I am a late bloomer. I was twenty-two when I had my first kiss. I was twenty-five when I graduated from college. Twenty-eight when I entered my first romantic relationship. Now I’m thirty-two and I’ve never heard I love you from anyone besides Mom. I’ve never lived on my own (without roommates), never had a career or even just a job I really enjoyed. I can’t help wondering how old I’ll be when I experience those things--if I’ll experience those things.
Most personal histories are weird and complicated. In those moments when I allow myself to indulge in delicious self-pity, I’m tempted to believe that my story is perhaps especially strange. I feel especially late to the game—every game. And no doubt it’s true I missed out on some pretty significant developmental experiences: junior high boyfriends, holding hands, fumbling kisses, telling someone you like them and having that like returned, telling someone you like them and not having that liked returned, and low-stakes first dates at the mall, when everyone was young and just figuring it out. Instead, I grew up self-isolating and had to figure it out on my own, trailing after everyone else, when the stakes—as well as the expectations—were much higher, always wondering in my darkest moments what’s wrong with me.
Now that I’m in my thirties, the passing of time feels so intense, it almost hurts. Sure, I hit some milestones I never thought I’d hit, but still, I’ve got no career, no place that feels like home, almost no relationship history and very little experience with so many milestones that feel like they should’ve happened by now. Sometimes it seems insurmountable, like I’m way too far behind to ever catch up. After all, by the time she was my age, my mother already had two kids and—in another two years—would have one more. Here I am—thirty-two and living with a roommate I barely know off Craigslist, still trying to figure out how to confront her about putting her dishes away and can she please be more quiet when having an overnight guest. Surely, I am too old for this. I feel like I’m running out of time to have a “successful” career, to meet someone, to start a family, to travel. Right now, all those goals feel so nebulous, so unreal, so out of reach, as I sit here writing from my little twin bed. They felt that way even before the extended lockdowns in California during the last year. Now they feel damn near impossible for myself and anyone else who didn’t hurry up and reach them prior to 2020.
For years I’ve joked that having a dog would solve 99% of my problems. A big, playful dog, preferably of the pitbull variety. Although I can’t really imagine myself married with kids, nor do I have any idea how to travel right now or how to “pivot” to a successful career, I can see myself so clearly as a dog owner, in a tiny house or even a van somewhere. I can picture myself that way, and it feels somehow right, like maybe I could have a good life after all, instead of just biding time until someday I might stumble upon a good life. With a dog, I’d have companionship and protection. I’d have someone who loves me, a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I think of those things, and I feel peaceful, content, even happy.
Growing up, my family took in several strays of all different types—a turtle we found in the neighborhood, a sick cat who showed up at our back door, hamsters, parakeets, etc. My brother and sister had dogs, but I never did. My mother tells me it’s because I never seemed particularly interested in any dog, but this doesn’t seem quite right; more likely it’s that I—as with so many things—did not articulate or perhaps even own my interest. I remember specifically one trip to the pound with my mother to find a little, young dog for my brother’s birthday present, and sure enough, I fell in love with this big, old golden retriever mix—big and old being precisely what we were not looking for that day. He was perfect, though—playful and loving, with deep brown eyes—and I cried when we left without him. I cried for the fact that I wanted him to be mine, but also because I feared he would soon be sent away somewhere to be turned into glue. I think my young, love-addled mind got a bit carried away, fusing together different horror stories about what happens to unwanted animals, but still, the truth was this retriever had been at the pound for quite some time.That was the first time I really fell in love with a dog,
Recently, I’ve fallen in love with another, once again in blatant disregard for my own self-interest. A pitbull named Oscar that belongs to a friend’s landlord. The friend lives in a guest house out back, so Oscar is always on the property whenever I visit. He’s big and warm and sloppy. He doesn’t understand the concept of fetch. He’s happy to retrieve something, but you’ll have to fight him for it. Or he’s happy to simply not retrieve anything at all. He lies on his back, tail wagging, and is ready for a belly rub, at any time, in any place, without any provocation, any word or action whatsoever on your part that would indicate even the slightest interest in rubbing said belly. He doesn’t care, though. He knows,, he’s irresistible, that it’s only a matter of time until you cave. Lying like that, he doesn’t look at you—possibly he can’t; so you can’t see his eyes or his face, which makes the whole position that much more comical—the only sign of life: the tail wagging ever and away. Whenever I sit on the ground or bend down to his level, he insists upon putting his face right up to mine. Close doesn’t seem to be quite close enough for him. It seems as though he wants to put all seventy plus pounds of himself on top of you, while he stares straight into your eyes. Somehow, there is always drool dripping from his mouth. Whenever there is even the slightest possibility of treats—and with me, the possibility is much more than slight—the drool becomes positively torrential, but even when there is no discernible possibility of treats, you can always tell where Oscar’s been by the puddle he leaves behind—usually on my pants.
