Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe

writing for parents of the bravest hearts

Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe

green writing for parents

love

Fare thee well, feline

It’s been ten days since we’ve seen our cat, Tiger, although I knew the first morning when I opened the back door and he didn’t show that he was gone for good.

Tiger came to live with us as an outdoor cat. He was one of several kittens that a co-worker’s wife found in a box on the side of the road fifteen years ago. We were living on the farm at the time and had been having trouble keeping cats, as often happens out in the countryside. But Paige was 10 years old and pining for a cat, so we picked the male orange tabby kitten for good luck.

Tiger’s cat-shaming portrait.

Tiger proved to be a survivor. Even as coyotes, owls and other predators exacted their toll on our farm, Tiger knew when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. When it was time to move into town, I was apprehensive. He’d lived on the farm for more than a decade. I got advice from other cat owners and the veterinarian. On moving day, I was ready with drugs and a crate, but as soon as the moving vans showed up in the driveway, Tiger, ever the survivor, hid out. Two days later, he got hungry enough for the new owner to catch him in the house and call me.

During the transition, he fought against the drugs so it was like having a drunk college student lumbering around the house as we unpacked boxes and filled cupboards and closets and bookshelves. After a week of supervised outdoor time, he started fighting the whole cat-on-a-leash thing. I opened the door and said, “good luck little buddy.” I don’t know what I was worried about. He was a survivor and he knew where he lived. That’s where his food dish is!

Now that he’s gone, I feel the loss, as I knew I would, even though I’ve also known I won’t get any more cats. I’m a dog person. I have been since I was a girl, obsessed with learning all the breeds of dogs and reading stories about dogs and pining for a dog myself.

While our dogs have reminded me of the rewards of loving unconditionally, I have to give props to Tiger, whose utter cat-ness provided insight into life’s more complicated doings and feelings.

He brilliantly established his personal space. Pet him just a stroke or two when he wasn’t feeling it and he bit your hand or arm or leg or foot to let you know. Even when he was willing to sit for a little cuddle time, you still got bit at the end.

He ate ritualistically: every half hour or so, he returned to the bowl to eat several bites. Ergo, we learned to always pause for a moment when we opened the door to let him in (or out) and forever keep kibble in the bowl.

He often joined the dog and I on the first block of a walk. Then he decided either we weren’t worth the effort or going into the wrong territory and he went off on his own.

When Paige went off to college, the cat expressed how distressing the empty nest was by peeing all over the pricey feather bed I bought to deal with a too-hard mattress. I didn’t even try to recover anything. The feather bed got tossed in the trash. I still sleep on that too-hard bed.

Farewell, old friend. We’re glad you came to stay.

Racing alone

Another year of equestrian Special Olympics has come and gone. Sam had an off year this year, I think in part because the regional competition had to be canceled for bad weather. He and his teammates missed some of the momentum needed in competition.

Sam remained a sportsman through the disappointments. I almost thought he wasn’t feeling it – until it was time to head back home. He was sad to leave, saying that we always have fun but the competition wasn’t what he’d hoped for. Then he added that maybe next year he would only do drill.

Sam’s been branching out as a horseman this year. For many years, he only rode English. A few years ago, he added Western events. That opened the door to barrel racing, which is a barrel of fun. This year, he added carriage driving and drill.

Sam picked out the drill music first, which brings its own kind of joy for him. He and Mal, his riding coach and drill partner, did well on their short routine, especially considering how little time they had to practice. Since no one else had a routine with such challenging moves, they were competing against themselves at state Special O. They got gold.

I understood what Sam was saying. He wanted to race alone.

There’s a moving passage in architect Nader Khalili’s memoir, Racing Alone, where he explains his internal transformation, leaving a successful practice as a high-rise architect to develop prototypes for sustainable earth architecture.

Khalili tells the story of watching his son play with his friends. They have a foot race and his son, who is smaller than the other boys, falls behind and loses. Crying, the boy tells his father that he only wants to race alone. Khalili takes his son to a quiet track and watches him, full of joy, run and run.

Our children can be such magical teachers.

Odd couple

Sam traveled last weekend and the house was a little too quiet without him–a complaint he has made to me when I travel without him.

