dearly beloveds

Tonight’s post is accompanied by an unnamed beer…that is to say, we have a good friend who home brews, and generously shares his labors. His way of keeping track of them is to use barely distinguishable symbols, (usually numbers scrawled in permanent marker), on the bottle cap. Sometimes, it is just a dot, or two dots, and that is the name of that beer (one dot). I have expressed my dislike for this not very creative method, and he nonetheless continues. So my unknown beer’s name at the moment looks like a shadow of the number 19.  And, it is quite drinkable, though I can’t quite categorize it at the moment.

I wrote  something a few years ago, around the time we had to put one of our cats down.  I never did anything with the piece. Didn’t submit it to any publishing format at all, and I don’t know why. I have re-read it and find it is still worthy, though lengthy. i have added some editing updates. I hope that it resonates with readers out there.

My Dearly Beloveds

The woman’s boss had called me to confirm her employee’s arrival would be at 6:00 pm, with my package in hand. Her name would be Maria or Mary, some M name that escaped me. “M” promptly arrived, and I opened the door to a woman whose face had “I’m sorry” stamped upon it. She wore a denim shirt with a pocket patch that read, “Faithful Companion Pet Cremation Services.”  In her arms was a little bag that held a little wooden box, which in turn held the remains of our sweet black kitty, Chewbacca. Or Chewy, for short.  M was kind, and I didn’t envy her the job of simultaneously collecting payment and delivering remains. She left in a graceful manner, while I managed to remain stoic until reading the unforgivably cheesy “Rainbow Bridge Poem,” included in my bag.

For those not in the know, this poem is about meeting up with all the pets you ever loved after you have departed from this earth. A comforting notion, indeed. With a deep sigh I took the box and put it next to two other tins labelled “Buddy” and “Allie.” This little moratorium corner had officially become depressingly crowded.  I gazed upon their shelf and felt deep sadness envelop me, and I lay down on the couch and did not move for what seemed like hours.

During this semi-comatose state,  I thought of the many fur friends that had decorated my life. As a child there was so many assorted guinea pigs, hamsters, dogs, cats…all loved on as they passed through. But the pet memories I probably treasure the most are those I have had since reaching adulthood. Their presence captured who I was in sweet moments of time that would otherwise be forgotten.

So back in the day, there was Buddy, a grey and white tabby I got for my then-boyfriend, now-husband. John was lonely away at Purdue, and he needed some company. Buddy certainly fit the bill, lounging on his owner’s chest and putting his paws up around his neck as they both napped. I would drive for hours from MSU presumably to be reunited with my love, but Buddy probably got scooped up first. He romped around and then would fall into an exhausted slump, as did I. In those eager-to-please days, I was the frisky little kitten always ready to play.


Then there was Allie, our loving, loyal, golden lab mix. Allie represents the misguided, idealistic me who thought nothing of mothering a four year old, a newborn infant, and a 6 week old puppy all at the same time. Allie bore the brunt of my formative parenting and dog training years, which is to say…she survived my innumerable mistakes. She doted on us nonetheless, ever forgiving. We could not have asked for a better family dog, although the UPS man might have argued that point.

Months after saying goodbye to Buddy, we went to the shelter to pick out a new feline. We brought the now arthritic Allie along for a meet and greet in a separate room. We must have handled at least half a dozen cats, my shoulder becoming somewhat shredded as they seized up at the sight of the dog. Then Danny brought in the silky, long-haired black cat who kept making these guttural sounds that were so cute. We set him down and he sauntered over to Allie like he’d known her his whole life, weaving in and out of her legs and rubbing up on her side. No hissing, no biting, just pure, unadulterated pleasantness. Of course, those noises and his long hair necessitated that we name him Chewbacca. It was a seven year love-ever-after affair for the whole family. And now, he was gone.

The question I thought about was, which “me” did Chewy represent?

I think Chewy represented the “finally knowing what really matters me.” The mother of teenage boys me, feeling lost and unneeded.  Well, Chewy needed me. So what if it was to remove mice, poop, and hair balls? The truth is, we all needed him. His soft black belly cradled more than one household head as the tears flowed from one crisis or another. And through it all, he would extend a paw to a face, in assurance that all would be well. How desperately I would need that assurance when unexpectedly and quite painfully, I became the motherless me.

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Over the next few days as I looked around at Chewy’s empty food bowl and empty bed, empty is how I felt too. I had been through this before, none of it a walk in the park. But there was something different this time, and during one of my couch relapses, it hit me. Chewy had died very much like my mom had the year before.

It was kind of eerie, the similarities. Save me the protests that a mother’s death and a pet’s are not the same. I know this. What was getting to me were the parallels of the two losses. From the time I suspected Chewy was ill and through the aftermath, I kept seeing these comparisons to when my mom was sick. This could have been because it hadn’t been that long since she had passed, and I kept searching for commonalities in order to make sense of her death. Give it the proverbial meaning, so to speak. It was a long time before I realized sometimes things don’t make sense, and they never will.

When I sat in front of the vet and felt my face contort helplessly at the words, “Your cat is dying,” it was like a sucker punch of deja’ vu. Let’s see, where have I heard this? Well, it started with the diagnosis process.

