motherhood would be devastation for a self-centered person like me. I would not have listened. I had to learn it for myself.

The latest devastation this yearning for motherhood has dealt me occurred in my driveway, just a few months ago. There were no explosions, no gunshots, no fireballs, or helicopters. There was just a blue sedan backing away down the driveway. There was just me waving, me not screaming, just me standing in my driveway. There was just me not running to grab the 14 month-old baby boy – I will call him Jaybird – from the backseat, saying, “No, you cannot take him.”

My mate had already said his goodbyes and stood under the carport waiting for me with tears in his eyes. My now 9-year-old adopted son had also said goodbye. He waited just inside the door not able to express his emotions.

Jaybird came to us at nine months old, the way most foster children come — with a phone call that has someone else’s devastation behind it, and not much else.

I had no business saying yes. At 49, I am already brimming over with the blessings from a brilliant, adorable boy who needs more than I am able to give most days. I have a devoted boyfriend, who reminds me on an almost daily basis that he most certainly did not plan on spending his 50s raising children.

But yes, I did say. When I called my own mother, a retired social worker, to tell her that I was getting a baby, the first thing she said was, “There must be something wrong with him.”

But, there was not a thing wrong with this baby. He was a beautiful light-skinned African-American boy with green eyes.

I have never cared long-term for an infant so there was lots to learn. There were bottles and diapers and dicing food into small bites. There were ear infections and eye infections and stomach viruses, both his and mine. I don’t remember who started the illnesses, but when he or I got sick, the other one got it, too. In the midst of all these sicknesses, I quickly bonded with him and he attached to me.

He learned how to walk with us. We tried to teach him to swim. I suppose it is easy to get attached to any baby, but this boy had a way about him. He charmed everybody he met. Most of all, he charmed the three of us, with little things, like when he finished his morning bottle and it would hit the floor with a thud when he was done.

We thought we would have him for a few days or a few weeks at most. But the days stretched into five months, and we had been hoping that perhaps he would be another “forever” child for us. Then we got the word in early December that he would be moved into a placement with a relative. I prayed real Hail Marys this time during the last nine days I had him that something would change and we would get to keep our Jaybird indefinitely.

I didn’t cry until the car that took away my sweet baby was completely out of sight. Because in that moment there was no me, no self; there was just Jaybird. And that is the way motherhood has devastated me a little bit at a time.

This selflessness lasted for just a minute. When I couldn’t see the car anymore, I was able to be me, throw myself into mate’s arms and grab my son and let them hold me up, but just a little while, because there were meals to make and chores to do and children to teach at my job.

I am devastated, but I am not dead, and I am still a mother. I had no business saying yes to either child, really. I am old and selfish and tired and can be mean, especially when my feet hurt. My hips will never be right again from carrying a 28 pound baby around for five months. Being a mother has devastated most every idea I had of me, my world and the people in it. I had no business saying yes, but I would say yes again, because I could not have made it this far without my boys. And maybe they couldn’t have made it without me.


Orange Chacos

I should have seen it coming sooner.  The handwriting was on the wall.

I had planned, so carefully, which was uncharacteristic, for my exit from journalism into teaching.  Although I had loved being a reporter, I was ready to go.

I had just spent two years taking Praxis tests, and filling out applications for alternative certification programs.  Because of all this forethought and planning, I had been accepted into a six-week program that, if successful, would end with me being presented a provisional teachers certification.  That, in turn, hopefully, would allow me to be hired to teach high school English.

I had no financial cushion that would allow me to quit my job to focus on the training.  I would have to keep my full-time job as a reporter for the local newspaper.  So, I painstakingly developed a plan, and somehow got my bureau chief to agree.  My brilliant idea was that I would go to my classes during the day, and do my interviews and writing, for our section, at night and on weekends.  The certification course was set to start the day after Memorial Day.

Floating around on the edges of this intensive plan I had orchestrated were rumors of deep layoffs at our newspaper.  This downsizing was anticipated to hit every editorial department, and would be announced May 21.

“Our section is safe!” my bureau chief assured me.

While eating a piece of chocolate cake to celebrate my 42nd birthday, on May 20th, a premonition went through my brain.

“You’re going to be laid off!”

As would be expected, my first reaction was panic. I tried to alleviate my fear with the assurance I had received from my boss. Then I felt some peace, a feeling that it would all be okay.

However, when the phone rang at my desk, just a few minutes after 9 a.m. that fateful morning, it was the managing editor.  When he asked me to come to the main office, I was not surprised.

The ‘heads-up’ that I had gotten from the universe did not stop the feeling, in the pit of my stomach. And the fleeting moment of peace was nowhere to be found. The bottom was falling out of my world.  During the 16-mile drive from my office, back to the Baton Rouge headquarters, I did the only thing I knew to do.  I called my ex-husband, on the phone, and made him talk to me the whole way.  I don’t even remember what he said, but the sound of his voice kept me ground on the earth so that I was able to walk into the building, and have my livelihood taken away.  I even had to find the strength to muster a “thank you” for the pleasure of working there.

I knew, in that moment, that the move to teaching was what God wanted for me.  I had to close the door and walk forward with no safety net, and no looking back.  It was going to be a long summer.

I understood fairly quickly, after my training started, that my carefully thought out plan would not have worked.  I would not have been able to fulfill my journalist job obligations and complete the teacher certification program.  And, forced on my own to choose, I would not have been able walk away from my livelihood.

Although leaving journalism in that way wasn’t exactly what I wanted, becoming a teacher was what I wanted. However, I would not have willingly sacrificed my steady paycheck.  I wanted, somehow, to seamlessly move from one career to the other.  I certainly would not have chosen to be thrust out the door into the cold world.  Already, that same afternoon, I felt impoverished, sitting in my rundown Garden District apartment.  It had holes in the kitchen floor, rats in the ceiling and bees in the porch columns. I sat crying with my dogs, Ruby and Daisy.

