This Was 36

In the past year on The Huffington Post, there have been a number of posts  by writers I admire encapsulating what their current age “is” to them:  Lindsey Mead with This Is 38, Emily Mendell, This Is 45, and Allison Tate, This is 39. These lovely pieces made me laugh, cry, but most of all….reflect.

Thursday is my 37th birthday.

I feel a lot of resistance to writing about 36. I am not one to look back or dwell on what was.  I am the client who says to the therapist, “Oh do we really need to get into all of that?”

I’d rather look to the future – to all the possibilities that lie ahead.  I think this is because I don’t like to be sad.  Because when I get sad, I get REALLY SAD.  And I am scared that if I go down that hole, I will never claw my way out.

But as I sit here right now, straddling two ages….I can’t help but think you need to reflect upon where you have been in order to know where you want to go. See? I’m more mature already!  And it’s not even Thursday yet.

This is me on my 36th birthday.  It was taken at a beach party in Scituate that was actually for the 4th of July, but I pretended was just for me.  It was a magical evening.  I look really happy because I was.  I felt 100% alive.   IMG_2392

For me, 36 was about my family: Phil, Emma, and Phoebe, and until January, our dog Ellie. This is the family I co-created, and before this year I am not sure I really grasped the hugeness of that – the beauty and joy and bring-you-to-your-knees challenges of having your own independently run familial operation.  Which is what we became when we moved from Philly to Scituate, MA, a town where we knew not a soul.

36 was “just us.”  A kamikaze trust mission. 36 was not running away from an argument because you are 30 minutes from the nearest Target and you forget where it is, exactly.

36 was realizing that sometimes you need to be the strong one.  36 was being the glue, the one that held things together.  It felt good to be the glue for a change.

36 was being a cheerleader; it was being more Tigger and less Eeyore.  36 was saying, “We can do this!” when you want to say, “Do we know what we’re doing?”  It felt good to be a Tigger for a change.

36 was being a caretaker.  It was spoon feeding your kid ice cream when she breaks her leg.

IMG_270036 was playing Barbies on the couch for hours.  It was using a chopstick to scratch that itch inside her cast, even though the doctor told you not to. 36 was spray painting a wagon Caribbean Blue so she could still perform her duties as flower girl at your best friend’s wedding.


36 was saying you weren’t going to cry at your best friend’s wedding, but then crying tears of happiness the entire weekend.

You remember all the years you didn’t cry at all, because you were just kinda numb.  So at 36, you are grateful for the tears, for the best friend singing Bon Jovi with the band, for the ability to feel real joy for someone else, all the way down to your french manicured bridesmaid toes.  Because for so many years you stood slightly outside the joy; you didn’t think you deserved to be in it.  At 36, you know that was a lie; that the only one who kept you on the bench was yourself.  So now you jump into the joy.

IMG_278836 was loving a dog through her final days, even though you never thought of yourself as a “dog person.”  It was letting her make out with you until you broke out in hives, letting her eat people food and lifting her up on the couch so she could watch TV.

IMG_348936 was lying on the floor with her in the vet’s office, crying and whispering “I Love you, Ellie-Dog” over and over and over until it was…over.  Your heart is broken, but you would do it all over again in a New York minute.  At 36, you see the tender beauty in having your heart broken.  At 36, you know this is a gift.

36 was about dreaming big.


36 was learning that sometimes dreams change.  Sometimes dreams become a horse of a different color. And you just have to roll with it.  You have to believe that the real dream is bigger and better than the one you manifested in your mind.


36 was wanting everyone to be ok.  And trying to make everything ok for everyone.  And then realizing that sometimes you can’t.  And you just have to roll with that, too.

37 will be different; I can already feel the shift.

Phil is finding his groove at work; he has his helmet on.  He is in it to win it.  He will be ok.

The girls are finding their feet back in PA.  Summer has healing powers.  They swim, do yoga in the driveway, sell lemonade on the corner.  I am amazed by their resilience.  They will be ok, too.


And when school starts, Phoebe will be in all-day kindergarten.  Those precious years of just her and I are behind me.  My little buddy, my co-pilot, my Pandora DJ.


So that leaves….me.

Me at 37.

I think it’s gonna be good.

I’ve got some ideas.

Stick around. I’ll let you know how it all shakes out.








I feel like I am torturing you guys with my tear-jerker dog stories.  But, every story has an ending.  I feel I owe it to you – and Ellie – to share the end of her story.

