Love is a four-legged word.

I had to say goodbye to my beloved Lucy Lou after 14 years of her steadfast presence. Today, I honor her here — the only way I know how.

It was near the end of 2004 when my dad told me his dachshund, Sissy, had had puppies.

“When are you gonna come take one?” he’d ask me about once a week until I relented. I figured at age 24 that I was pretty much an adult and that it was about time I had a wiener dog of my own. I never even considered another breed. I’d grown up with wiener dogs, as had he. So on my visit home that Christmas, when the puppies were 8 weeks old, I chose the little girl with the white star on her chest — the only female in the litter — and a pink nose to boot.

She was named “Lucy” for my favorite Beatles song, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and I promptly introduced her to the namesake track on my CD player as we drove home to my small apartment in McAllen, Texas — just this tiny puppy and I — not knowing how much we needed each other.

There, she’d spend the first year of her life nibbling my toes, shredding my shoes and following me from room to room, offering a wet nose and a warm snuggle during a particularly isolating bout of depression. I had no idea then how many more times she’d see me through a fog.

img_4733It wasn’t long before we moved to New York City and Lucy adapted quickly to the concrete jungle, winter snows and subway rides.

She was my solace during countless life transitions, and that cross-country move was no exception, throwing me curveballs in the form of big-city culture shock, financial stress, unexpected homesickness and a painful break-up.

We returned eventually to Texas together, where she’d spend the next 11 years seeing me through life in Austin, starting with a major career change, a couple of questionable relationships, layoffs and a death in the family. My 13-pound pup may as well have been a hundred-year oak, always holding ground for the both of us, and forever revealing her eccentricities.

img_4734Lucy was the only dog I know who adored baths, oddly eager to be doused with water. It wasn’t uncommon for me to walk into the bathroom, turn on the light, and find her sitting patiently on the bathmat, forgetting that I’d said the word “bath” aloud 20 minutes earlier and triggering this very move. I can still see her long wiener-dog body in the tub, nose to the sky and eyes closed, letting the water wash over her face like rain.

Lucy was known to sunbathe by the window, seeking out warm patches of light for midday naps. Her favorite snack was a crunchy carrot. She loved pulling the fuzz off of tennis balls and would often look up at me with a lime green beard, cocking her head in confusion at my laughter.  She enjoyed scrambled eggs on Saturday mornings. And she was laser-focused on decimating any toy with a squeaker, leaving a trail of stuffing in the aftermath of her joy.

My girl knew how to enjoy her own company.  And aimg_0032-1side from one preferential Pomeranian named Sophie, Lucy was not a fan of other dogs — or other people for that matter. When I attempted to socialize her, she chose instead to run a perimeter around me to make sure other dogs and their humans knew I was hers.

Friends who dog-sat her in their own homes knew my well-meaning, but poorly mannered pup would act like she owned the place within minutes of drop-off, trotting around like a queen, taking over beds that didn’t belong to her and stockpiling toys that weren’t her own. I think she took pleasure in embarrassing her mama as punishment for leaving her behind to travel. But whether I was gone for four days or four hours, Lucy always welcomed me home with the enthusiasm of an over-caffeinated army of soccer moms. She was an unabashed licker and she loved me as much as I loved her.

img_0360By the time we met and married Mr. Wonderful, Lucy started to slow down, as though she knew her tour of duty was coming to an end. She served me loyally for over a decade before her body started to give out.

My sweet girl defied multiple spinal injuries before succumbing to partial paralyzation, but we opted to extend the quality of her life for a few years with a pair of spiffy new wheels I often referred to as her chariot.

Yet as handi-capable as she was, I could see that Lucy eventually became stuck in a cycle of re-injury, pain, and anxiety that just wouldn’t resolve. I hated keeping her hopped up on meds every day knowing her quality of life wasn’t going to improve any further, so I made the gut-wrenching decision to say goodbye to her after 14 years of the good life.

img_9184My heart never felt more exposed than it did when I stroked her head on her last day as she took her last breath. Mr. Wonderful and I stayed with her for a long time — in disbelief at the loss of this little dog that took up so much space in our hearts.