For four years now, we’ve shared a house as a funny mix of roommates/landlord-tenant, although the mother-son thing can still come into play. I don’t go in his apartment without asking, unless I need do something landlord-ish and he’s gone. We shop and try to do some fun things on the weekend, but go our separate ways socially, too. He uses the common spaces of the house like a roommate would, taking care of his own laundry and cooking. He leaves my things and my private spaces alone, which really isn’t something you worry about until you’ve had a roommate who eats your secret stash of Thin Mints and shops your closets.

When the mother-son thing does happen, I try to imagine what I would do for Michael or Paige and try not to do any more than that for Sam, except be a really good explain-i-ologist. He still needs that and always will.

He called home while he was gone this weekend. I didn’t expect the call, but my big fat grin told me how much I missed his company and I told him so. He said he missed me, too.

We’ve made a different kind of family, Sam and I. And I don’t know why, but I’m imagining filling out the census at this time next year and thinking about how we’ll be counted as one of those different kinds of families, and how important it is for all the families who have adult children with autism to get counted.

Years ago, I stumbled over a spot in one of Jill Connor Browne’s Sweet Potato Queen books where she recommends the five kinds of men you simply have to have in your life.

Where am I going with this, you ask? Please bear with me. If I had days to write you a better transition, dear Internet people, I would have. Ok with the bumpy transition, you say, so back to what you were saying about these five types of fellas …. ? 

Well, the shorthand version is every gal needs a sugar daddy, a dance partner, a handyman, a lover and a soulmate. You can’t get all that in one fella, says those Sweet Potato Queens. Maybe you’ll get lucky and marry someone who ticks a lot of those boxes, but you’ll still need to set about lining up the rest of the fellas in your life one way or another.

It’s silly really, but I found it great fun to tease friends about it and a nice way to brag how Mark did pretty well with the last three. After he died, it was hard to tease about it and I can’t remember, honestly, the last time I did.

But when I think about how much Sam has grown, that funny idea creeps back in my head. Sam is definitely a handyman, almost better than Mark at this point with anything electrical or HVAC or plumbing in the house. And he’s a great dance partner; although not for me so much, because, as Dad is fond of saying, hugging family is like touching a hot stove to Sam. But we’ve two-stepped together and I’m sure we will again at the state Special Olympics dance and at Michael’s and Holly’s wedding.

And Sam is a different kind of soulmate, at least to me. I don’t know if I am to him, that’s for him to say. But he has a way of seeing the world that forces me to ask whether I’m being my best self, and in a nonjudgmental yet unyielding way that’s good for my soul.

It’s love and family, after all.

 

A year to be more open and connected

Two years ago, after writing a news story about a few of our clever readers and what they learned achieving their New Year’s resolutions, I did mine differently. A year into my own experiment, I had learned so much that I shared it in a column.

That first goal to not buy anything (with reasonable exceptions for food and fixing things) reinforced a simpler, more sustainable life. My next resolution, “Yes, please,” was meant to be this year’s yang to last year’s yin of “no, thank you.”

The idea wasn’t that “yes, please” was permission to give into impulses or rationalized needs, but to push through whatever had been stopping me from trying something new. How else to see the world unless you push through to the other side? I made a list of about a dozen challenges that have been nagging for years; for example, learning to better maintain my bike, sew upholstery, broaden my computer skills, speak conversationally in another language, and make cheese. But if something new crossed my doorstep, like when my friend and brilliant textile artist Carla offered a day of indigo dyeing, I said “yes.” I said yes whenever I could.

Not only is life simpler and more sustainable, but it’s also richer and more fun.

That brought the social media expression of my life into sharp relief. For the coming year, I will co-opt Facebook’s stated mission, to be more open and connected, by quitting Facebook.

The main reason to shut down my account is one that has nagged me for a long time. Facebook’s real mission is nothing like its stated mission. For example, I’ve noticed there are people you cannot reach any other way than through Facebook. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. In Texas, we might share a lemonade on the porch and we’re cordial, but we just don’t invite everyone inside. So I would argue that when you can’t reach someone except through Facebook, then you aren’t really connected at all. Facebook is managing your relationships for you through the veneer of being “open” and “connected.”