After a few days of watching Ellie decline, Phil and I decided it was time to end our dog’s life.  We called the vet and made “the appointment” for the Friday after Christmas.  Phil and I took turns being the one that freaks out and the one who says, “We just need to have faith that we are doing the right thing.”

But what does even mean?

Anne Lamott says that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.  I find this comforting, because the older I get, the less certain I am about anything.

On that Friday morning, I stood in the shower until the water ran cold.  I prayed, Please tell me this is the right thing.  Please tell me this is the right thing. This is the right thing….right? Can you send me a sign?

I have a deep but amnestic faith in God.  My signature prayer, the one I say every morning, is one of the ADD variety:  Good morning G-Money.  Please help me find you today, and then please remind me to look, or that I even asked you in the first place.  Amen. 

We declared Friday a “lump day,” a day spent lying on the couch like a lump.  Ellie, who in 9 years was never allowed on the furniture, got the best spot.


Phil and I picked Ellie out together, and we needed to say goodbye to her together.  Me, Phil, and our friend Jameson.


The walk into the animal hospital was surreal, Ellie still half-heartedly sniffing the grass as she stopped for a final pit stop.  Despite the vet’s reassurances, my silent prayer for help played on a continuous loop in my mind: Please tell me this is the right thing.  Give me a sign that we are doing the right thing.  

And then something weird happened.

Ellie was really Phil’s dog.  He is the master, the alpha-male.  As females, there was always a low level of competition between Ellie and I….a desire for Phil’s attention, I guess. When Phil would travel for work, Ellie would get pissed, and let me know by eating garbage, specifically tampons.  There has to be some symbolism to the tampons, right?


But as we sat down next to her on the floor of the vet’s office, she rested her head in my lap.  Not Phil’s, mine.  She looked up at me with those big, pooly brown eyes and with them said to me, “I need you right now.  Not as a substitute for Phil; you.  I need you here right now, holding my face.  And please don’t look away.  I need you to not look away.”

Maybe it was the whiskey talking, but I was pretty certain that was my sign.

The doctor talked us through the process as she injected the medication.  I held Ellie’s face and she stared into my eyes with a look of pure trust – so intimate that it almost became too much for me, and I was tempted to look away.  But I willed myself to hang in there.  Within what was probably a split-second – but seemed so much longer, as if in slow motion – I went from looking deep into her brown eyes to suddenly seeing my own face reflected in them.  And I knew that was it.  She wasn’t seeing me anymore. She wasn’t there.  As the deluge of tears ran down my face, I tried to picture her soul rising up and running….running like she used to, chasing a skunk like a bat out of hell.

Why did she come to me?  In The Art of Racing in the Rain, the protagonist -a dog named Enzo – says: “There are things that only dogs and women understand because we tap into pain directly from its source.”  Maybe that was why.

Or maybe she chose me because she knew I needed it.  I needed her to forgive me for flipping out about the tampons. I needed her to know that I loved her. I needed her to tell me that she was going to be ok.  And she did.

The next morning, after reading the book Dog Heaven with the girls for the 58th time, we decided to draw our own versions of Dog Heaven.

Image 1 Image 2

When we asked Phoebe to describe her picture, she explained: “Well, that’s me and Ellie surfing, and over there is Nannie and Aunt Terry having cocktails.” Of course.

Emma’s spoke for itself:


Much of the research I found says you should be 100% honest with your kids about death; that any watered down version is to rob them of the death experience.  Maybe.  But my gut feeling was that to describe euthanasia and cremation to my young children would be to rob them of something…of their sense of wonder, of their version of faith and God.  Maybe I will regret that decision one day, but right now I have to have faith that it was the right one for us.

John Lennon said: “I believe in everything until it is disproved.  So I believe in fairies, myths, and dragons.  It all exists, even if it’s in your mind.”

So if my kids want to put their faith in a dog heaven where cocktails are served and doggie treats fall from the sky into the peanut butter river, who am I to say that it doesn’t exist?

Five days later, I am still seeing Ellie out of the corner of my eye.  When I walk on the beach, I think every dog is her.  When I slice an apple, I wait for her to come running for her share.  Then I remember.  And the sadness is crushing.

But then I think about her running through grassy fields to the peanut butter river, and I smile.



In this season of Advent, I have been thinking a lot about waiting.

I am not a huge fan.

In fact, I hate to wait.  I am impulsive and impatient.  I make hasty decisions, especially when I am tired and my brain is too full.

I can be ungenerous with those who do not seem to be keeping a proper pace, a quality for which Phil is certain I will burn in Hell. I told him to go grocery shopping at the same exact time as every senior citizen in town, and then we can talk about Hell.

