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Archive for March, 2009

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LOSING CASEY (2006)

We are a family of cat lovers, and the one we love most is dying.

His name is Casey.

For over a year, Casey has not been well, but we are stubborn owners, and we have faithfully medicated him and pampered him to prolong his life. We have tried to believe in miracles, and sometimes, Casey has almost convinced us we should. Finally, he has developed an illness that is stronger than we are. He has cancer, and we know his time is short.
Once a giant furball of nearly twenty pounds, he is now less than half that. Steroid medication is the weapon of choice as we fight this newest enemy. It boosts his appetite, but only makes his death all the more inevitable: despite having a voracious appetite, his body is wasting away.

We’ve finally agreed that soon we must call our compassionate veterinarian and arrange to end Casey’s life. We’ve decided to keep Casey here on the property he loves. We will build a cedar box to hold his body and bury him under a shade tree at the back.

Casey hasn’t moved much in the past two days; has, in fact, just stayed in his bed downstairs and left only to walk the short distance to his litter box or his food and water. But tonight we decided to take his bed outside and let him enjoy the outdoors for a while. We placed the bed on the deck, his food nearby. We did not expect him to stray. We underestimated his will.

Within five minutes he managed to leave the deck and we found him lying in the thick grass near the neighbouring farmer’s field. It’s always been a favourite spot of his, a place where he could spy mice or butterflies, a place where he could explore for hours. I shook my head when I saw him, amazed that he was able to walk that far. My husband told me not to worry, that Casey wouldn’t go anywhere else, and he left for his soccer game.

Several times I checked Casey in the next half hour, and he hadn’t moved. When it started to grow dark, I went outside to bring him in and spotted him turning the corner around the shed near the neighbour’s field. He was no more than seventy-five feet away. He was moving slowly, and I didn’t expect him to go far.

I was wrong.

By the time I got down the deck stairs and to the spot where I had seen him, he was gone. There was only one place he could be, and that was in the farmer’s field of tall hay. In the distance, I could hear another farmer who had already begun harvesting. All I could think about was the idea of Casey dying deep in that field, then being chopped up by a harvester.

I began to call his name, walking up and down the fence that divides the farmer’s land from ours. Our other two cats, Cleo and Gypsy, came as if to join me in my search. I grabbed a flashtlight and a bag of dry cat food from inside the house. My left hand shook the bag of cat food up and down, the universal call to cats to come and eat. My right hand held the light, and with it I pushed the deep foliage and hay aside best I could, aiming the beam towards the dense roots. It was too dark to climb the fence and try to make my way through the hay myself. Instead, I called his name over and over, shook the bag harder and harder. I listened for his “meow,” but in the past few days it had been barely audible. And I realized that if he found the strength to make his way into the farmer’s field, he likely didn’t have strength left to answer by meowing, let alone make his way back to our home.

Suddenly grief overwhelmed me. The image of the dead baseball players walking into the farmer’s cornfield in “Field of Dreams” played through my head. Casey was walking into his field, and would not come out again. It fit in perfectly with the almost “mystical” quality we’ve always seen in him, the feeling that he was more than just a cat.

I searched for over an hour, until my bad knees were cursing me and my tears had exhausted me. Then I came inside, accepting the death Casey had chosen, but dreading having to tell my family. I sat at my computer, wanting to say something, but feeling too tired and a little foolish for my emotional outburst. And I said a prayer, just a little one asking that he come back, so we can be nearby when he dies, so that we can lay him under the shade tree.

Resigned to the loss, ten minutes later I walked back outside to call my other two cats inside for the night. The deck was dark. I flicked the outside light on, and there was Casey, in his bed, looking up at me as if to say “You needn’t have worried. I made it back.” I picked him up and cried my relief into his fur.

I ask myself why the death of a pet can be so hard. Perhaps it is because those of us who believe in an afterlife don’t see death as permanent; we tell ourselves we will see our loved ones again. But no one talks about the pets that have won our hearts throughout our lives. No one mentions an afterlife for them. There is no promised reunion.

People will say it is silly, that I must be unbalanced, or at the very least neurotic to have such a reaction tonight. After all, he is only a cat, they will say.

But then I remind myself that they don’t know him, so how can they possibly understand?

EPILOGUE

A few days later, we knew it was time. As much as he wanted to get outside and lie on the grass, Casey could no longer walk.

He was upset on the way to the vet, but too weak to protest very much. When we brought him to the back of the hospital, near the operating room, he sensed something was up. We placed him on the examination pad and he even lifted his head, wondering about the light that was shining down on him. He was very alert, looking at each of us as we spoke to him. The end was very peaceful for him.We wrapped him in the towel we’d brought and took him home.