There was no turning back.  There was no opportunity to say, “No, wait! I really didn’t mean that I was going to leave. Don’t let me go. I will change.”  It was done.  I had been open about my plan to leave eventually, so, in hindsight, when making decisions to cut, I was an obvious choice.

The door shut so tightly behind me, I went home and did the one thing that seemed most natural to me.  I cooked peas and cornbread.  I explained to my best friend that I could cook from scratch and therefore, I would not starve.

Then the graces started.  My landlady insisted on cutting my rent until I was working again.  My sister sent me fifty dollars.  Then a package came from my mother.  It was a pair of orange Chaco sandals. Fancy hippie sandals. Something I had been wanting for months, even before I had gotten laid off.  Something I could not justify buying for myself.  The note inside said that she had found them at a consignment store, never worn, and that she thought they looked like something I would like.  If I hadn’t already believed there was a God, the Chaco sandals would have made a believer of me.

It was indeed a lean summer.  However, by the time the woman who would be my first principal squeezed my hand and said, “I am making your dreams come true,” and offered me a position teaching 10th grade English, I was not surprised.  I had excelled in my training.

I walk hard on this earth, and so I am hard on shoes, especially since becoming a teacher.  If they don’t serve me well, I toss them out.  The Chacos have been around now, for eight summers, since they appeared magically on my doorstep.  The buckle on the right one is cracked where one of my dogs bit it at some point.  I don’t wear them as quite as often the last couple of years. I have a newer pair of Birkenstocks that feel more comfortable.  I could toss the old Chacos out, but I will not.

They remind me that I am not alone, I will get what I need, and that everything will work out just fine.



White Sapphires

imageIt was supposed to be a lazy day.

Two days after Christmas 2012, there was hambone soup made from the HoneyBaked Ham that we had gotten for our Christmas dinners. It was cold outside – a cold winter for Louisiana – but Mark has a wood stove in his farmhouse. We had books and coffee and time.

He likes to say that we were supposed to relax those few days. It was supposed to be “us” time.

This was our fourth Christmas together. The first year we had only been dating a few months at Christmas. He gave me a new coffeemaker. It maybe wasn’t as romantic as I wanted but it told me that he noticed what I needed.

The second Christmas, there were several gifts, but the main gift was a pair of leather Justin work boots. Expensive and practical because our relationship was cementing over projects on his 10 rural acres in St. Francisville. I was known for dragging the biggest limbs from the farthest away.

The third Christmas the gifts were still practical but took a different turn. He gave me a jewelry armoire and a set of pearls – necklace, bracelet, earrings and a ring – and the promise that there would be more jewelry over the years.

This fourth Christmas he made good on that promise with a pair of white sapphire earrings.

I was sitting there on my second cup of coffee wearing these earrings when my phone rang. It was my home development social worker. This was the first call I had gotten from her since August when she had licensed my little Ogden Park apartment as a foster home for the state of Louisiana. I was licensed for one child, two if they were siblings, from 0-5 years old.

“We are looking for home for 5-year-old twins, a boy and girl, Caucasian.” She told me their names, which I will withhold out of respect for their privacy, although neither meets a stranger. I will call them Thing One and Thing Two. Thing One, she said, had “behavior problems — temper tantrums,” but was very attached to Thing Two, who, she said was “more gentle.”

Even though I was walking around in circles like a dog, I remembered from my training classes to ask questions.

There was a 10-year-old sibling who was being placed with another family intentionally because she had been caring for the twins and needed to be given individual attention and care. The children had come into foster care on December 22. There were relatives who had taken the children when they were taken – or “tooken” as the twins liked to say –  mainly because it was Christmas. They were not able to provide a permanent home for the children.

I remembered that I could also ask for time to think. My first answer had been that I could definitely take Thing Two, the girl. I wanted a little girl. The desire was almost pathological, according to Janice, my best friend. I wasn’t sure about two children. And even though I had dreamt about a 5-year-old boy coming to me, I was scared of mothering a boy, behavior problems or not. And for a writer, I often get tangled in logistics. I had only one full-sized bed in my little spare room that had been cleaned spotless and made ready for a child months ago. This is the kind of thing that derails me in the heat of a moment.

“Can I call you back? Give me 30 minutes.”

When I told Mark, he said, “I can’t believe you even hesitated.”

The bed, I said.

He looked at me like I was crazy, “Baby, we can get beds. But are you ready for it?”

I don’t remember my answer, but December 27, 2012 is the day that the babies came. And ruined everything, Mark likes to say.

When they brought the pair to me, Big Sister was in tow. They wanted her to see where her babies would be staying so she would not worry. They were all thin and pale with big circles under their eyes. They had fresh haircuts and new toys. Big Sister carried Thing Two, whose leg hurt from the flu shots they had all gotten. All had big blue eyes. Big Sister and Thing Two looked more alike than the twins with matching brown short pageboys. Thing One surprised me with red hair, a huge smile and a cheerful greeting.

Although they were clean, some Mama-instinct in me said, “Bathe them.”

And so I gave my new babies their baths. I inexpertly washed their too-short hair and wrapped them in towels before putting them in pajamas. It was the right thing. Three years later, Thing One is long able to run his own bath, wash his own hair, while I call out directions; Thing Two now lives with Big Sister and her new family. Our two households have formed a connection that grows and changes as the children grow. But when the two children recall their first night with me, they talk about the details of that bath.

“Wrap the towel around me like the first night,” Thing One sometimes says when he needs Mama attention.