I love that dog. I want one just like him—always, but especially in these last eleven months. Alas, I still live with a roommate, in a tiny two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment, in the heart of Los Angeles, and no dogs are allowed. I can’t afford to live alone right now, and even if I somehow landed a job or scraped enough money together, big dogs require a house and a yard, a space of one’s own. The kind of dog I’m dreaming of is not the kind that fits neatly under the additional $500 pet deposit. What I’m dreaming of is a space of my own, and a companion to share it. A companion who maybe can’t ask me to spend the rest of my life with him, but a companion who will, without doubt or question, spend the rest of his (or her) life with me and love me unconditionally. A companion who will want belly rubs and food and walks and for me to get out of bed every morning even when it’s hard, because it’s no longer just about keeping my own self alive—another living thing is depending on me. I would like that—to live for someone besides myself, and for those of us who never have kids and remain single, a pet’s the only way to do it.
To me, being a dog owner is more than just having a pet or checking off another milestone. It represents motherhood and possibility. It means freedom—for there is a freedom that comes with the responsibility and restrictions of being a dog owner. It means forging my own path, instead of just accepting the rules handed to me, my life as it currently stands—living big and independently, instead of continuing to live small. Being a dog owner would mean giving myself the gift of proving that I can love and be loved, the gift of being essential to the world and something in it that isn’t me. A dog represents independence, my own space, my own life, on my terms. Building companionship with a living creature, day by day, as opposed to waiting around to be chosen—kissing first instead of waiting to be kissed, taking responsibility for my life and another’s, staking a claim, making a decision, reaching out a hand to love instead of always hoping a hand—will reach out to me.
I don’t know if it will ever happen. I certainly can’t see it happening from where I’m sitting now. It’s hard not to feel like the future is going to be more of the same. I know I’m not alone in that feeling at this particular moment in time.. Realistically, what all is going to change for me by thirty-five or thirty-six that hasn’t changed by thirty-two? But, as evidenced by the last eleven months, a lot can change in much less time than it takes to get from thirty-two to thirty-five,. I once believed—even as it was happening—that my first kiss could never happen, and now here I am with many kisses with many men under my belt—for better or worse. That first kiss—as with many after it—set in motion a relationship that didn’t quite turn out as I expected or hoped, but it happened. If history was any indication, it seemed like it was never going but then one day— it did—it happened, and just like that, it became a part of who I am, a chapter in my story.
I am reminded now of the story of the tortoise and the hare, for I am nothing if not a tortoise. Good grief, I am slow. I wouldn’t say I’m exactly steady but getting steadier. Unlike the tortoise in the fabled story, I may not ever win the race But that’s one thing my life has taught me—it cannot be looked at as a race, for if it were, I would surely have lost long ago. But I’m still standing—not running maybe, but walking. And even still, there might be time enough to love a dog—maybe many dogs, maybe many things.
Love is, without a doubt, the most powerful force in this world.
I just felt all the cynics and “realists” roll their eyes collectively.
But, seriously, that is something I know to be true. You can call it cliché or cheesy or whatever you want, but there is no doubt in my mind that love in all its forms is the only thing that can transcend this life.
And I didn’t know that until I was faced with death.
I had been pretty fortunate throughout my life to never have to deal directly with death. My grandfather died in 1997, but I was only four years old at the time so I didn’t really understand it. As I grew up, I became more curious about him. I would watch old home videos he was in, ask my dad questions about him, try to find out about his time in the Air Force through the internet, etc. Even though I lost him so early in my life, I still felt this pull to him- like he was with me, sending me love and light along my way.
I was a freshman in college, when I first experienced death head on, and the true magnitude of love.
I got a call one day after class that my former church youth director, mentor, and dear friend Chris Camp had been taken to the hospital after having a seizure. At this point, he was only 28 and overall pretty healthy. I had no idea it could be anything serious.
After a short time, we got the diagnosis. A brain tumor.
I could not believe it.
I met Chris when I was around 13 years old. He had watched me grow up. He had always given me advice or provided a shoulder to cry on when I needed it. We had just gone on a trip to Disney World with the youth group May of that year. It seemed such a far cry from taking funny stone-faced Tower of Terror ride photos to suddenly visiting him in a bleak hospital room.
