All She Wants

ALL SHE WANTS

My ancient dwindling kitty, Lady, follows me across the kitchen counters. She reaches out one scrawny arm to hook my sleeve. She has had her tablespoon of evaporated milk. She has had her breakfast. Now what?

So I bundle her bony four-pound self into my arms and carry her to the recliner. We stretch out and she aligns herself on my stomach.

Not quite full, all she wants is a little more me.

Sheba and the Treat

The dogs go out for their morning urgencies first, then they are fed. After breakfast, I send them out to the yard again because they are sometimes too excited about eating to do what they are supposed to do.  The second trip out is always accompanied by a treat.

One recent morning, it was snowing. At 13, Sheba has trouble with her back and legs, and on this morning, she slid down the slippery stairs landing flat on her belly and bonking her nose in the snow.

Without missing a beat, she whipped her snow-coated muzzle around and opened her mouth for her treat. Figuring out how to get back on her feet could wait.

My girl has her priorities clear

Simon

(expanded from Ring of Fire)

In the six times I have had to put a much loved pet to sleep, I have only felt I got it right once.  Simon was not the one.

We met on a rainy day when  I saw a smudge of something run right under the front wheels of my car.  I screeched to a stop, got out and looked, dreading what I might see.  But there was nothing.

Guessing ‘cat’, I called out, and on my third ‘Here, kitty’ I heard, not far away, ‘ya-row, ya-row’ – quite loud.

About 20 feet off the road, under a scrubby pine tree, sat the saddest looking cat I had ever seen.  Long, stringy, dirty blond fur hung like spanish moss on a rack of bones.  Squished ears clung to the sides of his head.  When he called to me, he only had two canines, both on the same side.  And one eye was half shut, streaming tears.

I admired him immediately.  This mangy wreck of a cat, still had the courage and the, what…hope? to reach out and answer my call.  For three days I was drawn back by his strong voice and unusual cry until he  let me pick him up and bring him home.

He stayed with me for six years.  I paid more to restore him to something like health than I prefer to tell you.  The vet guessed him to be 10 or 11 years old and thought he had been on his own a long, long time.  His ears were so infected from ear mites they were mashed and misshapen, one  eye was infected, and he was thin, not just from hunger, but from a tumor on his thyroid.  But he was neutered so at some time someone cared for him.

I came to love him dearly, under the  terms he set.   He had very clear ideas on how he wanted to relate to humans.  If a face came too close to his, he’d shoot a claw  so deep into tender human tissue that he could then let his arm go limp and the claw…and arm…would hang there.  But if you approached him sideways, put your arms around him and pulled him in, he would snuggle right down to be held.

Naptimes, my naptimes, were his favorite.  He would station himself on my chest and purr, and purr.  A warm, skinny,  mini-massage machine.

He died because I made a mistake.  I didn’t keep his coat combed.  His fur was long and kind of oily and it wasn’t pleasant for either of us to groom him, so I didn’t.  And when the mats inevitably formed and I took him to a groomer,  he had a stroke on the table.  He was too old by then and the stress was too much.

I punished myself  for this mistake for  weeks, making the grief doubly difficult to bear.

Then one night, lying awake and thinking of Simon, I found myself speaking to him directly, as though he was there.

‘I’m so sorry.  I made a mistake.   I miss you so much.’  And I saw my dear friend, flickering back and forth between the misshapen suggestion of a cat he had been and the beautiful blond Persian he was meant to be.

And I heard him say ‘I haven’t gone anywhere.  Every time you hold Dottie or George or Pearl, every time you hold any cat,  I’m right there.’

He was right.  I hadn’t realized.  But now when I hold Dottie or Pearl or George and I think of Simon, he is there.   I can feel the distinct texture of his coat and I can smell his smell.   I hear his purr again.   And we can have a visit as I relax into the certainty  that he forgives and loves me still.

Slow Goose Crossing

SLOW, GOOSE CROSSING

The traffic flow on route 2, a busy four lane road,  was a little unusual last Sunday.  Normally it runs more or less steadily north and south.  But on the 26th there was a flock of rebels heading east and slow about it to boot.

The first goose crossed in front of my car as I headed south.  I’m used to seeing the flock of about 20 Canada geese near here, grazing in front of the shopping center.  To me they aren’t  pests.  Just creatures adapting, as we all are, to multiplying humans and their machines.

I was able to stop in time.  I held my breath and hoped the car coming up on my left would stop too.  She did. Two lanes down.  Two to go.  The second and third geese had now stepped off the curb.

