The Dog and the Pencil
Love you, mom
This post contains discussions of grief and loss.
“The dog peed on my foot.”
That was the sentence my mom used to teach me how to spell and write, a pangram of sorts perfectly tailored for the brain of a second grader. Depending on the weekly spelling list for my class, the dog might have been lazy or blue or furry or sneezing instead of peeing, but no matter the verb or adjective, the dog served the same purpose.
For more than 15 years, I have thought of that damn dog whenever I reflect on my relationship with reading and writing. And ever since my mom died last month, the peeing dog has taken on a new level of symbolism. I have come to see it as a four-legged representation of the love and care my mother had for me.
Despite raising four kids, three of whom are younger than I am, my mom always took time to do homework with each of us individually. In between adapting the dog to my vocabulary words, she would run through subtraction tables with my brother and shapes and colors with the twins. The five of us gathered around the kitchen table, workbooks and folders in hand until we finished our homework and were released for the evening.
As I grew older and required less supervision in order to complete my academic work, I still found myself coming back to mom for feedback. The dog was retired in favor of the Pencil of Death, her dreaded weapon of choice for reviewing DBQs and English compositions. Every misplaced punctuation mark, section of awkward phrasing, or outright misspelling fell victim to the Pencil, my errors encircled and annotated for immediate revision.
My mom re-entered the workforce before I became a teenager, picking up night shifts at a Gymboree store in the dying mall that haunts Syracuse’s suburban fringe. This added commitment, on top of the burdens of raising four children, did not stop mom from conjuring up the peeing dog and Pencil of Death whenever my siblings and I needed their sage guidance while completing our schoolwork.
A lot of adults, especially in the snooty town we called home, would be embarrassed to tell people they were working at Gymboree. Not mom. She so relished the connections with her coworkers, many of whom were college students half her age, that she would often bring us by the store just to say hello if we were at the mall for a movie or laser tag birthday party. It helped that mom was also proud of the employee discount, taking full advantage of the bargains to fill out her sole daughter’s closet.
Eventually, mom was able to complete the certifications and paperwork necessary to start working in education and leave Shoppingtown Mall behind. Mom had completed a master’s in the field, and even worked through the early stages of a Ph. D. program that she exited to marry my dad. Her goal has been to work as a college dean.
Two decades later, she was filling a series of temporary positions around our school district, including stints as an aide to students with disabilities and assisting with the English as a Second Language program. Once again placed into a situation where many people with her credentials and background would be frustrated or embarassed, she was instead thrilled to be doing work related to her passions.
Mom loved the Special Education program and the bonds she formed with the kids, and she greeted them warmly whenever we bumped into “her” students around the town. Having majored in Spanish and French, attaining near-fluency before chemotherapy robbed her of her multilingual abilities, mom was also overjoyed to have an excuse to dust off her hardcover Spanish-English and French-English dictionaries in her quest to make the international students feel welcomed by communicating with them as effectively as possible.
After bouncing around the district as a long-term substitute for a few years, mom settled into a permanent role at my high school. The Pencil of Death had found a whole new group of victims.
Mom’s first year as the high school coincided with my freshman year, a timing I sorely resented — especially because her new position running the Learning Support Center would bring her into contact with students of all grade levels. After all, what fourteen-year-old dreams of having his mother chatting with his friends and teammates and crushes on a daily basis?
Beneath my obstinate attitude was a tinge of jealousy. Kids in my classes would tell me how helpful my mom had been in editing their English papers or college essays, and while outwardly I would smile, inwardly I would fume. The Pencil of Death had been our thing, and I didn’t want to share.
Midway through my freshman year, mom received her initial cancer diagnosis and had to undergo chemotherapy. That first year of treatment was brutal, and mom was bedridden for days at a time. With my dad busy covering extra household duties and coordinating medical appointments, I found myself turning in homework assignments without a review from the Pencil of Death, a previously umimaginable process.
As I matriculated through the high school, I grew more confident in my writing abilities. Meanwhile, mom thankfully recovered and was able to ease back on the intensity and frequency of chemotherapy. The Pencil of Death was on standby in case I needed it, but the experience of working without my mom and her Pencil as my editor had given me a newfound confidence. Finally I could be happy sharing the Pencil with my siblings and fellow students, content to subject only my most important pieces of work to its ceaseless gaze.
Thankfully, I also outgrew my bratty attitude toward mom’s presence in the school, and by the time I graduated, she and I were closer than ever. Her classroom was conveniently located in the center of the high school, and I would often pop in just to say hi or update her on my day. Our visits got to the point where other teachers told me they could no longer accept late passes from me signed by Mrs. Testani, and they were only half-joking.
Moving away from mom for college in South Bend was a massive shock to the system. I went from seeing mom every day at school to visits only a few times each year. And since my university followed the liberal arts curriculum model, I knew I would be writing plenty of papers in my four years.
But not only would it have been embarrassing, potentially even against the honor code, to have sent my college papers to mom and the Pencil for review, it would have been wholly impractical. She had an entire roster of students and three more kids in need of her attention. I bade farwell to the Pencil and thanked mom for all of her lessons, settling into a new, more adult relationship with the woman who knew me better than anyone else.
It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I finally required the Pencil’s services again. I had a twice-monthly column in our student paper, and, in a fit of aggressive honesty, decided to write publicly about my struggles with mental health. Nervous about whether I struck the correct tone in my draft, I texted mom and asked her if she could take a look at my draft, a request she gladly granted. The Pencil rode again.
Most importantly, my mom told me how proud she was that I was opening up about my depression. Thanks to two decades of her careful instruction and guidance, I knew that my writing was the best way I could use my own experiences to help others in similar situations.
A urinating dog and a standard-issue number two pencil hardly seem like fitting reminders of the woman who molded me into the man I am today. But the more I think about how I want to carry on her memory, the more the dog and pencil feel like appropriate tributes. My mom was so many things to so many people, but to nearly everyone whose path she crossed, she embodied a love of literature, endless patience, and a selfless approach to life — exactly the concepts the dog peeing on my foot and the Pencil of Death instilled in me.
Thank you for reading this tribute to my mom. If you are interested in a more formal encapsulation of a life well-lived, you can view her obituary here.
For what are likely obvious reasons to those who made it this far, I was on an unplanned extended writing break. I finally feel whole enough to return to my keyboard and hope to post more again soon.
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