The House of Broken Angels: A Book Review

As I have jumped head first into this whole “being a serious writer” thing, I’ve exposed myself to pretty incredible literature that I can’t believe I’ve been missing. I think I’ve mentioned before that I had a decades-old habit to only read old classics, or best sellers long after they’ve lost their new book luster. I think I had some twisted sense of responsibility to catch up somehow with all the books I’d missed before I read the new stuff. Like that makes sense, or is even remotely achievable. Along with featuring new publications in my book reviews, I’ve been listening to several podcasts about the current goings-on in the literary world and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve been starving myself. Yes, the classic greats will always be great, but there are some truly incredible authors living right now, publishing right now, creating right now, that are simply too good to miss.

That is my disclaimer and poor excuse for never having read anything by Luis Alberto Urrea until now. Holy cow, can this dude write. I mean, it says “Pulitzer Prize Finalist” next to his name on the cover, so I should have known, but sometimes there’s a certain…pretentiousness in books with that honor…or books even close to that honor. There was nothing pretentious about this book. The House of Broken Angels is humble even in its striking beauty.

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The story spans two days with the De La Cruz family as they come together for a final birthday celebration for the ailing grand patriarch Big Angel. A week before the party, his mother passes away at nearly a hundred years old sweeping the family up in a blur of reminiscing and dreaming of what the future holds.The partitions between the aging generation that made their way to America from Mexico in their youth and the younger ones who barely speak Spanish are blurred, as the De La Cruz house bulges with familia and theatrics of emotion.

A slow read, its lingering sentences draw you to read them again just to bask in their light. This is a book you read a bit at a time, letting each moment sink in before you continue. The structure reminds me of music composition. The first third of the book serves as an overture, explaining the scope of the story, introducing themes and revealing backstories of the many players. You are then submerged in a dance of perspectives as you jump from character to character, what they see and experience in the forty-eight-hour period. You fall in love with their individualities, their simple pleasures and jagged pains, known, but not acknowledged by the others.

I felt entirely immersed in the culture of this family, each person so distinct but part of a powerful whole that leapt from the page. I stopped reading at one point and announced to my husband, “This man needs to write a screenplay.” The dialogue and simple painting of the picture are so pure and perfect I couldn’t help but make small exclamations of pleasure, adoring the very act of reading his work.

This is not what I would call an easy book, but it’s not hard either. The language is easy, the story is a meandering family fable with sharp gut-checking moments when a revelation hits true north. A stunning story that deserves to be savored for every delicious word. Luckily, it’s written in bite-sized portions, easily consumed in spare moments, but the words will follow you off the page to percolate through your mind long after closing the book.

As fate would have it, while I was reading The House of Broken Angels, I listened to another podcast, not literary-related, yet they referenced and quoted Urrea’s book The Devil’s Highway as they spoke about the history of border control and immigration from Mexico. Just the small bits they read were enough to prove that this guy is not a one-hit wonder. I will be reading as much of Urrea’s writing as I can get my hands on.

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Research

I have something of a love/hate relationship with the word “research”. On one hand, it can be quite thrilling to pull on the thread of a question into discovery and knowledge. On the other, it can be tedious, frustrating, and downright difficult. Research is a necessary part of writing, though, no matter what you’re writing about. We could go down the road of ethics and research, but I’ll save that for another time. Just suffice it to say, I am not a fan of cherry-picking.

It’s a running joke with some of my writer friends and me to compare the often hilarious and random things we’ve Googled in the name of research. In the age of data mining and internet surveillance, I’m just glad I have written proof of why I look up the things I do…like…data mining and internet surveillance.

Sometimes it’s in the process of pulling the thread that ignites inspiration. An answer to one question leads you to another you weren’t aware of before. And sometimes there isn’t answer readily available. That’s most frustrating when you feel like it’s because you’re not asking the right question. Then there’s the balance of what is worth pulling at, and what’s only serving as a distraction so don’t actually have to write.

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I’m working on a project in the realm of post-apocalyptic and I wanted to know how long the power grid would work without someone running it. I don’t know how that process works. Not a bit. How much is automated, how much requires that someone push a button, how often does that button needs to be pushed? I know I could run after the answers, but ultimately, for my story, I just needed an endpoint for the power. Texas has crazy weather, an entire tornado season. Residents are quite used to various power outages. The quiet heroes that rush out to handle repairs after a storm would get their belated appreciation if they were suddenly not around to fix things up again. Problem solved, research rabbit hole averted.