The light changed and a pickup bounded into a left turn and headed north.  He stopped.  The small red car screeching along on the far side headed north, did not, but the geese hadn’t gotten that far. And the next northbound car did stop.

All four lanes were now stopped as the full flock waddled in comic majesty across the normally intensely busy road.  I felt vastly entertained.  But the cowboy in the pickup must have found the scene lacking.  Or maybe he felt imposed on by the slow moving line.

So the young man with a big hat and a wide grin, jumped out of his truck and tried his hand at herding.  He flapped his hat while doing a little goosestep himself and the birds responded in kind.  They picked up the pace and added a little flap of their own.  In a minute the parade was over and the road was clear.

I drove off immensely satisfied. I liked myself a little better.   I liked Rhode Island and Rhode Islanders a little better.  Felt better about my world and life in general.  Nice payoff for a ten minute delay in my errand.

Butchie

BUTCHIE

Before my porch was renovated and finished with lattice, it was a haven for stray cats and the occasional skunk or possum. One old guy, a large, tattered, flat-headed tom, came almost daily. I decided to be a good cat samaritan and trap and neuter him.

A week into this project, I had trapped three feral cats none of which was the cat I called Big Mac.  They became Terry, a pale tiger; a second cat I never named because he flung himself at me with claws, teeth and  a lot of noise whenever I went by his crate; and the cat who became Butchie, a chunky stripey-cat with a broad, flat head. The wild one was  neutered and released. Terry and Butch stayed in side-by-side crates being flooded with domesticity in the center of my kitchen. They were overwhelmed, which was, of course, the idea. Gradually they stopped reacting hysterically to every movement of mine, my dogs’ or any of the several other cats who  lived here.

Terry tamed very quickly and became a cuddler who would writhe in joy when I opened his crate. But he never adjusted to any other cats but Butchie. I found a home for him with an 11-year old girl who carries him around like a doll, sometimes right side up. He is well, happy and quite tame.

Butchie took a little longer to come home. He gave me a thorough chomping the first time I tried to touch him, teaching me never to approach a feral cat from the biting end. But over time, with lots of patience, he has revealed himself to be…a pussycat, a softie, a cuddle-me-elmo kind of guy.

He goes in and out many times into the pen I’ve built for the cat pack. And as often as not, he comes in talking in a soft ‘blrrth’, a call I’ve come to understand means ‘I need somebody! Who is there?’

All the cats are easy with Butchie, from the top cat to the lowest status mini-tiger, Nelson. And Butchie will go from cat to cat until he finds one who will let him snuggle up. Very occasionally, he will settle for me.

Clearly Butchie made a wrong turn somewhere. He was never meant to be a wild animal. His first year and a half outside were all a mistake. This is where he was meant to be. And a fine thing it is indeed to have Butchie home.

Lady Tells It Like It Is

LADY TELLS IT LIKE IT IS

In advanced old age, lady has progressed from irritable to truculent. She is four pounds of loud. She yells when I lift her, brush her, bump her, or try to cuddle her. After shouting out a few curses, she huffs…snort, snort, snort…lest anyone think she wasn’t serious.

That’s my girl.

She is 22 years old. She went blind a few months ago, probably due to high blood pressure and longterm hyperthyroidism. Now she is even crabbier. She can’t see coming what she doesn’t want.

Lady has been with me since she was about eight, worn out from producing many litters of kittens over those years. She had been abandoned, pregnant, at a house near me. A neighbor took her in along with another cat who was also pregnant. When the kittens were born, Lady took over both litters, stacking up little furballs on the chow line, hissing and batting at anyone who came near.

The neighbor and I arranged for all the kittens to be taken by a nearby shelter.   I already had three cats at the time and I felt I couldn’t take in another animal.  If I did, it certainly wouldn’t be a bad-tempered redhead like Lady, so she too went to the shelter.  The neighbor kept the second mom. But a week or so later, when I checked on all of those who had been sent to rescue, Lady was still in the back. She had never been put out for potential adopters to see, and one of the techs showed me why. When anyone approached her cage, Lady plastered herself against the back wall and spat out her fear and disdain.

Rather than see her put down, I brought her home with one of her kittens who had not been adopted, a tiny black torty I named Pipsqueak. Pip, for every day.

In short order, Lady displaced the previous queen of the house, Pearlie, a miniature maine coon. Pearl had a game she loved to play with the other cats. She would lie quietly under the coffee table until another cat walked by. Then, she would leap out with a shriek, bat them and run away. The two older cats, a big orange tiger named George and a smallish, round tabby I called Dottie, reacted with weary patience after the first few times and let Pearl have her moment.

