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  • Writer's pictureErika Nichols-Frazer

Happy Nala Day!

Updated: Jul 6, 2020

She's a weird one.

On May 3, 2013, two things happened that would change my life: we adopted our first dog and my mom fell down the stairs. Dylan and I had been looking for dogs for a while. It had been a few years since we'd had a pet - our cat Typhi had been run over by a car, which broke our hearts - but we were ready to open up to another creature again. We'd been together four years, had lived alone together for two; we were ready for a dog. We'd looked at the shelter a few times, but hadn't found the right one yet. Of course, I was ready to adopt the first one we saw, but Dylan reminded me to be patient, that the right one would come along. We were planning on leaving work a little early one Friday to go look again.

I was at work when I got the call. My cell reception was cutting in and out but I heard my dad say "fell down the stairs" and "she remembers I'm her husband." I rushed to the hospital, where she laid in the ICU, hooked up to machines, a neck brace and severe bruising all over her body. She was bleeding on the brain. At first, they weren't able to tell us much. A traumatic brain injury, they said, but whether she'd be able to walk again, write her name again, go back to work, was all up to her. She's strong, we told them. She can do anything.

I spent a week in the ICU next to her bedside, helping nurses lift her frail and hurting body onto the commode. We rejoiced when, one time, she woke up and asked if we could order a pizza. Her first solid food in nearly a week! When the nurse asked her what toppings were on it, she got them wrong, but we still took this as a good sign. Then, another week in a regular hospital room. She was still getting most of the questions wrong - where are you, how did you get here, what year is it, who's here with you. Prague, she said, 2005, I was skiing. She always got my name right. The doctors told us that she'd never remember the fall.

It was the middle of the night, around 2:00 a.m., when my dad heard the crash. He bolted out of bed and found her in a pool of blood at the bottom of the wooden stairs. An accident. The thing no one would say, the thing I couldn't let go of, was that it was her fault. Perhaps that's unfair. Drinking the way she does isn't really a choice, but it was hard for me not to blame her, to think she'd done this to herself. This was the thing we'd all been worried about for years, the thing we'd known was inevitable. Here it was, indisputable proof that she had a problem. Fell down the stairs. Traumatic brain injury.

On the afternoon following the fall, Dylan and I were in the ICU waiting room with my dad and grandparents, drinking weak coffee and trying to pass the time until doctors could give us more information. She was heavily sedated and we weren't allowed to stay with her while she slept. Dylan held my hand and, at one point, said, "We don't have to look at dogs today." I'd completely forgotten about our plans, forgotten everything except my mother lying in that bed, looking even smaller than usual, like a doll.

"She's not going to wake up for a while," my dad said, "You should go. It will be a good distraction." So we drove the hour to the shelter. As we walked past the kennels, all the dogs jumped and yipped except one. A sort of strange-looking white-and-brown Australian Cattle Dog named Mindy shook and cowered as we walked by. She looked terrified. She'd just arrived on a transport from Indiana that day, they told us. Her engorged nipples revealed that she'd recently had puppies, although they estimated she was only about a year old, maybe a year-and-a-half. Too young for puppies.

As soon as we got her outside, she perked up and excitedly explored the shelter's yard adjacent to a horse pasture. She was funny and sweet and we fell in love. It became clear that she'd never been in a car before, as she hunkered down in fear every time another car passed us. Though she weighed about 50 pounds, she leapt into my lap and hid under my feet the whole ride home. We both hated the name Mindy, so, after coming up with as many names as we could think of on the hour ride home, we settled on Nala, or familiarly, Nali. I took her on walks around our neighborhood in between visits to the hospital. Fortunately, we lived only a few minutes away, while my dad and grandparents were close to an hour away, so I was at the hospital at least three times a day, as long as they'd let me stay.

After two weeks in the hospital, they moved her to a rehab facility across town. We took this as a hopeful sign, but it was just the beginning of a long recovery. Dylan called Nala my therapy dog and, in a way, she was. Walks, playing with her, taking her to the dog park, cuddling with her got me through one of the most difficult periods I've experienced. Seeing my mother struggle wasn't easy, especially when she got combative. "You know she's going through alcohol withdrawal," Dylan reminded me. She was convinced the nurses were stealing her flowers, the big, expensive arrangements that arrived from friends and colleagues and clients every day. She insisted I take them home with me, so our apartment was filled with vases of roses and Gerber daisies and peonies. They weren't feeding her, she claimed, so I stayed with her during meal times so I could remind her later. You had salmon, your favorite, remember? I started bringing her meals, grilled asparagus, curry from the nearby Thai place, pizza. She got frustrated easily. She was defiant, breaking all the rules. She kept trying to get up to go to the bathroom without the wide leather belt she was supposed to wear while I held onto the strap and helped her walk. She was argumentative, spiteful, even. She claimed they were holding her against her will, that it was malpractice, even that my father had put her in there to get rid of her (a heartbreaking accusation against the man who drove twice a day to spend every minute he could with her, who texted me for updates throughout the day, who sat patiently by her side). I showed her pictures of Nala and told her about her quirks, how much she loved running at the dog park, her funny little nub tail. Nala gave us all something positive to focus on.

May 3 will always be important to me, the day everything changed. It was the beginning of a long and complicated recovery for my mom, for all of us, a moment when my mother and my relationship was forever changed. I still struggle with blame and resentment for what she put us all through, even though I know this is unfair. I want to approach her with compassion, understanding, love, but it can be hard when I see her doing it to herself, to us, pretending like nothing happened, like we didn't all go through one of the scariest and most uncertain times of our lives. So, I try to focus on the happier memories of May 3, the adoption of the dog that brought Dylan and me closer together, that made us a family.

A few May 3rd's ago, my mother and I attended the Vermont Women's Fund annual fundraiser with keynote speaker Jodi Kantor. It was three years after her fall and we were on UVM's campus, the same one that housed the hospital she'd spent those first few weeks in. The walk from our car to the convention center was familiar, the same route I'd taken dozens of times three years earlier. As we sat together at the fundraiser, listening to stories of strong and inspiring women, I looked to the woman next to me, the one everybody says I look like (and I sure hope I do), the one who made me. I think about her strength, her resilience and determination, her fierceness, what she's capable of. Though her balance has been compromised, she's quicker to anger and feel shame, to get upset or cry, her emotions are more raw than they were before, she's come so far. She's returned to work, takes the dog for walks, even skis, though she complains not as well as she used to, before. Nothing's quite like it was, before. When we realized how fragile we all are, how precarious our lives, how they can be changed in an instant. When I got home, I would scratch Nala's belly and hug her close to me, remembering what we went through together, what she got me through.

Every May 3, I think about how far we've all come since 2013, how much has changed. I think about the uncertainty of that time, how heartbreaking and terrifying it was, how scared I am that something like this will happen again and, next time, we won't be as lucky. We were so lucky, I think. We are so lucky still. My mom doesn't like to talk about that time. She doesn't remember it much, I think, and won't acknowledge what we all went through, together. So I can't say, this day reminds me that you're alive, that we're all alive and basically OK, but also that this all could happen again. She's fallen several times since then, with varying results (a broken toilet, a broken wrist). I want to tell her that, while so much has changed, also, nothing has. I can't tell her how worried I am about her still. So I give Nala some extra belly scritches (as Dylan calls them), give her special treats, and am grateful for the dog that got me through it. Happy Nala Day!

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