Other things are important enough to get nitty gritty with. For the same story, I’ve looked at how to siphon gas, and learned that most modern cars are incredibly tricky to collect from. But I understand the mechanics of how it would need to be done. I also know the most efficient way to butcher a chicken, if you’re green to animal husbandry and still want a degree of separation from what you’re doing. Yes, it’s still gross.

It’s important to know these things in detail because it lends authenticity to the story. One could argue that most readers wouldn’t know the difference, but I don’t think that gives your readers enough credit. I couldn’t explain half of the things Mark Watney pulls off in The Martian, but it was perfectly clear to me that the author, Andy Weir, knew what he was talking about. Without the research, his novel would easily have fallen flat. Shortcuts and loopholes are not the way to gain the trust of your audience.

What I’m getting at, is while research might not be the most glamorous part of creating, it’s still an irremovable part of good writing. The senses come alive when the details are true. The inner turmoil of battling your domesticity, years of buying fully clean and butchered meats from a refrigerated cooler at an air-conditioned grocery store, to feed your starving belly, to confront the death required for life — well, it doesn’t become real to the reader or the writer until you can smell the animal, hear it’s cry, feel the strain of muscle as a life is swiftly ended. It’s not always pretty, in fact, it rarely is. Life is messy, and good research aids in capturing the raw realness of it.

The magic happens when you can turn the facts and figures into movements and emotions. When you know how to butcher that chicken, but also how the character lives through it. You know the words she whispers over and over to talk herself into it. You know if she cried during the act, if she waited until she was poised to take her first bite of the bounty, or if she displaced the act entirely and never shed a tear.

Even the most apt writers of emotion and conflict have nothing to react to without the details of circumstance. The children of research and the fodder for creation, it’s all in the details.

I’ll end today by saying that I’ve no clue if any of this is interesting to you. It fascinates me. I could talk about all the tiny little bits of writing all the livelong day. So much of what I share here isn’t profound or even far beyond common sense, but I guess, if nothing else, it’s my perspective. It’s what makes me tick. It is a catalog of all the things I found engaging enough to comment on. So there.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go find out how a generator runs and what can go wrong with one.

Terminal A

There’s nothing quite like people watching in an airport. A quiet and cacophonous blend of lives in imagined privacy. The half-sentences muttered as they pass, the small child confused and pulling against their parents’ sudden urgency, the unabashed staring of those like me who sit and observe.

There are noses in books, fingers in noses, crumbs on chairs, and forgotten phone chargers. A gentleman is quietly speaking French to his wife on the phone. He laughs and makes a comment about his mother. I don’t speak French well enough to pick out the joke as he speaks rather rapidly, the ease of a native tongue quickening the tempo of his speech.

A woman produces a deck of cards from the depths of her carry-on to appease and entertain her young son. The hustle of the terminal and the anxiety of impatience eases from his face as the familiar game commences.

Another woman, with deeper lines of age, has an exceptional furrow creasing her face in concentration. She is cleaning the windows that look out onto the tarmac. The monotony of work has jaded the magic of the airport. The thrill most of us still feel at the nearness of travel has long since passed. The secrets of the brick and mortar responsible for the hum of excitement in the air is just that – brick and mortar. A concrete receptacle for her time and effort. She’ll punch the clock and drive away without a glance behind.

As I scribble away, noting the snippets of stories laid before me, the woman seated next to me collects her things and moves a few rows away. I wonder if she’s been snooping and found she doesn’t want to be part of my observances. Too late, lady. I’ve already made a note about you picking your teeth with the edge of your driver’s license. Kept it out after coming through security, I imagine.

My husband travels enough that I know the quiet thrum of anticipation doesn’t occupy his stomach before a flight anymore, but what a shame. How many places or opportunities do we have in life that ignites such wonder? Just another day of flying through the air in a metal machine with several hundred other people. You are infinitely intimate with these strangers for the duration of your flight. You are breathing the same air, eating the same snacks, hearing the same voices speaking louder than is polite in confined quarters. You flinch at the same jumps, gaze at the same incredible views, and sigh at the same rumble of a landing. Once the door opens, you stand in unison into a line that snails until it doesn’t and an avalanche of people rush forth, clipping their elbows and the wheels of their bags on the arms and legs of empty chairs. You disperse without any recognition of the closeness you shared just moments before.

