Stray Feelings

Sundays and I are quite familiar. Old pals, you could call us. A nice hot Cafe Bustelo cup, maybe a little oatmeal, and just like that, my morning is pretty well balanced. During the afternoon, I browse my phone for messages, usually my mother’s daily blessings and the boys trashing the Knicks’ latest performance in our group chat app, then, I scroll through Instagram for my fix on all things miscellaneous in the exhausting celebrity world and catch a good giggle at the recent goings on with distant chums. Later, the Internet settles my daily news dosage and Netflix wraps up the night snugly with a shitload of Scrubs episodes. (I know. I’m a late bloomer.) Altogether, Sunday is purposely designed as a relaxed and stress-free environment meant to soothe the transition into the following day, Monday, or as I like to call it, Satan’s weekly birthday.

This Sunday, however, was quite the anomaly. My girlfriend, Natalie, headed out to purchase dish-washing liquid and pick up her prescription meds from the pharmacy. Things would never be the same.

Some soulless son of a bitch left a puppy tied to a pole right outside Duane Reade in frigid, wet weather. The poor thing’s paws were bleeding from trying to escape the leash that restrained her. She was clearly starved as her stomach sucked up just beneath her back. Natalie’s frantic phone call dishes me the harsh details. I can’t find the words to articulate my confusion as to how someone would be this cruel and indifferent to an animal’s suffering. Any-who, she’s stuck on Southern Boulevard trying to figure out what to do with this dog now. She can’t leave it. She’s called Animal Control but their arrival time wouldn’t be for hours. So, I tell her to bring the little bugger home so it can wait in the apartment’s warmth and safety. We agreed I had to put the cats in the bedroom till the coast was clear. No reason to test the storied rivalry between the two breeds.

When Natalie finally returned, I realized the dog’s actual size was about quadruple that which existed in my imagination. I envisioned a fur-ball as seen on Animal Planet’s show, Too Cute(It’s cuteness overload for a half hour).  But, this wasn’t that breed. She was indeed a puppy, however, a pit bull mix puppy, beautiful yet scary all the same. I flashed back to the memory of the old man who lived on the fifth floor in my parent’s old apartment building. He was actually eaten by his own dogs. Although they were rottweilers, a frightened idiot does not differentiate.

After she licked both our cats food bowls dishwasher clean, she scurried back and forth throughout the apartment like a drug fiend waiting in line for a fix, her large paws scratching the floor. My first attempts to comfort her were avoided. In fact, if I raised my hand too fast, she would cower into a submissive position. Such behavior told us enough about her backstory to double the sympathy points. Still, I was unsure about this dog. I worried we had inadvertently put our cats in danger by temporarily adopting this pup, trying to save its life. That’s when the same thought populated both me and Natalie’s minds: Animal Control would probably put her down. They didn’t have a “no kill” policy. And the ASPCA didn’t take in her kind. She didn’t fit their criteria. No way we had brought this animal into our lives just to have her’s extinguished. We had to find her a home on our own. After all, we did have a “no kill” policy.

We had taken in our second cat, Flaca, the white and black apple of my eye, after Natalie’s aunt passed away. We were a mere hour from handing her off to another owner, my college buddy’s mother, but finding her a suitable home had birthed such a strong connection with the fluffy feline we just could not interrupt.

Here we were again, this time, with a dog facing neglect and death. We couldn’t leave anything to chance because her’s weren’t particularly good in the first place. We cancelled the Animal Control pick up.

Natalie filled a bowl with water and our next door neighbor lent us a bag of dog food to hold us over till we could make a Pet-co visit. We walked her around our neighborhood a couple times that night and she started warming up to me. She was already smitten with Natalie. Her playful side came out. She let me pet, hug, and kiss her. She even got along with Jarret, our male cat. Flaca hissed and swatted at her if she came too close. She likes to maintain a sniper’s distance, I guess. Chicks, I tell ya. Then, we fashioned her a makeshift bed beside our own from several towels in our storage closet. She snored like my father.

