Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Blaze of Glory

All I can hear is my own breathing, accelerated with adrenaline. Within seconds, it’s thick, heavy, and hot inside the giant stuffed dog’s head the school nurse has just awkwardly lifted to my height and plopped on my (stuffed dog) shoulders. Everything inside the suit is amplified: my breaths, with their Vader-esque density; my voice, as I assure the nurse, Yes, I am okay. Yes, I can see . . . kind of; the piercing velcro adjustments and readjustments as she works to hide any sign of the human within. I do my best to “get comfortable,” and rest my (already damp) forehead against the metal bar designed, I suppose, to literally keep my head on straight. Everything outside the suit is muffled, underwater, as both my peripheral vision and my place in the room  become compromised. The nurse, I can make out through the screens that comprise my new eyes, straps on one giant paw and then the other. For no reason, I clap my paws. I encourage her (once, and then again for extra measure), to recheck the giant velcro seam that runs the length of my back, because my only fear in this adventure is the opening of said seam and the revelation to a crowd of hundreds that underneath is, in fact, a human woman sporting nothing but a wife-beater and her husband’s lucky-clover boxers.

It’s time, the nurse tells my screen-eyes. My heart races, but not from this claustrophobe’s worst nightmare. I am thrilled.

She leads me down the elementary school hallway, and even across the building and through my fake fur, I can hear the kids screaming. It’s the Blazer Blast, the quarterly pep rally designed to celebrate the school and the spirit within its walls. Instantly, I realize my celebrity status, as a teacher walks past and waves enthusiastically, “Hi, Blazer!” I wave my paw, and blow a kiss from my giant snout. It comes naturally for me to exaggerate my movements, I discover, and there, in the hallway as I stumble awkwardly toward the cafegymnatorium, something inside me awakens.

I am SO ready for this. 

Hidden behind closed doors at the back of the giant room, I wait in the hall, kicking my paw-covered tennis shoes, pacing a bit, and steadily streaming sweat. The noise swells as Mr. D congratulates honor roll students, asks grade level after grade level to “make some nooooiiiiise!” and amps up the crowd. On the other side of those doors, I know from five years of attendance, is a room full of some 400 anticipatory students plus the eager parent paparazzi corps. 

Suddenly, through the windows in the back of the room, I’m spotted.  A little sister in the crowd stares wide-eyed directly at my screen-eyes, simultaneously screaming in her mom’s ear, begging her to come see me. I wave; I blow my kiss. The mom and daughter, amidst the chaos, sneak out of the crowd and into the hallway. Instinctively, I reach out my paw for a high-five, but the girl, unable to contain herself, runs directly at my knee for a tight, deep hug, where she remains for a good fifteen to twenty seconds, until she is finally urged away by her camera-snapping parent. I fall in love within two of those seconds.

At last, my cue. Screaming. Piercing, giggling screaming broken only by Blazer’s theme song, which blasts out of the now open doors. “Who Let the Dogs Out?” with its fantastically cheesy, dance-inspiring beat electrifies the crowd and pulls me into the packed, frenzied room.

I am a star.

I high-five. I wave. I blow kisses. I sing to myself loudly (no one can hear me, after all). I wave to my unsuspecting friends. And I dance like I have never danced before, with abandon and with energy I didn’t know I possessed. The crowd is wild, reaching for Blazer, cheering for Blazer, and as I slowly dance my way up to the front of the room, relishing these seconds, I notice the evolution of the crowd’s reaction. Because up front sit the kindergartners, and the closer I dance to the younger kids, the more the frenzy melts into amazed awe. Toward the front I slow down my energy, bend down for the high fives, silently reassure the timid, and share the joy. Once up front, at the base of the stage, next to the principal and in front of thousands of eyes, I let loose, pulling out dance moves from decades past and making up some strange innovations in time with the music. Out there, somewhere out there beyond my sweat-blurred screen-eyes, is pure, unbridled, love. I soak it all in, and I revel in giving it right back.

I am as goofy, as happy, and as free as I have ever been. It is fantastic.

My celebrity passes too quickly. I only have a few minutes, and I know it, so I use them wisely. I single out kids, one by one, looking for someone who is sad or someone who seems afraid. Pointing directly at those waving to me with the pure joy and innocence of those in this room. My friend’s daughter is here, here at her retreat from her mother’s chemotherapy, and I give her a special wave. Another child looks petrified. I blow him a kiss, and he looks around, back and forth, as if to say, “Who, me?” I nod overenthusiastically. It becomes my mission: Sad kids? I will find you! As the principal revs the crowd, I put my paw to my gigantic ear high above my actual head: I can’t hear you! The crowd goes wild. I dance some more.

Finally, the crowd is told to say goodbye to Blazer. (The human inside is encouraged to not get heat stroke, so appearances must be brief.) Before I go, I have one last mission. I spot my target as I leave the room. She’s there, looking so old among the little kids, a fifth-grader in the back row, giggling with her friends. I stop. I wave directly at her until she notices me, and then I point and blow my final kiss. One special one for my baby girl, my daughter.

Cammie has no idea her mother is the one entertaining the room. She gives me the “Who, me?” and I nod, touch my paw to my heart, and saunter out of the room. My work here is done.

Out of hundreds of people, I am happiest.

