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.

 

Advertisements

And then one day, they’re 10.

TEN

TEN.

Somewhere along the way, logic kicked in. Critical thinking showed up. And competitiveness planted a firm stake in the ground.

They went from hiding behind their father’s thighs to, “I want my own YouTube channel.” Excuse me? You cannot tell the nice waitress what you want to drink, but you  want to host your own online show? For the love.

The little boys are twins, but sometimes I refer to them as Big Brother and Little Brother even though they’re approximately seven minutes apart and Little Brother is approximately 1 inch taller than Big Brother.

Today they’re 10. This age marks my fifth year as their bonus mom, which means I’ve already known and loved them half their lives. The last five years have presented a rainbow of emotions, but I reguarly feel my heart lift up out of my chest when when I get to witness the emotional growing pains of childhood. When I get to watch confusion turn to comprehension. But also (and equally as important), when I have to stifle my laughter at conversations like this:

Big Brother: “Can I tell you what I learned today? To put other people first.”
Me: “Well that’s an important lesson. What are some ways we can do that?”
Big Brother: “Not thinking I’m the best one in the world.”

That’s a start, son.

At 6, Big Brother began a steadfast vegetarian stint — his own decision out of the clear blue.

“Is crawfish … meat?” he asked me one Saturday afternoon at a crawfish boil. I confirmed it was true. He kicked the dirt, but the boy did not give in. Little Brother wanted to know why they were losing precious playtime to this pouting, and Dad answered without missing a beat: “Your brother is struggling with his new lifestyle.” (That man slays me on the regular.) The meat strike lasted 3 months. Impressive.

Around 8, I watched Big Brother blossom into a voracious reader after a year of wrestling with fluency. This kid went from tears and slamming doors and “I hate books!” to Harry Potter’s No. 1 fanboy.  Did you know there are approximately 1,840,000 words in books 1 through 7? He’s read every one. That boy does not mess around.

And let’s talk about Little Brother, who once suggested we donate some money to children in Africa, “where many kids are born with a disease called claustrophobia.” God love him.

At 9, Little Brother vowed to have his future wedding at McDonalds “if his wife is cool with it.” He’d be a good husband, too, because he forgives quickly. Take this afterschool declaration, for example:

“I’m never forgiving Japan for bombing Pearl Harbor!”
(1 day later)
“I wish I lived in Japan because their candies are so good. Also, they have SO MANY vending machines there.”

Mercy, I tell you.

These tweens are incredibly self-aware, big-hearted and FUNNY. They’re creative, sensitive, and opinionated.  But they’re also very very different. One loves dancing and baking and books. The other is all about Legos and football and fidget spinners.

In a world of raging sound bites, theirs are really the only ones that matter. Happy birthday, my sons. Embrace the masterpieces you are.

 

 

When the courage and irony of parenting becomes loud and clear.

Sometimes it’s time to suck it up and do the thing that makes you uncomfortable. For me, it was writing this guest post for author Catia Holm on the irony of parenthood and drawing courage from unexpected places. Here’s a snippet:

For crying out loud

True confession: I hate loud noises.

I hate loud noises and I have twin stepsons. Naturally, loud is part of the package. “Loud” is in their bones. “Loud” is the very definition of who they are when they’re together. But the truth is that I seriously loathe loud. God’s honest truth is that anxiety shoots right up my spine at the first sounds of those inevitable screams between young brothers running through the house.

This so-called “noise sensitivity” is part of who I am as an adult child of an alcoholic, or an ACOA, as we call ‘em. Yeah, there’s an acronym for that. When unpredictable commotion is a regular part of your environment growing up, it can create a visceral reaction in pretty normal situations as an adult. So now I’m the grown-up. And my kids are the ones, well, being kids.

So I close my eyes when the disorder takes over. I take deep breaths. I talk myself down from that loud ledge of uneasiness when the twin tornado comes roaring through the living room. When the television is deafening. When it sounds like a herd of elephants are tap dancing upstairs. Sometimes it works. But sometimes it doesn’t.

The back patio provides some relief, although I can often hear the sibling rivalry from out there. And that’s when I ask myself, “Is it them? Or is it me?” It doesn’t take long to decide it’s me. I’m the adult after all. Or at least I’m supposed to be.

And then I pray for Patience to show herself. Thankfully, Wisdom is usually nearby to tap my shoulder with a gentle reminder that although our childhood experiences influence the present, they don’t have to dictate our reactions.

On one particular occasion, I sat on that patio in a panic of self-doubt, feeling angry and unfit to parent.

Read the rest of this post (including the cringe-worthy text message that slapped me with a dose of reality) at CatiaHolm.com.

One thing I know about marriage one year in.

Cristina-&-Brett-258

A year ago, I stood patiently waiting out of sight to marry Mr. Wonderful when one of my best gals turned to me and said, “You’re the calmest bride I’ve ever seen.”

I was calm. I took a look at the people sitting there waiting for the ceremony to begin. MY people. OUR people. They’d come all the way to Mexico to celebrate the Neel Nuptials with well wishes and wine and The Wobble. I was in awe of this gesture of presence – both simple and grand at the same time. It was the kind of warmth that flooded my heart with enormous gratitude.

Even then I knew that evening’s purpose was so much bigger than a wedding. It reminded me to keep showing up for my husband. Keep showing up for my sons. For my people. For myself.

Read the rest of this post at Austin Mom’s Blog.

cristina-brett-369

May we always be willing to be the light.

IMG_1436MADRID, Spain – This is Cybele Palace in the Plaza de Cibeles, a stately marble structure that used to serve as Madrid’s main post office. Today, it serves as city hall. When we walked around the corner and saw the message hung in front, I nearly gasped. This world is so broken. And we are so weary. But every so often, there is light to be found. This simple sign welcoming refugees to Madrid was a reminder that we belong to each other. May we always be willing to be the light for those who cannot see.

When ‘qualified’ simply means willing and able to love.

reyna headshot

Does this pic make me look qualified to write about motherhood?

Earlier this year, a friend emailed me with a link to an open call for writers and a note:

“Thought of you. I think they could use a different mom and family perspective.”

The link took me to Austin Moms Blog. Say whaaaaaaat?

A mommy blogger? I smirked. I was skeptical to say the least. Mostly because as a stepmama, I struggle on the daily with feeling like a legit parent. Even though I’ve watched our twins grow from preschoolers to nearly third-graders, it’s still hard to believe I’m in charge of little people sometimes.

And then, when it sunk in that this friend actually thought of ME when she saw “mother” and “writer” in the same sentence, I was kind of flattered. As a bonus mama, it’s easy to feel vastly underqualified to raise not one, but two small humans you didn’t birth yourself. But then again, what makes one qualified, really? Compassion. Patience. A sense of humor. Intense adoration for their father. Not a bad place to start, eh?

After all, many women are made mothers by children who were borne not from their wombs, but from their hearts.

The more I thought about my friend’s suggestion, the more I felt confident that I could offer at least some skeptical stepmoms or frustrated bio moms a positive perspective on blended families.

So I waited two weeks. And then I gave myself a pep talk and I applied. I submitted writing samples like this one. And this one. And then two weeks later, I thought the blog’s co-founder had the wrong number when she called and asked to speak to me.

Friends, I’m totally honored (and intimidated) to have been chosen to share my adventures in parenthood with other mothers. And it doesn’t matter how you became one – because what I’ve come to understand is that we’re all just learning as we go.

So now you can find me at Austin Moms Blog! Weeeeeeeird. Will you humor me and read along?

The red book.

mr wonderful
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.”

birthday surprise

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.