My husband had already finished his coffin just before we left. My son found a large amount of blue velvety blanket cloth, the kind they use in expensive hotels. We took apart an old pillow to pad the interior and I cut the blanket to line the coffin’s top and bottom.

I shampooed his fur and blew it dry to make it fluffy. I told myself that people would think I was nuts, but doing it felt right. He deserved it. He was the most fastidious of cats before he was sick, and I’m sure he hated feeling so dirty and unkempt in these past few months.

Casey barely fit into the coffin. He died at little more than 7 pounds, his normal weight being close to twenty. He was such a long cat that the coffin couldn’t have been an inch shorter.

We picked flowers and lay them in the coffin around his head and feet.

My son and husband dug a grave next to the hedge at the side of our property where Casey liked to sleep, the same place he’d disappeared to that night. The ground was really hard and it took hours to get it deep enough.

By the time he was buried, we were emotionally exhausted. Maybe it’s because we give ourselves permission to mourn our pets the way we want to, whereas when we lose people we love, we try to put on a brave face. We worry more about upsetting the person who is dying, as well as others around us. We also are fully aware of the person’s suffering, and we can’t bear to see that. And if we are religious, we find comfort in knowing they are going to a better place.

It is different with a precious pet. Watching Casey suffer, knowing that he didn ‘t understand why it was happening, was heartbreaking. Part of us went with him. We can only hope that it’s true what some people say, that our darling animal friends are part of our afterlife, and Casey is there waiting for us, eager to play again.

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renovation-roulette-1-mIt’s occurred to me that one of the greatest tests of a marriage is that dreaded of times, the renovation period. If your home is over twenty years ago, it can seem a neverending cycle, and if either one of you is even borderline attention-deficit, that’s the time it will show up in spades.

Such is the case in our home. My husband has the energy and ambition of two men half his age.  That can be both a blessing and a curse. Understanding his thought patterns can be like following a billiard ball as it richochets from ball to sidewall to pocket. He’s knocked a kitchen wall down at one in the morning because of a sudden inspiration. He’s started gigantic projects without planning the workspace or storage for such a huge undertaking.  At times, it makes me want to pull out my hair, but compared to women whose husbands lack that kind of confidence, I consider myself lucky. Point my husband in the right direction, clear an area for him to work,  remove all the breakable items around him, and he’s off to a great start. But leave him to fend completely on his own while I go and try to write? Don’t count on me getting much done.

Twenty-odd years ago, I read an article called “The Truth About Men and Housework.”  It was written long before “political correctness”  guided everything in print, and we thought it was hysterically funny because in my husband’s case, at least, it was completely true. One of the things it stressed is that by their very nature,  men prefer to work “in packs.” I remember one part in particular that went something like this:

“Your husband will be three steps up a ladder and call you to hand him something he forgot to carry up with him.  Don’t worry. You can finish your shower later.” 

The writer wasn’t suggesting laziness throughout the piece, but a man’s need to have someone nearby to comment on their work and assist them in some small way, speeding up the process.

That’s the pattern my husband and I have settled into, and it works for us.  Perhaps it will for you too. I am much like the operating room nurse. I keep track of the renovation “instruments,” otherwise he’d spend a couple of hours of the day searching for his measuring tape, or the Phillips screwdriver he just had in his hand, or the dropcloth he had yesterday. I’m the one who runs for the paper towel if he splatters paint . I hold the light up so he can see if the drywall paste is on smoothly. I constantly shift things around him as he makes progress in the job, all part of my own obsession to keep things under control. It works for both of us. I stay calmer and he avoids tripping on things and breaking an ankle.  After all, he’s a big guy, and if he falls, he falls hard.

He’ll also work non-stop, forgetting the time. I remind him to come and eat, and I bring him tea and cookies when it’s time for a break.

Now, before you start thinking that this is all a little too “Stepford Wife-ish” for you, I should tell you that it’s not always sweetness and light. When he messes up badly or loses something for the tenth time that dayand his frustration level skyrockets, that’s my cue to let him howl at the moon alone.  His tirade generally doesn’t last long. Ever heard of a surgeon carry on an operation alone without the surgical nurse to hand him the scalpel?

Not to worry though. Unlike the surgical assistant, I stop short of wiping his brow.

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sadness-anger1My good friend Tony May began a discussion today in our writing group on the subject of “global anger.” He voiced his concern over the way violence seemed to be escalating, even in small towns that up until now, were simple sleepy hollows. He asked for ideas on why we thought it was happening, and I was surprised at the response that poured out of me.