Having a soft heart in a cruel world is courage, not weakness, I’m told. But grief can be suffocating when my mind recalls the image of her tiny eyebrows rising every time I walked in the door. And sorrow surfaces in the absence of her presence. When the clicking of her nails can no longer be heard on the hardwood floors.  When I wake up on auto-pilot, ready to fill the food bowl that’s no longer there. And every time I walk by the nook where her bed used to lie.

If vulnerability is the birthplace of change, then Lucy’s last gift to me is an appropriate dress rehearsal for motherhood as I anticipate the arrival of my daughter in a couple of short months — a terrifying and beautiful transformation that I know will crack me open even wider still. It’s the first life-changing transition I’ll weather without my wiener dog-shaped sails.

Goodbye, Lucy Lou. You will always be my sunshine.

 

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Instant gratitude: Just add water.

IMG_8069Years ago, Mr. Wonderful and I decided to take an annual trip on our anniversary. It’s our way of honoring and acknowledging the date, of course, but also an investment in our marriage. Adventures are the elixir for passion after all. This year, we hopped a plane to the Caribbean and made Caicos our home for a few days.

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On 7/11, we spent the afternoon on a floating tiki bar mesmerized at the electric blue water below, and I had to pinch myself. Is this real life?

Our captain, Mario, and his sidekick served up cold rum cocktails on board while navigating down the coast to a steel drum-filled soundtrack of island tunes.IMG_8101 Our little vessel floated east along North Caicos toward Little Water Cay, also known as Iguana Island, and home to the endangered rock iguana.

IMG_8046We took a break from the Caicos Passion Punch to admire a friendly southern stingray in the transparent waters below. A couple of egrets and pelicans tolerated our pointing as well.

What a gorgeous day to celebrate this adventure.

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Signs he might be your soulmate.

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The secret to a healthy marriage: Thumb War

The definition of a soulmate is subjective, of course, but I’m convinced we have many soulmates in our lifetimes – male and female alike. These are people who have left an indelible mark on our lives, passing along wisdom in some season when we needed it the most. And in my experience, these soulmates mostly show up in one of two forms: calm or chaotic. Some fleeting. Some enduring. My husband rides the calm and enduring train – with hilarity and harmony always one stop away. His telltale soulmate signs show up in all kinds of places. Here’s how I know:

1. He might be your soulmate if: He doesn’t bat an eyelash when you tell him he’s gonna have to dry off post-shower with one of the two flimsy beach towels we own because I donated all of our bath towels to the dog shelter. (Our wedding registry later solved that one.) Thankful.

2. He might be your soulmate if: He seeks out $5 toothpaste in an attempt to help you avoid a common ingredient known as sodium laurel sulfate because he knows it irritates your extra sensitive skin. I can only picture my sweet scientist reading the fine print on my behalf. Ditto on sunscreen, shampoo and soap. Salud.

3. He might be your soulmate if: You get stumped with hard parenthood questions, like “What’s a pimp?” and he fills in the gaps without missing a beat. (Hint: “I don’t know” is apparently an acceptable answer.)

4. He might be your soulmate if: He dutifully doles out your wiener dog’s meds when you are out of town. Bonus points if he admits it’s good practice for when you get old. Wait …

5. He might be your soulmate (and a damn fine gentleman) if: He still opens your car door. This is major and I still gawk incredulously every time he does it.

6. He might be your soulmate if: He puts his cologne on OUTSIDE because he knows the lingering smell inside the house is a migraine trigger. God bless him.

7. He might be your soulmate if: He can untangle your bird’s nest of necklaces.

8. He might be your soulmate if: He celebrates the mundane with champagne. Shout out to Living Room Dance Party and Pajama Battleship.

9. He might be your soulmate if: He lays the cooking compliments on thick, even when it ain’t so good. (I see you, Sugar-Free Muffins, and I WILL perfect you. Or not.)

10. He might be your soulmate if: He cleans the bathtub because he knows how much you hate to do it yourself. (Sing hallelujah.)

11. He might be your soulmate if: You catch him cradling your dachshund and singing nonsensical songs into her ear. (This goes for toddler nephews, too.)