I don’t remember when Thing One had his first tantrum, but they were epic. There were days where there were tantrums all day long with a break here and there.

“I hate it when he does that,” Thing Two would sigh.

As difficult as the tantrums are to manage, that’s not what stands out about those early months of middle-aged motherhood. There was the business of keeping them warm. There was the business of keeping them fed. Then there was the totally odd business that Thing One constantly asked about the world ending.

Keeping them warm was the easy one even though it was a colder-than-normal winter for Louisiana. It meant layering and caps, which Thing Two was happy to wear because she loved hats and looking cute. Thing One liked to ask to wear my best hats and either throw them out the moving car or lose them at school. But we made it. Nobody froze to death and spring came quickly enough.

Keeping them fed was harder. Though they were 5 years old, they had limited exposure to different varieties of foods. They liked bananas, apples, peanut butter sandwiches, Happy Meals, milk and sugar. Oh, and corn dogs. Add in the fact that they are twins and each had food quirks that the other one did not made it extra hard. Thing One would melt down over a broken banana or a hamburger cut in half. Thing Two would help me choose food in the grocery store and then refuse to eat it. I got tired of making fish sticks. I remember complaining to one of my 12th grade students that they would only eat sandwiches and corn dogs, and I wanted to be able to cook real meals. She said, “Ms. Kimbrell, start small. If they will eat sandwiches and hamburgers, then try fixing them chili burgers. IF they like corn dogs, then try hot dogs.” It was simple and it opened the door for me to understand how to meet them where they were. Now, Thing One eats like a grown man, and from what I can see, Thing Two has a healthy appetite, too.

Understanding why a 5-year-old would be preoccupied with Armageddon was harder. Neither spoke clearly; each had speech impediments. But at times, Thing One would ask about what would happen when the world blows up. Would we all go to outer space? Would we just be nothing? I would tell him that I didn’t think that the world was going to end, but he was insistent that it was ending in 2012. I pointed out that it was already 2013, but that didn’t convince him.

I brought up the issue with their case worker. She didn’t look as worried as I had expected. She had the answer. She said that I had to understand that for one thing, in their home, the television was always on. Always. I knew that already. And their mother was obsessed television shows about ancient prophecies. The Mayan prophecies, for instance. And the children watched everything she watched. The Mayan prophecy that the world was coming to an end in December 2012, specifically.

Ah. It was clear as the white sapphires. For a minute.

And, then.

I saw that the Mayans were right. The world did come to an end in December 2012. For Thing One, it was the end of the world as he knew it.  And for me and for Mark. And for Thing Two, for Big Sister and their new family. For the children’s biological parents and family, too, for that matter.

The world ended.

And a new world began.





Back to the garden

This is not really another story of my dogs, although they are in it, every step of the way, tripping me, aggravating me, all the while helping make me whole.

It is a story about how I got back to the garden. It is a story of finding someone who could love me and my dogs. It is about moving forward. It is a story of Mark.

I wasn’t looking for love when I went searching for my Ruby; but if I had had a t-shirt to sum up my emotional state at the time it would have said, “Love don’t live here any more.” I don’t know that I wanted a dog so much as I wanted to be normal. In 2003, I was left picking through the ashes and patching the ruins of my life. In that spirit, I had bought my own little 1920s house in Vicksburg. The big house and backyard seemed huge for just me and two cats. Standing in front of a pen at the Vicksburg-Warren Humane Society, I stared for the second time at a litter of four black-and-tan puppies. One jumped up and reached for me through the fence. Within the hour, the soon-to-be-christened Ruby was riding shotgun in my Saturn.

A house and a dog seemed normal. But I had no experience living a normal life.

I drank a lot for a while. And then one day, I drove to the last house on the block before you get to the river, and I stepped inside.

I moved forward.

A bigger city held all kinds of promise for me. Without knowing a soul except the name of a first cousin once removed, I packed as much stuff as I could into my Saturn, and I headed to Baton Rouge with Ruby and my two cats, Chick P. and Calypso.

It was the right move, but there were rocky, lonely moments.

There was this pivotal moment in the first few months I was in Baton Rouge. I sat in my little Garden District apartment where I was afraid to light the gas wall heater. So I was cold, and I was feeling more alone and pathetic than I ever had in my life. It terrified me, and I got down on my knees and prayed out loud to God, sobbing, begging him to relieve my loneliness.

Ruby was by my side in an instant, licking my face.

It calmed me down, and after that night, I slowly started to reach out, to make friends and to make a life.

I moved forward.

Restlessness plagued me still, and I bounced around from apartment to apartment – mostly in the same zip code– before I finally landed, dug in and started working on the root causes and conditions that plagued me. Along the way, I acquired another dog – Daisy May – and held Chick P. for the last 12 hours of her life. Through it all, my animals were the quiet mainstay as my life has changed slowly, but definitely. I left newspapers in 2009 and became a high school English teacher. And, after years of being not-so-happily single, I found Mark, a fellow Mississippian who has taught me how to work a garden. I don’t think much about those dark days in Vicksburg. My t-shirt life slogan these days would be, sickeningly, “Life is good.”

Not that there wasn’t drama.

Ruby walks with a limp in her hind end.

But we move forward.

It is a Saturday in mid-August 2011, and I put Ruby and Daisy back in their weekend digs – a 5×8 kennel on Mark’s rural acres north of Baton Rouge. This is where most Saturdays found us those days. By then, I loaded the dogs into a Mazda instead of a Saturn.

On this Saturday, it was the last day they would spend in this little kennel. We had finally bitten the bullet and bought materials to build a proper dog yard complete with a doghouse.