I set up the Family Room blog as a place to explore ideas related to living with autism. It’s interesting that most readers come here via a Facebook link and will return to Facebook to comment on the topic, rather than connecting below and creating our own community–which, by the way, is not open to exploitation by a third party because I filter and delete all that garbage.

That’s Facebook’s real mission. And, they “move fast and break things.” After I watched Frontline’s two-part special, The Facebook Dilemma, I couldn’t be a part of it anymore. American newspapers are struggling because Facebook (and similar businesses) got the rules changed: they can publish with impunity while newspapers must continue to publish responsibly. It’s expensive to be a responsible company. But it’s worth it because, for one, the truth is an absolute defense. And people don’t die in Myanmar because you got so big moving fast and breaking things that you can’t clean up after yourself anymore.

It took Sam a while to accept my decision. He was worried that my exit would affect his experience. I respect that very much. People with disabilities need help living lives that are more open and connected. He finds community activities through Facebook. Because he can scroll at his own pace, he can absorb and react to more news that people share. He’s not impervious to the third-party nonsense, but he’s not going to show up at a fake rally meant to destabilize the community.

I’ll still be on Twitter because I use the platform for my job and I can’t escape it. And I know my departure from Facebook may affect my coworkers, so I will work to ameliorate that. I hope that readers who want to continue to be part of Family Room will use the green button below to bookmark the blog and come back once a month or so. This blog isn’t going away even though the Facebook teasers will.

My first objective will be to use my words to be more open and connected. Family Room will be one place to make that happen, along with all of the other ways we’ve always had to connect with each other (insert mail-telephone-plus-ruby-slippers icons here!)

My second objective will be that when I have something to share, I will share it with the person I believe would appreciate it most.

My third objective will be actively listening to others in the coming days and weeks. Because the best way to connect is to respond.

Sam taught me that.

Love people. Cook them tasty food.

Penzey’s Spices started in my home state of Wisconsin. I’m pretty sure I’ve been a customer for decades, because I remember reaching for a Penzey’s jar the first time I made so many recipes that I’ve been making for decades …

Roast chicken with lemon and rosemary …

Mexican hot chocolate with cinnamon …

Pasta with ginger and garlic …

They used to have just the one store near Milwaukee and I ordered by mail. They have shops all over the country now, but we still order online.

If your order is large enough, they’ll send you a little sample of something. For a few years, they kept sending me a spice blend, BBQ 3000. I guess maybe they thought since I lived in Texas, I would need a lot of that.

Like most Texas meat lovers, I think, I like to mix my own.

This last order, they let me know in a pop-up window what the freebie would be, and asked if it was ok. Dill weed. I clicked yes.

When the box arrived, they’d also sent a colorful bumper sticker. I didn’t put it on my truck. I put it in my front window, because it’s just such a beautiful sentiment.

Love people. Cook them tasty food.

True Blue Lacy

For the first time in 20 years, there are no dogs in my house.

Except for a very short, disastrous period with a hyper Corgi named Tippy, we didn’t have dogs when I was growing up. But I loved dogs. I  studied all the different dog breeds. I read and re-read storybooks about dogs. I wanted dogs in my life.

Mark brought home our first puppy, Patch, when we moved to the farm in 1996. Part German shepherd and part chow, he grew to a gentle giant around the kids. A year or two later, a family we barely knew dumped their border collie mix at our place. We had tried once before, and failed horribly, with a rescue, so we worried about Rex. He had problems. But Mark had a good hand with dogs and slowly, but surely, Rex turned into a big, lovable lump.

IMG_2414

Michael and Gus, January 2002

As farm dogs, though, they weren’t particularly helpful. My dear friend, Terri, was having good luck with an old Texas breed, Blue Lacy, at her place in the Hill Country. She brought me her pick of the litter in January 2002.

He’d only been with us for a few weeks when Paige got the flu. He wouldn’t leave her side until she was up and about again.

IMG_2416

Paige and Gus, February 2002

Mark was a bit annoyed with me. Three dogs is a pack, he said, and they will be harder to manage.  That’s ok, I told him, I want Gus to be my dog.

Gus entertained the kids as a puppy with his incredible energy. Once I sat my coffee down on the porch and he drank it as I looked away. The kids watched in wonder as he ran in circles, without stopping, for about three minutes, and then laid down and slept it off.