We put up Facebook statuses and instagram posts asking if anyone could accept her into their homes. Everybody empathized but no one bit. We realized it would be quite a while before we were successful, so our home needed to be as dog friendly as possible in the mean time. It was doggy heaven – dog food, a little bed, toys, and a new leash. She was loving it here in our home. But, we forgot both of us worked. No one was home till the afternoon – not exactly optimal conditions in which to raise a dog, much less a former stray harboring separation anxiety to the tenth degree. (I exaggerate for dramatic effect. I know nothing about degrees.)

The minute Natalie left for work the next morning, the dog’s incessant howling erupted. She howled, moaned, sobbed, and cried uncontrollably. She paced back and forth worse than the day Natalie brought her home. Her erratic, unpredictable behavior frightened me. She would stand up on her hind legs and lay across my lap singing what sounded like slave melodies in dog voice. It was disturbing, frustrating, and unsettling. I couldn’t get her to stop. Even after I walked her, she continued the painful sobs. I put away her food and water to avoid her having to use the bathroom while we were at work and crept out the front door. I could hear her crying from the lobby.

When I returned, she had redecorated the place. The garbage can was emptied in the kitchen. Coffee grounds, empty meat packages, used paper towels, and old food were strewn about everywhere. Her feces spotted the tiles in piles; a little by the lamp, some in the hallway, some near the door. The Christmas decorations were torn down. And in the middle of the big couch, looking at me as if to say, “What?! You returned?!”, was the stray.

I was enraged. I took pictures of the mess and sent them to my girlfriend. I zoomed in on the excrement. (My angry photography gets up close and personal). I could picture Natalie’s reaction at work.

Natalie: Shoes, hand bags, make-up, and hair accessories.

Co-worker: Sephora, The Rock, chocolate, and puppies.

Natalie: Speaking of puppies… (cell phone vibrates) Oh! That’s my man sending me sweet nothings in the middle of the day again!

Co-worker: He’s so adorable!

Natalie: Oh, wait. No, it’s just high definition dog shit.

It took me close to two hours to finish cleaning the apartment. My girlfriend apologized for the conditions but said this was normal behavior for dogs experiencing her circumstances.

I did some barking of my own to let the dog know that her actions weren’t right. She cowered and folded in her favorite spot by the heater in the living room until I was done. When we came upstairs from her walk, she was playful and happy again. By the time Natalie came home, things were smooth again. We decided I would have to hide the garbage from her in the bathroom so the same thing didn’t happen the next morning.

It did.

Even thought I emptied and hid the garbage can in the bathroom, there it was, now laying in the middle of the living room. More piles of dog shit and torn decorations. I sent a second batch of pictures to my girlfriend. I was stressed out. But, little did I know at the time, it only brought me closer to the stray.

That night, while cooking dinner, Natalie asked what her name should be.

“Libby”. 

Natalie teared up as she stirred the rice.

“Aww. Libby! That’s such a cute name for her!” 

“So, why are you crying?”

“Because I’m stupid”. 

The following day, I told Natalie I would kill time at Barnes and Noble before returning home from work. It was her turn to clean up Libby’s mess. But, that day her sister-in-law saw Libby’s pictures and decided to adopt her. Just like that. I discovered exactly how stupid I was at that very moment; tears streamed down my face at the thought of giving her away; the emotional roller coaster that had been her life would twist once more, another painful parental shuffle. Hurting Libby, even in this case, placing her in a loving home, was a heartache I hadn’t previously experienced. I imagined her wondering why we abandoned her too. How could we lower her defenses just to shoe her away? But, it was also much more than that. It was guilt.

I felt bad for choosing to stay outside the house that day, frustrated at the daily living room shambles. I felt ashamed that I had lost my temper and patience at the pup who knew no better. It wasn’t her fault. That’s when it all clicked, the tears finally making sense. I saw my younger self in Libby and my family in me. Instead of taking the time to understand and familiarize themselves to me, they found ways to push me aside, play hot potato to the curly, blonde-haired burden. The sisters I longed to gain proximity to never gave me a chance. The cousins I admired made fun of me. Therefore, ostracized from the people I most loved, I walked without belonging, a troubled and lonely sense that made me deeply insecure. Libby’s predicament had unraveled dormant personal pain that shaded in my blurry psychology, past and present as a relatively new step-father.