I wanted to share it here (with apologies to Tony for running with his idea):

If there’s a cause of the escalating violence in our world, it has more to do with the isolation people feel in their anger, rather than any particular thing that’s causing their anger. People are losing their sense of community, and with that comes a fear of losing control and a lack of trust. Individual rights to vent anger freely, have taken over the rights of others who are the target of that anger, or simply witnesses to it. Everyone is affected by it.

Too few people are willing to cut anyone any slack these days. They want to be angry because it makes them feel in control, or superior, or powerful, and most definitely, righteous. They’ve learned to take pleasure in cutting others down to size. They are more eager to believe the worst of people than they are to give them the benefit of the doubt. It explains the success of tabloids. People are more afraid of looking like fools for being “too kind” than looking unkind for judging too hardshly or unjustly. Suspicion and paranoia reign supreme, and the media has caused it to spread like a disease.

When we see educated people looking down their noses at the undereducated, or people hating another ethnic group simply because they’ve congregated in large numbers in one area and opened businesses selling their own ethnic food, food, and clothing; when you have religious groups who believe that prayer brings personal and financial success, so anyone who fails in that area must deserve it because they can’t be living as God intended; when you have older people resenting younger ones because they lack the life experience to appear so self-assured, or when you have people thinking less of you because somewhere along the line you failed at the big “American Dream;” when you have people ask you 1. what you do for a living? 2. where you live? 3. and what college and college team your kids have made it into? and you’re keenly aware that if your answers aren’t right, they stop listening; when your success or failure is measured by your children’s success or failure, and kids value their parents on the basis of “what they’ve achieved,” or “what they own;” and parenthood becomes just one more area where you feel you have to compete; when the “have nots” are assumed to be lazy and undeserving; when people are so effing scared to be honest about their feelings for fear of how others will judge them, well, that’s when you end up with the mess you see right now.

Eventually, it won’t necessarily be the anger behind a gun that will cause deaths. It will be the anger we hold onto that may as well kill us outright. It can become the reason for some people’s existence – a way to stand their ground, their swords drawn and ready for dangers they perceive will come their way. Letting that anger fester and build is a conscious choice, just as they say being happy is a conscious choice.

In the final analysis, all we can control is our own reactions to the shit life hands us. If we can’t learn to put things into perspective, and hope the next generation follows our lead, then I fear that someday, Mad Max’s world won’t seem all that far-fetched.

 

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cheese-bun1This is an oldie, published in Moondance: Celebrating Creative Women in June of 2004. While we deal with the current recession, I can’t help but think of it again, and remember that we are often luckier than we realize.

 

Once in a while, when I’m feeling particularly blue and disillusioned with life, something happens to open my eyes. Call it an epiphany, if you will, but it’s a blessing for which I’m thankful.

Not too long ago, I had such an awakening. We were riding the tail of a very stressful month, filled with uncertainty and worry around recent employment changes, and emotions in our home had run the gamut. Finally, we decided to shake off the negativity that enveloped us, and recapture some of our usual fighting spirit. Whatever fate brought, we would focus on what was right in our lives, rather than worry about what we couldn’t control.

That night, the wisdom of our decision was proven to me in the guise of a solitary woman who stood behind me in the grocery store. I had come for just a few items, but being a bargain hunter by nature, I had taken advantage of mid-week bargains. I placed my carefully selected items on the grocery belt; two cases of Coke, two containers of ice cream, and two bags of potato chips, far from necessities, but all discounted; inexpensive laundry detergent; cat food; milk; bread; three bags of coffee. As I faced the the cashier scanning the bar codes, my eyes glanced left and downward and were drawn to pair of feet wearing flowered neon pink socks. The only protection between her feet and the cold November ground were a pair of cornflower blue flip flops.

From the corner of my eye, I gazed upwards. Bare legs, a printed skirt and shirt, and over it all, no coat, but a transparent green hooded raincoat. She stood ramrod straight, a large rectangular floral bag gripped tightly in her hands.

Must be eccentric; maybe an artist, or even a writer; someone who cares little of outward appearances, I thought to myself.

I handed the cashier the money for my purchases, and the woman placed her order on the belt: a single cheese bun.

“That will be fifty cents please,” I heard the cashier say, then “Do you want a bag?”

“No. Thank you anyway,” the woman answered, as she placed the coins in the cashier’s hand.

From over my shoulder I turned quickly to catch a last glimpse of the woman, and then I saw what was not apparent at first. For she didn’t wait until she was outside to hide her hunger from the rest of the world; there, in the suburban grocery store, she began to eat.

In that second, I knew the truth, and I sensed her shame.

In the parking lot, I quickly lost sight of her as she moved on foot between the cars. I wondered how far she had to travel on such a cold night, dressed so poorly. Then I looked down at my own clothes: the warm leather boots and brown lambskin coat, my carefully matched purse and gloves. I opened the trunk to my car, still like new, every option possible, all shiny black paint and chrome and tan leather, insisted on by my indulgent husband. I drove home, her image branded into my memory.