I walk away, grab a towel and take off my clothes. In the country, when there was no company, before there were children, we skinny dipped. We lounged by the pool debating supper. Do we have chicken spaghetti and company or chili cheese dogs and a movie? In the middle of this, I’m not sure exactly what happened, but we knew something was wrong in the dog pen. I grabbed a towel but didn’t bother with shoes and head toward the pen at fast clip for someone naked and barefoot. Mark, for some reason that my brain couldn’t comprehend, went the opposite direction toward the house. He knew. I did not.

As I reached the pen, my still-uncomprehending brain thought for a second there was an injured bird in the pen next to the water bucket, flapping its wings. But this odd buzzing sound was like electroshock, and it was only then that it registered that there was a rattlesnake barely four feet from my dogs.

And although Daisy had backed as far away from the snake as she could, Ruby was making moves toward it.

I started screaming. I screamed for Mark. I screamed at Ruby. I screamed to God.

I look up to see Mark running toward us – still naked – with a 12-gauge shotgun.

After the first shot, I got to the backside of the pen, and this time it was me reaching through a fence to Ruby and to Daisy to hold them back while Mark took a second shot.

I had stopped screaming but I was still crying, down on my knees, naked and clearly more terrified than the dogs at being four feet away from a half-dead snake and a loaded shotgun.

Ruby turned and licked my face through the fence. Comforting me once more..

Still crying as Mark lifted the three-foot long dead snake out the cage, I remember hearing him say, “It’s okay, girl,” and I don’t know if he was talking to Ruby, Daisy or me.

And, there, behind two shotgun blasts and a dead snake, I sit naked holding onto my dogs’ collars – and the moment – for a little while longer, because in the moment all I could feel is love.

And then I brush off my knees, Mark put up his gun, dogs eat their dinner, and we move forward.

A Virtuous Woman

Author’s note: Many of you have read this previous post. I am posting it again today because last night, at about 10 p.m., my beloved Ruby died at my feet less than an hour after I was able to tell her she could go, that I would be okay. I thought I would have another few weeks with her, but it was time. Like the grace I have been given, I did not deserve Ruby, but I am so deeply grateful to have had her.

(RIP Ruby and James.)


Who can find a virtuous woman? She is more precious than rubies. – Proverbs 31

I have a lame dog. She’s fat now, too.

She hasn’t always been lame and fat.

She is a good-looking dog even now that she is fat and old. But when she was young, even people who don’t like dogs will say, “She’s a good-looking dog.” I never assumed they were sucking up to me because she really is a fine piece of dogflesh.

Words others have used to describe her have included regal, precious, butch, pretty, bitch-hound, protective, and alpha.

She’s a short-haired, black-and-tan mixed breed. She shows signs in her physique and demeanor that she has beagle hound blood mixed in with a bigger, more aggressive breed such as a German shepherd or even maybe Rottweiler. She weighs about 80 pounds. In general size, she’s somewhere between a small Labrador retriever and a large cocker spaniel. She has sweet brown eyes in a brown face. She has a black saddle with soft brown detailing on her legs and tail.

She never has had much use for any other creature but me. She’ll play with the other dog, and she will harass the cat. She will greet visitors kindly. She seems to regard my parents, my sister and my niece as extensions of me and understands they are her responsibility to guard. She even shows occasional fondness for my best friend and my boyfriend. But it’s me she wants.

I didn’t do much right in the way of training this dog — my first, but we bonded. I brought her home in December 2003 from the animal shelter in Vicksburg, Mississippi when she was roughly eight weeks old. I had this heavy wool sweater that zipped up the front. I had bought it on a trip to Portland, Oregon with my ex-husband when I was still accustomed to living in his native northern climates. Living back home in my native Southland, the sweater was overkill most of the time, but in December in an old, cold house, I wore it frequently. I would tuck the tiny puppy – about eight pounds when I brought her home — in the front of the sweater and zip her up. I carried her around like this while I would go about my business in my house. I did this as long as she would fit. That stopped between 15 and 20 pounds.

I had gotten this dog because suddenly cats weren’t enough to satisfy me. After years of being married but living like a gypsy, ironically, my first act as a single woman was to buy a house. I bought a cute little house in downtown Vicksburg where I worked for the newspaper. It had space and it had a wonderful yard that just seemed to me was begging for a dog.

I had no clue about mortgages and dogs and yards and planting gardens. I knew rent and cats and stoops and gypsy traveling. I didn’t let these transitions happen gracefully or naturally; I used brute force.

I had gotten this house because I needed something to tie me down, to keep me from losing my mind and flying out of control after my marriage had ended, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. So with very little cash of my own, I borrowed a lot of money and bought a two-bedroom 1920s era house with a screened porch, hardwood floors and no bathtub. And a big-begging-for-a-dog backyard.

As it turns out, you can lose your mind in a house with a dog just as easily as you can in an apartment with cats. Who knew? But I am getting ahead in my story.

There are so many stories to tell about my dog that it’s hard to know where to begin.

My motives for getting a dog were selfish, obviously. I did some research on breeds, but, in the end, I went with my gut. I had seen this litter of little black and tan puppies on my first pass through the Vicksburg-Warren Humane Society. I kept thinking about them, then went back a second time. There were four or five in this litter. They all ran to the front of their cage, but one jumped up and reached for me. She was the runt and the only girl.

That did it. She was mine. I was hers.

If it tells you anything about my life at the time, I took her to my office – on a Saturday — before I took her home. I went because I realized I knew nothing about puppies, and I needed to get Karen’s advice. Karen was news editor at the newspaper where I was features editor. She told me what to buy at the pet store — flea powder, puppy food, etc. — and she told me how to begin the house training. I had been talking about naming my future puppy Jethro after the character in The Beverly Hillbillies.