I hate to be late yet I always am – maybe because I fight time rather than move with it.

My impatience – along with my big ears and fear of clowns – has been passed down to Emma.  She came into the world exactly on her due date, waiting to be born.  Ready to get on with it.  Ready to crawl, to walk, to talk, to run.

Ready to go to school: “No kisses at the door, Mom.”

Ready to walk to the bus stop alone:  “Stop lurking in the driveway, Mom.”

She wants to know when:  When can I get my ears pierced?  When can I ride my bike alone?  When are we leaving?  When will we get there?  She is fully dressed – hat, boots, and backpack – by 7:43.  The bus comes at 8:35.


Phil and Phoebe don’t mind waiting.  In fact, if they wait long enough, they might forget what they are waiting for and move on to something else. Emma and I call it PST: Phil & Phoebe Standard Time. I spend a lot of time waiting at the door with Phil’s keys, his phone, his wallet.  Emma spends a lot of time waiting in the car. She hides books between the seats.

But out of all of us, our dog Ellie waits the most. She waits to be fed, to be walked, to have her belly rubbed.  She waits by the door when she hears Phil’s car in the driveway; she waits under the dinner table for Phoebe’s first fish stick to drop. She lets everyone else go first while she patiently waits.


And now, she is waiting to die.

In a theology class, I remember learning about the two types of time: chronos and kairos.  Chronos is clock time, the time we live in.  It is chronological, measurable, predictable.  It makes sense.  Bus comes at 8:35.  Karate is on Tuesdays.  Sun rises at 7:07.


The Greek word kairos means “God’s time” or “the right moment.” It is elusive and mysterious.  You can’t predict or control it – you have to feel it.  Nine years ago, Phil planned to propose to me on the beach at sunset.  Instead he dropped to one knee in my parents’ garage as I reached into the fridge for a Coors Light.  Why?  “It just felt right.”  Oh, Phil.  You just wanted that Coors Light.

Henri Nouwen writes, “Fearful people have a hard time waiting.”

That sounds about right. I am terrified.  I am afraid that Ellie is suffering.  I am afraid she is going to fall down the steps or slip on the ice. But really…I am afraid of what’s to come.  Of how bad it’s going to get.  “Anywhere from a few weeks to a few months,” is what the vet said.  It is one month today.  30 days. Chronos.

But right now there are still moments when I can forget.  I scratch her ears, she thumps her tail, and I forget that her bones are being eaten away.  I forget that her shoulders are disintegrating as we sit by the fire, with Phoebe deejaying on Pandora like any other day.  Kairos.


But when will it become impossible to forget?  We had to put baby gates by the stairs. Last week she cried when she tried to scratch her ears.  Yesterday she had a hard time breathing. What’s next?  Will she stop walking?  Pee in the house?  Stop eating?  When?  Tomorrow, next week, next month?  How will I know when it’s time to let her go?

“You will just know,” they say. “She will tell you when it’s time.”

Huh?  What does that mean? How will she tell me? And I never “just know” anything, ever. My sister-in-law had to tell me to go to the hospital when I was in labor because I thought I just needed to poop.

My friend Priya, who has known me and my specific brand of crazy for 30+ years, broke it down for me: “If you are questioning it, you’re not there yet.”

Ok.  That, I get.

I want a chronos answer to a kairos question.  But we are not waiting for the bus, here.  I am being called to a deeper waiting.  Nouwen calls it “active waiting.”

Active waiting means to be present fully to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening where you are and that you want to be present to it.  Our waiting is always shaped by alertness to the world.

Waiting actively changes what I see, what I notice.  When I wait fearfully, I hear Ellie’s labored breathing and think, Should I call the vet tomorrow?  When I wait actively, I notice how she lays her paw on my wrist, and I think, We are holding hands.

Chronos vs. Kairos.  There is nothing the vet can tell me that I don’t already know.  All there is to do is wait.  Do I wait in fear or do I wait in love?

John Grogan writes: “Such short lives our pets have to spend with us, and they spend most of it waiting for us to come home each day.”

Ellie has spent most of her life waiting patiently.  But this time she is the one who will go first.  And while she waits, we will wait with her.  Lovingly, reverently, gratefully, until she tells us it is time.  Kairos.


Sacred Downtime


Thanksgiving Morning –  Sunrise over the ocean

In her recent piece Musings on Comfort and Joy, Laura Munson writes:

Whoever you are, wherever you are,the holidays are bound to leave your heart in shreds at least a little.

I get this.