Once you arrive at your destination, the building doesn’t hold the same magic it would, had you not just been hurtling through the air. No, now it’s just the air-conditioned portion of your long walk to the car that will whisk you away from the enchanted roost of the aluminum birds that carry travelers in their bellies for a steep price and stiff knees.

Alright, lady. I’ll stop. But you must understand, you are even more ingrained in my memory now and will most certainly make an appearance in my next book.

Favorite Books: A Wrinkle in Time

I recently took a rare vacation and spent four days with my husband and his family in an A-frame cabin tucked in the foothills of the Sierra Blanca mountains. Beautiful scenery and great company made for a fabulous trip full of adventures, bruises, and lots of reading tucked in bed with my three-year-old sprawled out between my husband and me after long days spent playing in the snow.

Y’all, I went skiing. I actually went snowboarding, too…except that’s generous. I tried snowboarding. Nope, let me try again: I failed to snowboard. I don’t know how people manage that skill. I never even got both feet strapped in…even after a 90-minute class. I managed about six feet worth of sliding prior to falling at my very best and barely stood up without toppling at my worst. It was not for me. Apparently, skiing is my snowy weather sport. It’s much more enjoyable to slide down a mountain with boards strapped to your feet when you can actually manage to steer and stop yourself. No, really. Steering and stopping are the best. All hail Steering and Stopping, forever and ever, amen.

We drove the nine hours to the cabin, so I had an abundance of reading time, which is my favorite part of traveling! As I’m sure you’ve heard, the film adaptation of the long-beloved middle-grade novel by Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time, was released last week. I’ve been itching for a re-read because it had been ages since my original copy wore out and had to be replaced. My new copy only got me about halfway to New Mexico between pit stops and assisting the threenager with her back seat entertainment, but I required more than a few nudges from my husband to pull me out of that sense-less reader cocoon where you honestly can’t hear the whining for another package of fruit snacks.

I’m hearing great things about the adaptation, and I’m looking forward to a date night with my son to go see it. Like most adaptations, I understand that it deviates from the book to some degree. The trailers alone, show the difference in how some of the main characters look, but the nature of the book allows, or even nurtures, this kind of change.

But enough about the movie, let’s talk about the book!

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I’ll estimate that I first read A Wrinkle in Time when I was about ten or eleven. It was assigned reading at my school, something I generally saw as a treat. I loved being introduced to new literature and talking about it with all my friends. Books were not common conversation fodder for pre-teens at the time, and while I was fortunate to have some close friends as bookish, if not more so than I, it was always exciting to have more people to talk books with. In good company with The Hatchet by Gary Paulson and The Giver by Lois Lowry, A Wrinkle in Time was a fast favorite of the grade. It’s the kind of book that encourages even the most reluctant readers into a world of imagination.

L’Engle tells the story of Meg Murry, her brilliant little brother Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin with the perfect balance of description and ample room for the reader to invent and imagine. She explains just enough of theoretical physics to make the children’s mode of transportation believable without losing the magic of the adventure. The Murry children and Calvin follow a most wonderfully quirky stranger and her two companions on a quest to find the Murry’s missing father and maybe save the universe along the way. With themes ranging from overcoming “otherness” and the power of faith, this 1963 winner of the Newbery Medal is still very much applicable to today’s trials. Still fresh and exciting, with nary a dull moment, if you’ve never read this gem of a book, please allow me to help with that. The passions, fears, struggles, and triumphs of these rich little characters are sure to spark recognition in the parts of you where those same traits dwell.

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High on my list of forever favorites, this book was my first elevated look at fantasy, stepping up from the fairy tales of childhood with clear morals and virtues into something a little more mature. I’d recommend it to readers ten and up. There’s some elevated thinking in this book that may be a bit confusing for the younger reader. If you’ve read it before, but didn’t realize it was the first in a series (like I didn’t, until many years later), make sure to check out the rest in the Time Quintet: A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the book: “We can’t take any credit for our talents. It’s how we use them that counts.”

Happy reading, friends.

Happy Birthday To Me

I’ve had a birthday since the last time we spoke. It was a pretty big one, too.

I turned thirty.

Thirty.