It was Karen who said I could name it Jethro whether I got a male or a female. And it was Karen who took one look at this little puppy fresh from the pound and said, “You CANNOT name this little girl Jethro.”

And so we sat there brainstorming names. Karen suggested Pearl since that was Jethro’s mother’s name. I said, no, that was my grandmother’s name and then went onto say Pearl’s sisters were Golden, Opal and Jewel. But no Ruby.

It was Karen who said, “Name her Ruby.”

And so Ruby Pearl got her name while she sat in a cardboard box on the main news desk.

Our first year together was rocky. As precious as Ruby turned out to be, she did not fix what was wrong with me. In fact, what was wrong with me seemed to get worse. In retrospect, it may just be that Ruby shined a light on me. I was messed up, to put it mildly. I did things that year that I’m ashamed to admit, such as leaving a puppy by herself all night long while I stayed out. I had fallen in love with James, and I have to admit that his company was more alluring than watching Ruby chase a stick.

When I was with James, I could forget that I didn’t really like my job. I could forget that I didn’t have the money to put a bathtub in my new house. I could forget I didn’t have money to do much at all. I could forget that my time in Vicksburg had begun to feel like a prison sentence.

He didn’t have a job and rarely wore long pants. If that wasn’t enough to hook me, he lived in his grandparents’ circa 1900 house. He was crazy, but he could sing, and he had inherited black curls and olive skin from his Lebanese mother and sky blue eyes from his Irish father. And he made me laugh with impressions of his Beirut-born grandfather’s thick accent and with stories of his Uncle Joe.

But James had a bad habit. He would disappear for weeks at a time with no word.

And so I would be a wreck until he turned back up with crazy stories of losing his phone in a bathtub after partying all night at clubs down by the river.

But the low point came that first summer with Ruby. I noticed there was some kind of sore on one of her ears but I didn’t think it was a big deal. James had pulled a disappearing act, so I went ahead with plans to go to San Antonio for a weekend to see a friend, leaving Ruby with Karen.

It was Karen who told me when I got back that she was fairly certain the sore was mange.

The mange episode was a breaking point in a couple of areas.

For one thing, I felt so horrible I can’t find words for it, and it went deeper than feeling bad my dog was sick. I saw in glaring, unrelenting light how selfishly I had been living my life. I wasn’t taking care of my animals, I wasn’t taking care of my business, and I wasn’t taking care of myself.

I remember sitting in Karen’s kitchen around this time with Ruby playing around in my chair. I was not happy in my job but I was terrified I was going to lose it. I couldn’t figure out how to turn these things around. I don’t remember if I had said all these things or if they were just hanging unspoken in the air. Truthfully, I remember sitting and staring, looking at Karen’s orderly kitchen and thinking there was no hope for me to ever have anything similar. I must have said something, though, along the lines of not having anything in my life worth anything because she said something that I still remember. She pointed to Ruby and said, “You have her. Live for her. And don’t take her for granted.”

It was still a long, long time before I had any real dignity, but I grabbed onto those words that night, and I was determined to try to get my shit together.

Ruby forgave me my shortcomings.  James finally packed his bags and locked the door on his crumbling family home, this time saying goodbye to me as I dropped him at the airport for a flight to take a teaching job in Oman.

Things often get darker and uglier before they get better, and there were a couple of dark, lonely months before I figured out what was wrong with me and stopped doing it. And a couple of months beyond that God gave me the equivalent of a Get of Jail Free card, and I landed a job in Baton Rouge.

Suddenly, everything changed again, and I was a gypsy traveler again. Ruby rode shotgun in my gold Saturn all the way. We went from having a house with a big yard in a small town to a series of apartments with little to no yard in a big city that sometimes felt like a meat grinder. Ruby adapted much better than I did to our diminished circumstances. After all, as I said, all she really wants is me.

The low point in that first year in Baton Rouge was living in Spanish Town. It seemed like a good fit on the surface; its Bohemian quality seemed like it would be a good match for my life. It’s a quaint neighborhood that likes to advertise itself loudly and often as a diverse, artsy and eccentric neighborhood that welcomes everyone. Everyone, that is, except for barking dogs.

Ruby has a tendency to bark when she feels we are under attack. These perceived attacks come from people or dogs walking past her house. The mailman is especially threatening. Living in an apartment building where there were always some unidentified sounds going on was a nightmare for Ruby.

My upstairs neighbor complained.

At first, I was sympathetic. I stopped being quite so sympathetic when anonymous, handwritten, hate-filled notes were left on my door.

Then there was the moment that he yelled something at me from across the street about controlling my dog, then laughed and pointed, nodding as if say, “See!” when she barked at him. She was safely on a leash during this exchange.

Without thinking, I yelled back, “Fuck you,” and flipped him off.

After that, I knew I would have to be moving.

Meanwhile, Ruby was driving me crazy with her neediness.

She was so needy that I couldn’t sit and smoke a cigarette without her whining at me. I didn’t know what to do with her. Smoking a cigarette was my chief pleasure at that time. So, I got another dog. I got another dog, I was already struggling to pay my bills and take care of the animals I already had. I took in this stray female who seemed to be about nine months old. She was severely underweight and had sores on her paws she had been running the roads so long. She had been wandering Spanish Town for weeks according to people I talked to when I tried to find out where she belonged. Everyone had fed her but nobody took her in. No, that was left for me.

And so Ruby had somebody to occupy her time, and for the first few days, Daisy didn’t bark. Then she loosened up and followed Ruby’s lead. So then I had two barking dogs, and other neighbors joined in the chorus of complaints that they barked all day while I was at work.