12. He might be your soulmate if: He cooks. Even if only once in a blue moon. True love is waking up to the smell of breakfast. But true love at its very finest is finding your beloved standing over the stove, pan-searing a slice of watermelon in an attempt to surprise you with a bite of the delicious fruit you haven’t tasted in nearly eight years. (Background: You’ve picked up by now that my immune system struggle is real.) Melon is one of the many fruits that will not cooperate with me. After years of enjoying it hive-free, my body hit shuffle on food allergies and added the sweet summer staple to the already long list of raw foods I must avoid. The good news is that apparently cooking these jerks will break down the live enzymes that cause my allergic reaction. Enter Mr. Wonderful, who knows I miss melon the most. He wasted no time throwing a slice on the stove and serving it up for testing. Verdict: Soggy, but sweet. I’ll take it.

13. He might be your soulmate if: His gifts communicate he’s on board with who you are. Case in point: Jesus Feminist – a book I never mentioned was on my private Amazon wish list. After I unwrapped it one Christmas, it planted a mustard seed for what became a thought-provoking, Biblically focused book club with a round table of other “Jesus feminists.”  The moral of this story is: If he welcomes, supports and challenges some of your views on the world, you’re in good hands.

14. He might be your soulmate if: He surprises you with a mango Icee or a snickerdoodle cookie because he knows they are your foodie Kryptonite.

15. He might be your soulmate if: He utters sentences like, “It’s been a long time since we’ve done an 80s night.” Man after my own heart.

To be continued …

The red book.

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Photo by Dennis Berti

Three years ago today, Mr. Wonderful and I had our first date. Two weeks later, I invited him to join some friends and I to celebrate my 32nd birthday. Admittedly, I was a little bummed when he told me he’d be out of town during the festivities because I was eager to show off the “Hot Neighbor” I’d told my friends about. (That was our behind-his-back nickname for a solid two months.) But it was so early into our relationship that I kept my expectations for Hot Neighbor in check – and chalked up his apologetic decline to bad timing.

When Celebration Sunday came around, I spent the entire day in the company of good friends. A lovely brunch. Sangria. Late-night pizza. We even capped off the night with a little dancing on a school night. All my people were there and my heart was gorged with gratitude.

My best friend dropped me off at home around 11 p.m. and I walked the three flights of stairs up to my apartment – still smiling on the day’s events. That’s when I saw a brightly colored gift bag on my doorstep next to an enormous bag of M&Ms tied with a gold bow. I read the card attached:

“Happy birthday, beautiful. I’m positive I missed a good time.”

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I clutched my chest like I was having a heart attack.
No.
Surely not.
It can’t be from him.

But it WAS from him. And inside that bag was a red leather journal. That’s when I knew this was a man after my own heart – presenting me with all those gorgeous blank pages after having known me a mere two weeks! I couldn’t believe it.

I turned to that journal regularly after that, and in it I wrote about our experiences together. I recounted our travels. I shared fears. I wrote a poem. I told him about all the ways I was grateful for him. I expressed insecurities about my new role as a bonus mama. I made a list of things I loved about him. I thanked him for pursuing me at my most skeptical. I documented every detail of his Christmas Day marriage proposal and  admitted that I could hardly wait to be his wife. In blue and black ink, I poured my heart onto those pages for nearly three years.

Love can sure bring out the 16-year-old girl in you.

Last month, I took that red leather journal to Mexico with me. On the morning of our wedding day, I wrapped it carefully in tissue paper and hid it in our Cabo San Lucas hotel room for my groom to find after I’d gone to get ready.

That old birthday present had become a leather-bound record of our romance. And that record of our romance became my wedding present to Hot Neighbor, Mr. Wonderful, my husband.

 

The story behind the confetti.

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Photo by Dennis Berti

This moment stands out the most about my wedding day. Surrounded inside that tunnel of family and friends, I stood utterly amazed at the sheets of confetti that rained down on me and my groom. It was as though time slowed down for just five seconds. And I knew she was there with us.