Somehow, she seemed abandoned, a solitary lonely woman. Beautiful once, and would be even now if sorrow and hard times weren’t so indelibly grafted into her skin. Perhaps younger than I, but I couldn’t be sure. Long, gently curling hair. Clear blue eyes which stared straight ahead. Tall and slim, good bone structure, she could have been a Hollywood actress on a set. But this wasn’t Hollywood.

Did someone love her once? Had she ever known the joy of a small child’s arms around her, or the warmth of a grown son’s hugs and the words “I love you, Mom.”

Did she one day have a husband like mine, who even then, despite work worries, was home in a cold garage, doing his own version of “Junkyard Wars” to create a closed cabin for his old snow plow? A husband who jokingly calls me “Highness,” who makes love to me and brings me tea, who tells me I’m beautiful and smart every day of my life? Has she ever loved someone who could make her laugh until she cried, who shared private jokes and silly stories with her?

If she did, was the sorrow I sensed the mourning of what was lost?

No matter what else life has dealt me, I have been lucky enough to know such love. I watch my husband from afar, and sometimes, his thick hair, now graying, seems once again the color of honey. The years disappear, and I see the vulnerable boy I fell in love with so long ago.

So, thank you, mysterious lady. You have helped me see once again how truly blessed I am. I hope that some day fate allows you to feel a similar joy in your own heart.

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42-207336911A short “what if?” piece, purely fictional. Do you ever imagine how your life would change if you suddenly learned you were dying? I do. This is just part of what I imagine regretting.

“Carpe diem.” I know what it means but it’s made no difference. I’ve lived each day, each year on delay, as if I will exist forever. I’ve been Scarlet O’Hara, following the mantra. ‘Tomorrow is another day.” I’ve been a fool.

I’ve been a fool.

Denial is the panacea of the cowardly. Reality is a bitch and the truth hurts, or so says my son’s latest tattoo. Delusion, whether drug-induced or a natural inclination, is gentle. You tell yourself that people are rarely as cruel as they appear; that the dangers of global warming are exaggerated, that good always triumphs over evil; and as for death? It’s so distant that it doesn’t bear thinking about. That’s the way I’ve lived my life, until now.

Within a few short weeks, I will be dead, and I am suddenly overwhelmed with regret for the time I have wasted, for the work left undone. I will never accomplish all that I expected to. I will never know what it is to have my dreams fulfilled. I foolishly pushed them to the back of the shelf, waiting for just the right moment to speak them aloud and bring them to life. They will die with me.

I try to turn onto my side but tubes and sterile tape make it impossible. I moan in frustration, rage inwardly at this turn of fate. I want to say something brilliant, something so enlightened that it will make my creator stop and say “The world needs her. Let her stay.” Instead, foolish clichés fill my thoughts.. ‘My ducks aren’t all in a row. There are fences yet to be mended. Not enough bridges have been built. I still have fish left to fry.”

I am not ready to leave.

I lower my head and whisper my deepest truth: “There are stories I need to write.” A searing pain rises in my chest and it hurts to breathe. Is it the cancer that eats away at me, or is it the words that will be forever buried?

I have no one to blame but myself. For years I allowed everything and everyone else to come before my writing. When I put words to paper, I tore each sentence to shreds, rewrote, revised, recycled and picked at my writing until nothing remained of me. I was uninspired, overly critical, unable to find my focus amidst the distraction of my life. My muse fled, licking her wounds. I told her to be patient, to wait for my “someday.” How could I know that “someday” would never come and that my thoughts would die with me?

When I was still a teenager, I read “The Prophet,” until I could recite parts by heart. I loved its wisdom, the purity and simplicity of its language and truths. “Your children are not your children. You are the archer. They are the bow.” I dreamed of writing a book like that, one that would be passed from friend to friend, from parent to child, one that would live long after I was gone.

I wanted to touch children in a way that mattered. Like Barbara Parks, I would write a story that would make them laugh but teach them compassion. I think now of the first time I read Barbara Parks’ book, Skinnybones, to a group of nine year-olds. There were times I had to stop and regain my composure because I was choking with laughter. Such a gift, to be able to make children and grownups laugh, all the while teaching respect for our differences. I longed to write like her.

I wanted to write about unlikely heroes, unveil a perfect multi-dimensional character, my own “Holden Caulfield,” someone whose layers could be slowly peeled away, earning him or her a place in the hearts of my readers. I wanted to write a character that would make people cry with laughter and laugh through their sorrow. I wanted to write magic.

I waited too long.

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