Sunday, October 27, 2013


Ask anyone else the first word that comes to mind when they think of her, and undoubtedly, it’d be “ugly.” Even I must admit there was a rather unfortunate aesthetic transformation as she aged alongside me. And in all fairness to those who didn’t know her the way I did, yes, I suppose she could be a rather surprising assault on the eyes. Okay, some could call her fairly hideous. But me? Picturing her now, each perfect imperfection wrapped up in that snuggly, scrawny package, brings to mind just one word of my own: “everything.” 

She was, you see. It wasn’t just that she was my most prized possession; it was more complicated than that. Because to me, she wasn’t a thing, a possession. She was a she. A companion. And she was mine.

If you’re one of the humans closest to me and you’re reading this right now, you know know who I’m talking about already. You knew from the word “ugly,” didn’t you? But once, she was beautiful: a bright pink, floral, cloth body, grandiose in its 1960s-ishness. The flower child taken to the literal, the boldness of skin choice ideal for a small girl. Her hands and face? Those were plastic of the caucasian variety. Tiny-little fingers, all stuck together in one plastic mold, topped with tiny-little carved fingernails. The head, true to the anatomy of a wee one, was huge. Bald save for etched, wavy “hairs” painted a pale whisper of brown. 

I’ve seen pictures of her this way: fresh, fluffy, pink. Well-dressed, hugged tightly between chubby toddler arms. Photographs tell only pieces of our story together, but there are a few, including one notable visit with the big man himself, Santa. I sit, staring mid-giggle just to the right of the camera (likely at the parent dancing to its side), and the top of her head peeks out from the crook of my arm. A formal Sears photo features the two of us, me in my smocked sundress (its innocence carefully chosen by my mother), she completely naked, pink skin glowing--small white polka dots, green and blue flowers all gloriously bright. By this point likely a package deal, a compromise, more entrenched in my history with each flash.

Through the years, I came to know every square millimeter of her. She was well-loved, to be sure, so as time marched on, the wear on those millimeters became more obvious. Not immune to the battle scars of youth, and not built nearly so well to hold up to them, her aesthetics, shall we say, suffered.  Over two decades, slowly, she eroded: bright pink faded to dull then morphed to “dirty.” Stuffing shifted, flattened out. Still, I would picture silk beneath her flowers as I rubbed her skin back and forth between my anxious (or tired, or eager, or excited) fingers, soothed by the smoothness, never even missing the fluff. Thick to thinner to thin, she aged rather ungracefully. A strange box floated within her, no longer making baby cooing sounds--just a clunk when it thudded against something hard. She grew tired.

Poor thing suffered at the hands of others, too. A fight with my sister resulted in a tug-of-war; she was the rope, and (thin arms nothing but faded fabric now) lost most of her hand in the process. My mother sewed her back together with dark blue thread, and those stitches remain. I’m not quite sure when her left eyeball began sinking into her socket, but family lore has it that the culprit was once again my sister. She claimed she wanted to see what would happen to the (beautiful) clicking sound if one eye was held shut and the other stayed open, and the result was rather disastrous. What started as as a left-eye-that-wouldn’t-blink eventually became a sunken, twisted mess that made it rather difficult to look either my sister or my companion in the eye. That accident, along with her tragically slow loss of eye lashes throughout the decades, the permanent dents left in those tiny fingers (from years of chewing? from the cat? from my baby brother? who really knows), and the increasingly tragic way she hung her oversized head in what could be interpreted as shame, marked mere parts of her physical decline.

Those in my life treated her presence with anything from mild amusement to agitated disgust, which, on a few occasions, led to outright abuse. She was hidden from me on numerous occasions by my siblings, playing not-funny jokes through the years until my tears brought her forth. Friends sleeping over found her creepy.  One morning in college I returned from class to my room, where I had left my boyfriend of two years sleeping that morning. There, hanging from the ceiling in a noose fashioned from one of my belts, I found my sweet thing, inexplicably swinging and not remotely funny. Another time, I developed film and found pictures of my guy friends singing to her, stroking her head. She had that reaction on people. They simply didn’t know what to do with this strange looking thing that was an obvious presence in my life. Most of the time, their reactions were quite funny, and I shared in and contributed to the laughs. After all, I was a grown woman. Even my own daughters haven’t known what to do with her, besides relegating her to the freezer for a week to kill off dust mites. All this time, and still, deep down, I don’t want Karen to be uncomfortable, hurt, tormented, made fun of, or laughed at. I tucked her in for far too long. I covered her tiny-little plastic ears to protect her from the mocking, but only in half-jest.

At all ages, she was real to me.

Her presence went deep, past that sixth sense and well into the seventh: the sense of comfort. I miss her still. Occasionally, I’ll settle into bed, flip and flop to get comfortable, quietly aware that something is missing. I’ve reached for her regularly in the years since I’ve been married, since she was relegated to a bookshelf, a chair, or now, a box (where I hope she lies comfortably). I long to feel that silky comfort still, smell the familiar scent of her big head, and need her sometimes when things are a little rough. I’m not quite sure if this makes me normal, this attachment to a constant in a world full of inconsistencies and pain, or if this is a confession I should burn after sharing. But I’m glad she’s still around, even if it’s in a box, sleeping peacefully.

Thank God for my dog.