I know the typical reactions to those digits tend to be ones of fear or at least a rapid uptick in blood pressure as we start to ask ourselves, “What in the world am I actually doing?” However, I’ve been looking forward to this one. I’ve managed to cram a ton of life into my thirty years, the details of which I’ll save for my memoir if I ever write one, and in doing so, I grew up pretty fast. Even as a child, I gravitated to the adults in a room and didn’t shy away from trying to participate in whatever most astute and mature conversation they were having. Precocious is what they called me, and while I appreciated the recognition that I was able, on some level, to “hang with the big dogs”, there was always a little laugh or a little flippancy hidden in the corner of their smile.

At some point in childhood, we all become aware of the thirty milestone and what awaits us on the other side. Often joked about, a dress-rehearsal for the even more feared “over the hill”, thirty has its fair share of foreboding whispers.

Once you leave your twenties you’re not young anymore. You’re a “real” adult now.

While some of my peers may have slapped a big ole warning label on the distant “thirty” in their psyche, my eyes lit up. Thirty! That’s what I want. That’s what I’ve been waiting for. I want to be thirty. I want to be an indisputable adult. I want the mantle of respect and acceptance of my adult peers. I want the simpering smiles and chuckle of surprise when I speak to stop so that my words are actually heard.

Now, I’m not naive. I know now that my initial idea of what turning thirty would mean isn’t how the world works. There will always be someone older than me, assuming that wiser is a given. And I’m okay with that. I welcome the opportunity to give them something to think about.

I know that what was and is beyond thirty is entirely what I make of it. Thirty is youthful and wise. It’s hopeful and serious. It’s excited and prepared. It’s believing in your dreams in a solid way. Tying the balloon of imagination to a platform where it can take root in reality. It’s earlier nights and earlier mornings. It’s coffee, but even more water. It’s recognizing health as a privilege and something you have to work to maintain. It’s looking back at the last thirty years in appreciation for their tempo, and not allowing it to quicken as you continue.

The years ahead of me are sweet. There will be inevitable bites of bitterness, but growth and development follow closely on its heels. When I close my eyes, I imagine a little girl hunched over a pile of kindling. She is rocked by sudden gusts of wind that threaten the ember she is coaxing to life. As she grows before my eyes, the flame rises and the soft fibers of wood begin to burn. The young lady carefully places twigs around her fire, feeding it, nurturing it. As she turns to retrieve a larger branch, the light catches her face and you see the fine lines forming on her brow and in the creases of her eyes. She slowly sets the log on the growing fire before her. She does so with such meticulous care that you worry her hand will burn. How can she bear to stand so close? But as the wood hits the flame, it ignites and sparks fly. The woman steps back, watching the fire she has created and mothered into strength. And she smiles, feeling the heavy presence of the mountain of fuel set beside her.

Thirty isn’t the finish line of youth. It’s not the end of anything. I carry forth what I know, and my lust for life and all its treasures just like any other day. Thursday was no different than Tuesday. I’m still feeding my kids, I’m still running the laundry, I’m still writing.

But still, I’m thirty.

A Story Spoken: Chapter Three

It’s been raining like crazy for weeks around here, and now the storm is hitting Annie’s hometown. This month, we learn that she’s been hiding something from Nan. What kind of secret would Annie keep from her beloved grandmother, and will Cheney convince her to fess up?

If you haven’t read the first two chapters of my serial or need a refresher before you continue, you can read Chapter One here and Chapter Two here.

 

A rhythmic “shave and a haircut” knock rattled the front door to the apartment. Closing a bookmark into the novel I’d been reading, I glanced up at Nan’s old mantle clock. It was balanced somewhat precariously on the two by fours Mom had nailed together and mounted on the wall years before so we had a place to hang our Christmas stockings. A shelf would have worked fine, but I guess that hadn’t occurred to her at the time. If she had an explanation, I didn’t recall ever hearing it. Just another mystery quirk of hers I’d never be able to ask about.

I crossed the room, tapping the last two beats back to Cheney before opening the door.

“You’re early.” I smiled. It was getting easier, but guilt always tagged along quietly behind and I honestly couldn’t sort out which was right: being able to smile again, or keeping myself from it.

“Yeah, sorry,” Cheney huffed a bit as she lifted a box from the ground, “I wanted to go over putting the mailers together before we left if that’s cool?” She set the box of paper and envelopes down on the kitchen table with a loud thump that made the occupants of the lazy susan centerpiece rattle.

“Oh, yeah. I forgot you were dropping those off.”

Cheney looked up with concern, “You’re still okay with helping out with this, right?”

“Yeah! No, I just forgot. That’s all. I’m happy to help.” Another potentially disloyal smile.

