writing to survive
. . . only the retelling counts

Necessary distraction

I’m feeling unsettled. Out of balance. On one side, kittens and schoolbooks. On the other, a friend (B) who recently had a double mastectomy and is undergoing chemotherapy. The kittens and schoolbooks are helium light compared to the other matter, as amorphous and dense and as a winter midnight. So I distract myself with kittens and pretend I will never need to crack open a textbook or cram myself onto BART for another 90 minute commute. And I’m visiting B, who will be on an interlude from her chemotherapy regime, this weekend.

I’m worried. Scared. Doctors caught the cancer early, before it had a chance to spread, but it was a very serious sort of cancer and her oncologist thought this was the best treatment. Outside of two conversations, one the day after surgery, the other on the day she started chemo (one of her drugs is known as the “red devil”), we haven’t talked. I don’t totally know what is going on. I want to offer her relief, and she says my presence will, but I am afraid it will end up being one more thing to think about.

In the meantime, my chest feels hollow, like it needs to be filled with drink, a way to balance what cannot be reconciled. I troll the pet adoption sites looking for a kitty that might be compatible with Pippin, working on the recent well-considered premise that two kittens plus one cat are qualitatively better than one kitten plus one cat. Two kittens can entertain themselves, leaving Asher free from annoying youthful pounces. Thinking about kitten antics also means I think less about the possibility of losing B.

And on Saturday, I will finally get to see her, my friend of over 20 years, and give her the gentlest, most delicate of hugs.

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Image of Pippin by me.
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Ten years out

The boy’s birthday was over the weekend, though he did not want a party this year, so we kept it low-key. Nine years ago today my husband and I were adjusting, not sleeping, getting to know our new arrival, this fidgety, mewling creature who was born after an intense five or so hours of labor. It was quite a contrast from the previous year, when I was living in a Manhattan sublet and going to culinary school, staying out until 4 a.m. some nights with a classmate in Brooklyn. Same sleep deprivation. Very different cause.

I haven’t had full-time employment outside the home since I quit my library job to go to culinary school a decade ago (and had a baby the year after). For this I am not sure if I should give thanks or hit myself upside the head. It’s like I slipped out of the stream ten years ago and have barely dipped in a toe since. It’s like I’ve
gotten away with something.

Underemployment hasn’t been all bonbons and blog posts. We moved coasts two years into the boy’s life, a major upheaval, I spent the first half or more of his existence moving in and out of a depressive haze, and I’ve been in graduate school for the last couple of years. There were also the boy’s bouts with a mystery illness that had him sick every few weeks with high fevers and nausea. Still, as someone who got my first job when I was fifteen, I never thought I would spend so much time outside of the conventional work force.

And there are some things to be said for it. I control my own days, for the most part. I have plenty of time to write, even if my writing is more of the sprinting variety, all short personal essays crafted for a boutique audience. And I am here for our son. I always have been. That was the whole point of staying at home. But the parenting intensity has lessened over the past few years. The days are vast and less personally meaningful.

I went back to graduate school to learn how to do something important outside my small world, to make those days richer, more connected. It’s helped. Last August felt airless without an academic agenda. My hands and mind were unsettlingly idle. On the other hand, this last year was so stressful and emotionally challenging that I have no desire to start the fall semester. My idleness feels necessary and good. Why subject myself to deadlines, intense interpersonal scrutiny, and a shitty commute when I can have days that stretch like taffy and the relaxed aura of a pampered house cat?

Because I need to do something meaningful in the external world, that’s why. I need to exist outside my internal frame. I need to use my talents to go beyond the confines of house and family. Paving a path to an eventual salary wouldn’t hurt, either.

May the next three weeks of the boy in camp and me on my own creep along like a turtle making its deliberate way to the muddy banks of a late August pond. Whether I am ready or not, I will enter the muck soon enough. Better to get dirty than to lose another year to laundry and dust bunnies, to slippery feelings and guilty thoughts. For right now, I’ll enjoy the time I have, the crisp freshness of the unscheduled day, the satisfaction of cleaning on a weekday, the rare feel of the boy’s hand in mine.

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Update: we got a kitten on Saturday after going from shelter to shelter in search of a kitty who would fit into our home life. Here he is, Pippin!

Adapted from the prompt “Give thanks.”

When I first posted this, I neglected the impetus for me being out of the workforce for so long -- the fact that I have been a stay-at-home parent. It is way too easy for me to discount that time and that kind of work. But it was -- and is -- meaningful. It’s just less intense these days.

Top picture of me in my culinary school garb taken by a classmate. Bottom shot of Pippin by my husband.
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In the in-between place

This was a strange week. The boy had pottery camp from 9 to 12 each day, which was great, but broke up our days in an odd way. I had to leave the house at 11 in order to pick him up by noon, and so my mornings were curtailed and our afternoons somewhat flabby, me obsessed with finding our next potential kitty, the boy rereading the same old books.

It’s been three weeks since I’ve had a real day at home alone, and though this really isn’t complaint worthy, I have allowed the lack of solid time to myself erase my mental presence from the daily domestic scene. I’ve been in the waiting room, the in-between place. Plus there is the sadness about
Nick the cat’s death. The grief comes with its chaser of guilt, which is followed up by more sadness about the kitties I’m seeing out there. There are so many cats that need homes. If we had it in us, we would take in an older cat. Or two cats. But we are not prepared for more heartbreak or chaos just yet.

This time I am not going to fall in love with an aristocratic face, bold personality, and sad story. I’d rather go with a good fit, taking suggestions from the rescue group versus going for a cat based on a photograph and an appealing description. Nick was a wonderful, beautiful, and intelligent cat, but he was also difficult. We ignored the clues dropped by the woman who fostered him, things about his pull towards the forbidden outdoor world and how he had to learn about the still of the night. Perhaps because of his time on the streets, he was particularly wary of Nora, which meant he would sometimes attack her. Towards the end, after being an early target of Nick himself, Asher would sometimes attack him. Then there was the meowing – from the beginning, Nick was extremely vocal. He expressed his opinions with great emphasis, day and night, but most fervently in darkness, maximizing the echo potential offered by the stairwell. Our nights really have been strangely quiet since his exit, and though I would prefer Nick be here, healthy and belting it out, we are sleeping uninterrupted by kitty angst for the first time in several years.

And the other animals seem so relaxed.

So maybe by this time tomorrow we will have a new cat in our lives, either on the horizon or on the actual scene. And by this time next week, the boy will have had another round of full-day camp, and the cobwebs in my sense of self will be swept away.

No matter what, I’ve got to stop looking at cat adoption sites. They hurt my heart.

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Top image: the boy’s dragon mask.
Bottom image: Nora and Asher’s paws touching.
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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.

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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.
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