I had to restrain myself from pointing out that if they, too, got a job, they wouldn’t be there listening to my dogs bark.

I knew I would have to be moving.

And move on I did, with two dogs now in tow along with the two wearied cats that had been traveling in my road show for quite a while now. It had gotten crowded in my Saturn.

I moved on a few more times before landing in a place where I was able to settle. Many of my moves were dog inspired, looking for the right place that fit my budget. Things finally calmed down when I found a place in the Garden District that was affordable if a little shabby. The walls were all painted this café-au-lait gone cold color. The kitchen had tile that was this intense turquoise and navy blue 1960s pattern. The tiles by the back door were loose and concealed a gaping hole that went straight to the ground. The tub leaked down to the living room and created black mildew streaks on the ceiling and down the wall. A buzzing sound woke me up one Sunday morning and I realized that thousands of swarming honey bees had taken up residence in the front porch column. It was described as a hovel and a cesspool, by my best friend and my boyfriend respectively. But something about the place settled us all down.

The cats hung out in the bamboo jungle outside the front door, the dogs loved their Garden District walks and they rarely barked. Best of all, I slept. Plus, it was cheap and it helped me get some financial traction. An out-of-town friend asked me about it as I was moving. I commented that it was going to be good for the animals. She said, oh, because there’s more space? No, I said, because I’ll be able to afford veterinary care for all of them; I won’t have to decide who can wait until next paycheck.

I lived there for a couple of years before I moved to nicer, cleaner apartment where I spent four years. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good. It was not too big, not too small, it was just right. No holes in the floor. No honey bees. No weird paint colors. It was bright and clean and comfortable and affordable. Sometimes those days I wanted to get the bumper sticker that says, “Life is good.” It had been such a long haul, but it seemed like almost overnight my life got good and sweet. I fulfilled a lifelong dream to become an English teacher and I had met a man who cannot sing but who never disappears. Everything had changed, but not so suddenly.

Through all this, Ruby was the mainstay in my animal parade. While the others often caused me drama, Ruby was my good, quiet girl. Chick P., my Buddha-like cat, died just days after I buried my father in 2008 and that propelled Calypso, her OCD offspring, into only-and-elderly cat status. Daisy has battled heartworms and we finally seemed to have tamed her tendency to break loose and run that led me on many gut-wrenching, heart-pounding chases through mid-city Baton Rouge to reclaim her.

Then I came home one night and noticed that Ruby was limping, but it didn’t seem too serious. Someone had knocked over an iron gate that I used to divide the hallway from the dining room instead of toddler gate. I speculated it had caught her paw. But by morning, I knew something was badly wrong. She could not walk and she shrieked when I brushed up against her back. The vet was convinced she had been hit by a car, and it took several insistent explanations on my part that Ruby had not been outside unattended so there was no way she could have been hit without me knowing it. They kept her, ran tests but still had no real answers.

“We need to send her to LSU,” the vet said, seriously, in a way that indicated she thought this would be a reassurance to me.

Instead, I got dizzy, and I worried I was going to black out or vomit.

For those of you not familiar with the LSU Vet School, for pet owners in the Baton Rouge area, a referral to LSU feels like someone has said, “Sign over all your current and future earnings or your pet is dead. It’s your choice.”

I had to explain to the kind vet that we needed to try a less economically severe route first, that I couldn’t afford the LSU Vet School. Once again, I was humiliated by my inability to give my Ruby everything she needs. The vet was kind and said spending money doesn’t make you a good pet owner. But at that moment, it felt like it did. She said would keep Ruby for a night or two and then let her come home to try to recover from what appeared to be a ruptured disk.

I wasn’t prepared for the fact that after almost two days in the hospital, Ruby did not seem to be better. In some ways, she seemed worse. They left me in the ward room where there was also a black and white cat named Jessie, an attention-seeking pit pull named Champ and, inexplicably, an unidentified bird.

Ruby wasn’t moving much, and I could tell that she was hurting. Champ’s whining wasn’t helping matters much for either me or Ruby and the bird’s chirps freaked me out.

But, it was in that room where I turned to Champ and the bird and said, “Please, I know y’all are sick, too, but be quiet,” and I made my plea to Ruby and to God and to whomever or whatever else might be listening. I stuck my head into the kennel, looked right into her eyes, put my hands on her paws and said, “You cannot leave me. I am not ready to let you go. You have to get better,” and then I put my head on the kennel floor and cried.

The vet showed me how to make a halter for her hind end and she showed me how to express Ruby’s bladder. As I made my way to the car holding Ruby’s hind end up with a teal and turquoise scarf I had bought months earlier at a thrift store, the vet said something in a really perky way that made my blood run cold.

“If this is as good as it gets, they do make carts and they can get around fine.”

I added a silent, frantic prayer of please, dear, sweet Jesus, don’t make me be the girl with the cart-walking dog, please, please, please.

And so we went home, with orders of strict kennel rest. It was a scary few days. I rearranged my living room so that the couch and the kennel were facing each other. I set up a shrine on top of the kennel with a St. Francis prayer card, a rosary and an Our Lady of Guadalupe candle.

I joked that I had not known that Ruby was Roman Catholic until now.

I slept on the couch or I moved her kennel next to the bed at bedtime.

My friends prayed for my dog without being asked, and I was reminded what good friends I have been given.

I did some preliminary research on dog carts, realizing that if I had to be the girl with the dog in a cart, I would do it.

Ruby fought the constraint of the kennel and of the leash when I would take her out. I got some hope from that even as it irritated me that she would try to run away from me.

I expressed my dog’s bladder several times. I cleaned her butt when she pooped. Calypso and Daisy seemed to understand that we were a sick house, and they sat close to the kennel as if to keep Ruby company.