IMG_2412

Left to right on the front porch at the farm: Gus, Paige, Rex, Michael, Sam.

Mark saw that energy could — and needed to be — directed. In very little time, Gus became Mark’s dog. I did a lot of work on the farm, but Mark did more. Gus loved to work. All you had to say was “should we go do some work?” and he ran to the door with such excitement, bounding ahead of you outside. It really was his favorite time of day. With “go ahead,” he’d scout for you as you worked the fences or a row of trees, alerting you to snakes and chasing off varmints. With “get ’em up,” he rounded up the chickens and the goats when they got loose. He tried to help when other people’s livestock got on our land.

This photo is a classic shot of Mark having one of his sit-downs with a young Gus. I’m sure all that Gus heard was “blah, blah, blah” (I can’t remember what he had done wrong at this moment either), but more than anything, Gus wanted to please Mark. These little sit-downs were amazing bonding sessions.

IMG_2418

So when Mark went to the store one night and never came home, Gus was as distraught as the rest of us. Twice he went looking for him and came home shot. Both times the veterinarian, Nub Nabors, shook his head as he looked at the x-rays. The first time Gus was shot, the bullet went clean through his chest and hit no internal organs of any kind. The second time the bullet went through the two bones of his front right leg as if threading a needle. Nub just stared at the x-ray in wonderment.

After that, Gus gave up looking for Mark.

Fast forward to life in the city, which I’ve written about before. He enjoyed these past 12 months of retirement.

Today was his last day. He got cancer and his haunches wasted away until he couldn’t hold himself up anymore. This morning, when it was time to get up and take our fake patrol in the ditch, his new favorite time of day, he gave up.

The humane thing doesn’t always feel humane.

Gus and I have been sleeping on the sofa together for nearly a year. I could sleep in my bed tonight.

But I won’t.

 

 

 

Random thoughts running Frenchtown Road

Michael woke me today and insisted I run with him. “It’ll be the last time,” he said.

It’s a funny way to celebrate a launching, but that’s what it was. Last year was tough for him. He had started his adult life after graduating TCU in 2013 and then had to move back home last January. I got a front row seat watching what our economy is doing to the 20-somethings. At the end of one of his worst days, I found myself offering a most grown-up salve to his wounds, pointing to the barstool in the kitchen and pouring him a generous shot of Old No. 7.

In the past year that he’s lived here with Sam and me, we often ran together. His normal pace is crazy faster than mine, but he said slowing down to run with me strengthened other muscles. True or not, it was still a nice thing to say and do — slowing a 7:00 mile to run your mom’s 10:00+

Eventually, he righted himself. Today he packed up the car and drove to his new life in Austin.  Michael'sNewCar

I resisted temptation to grab the camera and document the day (this photo is from one of his good days earlier this year), remembering back to Paige’s first day of kindergarten. She was the youngest, but she was feisty and she couldn’t wait to prove she was big like her brothers. When it was her turn to hop out of the car and head to her classroom for the first day of school, she did it with confidence and determination. Who was I to turn into a blubbering idiot about all my babies gone to school and ruin her first day being big for real?

So I just watched her from behind the wheel of the old Dodge Caravan and marveled at the moment.

It was icy cold today, but it was a little like that hot August day 30 years ago I drove my un-air conditioned car across the Nevada desert to Sacramento to start my grown-up life: Michael, being big for real.

 

The Heart Wants What It Wants

The house is a little quieter. Dixie died early Thursday morning.

Dixie "Doodle Bug" in the Indian Paintbrush, Spring 2013

Dixie “Doodle Bug” in the Indian Paintbrush, Spring 2013

I knew when I got home from work Wednesday evening she was in trouble. Lethargic. Eyes in a faraway place. When I picked her up to take her to the animal emergency room, clumps of hair fell on the floor.

I appreciate that Denton has an animal e.r. I told myself it was possible that they could get her blood sugar back in balance and she would be back home, but I also was no fool. I declined the diagnostic bloodwork and I checked the “do not resuscitate” box.

I left her there, a clean and well-lighted place, and slept through the phone call that came at 1:21 a.m. When I awoke at 5:15 a.m., to dress and go pick her up, I saw the messages waiting. I didn’t need to listen to know.

