I currently have six unfinished fiction stories taking up space on my computer. The oldest is eighteen years, and the youngest was born about three weeks ago and has approximately 65,000 words so far.
Because of a recent trip to my veterinarian I am now fairly certain that I will succeed in at least finishing all of my potential novels, whether or not anyone besides me ever sees the endings.
Until that trip three weeks again, I hadn’t realized that somehow I have been allowing myself to live my life based on past expectations instead of actually seeing the here and now. Not only was I living this way, I was letting my writing suffer from the same fate as well.
I would begin to develop my characters and plot, usually moving forward at a fairly decent pace, then one day I would go back and read everything I had managed to write, and from there I would get stuck in the past. I would edit. Re-write. Edit. Put it away. Get it back out. Edit. Re-write. Repeat. My expectations of what I thought my story should have been, kept me from actually letting it evolve into the story it was becoming. In frustration, I would eventually stop going back to the story, and it would remain quietly unfinished on floppy discs (telling, isn't it?!), flash-drives, and forgotten folders.
My current fiction started out rough. I had a basis for my plot, and a rather kick-butt heroine in mind, but I ended up with a lot of flashbacks while trying to create a great exposition without using a prologue, so of course, I started going back and editing. And going back and editing…Then I made the appointment at the vets.
One of my old dogs (15 yr. old border collie) has been suffering from chronic diarrhea for the past six months. I know, TMI, but stick with me here. After a lot of tests and a lot of money, our vet determined my good dog Rebel has cancer. Not only that he also has a grade 6 heart murmur and end stage congenital heart failure. I was/am devastated.
Watching him lay on the floor of the vet clinic, detached from the situation, the brutal reality that I had not really "seen" him horrified me.
I knew, on some level, that he was old. I knew he had lost a little weight and slept a whole lot more, but I hadn't really realized that the hyper-active none-stop canine was now essentially a tired, brittle, little “old man”. I kept asking myself, "When did this happen? How did I miss it?"
Yes, I got up every morning and let him out with the other dogs, fixed his breakfast, patted his head, gave him a treat and left him safe in my bedroom while I went to work. I got home, let him out, fed him dinner, patted his head, and went to sleep knowing he was sleeping at the foot of my bed, like he had done practically every night for almost 15 years.
But I hadn't REALLY seen him. My crazy, hyper, curious, healthy, young dog was gone, and in his place was a tired, frail, and very ill old dog. My heart broke. When did this happen?
He gets up slower. He falls down easily. He doesn't hear me call his name (BUT, he can hear a treat bag being opened two rooms away!) He no longer tolerates the younger dogs pestering him, and he has accidents at night, something he hasn't done since a very young puppy.
Sitting in the clean but sterile room, watching him lie on the floor and stare at the door, I could truly see just how tired he really was. Images of our last walk popped into my head showing me a dog following behind, not trying to tear my arm off pulling ahead. Last Jeep ride, he had been sitting through most of it. Last game of ball; he had tired out so much quicker...
In my shock, I made an appointment to have him put down. I didn't want him in pain. I didn't want him miserable because he no longer enjoys life. I completely agree with vets and other people who've had to make this difficult decision that a week too early is better than a day too late.
I let everyone know my plans so they could see him and say good-bye. I took a day off work to spoil him one last time. And I cried a lot. And I wondered if he had had a good life. Had I treated him good? And I agonized how I didn’t really notice my good boy getting so old.
On what was to be his last day, I got up early to let him out and feed breakfast as normal. I was going to give him stuff like bacon and eggs, but our appointment wasn’t until the afternoon and I didn’t want him to spend his last day sick to his tummy, so he got treats, a lot of treats.
After breakfast we went to a pet store (I had to lift him into the Jeep he used to sail into with ease), he stood shakily in the back seat and I had to drive slowly and carefully not to knock him down. He showed some interest as we walked into the store, and I got him a sweater and let him pick out a chew toy. By then, he was ready to go. I lifted him back into the Jeep and this time he simply lay down in the back seat. Oh how I missed the crazy dog who could bounce back and forth across the seat for FIVE HOURS STRAIGHT when we drove to see my parents in another state…
I took him to my parents (who now live five minutes away), and he immediately trotted to their front door, tail waving merrily, greeted both of them, ate their little dog’s food, and once more indicated he was ready to go.
I took him out to the barn to see the horses (he had always been enamored of them and had spent many a weekend on camping trips where he lead the way for myself and other trail riders). He didn’t show all that much enthusiasm, sniffed around a bit, and then stood staring at the Jeep, so I really thought he was ready to go. I cried the five minutes home…
There was one more “test” I felt I needed to do to make sure he was ready to go, and I had been putting it off since his terminal diagnosis. His ball. My good boy could have used a 12-step program over the past few years when it came to his tennis balls! But I was afraid. Afraid he wouldn’t have that light in his eyes when I took his ball out of hiding, and afraid that he would.
I sat at the front of my short hall and pulled the ball out from behind my back. His whole world lit up! He instantly gave me his classic border collie stance and stare and trembled in excitement. My heart leapt, and crashed… I rolled the ball down the hall and he trotted gamely after it, laying it right in front of me with a huge canine smile on his face. Again and again. Did he stumble? Yes. He even fell down once when turning too quickly. But he didn't stop until I made that bright yellow ball disappear.
He wasn’t ready to go yet.
And I wasn’t ready to let him go.
He is still with me today; three weeks later. I know he’s on borrowed time – and I watch him closely for any signs of discomfort. I have turned him into an accomplished beggar with treats at the ready whenever he goes outside, comes inside, I'm in the kitchen, he's in the kitchen, or he just looks cute! I make sure I really "see" him every day. When he is ready, I will hold him in my arms and let him go.
He taught me a lesson that day that applies to both my life and my writing. No, I wasn’t living in my past, I just never let go of past expectations. I had an idea, or image, or dream, whatever you want to call it, of how things were, not how they are.
Today I make sure I “see” my life, including my pets, my family, and my friends. Today, I keep writing forward in my current novel, and when I finish it, I will go back and edit, but until it’s finished, I will let it create itself instead of limiting it to past expectations. Where a story starts never guarantees where it is going to end. Sometimes not looking back is the best way to propel your story forward.