writing to survive
. . . only the retelling counts

Cat lovers only need apply

I’ve been around the block, if you know what I mean, have wheezed in the company of a dozen cats spread over the years, my bloodshot eyes swollen, my breath quick and shallow, the crumpled remains of a tissue avalanche surrounding me on the bed. And my delicate flesh? Certain cats have the magic touch – one rub of a slightly open, silky mouth against my bare skin, and I erupt in itchy bumps.

As a child, I kept an inhaler by the bed to interrupt the asthma that bisected my nights. We blamed it on the mildew. We blamed it on the cats. We blamed it on me being a child in an uncertain world. We could have blamed it on the cigarette smoke that permeated my grandparents’ house and soaked into their walls and furniture, but that would have required me being born ten or twenty years later than I was. Instead, I was a late 1960s baby with a full 1970s childhood, replete with tobacco fumes, barefoot walks through yards accented with dog waste and discarded cigarettes, and asthma that was generally blamed on emotions, not allergens.

The 1970s were a time of kid and pet independence and (somewhat) benign neglect. Children walked home by themselves from elementary school, cats were indoor/outdoor, and intact dogs were set loose on the neighborhood. Allergies to the family pet just were (at least in my case). But times have changed. Hardly any kid under 12 goes home alone from school anymore, people generally walk their “fixed,” often leashed, dogs, and fewer cats have access to the outdoors. Pets that cause sneezing fits and shortness of breath are banished from the home.

The attitude toward pet health has changed, too. As a seasoned cat (and dog) person weaned during the era of laissez-faire pet ownership, I have slowly adjusted my ideas of pet health care to fit today’s world, where animals get biopsies and teeth cleanings and there are veterinary oncologists and everything costs a bundle. Which is why we now have pet insurance. Nick, the cat that left us this past week, might have benefited from the coverage and perhaps have gotten more care than we could comfortably afford without it. Even with a cautious approach, we spent ~$4000 for Nick’s health care in less than five years. Those costs could have more than doubled over the three days of kitty cat ICU that we decided against this weekend. It was unclear what the ultimate benefits of that treatment would have been for Nick. Even after hospitalization, he had a long and uncomfortable road to pad along.

Still, pet insurance gives us more options, so we’ve signed Asher up. The next kitty – who could join our house before the ides of August – will also be a beneficiary. Yes, maybe it’s crazy, but I’ve started kitten (or young cat) shopping. Forgive me, Nick. Your memory will not fade. It’s just that I think cats come best in pairs.

The paths to cat ownership are myriad. Sidney and Zoe were foundlings. Asher and Nick came from a local rescue organization that specializes in cats. There are multiple such organizations in the Bay Area, as well as places like the Humane Society, SPCA, and the local pound. Each agency has slightly different requirements for adoption, some more onerous than others. Applications can include personal references, home visits, and quizzes on the applicant’s cat knowledge and knowhow. Allergies come up, too. This makes sense. These agencies don’t want people to suddenly discover that they are allergic to Kitty and have to send another cat back into the great unknown.

So this is what I tell you, cat rescue place:  we know what we are doing. We did a lot for our last cat, though we could always have done more. The next kitty will have more options, if necessary. And my allergies? The wheezing is gone, the itchiness infrequent. They aren’t what they once were, and if they didn’t mean a thing 35 years ago, they mean a lot less now.

Hopefully we will pass muster. Or perhaps we will go the SPCA route, fill out a basic application, flash an ID, and get a cat to go. Whatever the outcome, new love will be heading this way soon.

Heavily adapted from the prompt “Green.”
Top image: Frank and Nicky exploring my grandparents’ back yard, circa 1980.
Bottom image: Asher and Nick in a rare peaceful moment, taken by me earlier this year.

And the nights will be strangely quiet

Late yesterday morning, we sat in a cold, windowless room, the walls outfitted with tasteful cat and bunny pictures, an inexplicable high-low hum droning in the background. Nick was on my lap, his body hunched, a catheter in his right front leg. As she kneeled, the kindly doctor explained the procedure to us. One shot for sedation, the next to stop the heart, and if our kitty was going to stay on my lap, I would probably want a towel underneath him, just in case.

So I picked him up and she padded my lap with a thick layer of terrycloth before returning to the thing that needed to be done. With the first shot, his body softened. He curled up in a contented sleep. With the next, he was gone.

Nick was the third cat we have had
put to sleep, that somewhat disturbing euphemism for euthanisation, since we moved to California in 2007. First it was elderly Sidney who collapsed at the water dish and had to be rushed to the vet’s. It was horrible, him lying painfully on the cold metal table in the operating room with its lights and equipment, the only space the office had available. I had waited too long. A year after that, it was the older Zoe’s turn, a more planned procedure, and slightly less traumatic. We ended up at the cat clinic, our smallest kitty ever on the table, though the rest is now lost to me. And yesterday, after three years of wasting away and struggling with stomatitis and digestive problems, Nick (supposedly nine years old, but more likely in his teens according to yesterday’s vet) died on my lap, my arms wrapped around him to keep him secure. I held life, and then I held death. It was a strange, sad sensation.