On the third day home, she dropped her hips and peed by herself. The sound of my dog’s urine hitting the grass that night was like angel trumpets. I jumped up and down, praising her. It took me back to a cold Vicksburg December when I said, “Ruby, tee-tee,” to a puppy who clearly did not like the feel of cold ground on her paws.

On her fifth morning home, she stood in her kennel and took two steps.

“We have walkage!” I shrieked over the phone to my boyfriend, who had already suggested that the dogcart idea sucked, both for me and for Ruby.

She got better and stronger every day after that, and on follow-up the vet was hopeful for a full recovery eventually. Sometimes, I discovered, dog’s disks will just rupture, so it’s not clear whether this was an injury or a fluke that could happen again.

“You’re a good mama,” the vet said, when I explained how I moved the kennel from living room to bedroom and back daily.

I wanted to cry, but instead, I took my Ruby home and we have gone forward with our life together.

I remember Karen’s words: “Don’t take her for granted.”

Ruby’s rear end has a funny little wobble now when she walks, and she has adjusted her gait when she runs. She sometimes tires out and long walks aren’t a great idea for her anymore. She can’t jump on the bed by herself. Instead, she now sleeps on a velvet dog bed.

And I am flattened by the knowledge of just how dependent and connected I am to the other creatures in this world. I was minding my own business and then a gate fell and my dog couldn’t walk, and everything that wasn’t about love and care and prayer just fell away.

Like a fingersnap.

Red Hibiscus

Wash on Monday, Iron on Tuesday, Bake on Wednesday, Brew on Thursday, Churn on Friday, Mend on Saturday, Rest  on Sunday.

I didn’t specifically go looking for an apartment without a washer and dryer; I went looking for an apartment that was $650 or less. I know it may sound unusual for a writer and English teacher but math accompanies many an epiphany for me. One particular problem I tackled around Thanksgiving 2006 was taking my income, calculating 25 percent and realizing I was paying a full $250 more than a quarter of my income. And that was a huge part of why I had no money even though I didn’t seem to buying any thing but food and gas.  I resolved to rectify this situation.

New Year’s Day 2007 found me cruising looking for “For Rent” signs. I saw the small hand-lettered “For Rent” sign in front of a duplex building. The front door to one apartment opened to the side yard that was a jungle of bamboo and other greenness. On the door hung a red fake flower that caught my eye because it reminded me of a red hibiscus.

A month or so earlier I had been sitting on the back steps of my too-expensive house in pajamas with dirty hair and bare feet while I smoked a cigarette. I was broke and tired and I was pretty sure I hated my job. Plus, it was winter so everything was brown and gray and dry. I felt pretty hopeless that day. The house was big and I had sunk a lot of paint and sweat into the place to make it home, but it always felt creepy and the guest bedroom never quite lost the smell of the ferrets that the previous tenant had kept there.

And so fighting the urge to grab my keys, start the car and drive it right off the Mississippi River Bridge, I looked up thinking I might ask God for help. Maybe. On their way up, my eyes got caught by a red something something in my neighbor’s backyard. Looking closer, I was shocked to see a potted red hibiscus blooming like crazy in late November. It gave some hope. It was shortly after the hibiscus-spotting that I sat in the backyard with Janice listening to rats scurry across the garage and we plotted out my plan to get an apartment in line with my income.

The little bamboo-circled, hibiscus-adorned apartment spoke to me. Actually, over the course of my time there, it said a lot to me, but one of the first thing it said quietly to me was, “This is where you will become a teacher.” Less profoundly, but with more confidence, it said, “I don’t have a washer and dryer, and so I will openly challenge your already pathetic housekeeping skills.”

Both apartments in the building were available. One was $650, the other was $700. No amount of persuasion from either Janice or the landlady herself could convince me to take the more expensive, larger and nicer apartment. The little, cheap one was all brown and shabby on the inside. It had very little to speak for it other than two lovely floor-to-ceiling old windows in the living room and an old gas space heater in the corner next to the front door. That gas heater was blazing when I first saw the apartment. The tenant who was moving told me she was just finishing her first year teaching elementary school art. I was unmovable at that point.

The apartment had no pretensions of being anything other than basic shelter, which, on some deeper level, was what I wanted. I wanted to know how to do things, not just make things look good. So I wasn’t daunted by the no washer/dryer situation. In a twisted way, it just made me want it more.

I settled on Wednesday as wash day when I was seeking an orderly ritual in my housekeeping. And so, for two years, every week found me at the Washateria on Government Street, armed with my week’s laundry.

And so I became a regular at the Washateria. I budgeted $40 per month, $10 a week, for my weekly laundry. I fell in love with the laundry section at the Family Dollar. I bought baskets, laundry detergent, dryer sheets and constantly explored ideas for new laundry accessories.

What most people considered a horrible misfortune became for me this amazing time where, for two hours, I had no other responsibilities than to sit by myself in the Laundromat with all its sweet, clean smells. Sometimes, I would find an abandoned Advocate and do the word puzzles. Sometimes, I would use my laundry quarters to play Centipede or Pac-Man while I waited. Sometimes, I would read. Always, there would be the people-watching.

I experimented with different days and times. Weekday mornings were quiet and calm if I could steal away from work. Weekends were a no-no, especially Saturday morning. Not to put to fine a point on it, but the quiet, calm Washateria turns into a carnival of poverty, dysfunction, insanity and a chilling insight into the effects of institutionalization. The weeknights were where I usually found my groove. It was mostly other people, I believed, like me, who found themselves without a washer and dryer but with a desire to live a clean, decent, organized life.