I rushed home to the beauty to walk her and kiss her for the last time. I told her I loved her and that her new home would be everything it should. There were children and another dog awaiting her arrival. Her days would be packed with the attention and energy she deserved. And as she hopped in the cab with her new family, tears sinking down my cheeks, Natalie and I knew we had did the right thing. We saved her. And in return, she had saved me.

Love you, Libby, aka “The Liberator”.

Delayed Epiphany

Life is a challenge to not only remain afloat, but swim confidently amongst the current of emotions, thoughts, and experiences seeking to wash us away. Every day we juggle what’s in our minds and hearts with external forces – relationships, news (good or bad), work, et cetera – that influence the decisions we make and sculpt who we become. None of us have a raft to rely on, and in the cases where we think we do, we’re really just carrying some baggage further complicating the circumstances. The inevitable embrace, facing reality in real time, is our saving grace. But, it’s simultaneously a graver task than most are ready to complete.

I was in the hospital for what felt like a lifetime and still no diagnosis had been declared. My mother’s nerves were gradually short-circuiting aside my adjustable bed as she awaited some clarity. So far, doctors and nurses had drained blood from my veins and fluid from my spine and attached me to a electroencephalography machine that recorded my brain’s electrical signals. If I experienced an episode, I was to press a button that would alert the nurse on staff to come and scan the monitor hooked up to the device. But, no useful signs emerged and all blood tests came back negative.

It was the summer between my sophomore and junior years at Iona College. I was set to begin work as a security guard at Yankee Stadium when an unstoppable facial tremble drew dramatic concern. My right cheek seemed to be dancing to techno music as it pulsed sporadically, confusing me and my niece who was visiting that day. I watched my face seizure in the bathroom mirror, puzzled, fist inside my mouth trying to pull myself back into symmetry. A visit to the emergency room at Montefiore Medical Center would uncover spots on my brain and prompt a prolonged stay in their facility. The sucky part was that I didn’t get the call to return till I was ironing my clothes for my first day at the new job. Initially, they released me as if everything would be fine.

My time in the hospital was marred by inconvenience. First, I was re-positioned to another room because the previous accommodation housed bed bugs. My mother had to disinfect our clothes and sanitize the room as a preventative measure. (Need I touch on the irony, here? I’m in a hospital for God’s sake!) Then, the resident doctor who performed my lumbar puncture couldn’t locate the fluid he needed to sap from my spinal cord, consequently making the process brutally long. Imagine having the doctor hit a nerve that makes your right leg jerk violently enough to kick a forty yard field goal. Curled in a ball, sweating and exercising my pain threshold to its limit with a five inch needle lodged in my lower back, I prayed the operation would end for my mother’s sake. Her sweaty palms clenched mine as she pleaded with the Creator to guide us through the ordeal. Things only worsened later.

Doctors had ordered CAT and MRI scans but unfortunately for me, the procedures weren’t done until I was recovering from my spinal tap, which left me with a severe case of spinal headache, a debilitating migraine catalyzed by too much spinal fluid leakage. Standing or even sitting up for too long greatly exacerbated the condition. The pain would easily push the Heavenly Father to take His own name in vain. Recommended resting time off your feet is usually days afterward, yet, here I was, no longer than half an hour later, being escorted in a wheel chair from room to room to stare at flashing images on computer screens while someone studied my brain activity chart for any anomalies. The throbbing in my skull felt like my brain was imploding in super slow motion. Think Michael Bay experimenting with CGI effects.

But, as time passed, visitors came and went – mostly family and a few close friends – and doubts began to infiltrate my optimism. I wondered how bad my condition really was. I felt as though the news was so horrible it was too daunting a task for any messenger. Notwithstanding my frustration, I knew the protocol in hospitals; the doctor has a responsibility to exhaust every possibility before reaching an accurate conclusion. As time-consuming as it was for the physicians to reach a verdict, it has taken me ten times as long finding the wherewithal to cope with their assessment.