“Oh, good,” Cheney sighed and opened the box to reveal the neatly stacked fliers for her mother’s boutique. “I’m already mad at myself for not just ordering the glossy postcard mailers. They were a little more expensive, but stuffing envelopes is such a pain in the ass. Thrifty is not always a good thing.”

“It’s not a big deal. I’m not sleeping much anyway. If I’m going to binge on TV late into the night, I might as well be productive while I’m doing it.”

“Have you seen that new true crime thing about the family in Minnesota that just vanished? Trent and I watched it the other night and it gave me nightmares!”

“I don’t know why you do that to yourself,” I couldn’t help but laugh at the obvious residual distress on her face. “Take a break from the murders and missing person crap before you really freak yourself out.”

“You’re probably right,” Cheney sighed, “We’re just lucky to agree on anything at all, much less what to watch on Netflix.”

I helped Cheney empty the box, neatly stacking the fliers, envelopes, and stamps in an assembly line across the table.

“You guys still having a rough time?” While I knew they weighed heavily on her mind, Cheney’s problems were mundane enough to be a break from my own. It was easier to help her sort through dating problems than it was to cope with my grief and the ever-expanding effort of taking care of Nan.

“A rough time?” Cheney scoffed, “Yeah, you could say that. I don’t think he sees it that way, but I’m about through.”

“Really?” I couldn’t hide my surprise. Two months before, Cheney was talking about rings and babies, ready to brave the meticulous and overbearing force that was her mother and plan a wedding.

“I just…,” she paused, visibly searching for the right words, “He’s a nice guy, Annie, he really, really is. I just don’t think I love him. I know I thought I did, but the longer we’ve been at this thing, the more I’m realizing that I might’ve gotten ahead of myself. He’s a solid guy, but not always the most compassionate, and I don’t really feel like hand-holding him through kindness my whole life. I want someone who cares if they hurt my feelings and cares if I hurt his.”

“He doesn’t care if you hurt his feelings?”

“Well, he cares, I guess. I shouldn’t have put it that way. He’s just so mellow that I can’t tell how he’s feeling most of the time. That’s harder than I thought. I don’t know where I stand with him and even when I’ve tried to talk to him about it, it’s more of the same! No reaction that shows me he even understands what I’m worried about.”

“That sucks, hon. I’m sorry.” I was quiet, letting her talk through what was bouncing around her head, knowing that she just needed the ear and not the advice.

Cheney trailed off, finishing her story and went through the steps of how they wanted the flyers mailed out. Cheney’s mom, Ruth, owned a small shop downtown and they sold everything from ruffled mommy-daughter outfits to embroidered tea towels. The Hummingbird Boutique was also known for having the best consignment furniture around and Ruth and Cheney were helping to sell the excess furniture we had after moving Nan in with me full-time. Most everything we’d given them had sold, but there was a small secretary table that was pretty beat up and hadn’t moved yet. Cheney had asked if I wanted to keep it on the floor for another week, but I wanted to take another look at it to see if it would fit in my room to use as a writing desk.

“Ready to go?” Cheney picked her purse up and started heading for the door, “Oh, crap it’s raining. Do you have an umbrella? I had to park pretty far down.”

“Uh, yeah there should be one hanging by the mail basket. I’m gonna let Nan know I’m leaving real quick.”

I knocked quietly on Nan’s door, pushing my arms through the worn denim sleeves of my favorite jacket while I waited for an answer. I poked my head in when I heard her call. She was lying on her bed, an old crocheted blanket loud with burnt seventies orange draped across her lap. She had pulled her headphones off one ear to hear me better.

“I’m headed out with Cheney. We’re going to run up to The Hummingbird and probably grab some lunch on the way back. Do you want anything?”

“No, that’s okay, honey. I can warm up some soup from last night.”

“Are you sure?” Nan tended to be overconfident with her ability to feed herself without at least some assistance, “I don’t mind bringing you something. That way you won’t have to mess with the microwave.”

I’d put raised stickers on certain buttons for her to feel her way around if I wasn’t home. She just needed to count how many thirty-second increments she needed for whatever needed heating up and then press start. Still too scared to leave her alone for too long so soon after the accident, I’d been making ends meet with the checks from renting Nan’s house out and odd jobs like stuffing envelopes for Cheney. I knew I’d have to find a steady job soon, but Nan wasn’t ready yet.