There were occasional interactions with the other washers, some pleasant, some uncomfortable. But mostly I sat and processed my world and all its changes. It was there I first read a little pamphlet about St. Raphael the Archangel and picked him as my guy in the spirit world.

I loved the way the book talked about him. In the foreword, the author actually says, “I would like you to meet an archangel…” and “…I think you will like knowing him better.”

Raphael is mainly mentioned in Tobias, which is part of the Apocrypha. He was a guide for a young man named Tobias and told him to seize a fish and take out the heart, gall and liver for medicine. Using Raphael’s medicine, Tobias helped drive a demon out of Sara. She was a young woman who had been married seven times, but each wedding night, the demon that possessed her would kill her new husband.

So Raphael is the patron of love and finding a mate. He is also patron for healing and the mentally ill. My little book promises that Raphael will also give you peace of mind, and it also explains that he is the patron of everyday rituals of life.

I felt like I could use some help in all those areas and sometimes I felt like I could feel Raphael’s presence hanging around the oak trees on the little block of Government Street between Eugene and Kenmore where my Laundromat was located.

Heavenly intervention aside, it was in the Washateria where I would calm down. I would mentally organize my week while I waited to organize my clothes in neatly folded stacks.

I raved so much about it to Janice, you would have thought it was a yoga class or free money. I raved so much that she came to check it out.

“I don’t get it,” she said, repeatedly.

She said something like that after she was convinced that one of the other washers had stolen her Downy only to discover it was in her trunk.

“I’m not cut out for this,” she said, but she continued listening patiently to me as I gushed and would even still come help me fold my clothes.

One day, we were talking about something unrelated to laundry and the subject of my parents – my mother and biological father – came up. During that period, I was having increasingly distressing interactions with my mentally ill father who was dying slowly. There were various untreated infections related to diabetes and he seemed to be developing a senile dementia on top of schizophrenia.

I talked about my parents a lot those days.

“How did they meet?” Janice asked one night idly.

I froze.

It was a well-known story to me but I had not thought of it in a long time.

My parents were both from tiny towns on opposite sides of Mississippi. My father came to Jackson, Mississippi, with his mother, from Weir, a village in northeast Mississippi, for his last two years of high school. He started his college career with lots of promise involved with a football scholarship at the University of Mississippi. For reasons unclear, the scholarship was reneged and he was going to school at Holmes Junior College, which was nearby Jackson, so he still called his mother’s West Jackson house his home.

My mother arrived in Jackson about six months after she graduated from Benoit High School in Bolivar County, just a few miles from the Mississippi River. She came to the big city and got a job as an operator with South Central Bell. We just called it The Phone Company, though. She shared an apartment in West Jackson with a high school friend.

My mother and my father met at a Laundromat somewhere in West Jackson, I suppose.

They each thought the other was cute.

And there I sat, 40-ish years later, in a Laundromat.

“You’re kidding,” Janice said.

“No,” I said, feeling the color drain out of my face.

You really cannot make this shit up.

Ah, Janice says. Ah, what, I say. It makes perfect sense, she says. I have gone back to the root, she says. I was born from their mutual poverty and love of clean clothes. That is why I feel so at home in the Washateria.

Then she moves on, mystery solved as to why I have some Zen-like compatibility with the Washateria that she can’t access.

But I cannot really move on at that point. I still have my laundry to do.

After that, I try branching out.

I drove out to Florida Boulevard and other spots to try different laundries.

Nothing clicks, and I wind up back at my Government Street Washateria, but with less enthusiasm than before. It had promised changes in my life, and life had delivered them right up to the rotting doorstep on Olive Street. The washer-dryer-less apartment was taking its toll on me.

The only heat in the apartment was gas space heaters which were warm but I was afraid to turn on at night. Cold winter mornings meant a trip downstairs felt like going outdoors. I felt like I was camping sometimes. I would hurry down, start the heater, start the coffee maker but have to rinse my mug out with hot water. Otherwise the ice cold ceramic cup would cool my coffee too quickly.

It was in that apartment that I rode out Hurricane Gustav with my dogs – Ruby and Daisy —  and cats — Chick P. and Calypso – all curled up with me on my bed. And it was after Gustav that the apartment was never quite the same. There was unrepaired roof damage that cause water issues in both apartments.

But I stayed.

I came home to that apartment after I buried my father and discovered that my 11-year old cat, Chick P. was sick. I lay on the bedroom floor of that apartment the last night she lived. Her breathing was labored and I could do nothing but try to keep her calm, pray and wait until morning to take her to have put down.

I came home to that apartment afterwards and took to bed for two days while friends delivered me Calvin’s chicken salad and ginger ale and cried with me and told me I could stay in bed as long as I needed.

It was in that apartment that I found out I had an excellent score on the Praxis II, and there where I did, in fact, become a teacher.

I had grown so much but I was outgrowing the apartment. I could overlook a lot, but the rats were the final straw. Lying in bed with my boyfriend early one cold morning, there was the unmistakable sound of rats in the roof and walls.

“Rats!” I said with alarm, embarrassment and humiliation.

No, he said, trying to ease my mind.

“Squirrels, maybe?” he suggested.

I shook my head, knowing he knew as well as I do that squirrels don’t move in the dark.

I would be moving soon.

I was sitting on the sidewalk in front of the Washateria one evening about two months into my first year teaching, tired but ever-dedicated to clean clothes, when I looked up and saw a “For Rent” sign at a neat little duplex on a little side street next to Baton Rouge High School.

Quietly and quickly, I called.

It was $700.

It was clean and warm.

There was this little utility room next to the bedroom that had a washer and a dryer in it.

“We’re leaving the washer and dryer here with the apartment,” said the current tenant.

Yes, indeed.