One More Light

This song by Linkin Park quietly destroys me every time.

February has been the worst month for as long as I can remember. It makes no sense that the shortest month would take the longest to pass by. It isn’t the beginning of the cold, dreary weather, and it isn’t the tail end either. It just sits in the middle of gray and crushes me every year.

Part of it may be due to Seasonal Affective Disorder, but while all of winter is generally more of a struggle than the rest of the year, in February in particular, I’m a shell of a person. Everything is hollow and cold and faded inside. It has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day or any particular trauma — trust me, I’ve tried to trace this weirdness to some tangible explanation. My husband says it’s self-fulfilling prophecy: I expect February to suck, so it does. He (thankfully) can’t understand the depth of it — or sudden lack of any depth of emotion at all. Every year I hope it’s better — I hope I’m better, healthier, happier. And when it turns out I’m not, there’s still a tiny sort of comfort in knowing I just have to make it to March.

March is nothing special. In fact, I’d say it’s my second-least favorite month. March is when the cold and the damp and the wind wear me down, but at least it’s in a more normal way that nearly everyone is getting worn down. I know I’m more alive in March.

Recently, January has added a day or two of February-level angst. It happened today, which got me thinking about this time of year. At least with the January days, I know exactly where it comes from. Three years ago, I lost someone to suicide.

I felt strange at first, claiming the loss as my own. It’s his family I’m closer too. But he was a light; even in the snippets of time I shared with him, I could see that. Sometimes I could recognize his darkness, too. Along with his death, I lost my old friends. They are the same and yet wholly new people. How could they not be, after clawing their way back to the living, forever watching where they step around the gaping hole that will never fill?

Suicide brings loss in many ways, not all of them expected. That’s something I learned three years ago.

The January punch-in-the-gut doesn’t always happen on “the day.” But in each of the past three Januaries, I have woken up feeling hollow. My mind replays little details from that time, as vividly as if it were happening all over again. I feel the carpet fibers under my fingers as I lay on the floor beside my bed, tears leaking into my ears. My throat catches, remembering how I called my mom and said “what do I do?” because moms are supposed to have all the answers, but what mother can fathom losing a child until it happens?

Today I feel both carved out and filled with everything. Tears coursed down my cheeks as I drove to work, and for a terrifying moment, I feared February had come early.  Then that song came on and I realized it’s my January ghost. He sits with me and reminds me to feel it all. The pain and the anger and the heartache. He reminds me of carpet fibers and clogged eardrums. Of his mom promising to shower and brush her teeth, even if she couldn’t bring herself to do anything else all day. Of his stepdad, hollow-eyed and deflated, trudging through parking lots with the dogs that kept them both breathing.

My chest cracks open and pain bleeds through my shirt and it’s all I can do to get through the day without crawling under my desk and sobbing, but I make it. I always do.

Because January is here to remind me how imperative it is that I survive February.

“Who cares if one more light goes out?”

So. Many. People.

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Man’s Best Friend

My family experienced a terrible loss last summer: a vanquished king. My husband’s first (thus far only) dog–yes, El Rey Louis Dandy–passed away. A constant loving, grounding presence in most of my husband’s life, gone.

I started to write this not long after Rey passed, but it was too difficult.

The thing about dogs is their loss is always unexpected. No matter how you prepare, no matter how old and frail and sick, no matter the decisions a family makes out of love and sacrifice. Nothing prepares you for the shock of the loss. A dog spends such a short time on this earth — completely insignificant amount of time, in the grand scheme of things. If our lives equal a blink of an eye, a dog is the muscle twitch preceding the blink. Most of our life is consumed by everything and nothing; rarely do we give huge chunks of it to our pets. For them, though, we are everything. Every second of their short life is focused on their owner. Where is he? Does she want to play? Will she rub my belly? Can I get him to share his food?

If you’ve ever been around a dog, you know what love looks like. A dog is content to sit and stare at you. I imagine they think things like “look at him, he’s so beautiful.” or “She’s mine and I just love her so much.” You’ve seen their tail start to thump the ground if their owner casts them a brief glance, their ears twitch at the sound of his voice.

They don’t seem to register rejection, or annoyance, or anger. They’ll skulk away for a moment, sure, but then they realize they aren’t with the love of their stupidly-short life and come trotting back to let you shoo them away again. They stare out the window or at the solid front door, always waiting, yearning, hoping for you to return.

I’ve known a dog to smile — teeth bared, breath snorting, tail furiously wagging — when anyone she loves walks into the room. I’ve known one to leave his treat beside my pillow, a Valentine’s Day gift. I’ve known one to follow you around and drop a ball at your feet and stare, waiting as long as it took for you to toss it for him. And he’d follow you still, with his big, brown, love-filled eyes, even when you never threw the ball. When I was small, our German Shepherd would lay perfectly still so I could use her as a pillow or a seat.