I always wonder what a veterinarian thinks of you when you decline care. I loved Dixie. She came into our lives just two years ago and she took up a big spot in my crusty old heart that has already been through fire and rain.

When Dr. Cody Bullock diagnosed her diabetes last November, he told me some people opt right then to put their dog down and he said wouldn’t judge me if I did. I didn’t flinch. We did a good job giving her insulin twice a day and helping her adapt to her blindness. But, looking back on the past few weeks, there were signs something was amiss. She was eating less dog food. (But so was Gus, so I thought it was just summer appetite). When we were outside in the evenings, she foraged for cicadas and grasshoppers (dead, of course) to eat. A few weeks ago, she vomited. She recovered. But it was black. She was bleeding somewhere.

I kept a close eye on her, but then there was a death in the family. I left for a few days. And then I worked two Saturdays in a row. I probably missed a clue somewhere, but I’m not going to beat myself up about it.

My little sister called me yesterday. Her dog was in trouble. Grand mal seizures. Awful ones. Not sure yet what’s causing them. So far not under control either.

She’s bracing for the worst. But she told me up where she is, in Park City, there’s a vet that comes to your house to euthanize a pet.

I wanted that for Dixie. More than anything. Doggie hospice.

My heart was already aching.

And again, I didn’t get to say good-bye.

See Sam Drive: Lost in mid-cities

If I ever doubted that no good deed goes unpunished, the lesson was reinforced today.

Michael had a job interview and asked to borrow the truck, since the air conditioning is out in his car.

(This is February, you say. This is Texas, I tell you.)

So out of his routine was he, that when he returned to the truck after the interview, he realized he locked the key inside. He called to ask whether there was a hide-a-key.

(No, son, a hide-a-key is something parents make their kids do with their own car.)

He didn’t want to pay for a locksmith if Sam could come with a spare. There was time. Sam loaded directions in the GPS on his phone and headed out.

Sam is not a fan of I-35. E or W. He took State Highway 114 and headed south on Precinct Line Road to where Michael was, in North Richland Hills. That was probably a mistake. Maybe U.S. Highway 377 would have been better. He got lost somewhere in Keller — so lost that he pulled over and called police to get help. They came and gave him directions.

Sam made it to the parking lot where Michael was waiting and the two of them were supposed to follow each other to I-820, where they would part ways at I-35W.

I thought all was well and then Michael called me again.

“I lost him,” he said.

Every parent of a child with autism knows this terror. And now his brother was learning it, too. Michael recounted as much of the situation as he could, starting with the moment he realized Sam was heading down State Highway 183 the wrong way, and I was at a loss of what to suggest next.

Sam had turned his phone off to save battery life. That worried us both. Not only was he not communicating with us, we knew “Siri” wasn’t giving him directions home.

“Call the police. Make a report,” I told him. “We can’t do this. We need the village.”

A co-worker (one of several that talked me off the ledge today) offered to take me home and Shahla provided a bit of support via text. Meanwhile, Michael was making a report with the police. I so hoped that Sam would be parked in the driveway when I got home, but he wasn’t.

I put an alert on Facebook and started to regroup. I would take Michael’s car and meet him and the police in North Richland Hills where they were making a missing persons report. (Because Sam has autism, it would have gone out immediately.)

And then Sam came down the driveway. I called Michael. The police shredded the missing persons report Michael had just signed.

Sam's car parked in the barn formerly known as a garage

Sam’s car parked in the barn formerly known as a garage

It took awhile for the emotions to settle and the conversation to begin. Sam knew he had separated from Michael and had been going the wrong way down the highway. But he remembered the directions Michael gave and when he was sure things weren’t looking right, he turned around and went the other way. He stopped at a medical center to get directions, too, and then he headed home.

(So, Tim Ruggiero, not only pizza places, but also medical centers are good places to get directions, we learned today.)

We gave ourselves a list of things to do, like Michael joining AAA, and Sam putting GPS in his car with a “home” button, and me putting a hide-a-key on the truck, so that all our good deeds trying to help each other out don’t get so punishing.

And, a big shout-out to all of the mid-cities’ finest. You got to know autism today and you did well.