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, the edges of my heart were a little frayed.  I needed a sign around my neck that read: Fragile. Handle with Care.  The sudden death of an old friend and neighbor shook me to my core; I felt raw and vulnerable.  Our Thanksgiving plans were unclear – we vacillated between traveling and staying home.

Then we received our dog’s bone cancer diagnosis.  This news put our hearts in a choke hold.  Our chocolate lab, Ellie, has anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to live.  Phil and I sat on the floor of his home office and hugged and cried.  There was no question where we needed to be. We had to tell our kids that their dog was dying.  We needed to huddle up, hunker down, and hold each other close.

We needed what my good friend Gerry calls: Sacred Downtime.

The word sacred comes from the Latin “sacrare:”  to consecrate, set apart, immortalize, dedicate.  After a frenetic year filled with the buying and selling and moving of houses, it was time to lay down some roots.  To stop, breathe, and be.  To be able to say, “this is our first Thanksgiving in this house, and it will be Ellie’s last.” This year, we needed to do things differently.

That being said, memories of Thanksgiving run deep: a dining room filled to capacity: an abundance of food, wine, and familiar faces.  Trying to re-create the day we typically share with extended family just didn’t feel right.  Cooking an enormous turkey for the four of us felt kind of….depressing.

Munson writes:

Let’s change the way our holiday minds think.  Let’s look truthfully at what is comfort and what is joy.  And let’s create a save haven around us.

What would bring us comfort? What could cultivate joy when our hearts felt so heavy?

We sat down with Emma and Phoebe and said: “You are Pilgrims planning the first Thanksgiving.  What do you eat?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” said Phoebe.  “Pancakes.”


“And popcorn,” added Emma.


“What are you going to wear?” we asked.

“Pajamas!”  (Followed by multiple costume changes).


And what did Pilgrims do on this fantasy first Thanksgiving?  “They got massages.”


“They danced to Lady Gaga on the Wii.”


The ordinariness of the day soothed my shredded heart and frazzled nerves. Frederick Buechner says:

The sacred moments, the moments of miracle, are often the everyday moments.

Mid-afternoon, we all lounged around in the living room doing our own thing.  Emma reading her book, Phoebe playing with her Barbies, Phil and I flipping through the paper.  Ellie limped into the middle of the room, and with a heavy sigh, laid down at our feet.  I knew this was the moment to tell them. I ditched the pre-canned speech and five books I had ordered off Amazon.  What needed to be said just…came to me.  Just like that. Which, by the way, never happens to me.

“Hey Girls, we need to take extra special care of Ellie, because she’s really not feeling well.”

Emma looked up. “You mean for Christmas?  Like get her extra bones and toys and stuff?”

“Well…sure.  But really she just needs a lot of love.”

“Will that make her leg better?”

I looked over at Phil who was now crying into a pillow.  Apparently this was going to be a Steel Magnolias parenting moment.

“No.  She’s not going to get any better.  This will be our last Christmas with Ellie, so we need to make her feel really special and loved, ok?”

Emma’s eyes got huge.  “You mean she’s going to heaven, with Nannie?”


She got quiet and started biting her nails.  She looked up as Phoebe returned from the bathroom, naked.  Because that’s just how Phoebe rolls.

“Phoebe,” Emma began in her best Caring Big Sister voice, “I need to tell you something very sad.  This will be Ellie’s last Christmas with us.  Then she will go to heaven to be with Nannie and Aunt Terry.”

Phoebe, perplexed, put her hand on her cocked, naked hip and said, “It’s Christmas?”

Emma gave me a look that said,  Ahh, to be Phoebe, for just one day.  I gave her a smile that said, I know, right?  She went back to gnawing her fingers.

Then, as organically as the conversation began, it ended.  We made more popcorn.  We watched Bee Movie. The girls had a bath and then went to bed.  Just like any other day….but the best day.

Knowing that 24 hours of sacred downtime was probably our limit, on Friday we hosted a “Keep On Giving” get-together for some friends.  Typically party prepping in our house can get tense, simply because Phil is slow and I am frantic we move at different speeds.  But this time, as we chopped and diced and pureed side by side, there was an ease and rhythm in how we worked together.  It was, dare I say, peaceful.



“Peaceful” is not my usual set-point, especially in social settings.  I attribute this newfound zen to a sense of balance I gained from Sacred Downtime.

When I taught yoga, I often gave the cue root to rise: Find stability by rooting -not gripping- your feet into the ground.  Notice how feeling stable and grounded allows for expansion across your heart, and freedom in your upper body. Virginia Woolf said:

I am rooted, but I flow.