“I’m fine. Don’t fuss over me,” Nan grumbled. She didn’t wait for my answer. She replaced the headphones and pressed play on her audiobook.

Somehow knowing I hadn’t left yet, she waved her hand, shooing me away, “Go on, now. Have fun. Bye!”

I stepped into the room and pressed a quick kiss on her cheek. She smiled, patted the hand I’d rested on her knee as I leaned over her, and gently pushed me away.

“Bye, Nan.”

When I returned to the living room, Cheney was sitting on the edge of the couch reading something. She looked up, and, upon seeing her expression, I knew what she’d found.

“What the hell, Annie?” Cheney lifted the letter with an angry shrug, “When were you going to tell me about this?”

“There’s nothing to tell. I can’t go,” I lifted my purse off the hook by the door, sweeping the strap over my head in one fluid, practiced motion of a woman who didn’t have a lot of free time, “Come on. I want to get back by one.”

Cheney wasn’t buying it, “Nice try,” She shut the door again when I started to open it.

“Shhh!” I glanced back toward Nan’s room, “Let’s talk about it in the car.”

Cheney’s face flushed and her frown deepened, “You haven’t even told Nan?” she yelled the whisper in a huff, pursing her lips, but she followed me as I drug her through the front door and down the stairs to the parking lot.

“Annie!”

“No!” I turned to her as I walked through the rain, my shoulders lifted to my ears as the chilly raindrops dripped down my neck. Cheney had the letter in one hand and my umbrella in the other, but, in her frustration, she’d forgotten to open it.

“No, I haven’t told her. And why would I? She’ll want me to go, and when I explain why I can’t she’ll just get pissed. It won’t help anything. We’ll both just end up feeling guilty and shitty when it’s said and done,” I shrugged, turning away from her again, “I didn’t see the point.”

We’d reached Cheney’s hand-me-down truck she’d bought from her dad when we graduated from high school, but even when I rested my hand on the handle, waiting for her to unlock the door, she just stared at me, raindrops dripping from the tip of her nose.

“Cheney, get in the truck. It’s pouring out here!” She snapped out of it long enough to get us from the parking lot to the main road, windshield wipers screeching with each swipe, before she started in on me again.

“I can’t believe you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Annie, for as long as I’ve known you, you’ve wanted to be a writer. You wanted to get out of this town, head to a big city somewhere and write! Now you finally have a chance and you just aren’t going to go?”

“It’s just an internship,” I gazed out the window, switching my focus from the raindrops to the traffic beyond them.

“At a New York City publishing house!”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“That’s bullshit, and you know it.”

“Hey!” I turned to face her then, anger getting the better of me, “You think I don’t know that it’s an amazing opportunity? I agonized over sending my application for that internship for months!”

“I know! That’s why I don’t…”

“Cheney! My mom died! She’s gone. Nan is blind and not getting any younger. Someone has to take care of her, and I’m the only one left. It fucking sucks. I know that, but there is no way that I can just pack up and leave after everything that’s happened. It’s just not in the stars anymore.”

“But…,”

“Stop! Please, Cheney. There’s nothing else to talk about.”

She wasn’t looking at me, eyes still focused on the road, but she clapped her mouth shut. We rode the rest of the way to the boutique in silence, but when she pulled into a parking spot and threw the truck into park, she unbuckled her seatbelt and turned to face me.

“Look, I’m sorry. I know that this has been horrible for you. Losing your mom, taking care of Nan. I can’t even imagine what you’re going through,” she looked down at the now crumpled letter in her hand, and lifted it up to my face, “but this is the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to you, and I can’t stand to see you give it up.”

I took the letter and looked at it, ignoring the burning threat of tears.

“It says you have until September 1st to formally accept. You still have a few weeks. Please, will you please just think about it some more? At least don’t make up your mind until you have to.”

I knew there wasn’t anything else to think about. I couldn’t imagine how I could afford to put Nan into a home even if she agreed to go, which she never would. I couldn’t abandon her. She was all I had left of Mom, and I know she felt the same about me. We’d lost her. We couldn’t lose each other, too.

“I’ll think about it.”

Cheney sighed with relief and beamed at me, satisfied that she had achieved what she’d set out to, and I would now magically come around somehow.

“But, please,” I stopped her when she turned to get out of the truck, “don’t tell Nan.”

She nodded and we ran to the door, squished together under my umbrella, as I shoved the letter deep into my pocket and away from my mind.