Then Pearl tried her game on Lady. She waited. She waggled her butt. She pounced. And Lady counterattacked, chasing Pearl up one side of the house and down the other. Pearl never played her game again, and in fact, didn’t come downstairs again for two years. It just didn’t do to mess with Lady.

We did become friends, Lady and I. When she wasn’t telling someone off, she was happy to sit on my lap and have her ears and cheeks stroked. But you couldn’t say she ever became mild. I think that’s why she’s lived to be 22. And I think that’s why when her body finally gives up, her spirit will keep on going, giving the world the benefit of her many opinions. 

A Ring Of Fire

RING OF FIRE

My friend Kathy and I have met between our homes, hers in Wakefield Rhode Island and mine in Warwick, twice a month for ten years.  We are therapists.  We meet to offer each other support and guidance in our work and in our lives.

Recently, the subject was grief.  A client of Kathy’s felt he should be ‘further along’ two years after the death of his much-loved father.

Instantly, the image formed in my mind of grief as a ring of fire, frightening to approach, painful to step through.   And so the temptation is to ease on down the denial road, pretending our loved one really isn’t dead or that the loss really wasn’t so great.

Working with clients, I make no distinction between the loss of a human or animal companion.  Love is just love no matter what body it wears.  And my own primary guides in learning from grief have been animals.  I have grieved humans as well, but those relationships are much more complex; their endings sometimes hard to recognize as grief.  My feelings for my animal loved ones are far less conflicted and so their passing experienced as  piercing - but clear and much more simply - sadness.

Five members of my animal family are now buried under the towering white pine in my front yard, four cats and my rickety 18 year old miniature poodle.  The body of George, a 13 year old orange cat with a scarred white nose and serrated ears, is the most recent.  He was my dear companion and guide in life and has continued in these roles since his death.

When a client talks about losing a loved one and asks for ideas about wrestling with grief, I am happy to pass along an idea I got from Alexandra Kennedy’s wonderful book LOSING A PARENT.  She suggests making an appointment with grief.  Set aside a place and a time to remember the one who has passed.  Sit with pictures and objects that bring the loved one to mind and allow yourself to be in his/her presence.  But set a time limit and grieve for only 15 minutes.  Then leave it and go on.

Here’s how George taught me to remember him.  I had a picture of George in his salad days enlarged and framed.  The picture sits on an end table next to the chair I usually use.  Several times a day, I relate to the picture in some way and thus to  his memory.  I brush the back of my hand across the photo as I used to do along his cheek.  I pick the picture up and hold it.  Or I just speak to it, saying ‘I love you’ or ‘I miss you’.

But maybe once or twice a month in the season since George died, I step through the ring of fire and let the grief burn me.  I feel completely my love of this special friend, and my loss.  And in that feeling we meet again as intimately as in life.  As I feel my throat tighten and the tears come, it as though the water coming from my eyes acts as a conductor for the energy that connected us when George had a body.   In the sadness, he is alive to me again.

I tell this to clients.  Let the tears come.  When you are strong enough to feel the pain, you will also in that moment, feel again the presence of the one you have lost.

Immediately on the other side of the ring of fire, I can remember George very clearly:  his chin on my pillow and his paw cupped in my hand  as we slept.  I can feel it!  I can see the scars on his nose and the little bites in his ears, remnants of his time on the road before he accepted me as his life assignment.  I can hear the chirp of his singing purr during one of our many conversations.  I can see the little spot of black fur in the corner of one eye, on an orange and white creamsicle cat!  These are details that bring him alive for me, that I cannot remember already, so soon after his death, unless I allow myself to step into the grief.

But there is even more treasure on the other side of the burning ring.  I am finding that when I let the grief in, I not only am in contact again with my beloved, but he becomes my guide again in his new world.  He shows me where life never ends and limits never bind.  He leads me where he has grown and allows me to know in my body that there is no death.  We live as raindrops.  My loved ones who have passed before me show me the ocean.

Now this holy state doesn’t last.  Grief is composed of many moments spent slogging through lonely patches.  Much of the time I just want my animals warm and squishy furbodies back!  I remember when my 21 year old cat Ivan, a solid black Siamese-mix,  died.  Three days after his death, I found myself walking around the house saying:  ‘Okay.  This hasn’t been too bad.    I’ve been good.  I’ve been brave.  Now I want my cat back.  Three days is just about enough.  Now that’s it.  I want my cat back.  Now!’