This confetti, you see, came from dozens of cascarones made by my late grandmother. Making confetti-filled eggs was her most precious pastime. The woman didn’t knit or do crosswords. Her lifetime hobby was making the brightly colored cascarones to sell at Easter time. When she passed away two years ago at 91 on the night before Easter Sunday, there were cartons upon cartons of the little gems left over. (I like to think she made it home just in time to celebrate with her creator. Perhaps she cracked one of her favorite “watermelon red” cascarones over some other angel’s halo.)

Last winter, Mr. Wonderful asked me to marry him and I imagined our wedding. More specifically, I imagined the send-off celebration. I knew we had to break out those hand-painted eggs full of her hand-cut confetti. I wasn’t quite sure how we were going to pull it off, but Mom promised she’d get five dozen cascarones to our destination wedding in Mexico.

I crossed my fingers the delicate shells would go unscathed as airport baggage handlers tossed luggage onto a plane headed from Austin to Cabo San Lucas. I held my breath knowing Mom would have to get them through Mexican customs. As “animal products,” would they be considered agriculture and therefore prohibited and confiscated? This very important tribute to my grandmother rested on a game of red light, green light.

And then, GREEN.

We did it. SHE did it. And it was positively magical.

In plain sight: My Good Friday experience.

I stood in line behind him at the dollar store. It was Good Friday and I was waiting to buy some Easter grass when I noticed the man’s oily brown hair underneath a black cap. I saw the dirt-stained backpack, twisted at the straps. I saw the unwashed jeans slung low on his waist. In his left arm, he cradled a package of toilet paper and some razors. He turned around and smiled at me.

“It might be a little while,” he said, holding out his right hand to show me the fist full of nickels and pennies he planned to hand over to the cashier.

“Well, we can just put these all together,” I told him, pushing my items forward on the counter.

He looked at me, surprised.

“You don’t have to do that.”

His dark blue eyes were wet now.

“Oh, I don’t mind.”

My heart started beating faster – the same way it does every time I see someone in need. I wanted to do more. I wanted to step out of line and fill a basket of canned goods from the aisle behind me. But I didn’t. Instead, I swiped my debit card for $5.41 while he stood aside and waited politely.

A minute later, I watched as he unzipped his backpack and stuffed those 4 rolls of toilet paper and a pack of razors inside – right next to everything else he owned.

“Have a good day,” I said.

He nodded. His head hung low.

In those eyes I saw gratitude. I saw someone’s father. Perhaps someone’s son or brother. Though I might never know his story, I do know that he matters.

I walked to my car and by the time I turned around he was gone – the image of those dark blue eyes deeply ingrained in my Good Friday memory.

The gal upstairs wins the lottery.

This is kinda like one of those stories you hear about someone who bought a lottery ticket and then misplaced it. And then months later, they found the ticket under a pile of clutter and slowly realized the winning numbers were just out of reach all along. Kinda like that.

The Gal Upstairs is what my fiancé called me during the first few months of our courtship in late 2012. “Gal” is one of his adorable East Texas nouns. There are many.

He texted me one September morning while I was at work: “Will you be my gal for the weekend?” I laughed aloud in my cubicle.  It was a Wednesday and he was already thinking about the weekend. I smiled, knowing that was his country way of letting me know he wanted to spend more time together.

My future husband lived just two floors below my apartment for an entire 14 months before I ever laid eyes on him. Our assigned parking spots were marked right next to one another, yet more than a year had passed before so much as a “good morning” was exchanged.  The easy explanation is that he works nights. My schedule is opposite his. Naturally, we missed one another coming and going. But I decided later that Timing was just taking a very long nap – for my own good really.

The truth is that God wasn’t done schooling me. There was something very special about 2012. That January, I set very aggressive goals financially, spiritually and relationally. By June, Progress had shown up in curious form. I’d finally managed to close a couple of very heavy doors and take notice of an open window. (This is the part where I say the window had been open the whole time. Of course.)

So when I finally did meet Mr. Wonderful on that sweet summer day at my apartment swimming pool, I asked if he lived nearby. That’s when he pointed directly behind us – to my building.

“Been here ’bout a year.”