Woman’s Best Friend

This is Sammy. He’s my ten-and-a-half-year-old Havanese fluff that I don’t know what I would do without. He’s kind, quiet, protective, and the source of a rippled sense of calm that blooms out into my house. I am also increasingly aware of the smoky film slowly lightening his soulful eyes. Every September I try to ignore that another precious year with him has passed. The love of a human lifespan has condensed and intensified to fit his short life, and the sheer power of it might very well drown me when it’s his time to go.

My dearest friend and companion has been with me across the world and back, across heartbreak and back, into motherhood, and beyond. Ever by my side, at times when I felt entirely alone in all of existence, he was there – resting his head in my lap, quietly allowing me to cry into his fur, letting me cling to him like a liferaft. He has always brought me back to a place of hope. This incredible creature has a compassion of such depth you’d be hard-pressed to find a human with such understanding kindness. He deserves every inch of the cozy divot he’s quickly creating on the back cushion of my new couch.

The only angry word he’s ever had for me is a quiet rumble in his chest if I nudge him with my foot when he’s trying to sleep. He’s my forever bathroom buddy, so I never have to pee alone. He’s the first to greet me when I come home after a day away from the house, or the forty-five-minute circuit of dropping off the kids, or the twenty foot trip to the mailbox. He’s lying at my feet right now, curled up with a throw blanket as a pillow. He’s waiting for me to fall asleep before he trots off to the kitchen to finish his dinner. When I wake up in the morning, he’ll be back, staying with me even after his corgi brother has been fed and let out, until I get up and he’s seen me safely to my coffee cup.

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He’s very cute, but not very charismatic. He’s more of a watchful wall flower allowing his brother to hog the spotlight. His excitement and joy lives in his tail, and if I say his name, even at a whisper, it quickly flicks back and forth with happiness even if he never lifts his head. He waits his turn when it’s time to go outside, knowing the corgi will barrel through ahead anyway. He’s a solid indoor dog, only bounding out into the yard for a quick bathroom break before returning to scratch at the door. He loves fetch, Greenies, and a good ear-scratching.

With both of my pregnancies, he’s broken his normal rule of cuddling (lap adjacent, not atop) in favor of getting close to his baby. After each birth, he would always place himself between them and whoever else was in the room. Now he lays at my feet when I read bedtime stories or rummages at their blankets until they lift up a corner so he can stretch out alongside their legs. At dinner time, he smartly sits under their chairs where he has the best chance at table scraps accidentally falling to the floor. He’s an excellent vacuum.

He’s also great at shredding used tissues, and more than once he’s lulled me into a false sense of confidence by not showing any interest in my food for months, only to use a well-timed sneak attack when I’ve stood up to grab a drink and returned to find only half a bowl of leftover casserole. He never puts up with the cat’s cheekiness. Cuddle buddy? Sure. But his tail is not a string of yarn to attack, thank you very much.

Sammy noses his food when he eats, gently picking out a kibble or two, walking them to a nearby doorway, and eating them there. The corgi may or may not have a few extra pounds on him because he doesn’t share his brother’s table manners and loves to hurry him along with the threat of picking up the slack. No, Sammy is a grazer, much preferring to dancing with me in the kitchen while I’m cooking dinner with the radio turned up. He loves the bits of carrot I nonchalantly drop from the chopping board. He doesn’t beg when he thinks it’s an accident, you see. He mostly lets his brother do the talking, but will alert us when the front door is opened…even we are the ones who open it. Yes, Sammy, something might be out there. Thank you.

Sammy believes in me. He has never questioned my life choices, though he does prefer me working from home. He wouldn’t be surprised if I succeeded at this whole writing thing because it would never occur to him to doubt me. He’s loved me when I didn’t have two nickels to rub together, and when we could start splurging on fancy, grain-free dog food. The love of a dog is truly unconditional and I am so deeply grateful to receive it.

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Sammy, Sam, Sambo, Sammy Boo, Samalotta, Fluff, Fluffer-Nutter, Fluff-Butt, my little therapy dog, mon cher chien, my best friend. Thank you for your love. You’ve only ever grown more precious to me, and I know you feel the same way. Facing your mortality, hearing your vet call you “senior”, has been an adjustment for me, to say the least, but you’ve seen me safely into true adulthood. I’ll see you safely through whatever comes around the bend.

Please don’t hate me when I try to make an imprint of your paw in clay.

xx