I don’t know anyone who isn’t afraid of grief.  It burns.  And so we tend not to do it and by not attending to it allow it to become an undertow in our lives.  But we’re going to have losses.  And if we’re going to experience them and they’re going to hurt, we might as well go for the diamonds in the coal.

Some time after the death of Simon, another elderly and ailing foundling cat, we were having a conversation late at night.  I was going over with him a mistake I made which shortened his earthly life.   I saw him as I had met him first, under a tree by the side of the road after I had nearly hit him with my car.  He was a tall, blond rack of a longhaired cat.  One eye was weeping.  His fur hung like moss on a cypress.  When he answered my questions about his health with a loud ‘yarow!’, he had only two canines, both on the same side.

He lived six years after I persuaded him to come home with me.  He was more frail than I knew when I took him to the groomer to have the mats - which I should have prevented from developing - cut out of his hair.  The grooming was too stressful and he had a stroke on the table.

So we were discussing this - he sitting tall under his  cauliflower ears  - when I just dropped into the grief and said  ‘I just miss you.  I want you here.’  And he answered, ‘I am here.  Every time you hold another cat, I’m right  there.’  And, you know, I’ve noticed since then that he really is!   I can feel him or Ivan or George - any one of them I want to tune in, in a warm, squishy body!

Grief hurts.  None of us would choose it as a way to learn.  But the life road isn’t straight.  There are sharp turns.  There are deaths and there will be grief.  Our  loved ones can show us the way through, if we let them.

Published in the 2005 Chicken Soup For The Cat Lover's Soul and 2008 101 Best Stories

A Blessed Life

A BLESSED LIFE

Shortly before his death, I read an article about playwright August Wilson.  He had recently been diagnosed with liver cancer.  The article reported, 'at 60 Wilson says he is ready to die' because he has led a 'blessed' life.

Blessed life.  My stomach knotted up as I thought about a blessed life and how far I felt from  blessed.  I thought about all the things I didn't have, still wanted to do and continued to worry about.  My singing is still undeveloped.  I don't write anywhere near as much as I would like.  I don't live on a lake.  My retirement funds are all in the house.

And then I remembered the epiphany I had a few years ago.  I realized that if I died tomorrow I would have lived a life fulfilled because I had never stopped growing, never stopped learning.  But blessed?

So I meditated on 'blessed' to see if anything came. To my surprise, out popped a 30-year old memory of a not very dramatic series of events, the few times I rode a horse named Danny at a stable in  Rhode island.  He was a beautiful dapple-gray draft horse, way too big for me.  I am about five feet tall and my legs reached just to the top curve of Danny’s barrel belly.  But I loved that horse.  He scared me, excited me, and made me feel secure all at the same time.  I took him over jumps, or he took me over jumps, easily, with no fuss or bother, maybe a little faster than the instructors would like but with no pushing, swerving or need for urging.  All I had to do was lift in the saddle and fly.  This big boy was both lively and easygoing and we got along fine.  He let me think I was in control.

Feeling blessed after remembering Danny, I went on with my morning, doing errands including a stop at the vet to pick up medication for one of my cats.  And I asked to visit with my grand parrot, a cockatoo named Mr. Lil.

Mr. Lil and I met years ago another day at the vet's.  I was alone in the waiting room when I heard through a closed door an odd little voice saying 'I love you'.  Completely captured, I called back 'oh, I love you too!' (whoever you are).  When an attendant came in I asked who I had just exchanged vows with.

The vet introduced me to Mr. Lil, who got his name when it was learned that she was a he, and we have been buddies ever since.  Today, when I was trying on a new awareness of what a blessed life is, my half-hour visit as Grammy to Mr. Lil fit right in.

He lifted his wing so I could scratch his armpit. (To each his own). He bobbled his head up and down in a cockatoo dance. He whispered in cockatoo talk. He preened. He flared his crown. He said 'hello' a thousand times and when I gave him back and headed out the door he shouted 'bye' at the top of his lungs.  Made me feel special (even blessed).

So what is a blessed life?  And how do you get one?  Today, I think it's a choice.  As a lifelong depressive, my first thought is always what I don't have or haven't done. At age 67, I’m glad I now can choose a different view.

I never wrote a play that got to Broadway.  But I rode Danny.  Mr. Lil is my friend.  I have been transported by the smell of a beach rose. And on a summer night, I have seen the bay ringed by lights like diamonds on a tiara. I have planted a peach tree, an apple tree, a raspberry bush and I have eaten their fruit.  A monarch butterfly nearly bumped into me today.

Now I see a way to align with August Wilson's view .  He is looking through a different lense than I was.  I like his better.