Dogs are selfless and glorious and perfect. And as much as it hurts to lose them, it would be sadder still to never love one.

 Enough Already.

When is enough enough? A man opens fire in a theater. An office party is interrupted by gunfire. A woman is murdered on air. A praying congregation is massacred. A classroom of children, slain.

A packed nightclub is riddled with bodies.

The world mourns. The world gets angry. Some call for a complete ban of weapons. Others insist arming the innocent would keep them alive.

The issue isn’t black and white. Why are we still making it so? How is there no possible way to find a compromise between all or nothing?

I grew up on a five acre farm in Virginia. I’ve fired rifles and handguns. I’m not afraid of them. My life has also been touched by gun violence. A friend of my parents–a police officer–was gunned down as she left work by a kid with two AK-47s and a grudge against the police.

She was armed; she may have fired back. A handgun is still little defense against an assault rifle. I don’t remember the details of the incident; I remember the after. I remember the phone ringing, and the sound of my mother falling to the kitchen floor, the noise ripping from her so hysterical for a moment I thought she was laughing. I remember my father repeating “no” into the phone, as if he could change the news.

I do believe in the right to keep and bear arms. I don’t think all the guns in this country should be banned. I do wonder how the hell the ban on assault rifles expired and no one has reinstated it. There’s owning guns, and then there’s arming oneself for battle.

As an American, I should have the right to not need to arm myself to feel safe. I believe my rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness should not be contingent on a concealed-carry permit. My safety shouldn’t have to reside in a handful of steel tucked in my purse or a bedside drawer. I don’t want to attend a class where my teacher or the students beside me have guns strapped to their waists. I want to walk into a classroom or a movie theater or a night club and not have to worry if these are the last breaths I’ll take.

I know safety isn’t guaranteed, no matter the precautions taken. I know at any moment, due to any number of reasons, the next breath I take is not promised. I’m not asking to be put in a bubble.

I am asking: what are we doing to make things a little bit safer? Because each time it happens, the “liberals” call for gun control and the “conservatives” frantically point to the Constitution.

A large group of prominent voices in this country is too quick to blame anything but the weapon. Of course, the basis of their argument is sound. The gun doesn’t aim itself or pull its own trigger. Blaming the weapon is like blaming a car for an accident or a pencil for poor spelling. I’m sure we’ve all seen the bumper stickers and t-shirts and whatever else making these sorts of comparisons.

But the argument shouldn’t end there. It shouldn’t be so simple as throwing up one’s hands and saying “it’s not the gun’s fault so you can’t take it away.”

So who is to blame? The answers to that question are cut and dry, both vague and appropriately specific enough to distract from the fact they’re just fluff: Criminals. Mentally Unstable. Radical Islamists. Domestic Terrorists.

I think we can do better than that, and we should be asking deeper questions. How do criminals get guns? Fine, you say they’re criminals and therefore obtain the guns illegally. What about the mentally unstable? Or those self-radicalizing terrorists who’ve yet to commit a crime? It is dangerously naive to insist that increasing background check requirements for gun ownership will only hurt the law-abiding citizens.

The San Bernadino shooters were law-abiding citizens, before they attacked their co-workers. The Uber driver in Michigan was a law-abiding citizen, until he went on a rampage. The Virginia Tech student didn’t have any priors, but he massacred a campus.

Maybe a more stringent background check would have picked up the ties to ISIS, the anger issues or the mental instability. Maybe, if in order to purchase a gun we had to complete an assessment on our home life, on the family members who may obtain access to our weapons, families in Newtown, Connecticut would be whole. Maybe denying guns to those on the No Fly list might have meant those hundred people would have returned home from a night of dancing, instead of ending up in a hospital in Orlando or worse.

As a law-abiding citizen, I would feel far safer if it took me weeks of assessments and checks before I was approved for a gun purchase.

Sure, criminals will still get their guns illegally. But rather than bemoaning that fact and wringing our hands, or insisting the rest of us should build up our own arsenal, doesn’t it make sense to look at the system and acknowledge it is broken? Wouldn’t it be a better use of our time and energy working to increase mental health rather than clinging to our guns without offering any solution? Wouldn’t it be something at least, just to tighten up the requirements already in place, take the worst of the weapons out of  private citizens’ hands, and make it that much harder for a currently law-abiding, as yet undiagnosed-mentally-unstable, bitter citizen to wrap their fingers around the very weapons we’ve been told will keep us safe?