While his sarcastic and lighthearted personality hadn’t changed, seeing him attached to tubes and monitors made me physically ill. But I held it together for most of the visit until he hugged me and said, “I’m going to be alright. No matter what, I’m going to be alright.”
As I drove home in the rain, tears streaming down my face, I kept thinking, “Why couldn’t it be me? Why couldn’t I have the brain tumor so he wouldn’t have to suffer?”
I suddenly felt the gravity of life’s mysteries weighing heavy on me. I felt the fear of the unknown leaving me entirely. And I felt a glimmer of the true magnitude of love- a willingness to sacrifice my own life for someone else’s. Not to say there wasn’t anyone else in my life I would have done that for, but this is the first time I was confronted with that feeling.
For over a year, I watched helplessly from the sidelines- doing what I could to make him laugh or cheer him up when he needed it, celebrating with him in April of 2012 when his brain scan had come back completely clear, and mourning with him when the cancer returned in full force in June. We celebrated his 29th birthday praying there would be a 30th.
I got the call in early October, the one that everyone who has ever had a sick loved one dreads getting- The “If you’re going to come, you need to come now” call.
The last day I saw him he wasn’t conscious, but he moved and moaned as if he knew I was there and wanted me to know he could hear me. I held his limp hand and watched him breath slow, labored breaths. I told him I was sorry. I was sorry for all the times I was worried about whether or not the guy in English class liked me, or what dress I was going to wear to prom. I was sorry for not seeing the bigger picture and for not spending enough time with him while I had the chance. And then, I couldn’t help but laugh, because I could almost hear him saying, “I’m dying. Get over it.”
A day later, I was in rehearsals for The Crucible at Ole Miss. I heard my phone ring, and stepped out to take the call.
Even though I was expecting it, the words, “He’s gone,” hit me like a ton of bricks. I sank into the corner of the hallway and couldn’t move. What was I supposed to do? Go back inside with everyone whose worlds were still intact, those who hadn’t noticed everything was just a little darker now?
It was a pain like I had never felt. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I didn’t want to see or talk to anyone. I just wanted to curl up and forget.
But in the months and years to come, something magical happened.
It’s hard to notice the beauty of love while in the depths of grief, because the pain can be so overwhelming. But once the pain subsides ever so slightly, once you can hear their name without immediately bursting into tears, once you can celebrate the life lived rather than mourn the life lost, you experience the bountiful abundance of love.
I realized throughout my experience that even if I stopped thinking about him every single day, even if I forgot the sound of his voice, even if I forgot the corny jokes he told, the love I had for him and he had for me would never disappear.
I think life has a way of testing newfound epiphanies, because, while this was my first major brush with death, I certainly knew it would not be the last. And that test came this year.
My grandmother lived a full and healthy life when she was younger, but was plagued by a host of health problems toward the end. She was tossed back and forth between assisted living, the hospital, rehab, and hospice. She had memory loss similar to dementia, although I’m not sure if we ever got a clear diagnosis. She was unable to understand where she was, she had trouble breathing, and she wasn’t sleeping or eating. And on top of it all, she was diagnosed with COVID-19.
I wanted more than anything to be able to see her before she died. The last conversation we had was in the summer of 2020, and I just wanted to tell her one more time that I loved her. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to, as she died on January 10th of this year.
As much as I wanted her to stay, I knew she was in pain. I knew she had poor quality of life. And just like with Chris, I wished for it to end. In this, I was reminded of one of the fundamentals of love- If you love someone, you want what’s best for them, even if it isn’t what you want.
The morning after she died, I was out early walking my dog when all of the sudden it started snowing. It was beautiful and quiet and serene, and I found myself smiling so widely because I could feel her there. I felt her telling me that she was okay and no longer suffering, that she loved me and was now watching over me.
Death can teach us some pretty powerful things about our world and our lives, and yet we are so afraid of it. We don’t talk about it, and when we do, it’s in somber and hushed tones. But truthfully, I don’t think it’s death we’re afraid of. I think it’s the feeling of no longer having that person in our lives. It’s the feeling of the absence of love. And I’m here to tell you that the love will never be absent.
Energy can neither be created or destroyed. So regardless of the circumstances of death, the impact of someone’s life makes a permanent imprint on the earth through the love given and love received. It can never be destroyed.
With Chris, my grandmother, and everyone I’ve ever loved who has passed over in this life, I realized we will always be tethered to each other, as if they are just in a different room rather than a different realm. And love is that unbreakable tether.
The love that permeates through our being will always remain, no matter what.