Carve out some Sacred Downtime for your family -and yourself – this season.  Root to rise.

The Nook

This week almost kicked Gratitude Month to the curb.  In a low moment I considered posting: “Life sucks.  The End.”

On Monday evening I ran into Shaw’s for a few things before picking Emma up from Brownies.  As the cashier scanned my items, a message popped up on my phone from one of my old neighbors in Pennsylvania:

Hey Jess, I am sorry to pass on some tragic news – Jen Stagnaro passed away this morning during her run.  She collapsed and couldn’t be revived.

“Excuse me, m’am, what is this?”

I looked up and saw the cashier staring at me, holding up a now seemingly foreign vegetable, waiting for a response.

“What?”  Suddenly I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing there.

“What is this? Is it like an onion or what?”

“No it’s……it’s a….omgwhatthefuckisthatcalled…..fennel.  It’s fennel.”

I somehow managed to pay for the groceries and get them into the car, where I sat in the dark for a while.  I read the message over and over, stunned.  Oh my God.  Jen.  Oh my God. My mind was suddenly flooded with images of Jen’s sweet face, her beachy-blond hair, her fair, rosy skin.

For the three years I lived in Malvern PA, Jen and I were friends and neighbors. I had the pleasure of getting to know her, her husband Mike and their three gorgeous kids. Sitting in the Shaw’s parking lot, memories played in my head like a home video: drinking wine with Jen at book club, waving to her across the gym at Body Pump, stopping for a chat when we were both out walking our dogs.

I pictured her two girls -blond, athletic, mini-versions of Jen- hopping my fence in the backyard on their way to a friend’s house. Her proud Facebook pics of her son Drew playing hockey.  Her supportive and thoughtful comments about something I had written – an opinion that meant a lot to me, coming from a teacher and bookworm like herself.  Oh my God. Jen. How the hell is this happening?

I moved through the rest of the night in a fog: pick up Emma, dinner, homework, bed.  I thought of my other Malvern neighbors, and how stunned and shattered they must be. Never before had I lived in a more tight-knit community: potluck dinners, pool parties, running groups and meal trains.  And Jen, always in the middle of these events, helping, contributing, making shit happen.  Sweet and strong.  Lovely and feisty.

I thought of Mike, Maggie, Annie and Drew.  How do they go on?  No, really.  How does that work?

My phone chimed and dinged with more messages from friends and neighbors.  One text from my friend Mo said:

I came home and hugged [her husband] immediately!  It makes you think, you know?

It did – it made me think about a lot of things. Just a an hour earlier, Phil had come home, having just heard the news himself.  He came up behind me as I sauteed some kale, put his hands on my shoulders and said, “Do you need a hug?”

I stiffened.  “No, thanks.  I’m good.”

I know, I know: What a frigid bitch!  What’s her problem?

I don’t know what my problem is – I have many – but all I know is that I absolutely did not want to be hugged, or held, or pretty much anything in the touching category.  This irked me, and continued to do so when Phil and I went to bed that night.

We read for a while on our respective sides of the bed, but when I turned out the light, I stayed on my edge, curled into a ball.  I could feel Phil’s eyes on my back, silently begging me to meet him in the middle…to lean into him, to spoon, settle into the nook.  On a night where he was hanging on by a thread in a world that felt so unsafe and tenuous, he wanted someone to hold onto.  So did I.  But I couldn’t.

Then, the next morning, as I was trying to make sense of this through writing, my friend Kari sent me this video.

Do we love harder?  Do we squeeze tighter?  Or do we pretend not to care that everyone we love is going to be taken away from us?

I fear the middle of the bed because I fear that one day Phil won’t be there to meet me.  So I try and beat him to the punch by pretending not to need him, by curling myself up into an icy cocoon, thinking that will prepare me, make it hurt less when my worst fears are realized.

But we all know it doesn’t work that way.

Yesterday we found out our sweet dog Ellie has bone cancer.


Our Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.  Not sure how I will ever say goodbye to those sad eyes. We have anywhere from a few weeks to a few months left with her.  This time will be filled with as much holding, hugging and squeezing as her fragile little body will allow.  That night in bed, after reading our books and turning out the light, I shimmied to the middle of the bed where Phil was already waiting, and settled into the nook.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

This week I am grateful for Jen Stagnaro.  I feel blessed to have known her and called her friend. I will always remember her smile, her dry wit, and her deep love for her children. Those memories will keep her light alive for me. Forever.

I pray that her family and friends hold on to each other a little tighter and say,

I will not let go.