“You can’t make a hound dog out of a poodle”. That is what my beloved Tom, my first husband, would say, shaking his head, as I tried, over and over, to prove I was capable enough to be a hard-working farm wife. He would laugh and admire and lovingly scold me for pushing too hard. I would push harder, to prove him wrong. “I can do whatever I want to do!”, I would say, as he chuckled to himself and lifted the grain sack I was struggling with, and did it with one burly arm, just to rub it in. I hated that I could not push the “man killer” plow, or hoe in the hot Carolina sun, so I worked long hours when I was strong, between shutdowns of exhaustion.
Tom had icy, piercing eyes, of the palest blue, with surprisingly dark brows, long flaxen blonde hair, ruddy tan skin, and was tall and strong, artistic, and extremely intelligent. He reminded me of a beautiful palomino horse, with that coloring and muscularity. I had fallen in love with him in high school, and he was my first love. As beautiful as he was, he was odd and not popular, and had strong opinions he was not afraid to voice. He made enemies. I was startled that he saw through the prettiness of young me, right from the start, and fell in love with the me, the true me, the one I hid. We recognized each other. We married, lived on a small farm in North Carolina he was heir to, and were so very young, happy, in love, and full of potential.
I milked our goats, gathered eggs, used a scrub board, made a home for us, waxing the wood floors with a cloth-wrapped brick. I tended the closer yard of fruit trees and flowers and berry patches. I helped with the plantings in the rush of cooler Spring, and stored the food in Fall. I fed chickens and tended the chicks, cats, dogs, but not the stinky pigs. I gathered wild rose hips and herbs to keep illness at bay, and learned to kill water moccasins and chase off predators, and to reluctantly shoot the 410 shotgun and keep it near, for there were black bears, there at the edge of the Dismal Swamp, who didn’t always want to share the land with us. I did not work the fields, or gig frogs in the pond, or clean the fish we caught with cane poles, or hunt for deer with Tom, but cooked it all admirably. I was a city girl from New Jersey, all 99 lbs of me, and I burned in the hot Southern sun, and fainted in the fields. I hand sewed long farm dresses and aprons to work in, practical, comfortable, and pretty. I had never been strong, and often got sick or weak, what could be called “frail”, and I hated that, and lived in denial of it every moment I was not hacking from bronchitis, buckled over from a belly ache, or frozen from some new mystery ailment. I had times when all my body and thinking brain would just stop working, and I could not speak or take command of myself. Sometimes I would cry or lash out in frustration, I would feel robbed, robbed of my happy life, full of shame for missing opportunities, not meeting obligations, and not living up to my full potential. Or was I? Maybe this was my full potential, and I should just give in to being of a sensitive, delicate nature, not able to do. Nah. Nope. Not gonna do it, as much as I sometimes just wanted to give up and be lazy. That voice in my head, that afirmation imprinted so deeply, telling me I was strong and could do anything, made me get back up and do. I am happy when I do. No one can push me to do. I can only push myself. I think a lot of autistic people do best if you just tell them they can do, let them know what needs to be done and why, and then get out of their way.
Tom would carry me in from my stubborn attempts at the fields, let me be still in the cool quiet of a dark room, and called me his gypsy, and was sure that spirits were calling me away, that I needed to dwell at times someplace else. He respected that, and the wisdom that he found in me that seemed to come only from those quiet other times. Strange wisdom aside, I just wanted to get the dishes done.
We went to college, too, on top of working the farm, and yearned for children. I miscarried, badly, losing twelve more pounds from my small frame. Two weeks later, while Tom worked hard to pick up the slack as I recovered, he found he was urinating blood. He had a malignant tumor in his urinary bladder. It was removed and treated, but he need painful cystiscopic exams every six months, for the unforseen future. We wanted a child even more, a legacy to our love, our masterpiece, and lived each moment far too aware that our time together could be fleeting. I miscarried again, before having our stunningly healthy nine and a half pound baby boy. Mission accomplished. Bliss.
Many things happened, for, while I am not “accident prone”, I seem to be “incident prone”, at least at that time in my life. I’ll skip all that for now, and continue with what happened six months later.
One morning, six months after Nathan was born, while I cuddled in bed, nursing our beautiful son, Tom kissed us goodbye, saying he loved us, reminding us that we were everything to him. He left. That evening, he was to bring his best friend home for dinner, and I was excited to fix something extra special, and he would be back at seven. He was always precisely on time.
So when there was a knock at the door, precisely at seven, I assumed he forgot his key. I opened the door, and was startled by the policeman standing there, when it should have been Tom. There was an car accident. It was bad. Tom’s friend was dead and Tom began the long journey of severe permanent brain damage, before finally dying five years later. He never was to live with us again. I was twenty one, and Tom a year older. I was autistic, unskilled, nursing a child, uninsured, alone, with no car and a husband needing me at the hospital, a baby at home. My mother was not there for me, for my father was dying of cancer at that time. I was not there for her, either. We both had our hearts completely smashed through the helpless vigil of incapacitated husbands.
There are some chapters in life that divide all time. My life and who I am is forever divided into before and after Tom’s accident. I will never drop his flag. As I rest here, today, after once again pushing myself too hard, doing far more than I should, happy, in love with Doc, in my little beach cottage, I am warmed by those words of my strong Palomino, and let myself feel the tough, long scar on my heart. “You can’t make a hound dog out of a poodle”. Perhaps not. But maybe, at times, I can be one heck of a poodle. Tom, I know you’re proud of me.