The test results were indicative of an auto-immune disease that hinders the nervous system, essentially retarding the signals the brain sends to the body, called Multiple Sclerosis. Doctors warned me that recipients endured harsh neurological damage including limb weakness, bladder problems, impotence, fatigue, dizziness, impaired coordination, slurred speech, and blurry or complete loss of vision. Each person suffers from different deterioration so my symptoms would be varied and unpredictable. The only positive crumb was the fact that my condition was “relapse/remitting”, the disease’s lesser version which attacked in  temporary bursts called flare ups but then subsided. Proper medication could stretch my well-being to old age, although nothing was promised.

Even still, mentally, the news never quite settled, instead, it floated around like a plastic bag being pummeled by the weather on a windy day somewhere in my mind’s nether region; a dark truth I just couldn’t get a grip on. Perhaps, it was due to my recovery. By the time I was released, my symptoms abated. The facial tick was gone. Even the spinal headache disappeared. My strength and stamina returned and I even had sex with my girlfriend one of the last days I was there, realizing a fantasy I didn’t even know existed and quelling any lingering doubts about intimacy capability. So, when the dark revelation finally surfaced, confusion and numbness were my immediate responses. I didn’t understand the sickness entirely and I looked toward the future thinking only a few behavioral alterations were needed. No more heavy marijuana doses and passing out on my friend’s sofa after long drinking nights. Regardless, life should roll on rather normal because, ultimately, if I could live through the service in that hospital, nothing else stood a chance.

Here I am, nine years later, recovering from a relapse that seems to have left me with a souvenir to cherish for the rest of my life – numbness in my left hand that obscures every day doings – brushing my teeth, tying shoe laces, handling money, cooking, typing, playing video games, and so forth – and tingling in my left leg below the knee. The condition is called Paresthesia and it has put an indefinite strangle hold on my fitness goals, objectives I took very seriously and adapted a different lifestyle to obtain. Gone were the chips, sodas, and fast food. Enter the gym and evenings packed with circuit training and reading up on healthy alternatives. I wanted to look like a professional athlete equipped with the rippling physique that made women drool and guys want to hang out with me just to learn any training secrets. Despite such lofty ambitions, my dreams were crumbled up and discarded on the ground, left to be kicked around and stepped on by pedestrians. Now, I’m greeted by nightmares where I’m completely dependent on others, a vegetable, incapacitated and powerless; my worst fears rising like the tide in a sinking ship.

However, those same nine years have granted me the wisdom I once lacked. Granted, it took partial disability to galvanize my dumb ass, but, the very same truth I once tried to ignore in my immaturity has given me perspective as a young man. I see the winding road that lies ahead and I plan on hitting each turn in stride. Although I am not at my full capacity, and fear the disease worsening, I am grateful to be breathing and walking under my own volition. It might take me longer to type these words, but it’s a couple seconds more to evaluate my work, see it through better than before. My initial physical goals might never see achievement, then again, I did learn how to treat my body with the respect it deserves and feed it fuel instead of junk. That’s the battle’s harder half anyhow. I seek out my medication as opposed to allowing the complicated process of acquiring a prescription moonlight as an excuse to avoid taking it. Any help I can get, I will accept. And the added free time in my schedule provides a larger window to study the craft I was born to do: writing.

Things don’t fall into place, rather, they land very cavalier, either to your benefit or misfortune, all the same, it’s your job to adapt accordingly. Our perspective matters most. The way we choose to interpret life’s happenings is the deciding factor between health and ailment. Multiple Sclerosis isn’t a death sentence, nor is it the common cold. It’s finding the right balance in treating it that’ll best suit the carrier, like anything else.

I am not alone. There are others who suffer similarly. I am not defeated. There are people living with M.S. who have succeeded in their careers and personal lives. I’m just another one of those stories, hopeful and determined to endure.

Salute,

A. Johnson

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