He was not an easy cat. Nick was prone to howling at the top of his voice in the stairwell at 4 a.m.. He was afraid of Nora-dog and therefore terrorized her, though more recently he seemed to understand that she was no threat. Whenever he rubbed against my bare skin with his face, I would break out in itchy bumps. But he was lovable, too, a lap kitty who often cursed the laptop, a beautiful boy who just wanted to be close and comforted by his humans.

Now he’s in the backyard with Zoe, in the corner near the apple tree and the wild blackberries. Yesterday morning he was curled up on my lap. Today he’s under the dirt. It doesn’t seem possible. As with the others, it was the right thing to do. Still, it always feels like there were other things we should have done, steps we could have taken, money that we didn’t have to spend spent anyway. With each cat, I have had regrets and learned lessons.

Last night was strangely quiet. This morning there was no trilled greeting, just the mellow Asher-cat rubbing against my legs and Nora-dog tip-tapping down the stairs. Over the next week, we will pick out a cat statue to put out in the garden, a marker for the kitties who have gone before. And I will look for pet insurance for the animals who remain, which will hopefully give us more choices the next time around.

Where your peace lies

It came up last night in a discussion about the 1970s and the days of birthdays before the tyranny of double digits, the little family routines we remembered, the democracy of radio. Would I go back to childhood for a day?

I thought of the table with its harvest gold cloth and surround sound conversation, where the jokes were over my head and the criticism personal and deep. In those days, it did not matter what I said, even when my face was furrowed and sadness seeped out of me. Sometimes the grownups spoke to me in clipped tones, trimmed close to the ground, no room to hide. I always wanted to be alone, to sit in the garage on the rusty chaise lounge, sip chamomile iced tea, and read a book, become a shadow in the shade. Some journeys are not meant to be retaken.

What if I could choose my moment to go back – which would I pick? Would I reoccupy it as I was, with the clean conscience of childhood, no foreknowledge, or choose to come preloaded with the experience of time? Would the baggage and wisdom of adulthood ruin the moment or deepen it?

I had no desire to shove myself into the past, to mourn again the loss of childhood and of the adults that occupied my middle distance. My mother would be in her 20s, her bed made by committee but she its only occupant, and my dad, too, cynical in the way young men can be, hope still shining through the fissures. The dead would rise, my grandparents by turns soft and sour, arriving in a cadenced whir of sewing machines and table saws, the air around them fogged with sawdust and coffee, ozone and sweat. And I would again be comforted by the beliefs that died as I grew, my misplaced faith in adults, the assurance that time was my own and time was infinity.

My husband said he would go back. Any day would do. It would be more time with his mother, and he could return to the present with that memory, the sound of her voice, the soft touch of her hand. He had a point.

What would you do? What day would you pick? Your answer may depend on your childhood and where your peace lies.

1970s pattern image from Dressing Vintage.

Fly on with your funky mind

Charles is dead. He’s been dead for over a year, and maybe I knew and somehow forgot, but it came to me anew Monday night, when I searched for him on Google. One mugshot. One obituary. Charles.

I met him my senior year of college, at a law firm library where I had a part-time job filing updates in the looseleaf publications. In the little office he shared with his boss we would talk about my nights on the town and what DC was like when he arrived in the 1970s from Columbus, Ohio, about the church ladies who pursued him when he started up in the choir again, and of the damaging electromagnetic energy that he believed emanated from power lines and stations. We spent hours in that room, often talking past six p.m. because I worked late some nights and he waited out the commute.
Fly on, baby, fly on with your funky mind, was one of the expressions he jokingly used, a nod to the era of bellbottoms and wide-collared shirts, when DC still lived up to its George Clinton, Parliament-inspired moniker Chocolate City.

I was devoted to that city. Within a year of our conversations, however, I decamped to the Midwest for graduate school, on the assumption that I would return home in a year and a half. But I met a guy. We ended up in Charles’s hometown, eventually buying a house in the Olde Towne East neighborhood. It was then that I learned he had grown up across the street from our new place, in a house that had burned down. The lot, grassy and wide, was the only thing left.

I don’t know how to explain these sorts of connections, to figure out what the odds would be that I would end up in Columbus, living on the same block my friend grew up on. The threads that exist between people sometimes tangle and overlap, and there I was, buying a house on the street where he lived. But I haven’t seen or talked to Charles for a long time. When I tried him at the law firm a few years ago, he had retired the month before my call. I assumed he had gone back to Columbus. Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t. I do know that’s where he died, in hospice.

So when I was back in the District for less than 48 hours, sitting in a chilled hotel room, looking out on the saturated evening air while the boy and his dad watched a movie, I remembered being 21 and those conversations I had with Charles in the winter twilight, his light teasing of me for my weekends in Chestertown, the way he referred to my beer of choice at the time, Samuel Adams, with its long gone tagline,
Brewer, Patriot and how he always asked about my friends. When I was lost in my first job and Columbus, lonely and occupying a self-imposed isolation, I would call him up at work from the pay phone in an underground food court, desperate to feel a connection to the life I used to have.

And he was kind to me. All of the time. So, fly on, baby. Fly on with your funky mind. I hope your ending was peaceful.

Image of the heavens over Chestertown by me.
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