Vet: “The blood tests are coming back normal, but he’s a little anemic. I am not sure why he’s not eating. Bring him back next week.”

Her doctor: “Your mom’s tests are all coming back negative. We don’t know what’s wrong. Come back in a week.”

Time confirmed that the dreaded cancer was growing in both of them. Surgery in both cases proved futile and painful, showing the masses had metatisized. And not that much longer came the horrendous decision to end a life. With Chewy, it meant insertion of an IV drip, and with my mom, the removal of one from an arm that had become so bloated as to be unrecognizable. Woven in and out of these surreal moments  came the guilt, threatening to choke me like a weed slithering about a plant. If only I had noticed earlier my fur baby wasn’t eating well…why didn’t I DO something when mom told me she was sleeping 14 hours a day? When preparing a birthday dinner for me was clearly a heroic effort? If only I had taken time out of my useless, silly life to realize they were wasting away before my very eyes…maybe, maybe, maybe, I could have saved them. Of course, in all likelihood I couldn’t have. But rationality does not stop the flow of what ifs.

The helplessness I felt only added to the guilt that was festering. On the day we learned Chewy had numerous tumors, the vet had asked if we wanted to see him before injecting him one last time. We said yes. Danny and I went into the surgical unit and there he was. A lifeless Chewy was  spread-eagled on the operating table, outstretched with a tube stuffed down his tiny throat. It was a jolting picture, and it almost did me in. All the love you gave, and it’s reduced to this, my brain screamed. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry please God let him know. After it was over, I asked the vet to take the apparatus out so that we could say a proper goodbye. I did this more for my heartbroken, trying-to-hold-it-together teenaged son than anything else, but we both were overcome with gut-wrenching sobs. The kind of tears that leave puffy purple streaks all over your face, and you can’t even breathe.

The vet agreed to my request, and we stepped into the hall. When we were ushered in again, I gazed upon his still form and felt utter sorrow pierce me once again. I couldn’t help but notice a tiny circle of blood that was pooling under his side, where the vet had quickly stitched him up for our sake. In a moment’s notice my mind’s eye was back in a hospital bed not so long ago. I squeezed his frail little black paw, the same paw that never again would nudge my husband for a morning pat. I leaned in and whispered that I was sorry. The same words I had whispered to my mom as she was leaking blood too…from the fruitless operation to remove her cancerous kidney.

We were told it was the only way to determine if the cancer had spread. I had railed in private against the procedure, thinking it would kill her because she was so weak. And it helped, of that I am now sure. But we didn’t know what to do, and my father was not one to question doctors. My mom didn’t even really know what she was signing for on the consent form. I will forever regret that I did not challenge the decision to go ahead with the surgery, because it would have been obvious within days she was dying. That did teach me to never back down to someone who thinks they are smarter than you, though. So thanks, Mom.

It wasn’t long before we withdrew life saving measures, as was her wish.

Soon after this, her remaining kidney shut down and left no way for her body to eliminate the fluids that were accumulating. So her skin essentially began weeping them out…mixed with the blood from her weakened incision. I would look at her puffy hands, my eyes overflowing at the same rate she was. I told her over and over again how sorry I was, and hoped she could hear me in the depths of her coma. I could not shake the feeling of playing God and failing miserably at the role. I hated having to play the role again at the foot of a veterinary table, failing once again.

My couch called often during this time, and I went willingly. I had a tailspin of feelings to work through, and it finally dawned on me his death had released much within me. Namely, many things I had put on hold or repressed when Mom was sick. Like Scarlett Ohara, I would just think about that tomorrow. That tomorrow became today when Chewy left us. It just all came to the forefront, and forced me to deal, to move on, to just feel. It was his final gift to me.

My heart has healed of course. It is now four years later, I can think of my mom without instant tears, and there have been a few more pets in between. We got our border collie mix Guinness, who almost died within days of coming home from the shelter from kennel cough, and Huckle, a beautiful quiet grey kitty. Guinness has thrived, but sadly Huckle did not. Literally, a month after we got him home, the vet told us he had kidney disease and would need saline drips. Shades again of my mom. We did the IV’s for 6 months until an emergency vet visit led to a tumor discovery.

I didn’t know if I could do this again. This animal phase must have represented the latent nurse in me. If so, I felt I was a lousy one.

We now have a healthy ginger kitty, and a dog that worships me. I have thought about what is the meaning behind all that I have written here, and it’s this: be more like your pet. Learn from them. Naturally, we can’t all lay in beds for 14 hours, waiting to be fed or walked, but we can do the big stuff. We can love without thinking, without  wondering what we will get in return. We can learn to accept that joy and sorrow co-exist, and go with it anyway. We can look upon our loved ones as they come through the door with the same euphoria our dogs show when they see us.

I’m still waiting to see what the lessons will be with the current animals. The dog basically drives me nuts because he is extremely smart, does not listen, is overprotective, and snarls at bigger dogs than he. We are obedience school drop outs. He is, in fact, worthy of a separate post. Murphy, our ginger, probably deserves one as well. Like us, they are leaving their legacies every day. Maybe one of the most important legacies we can learn from is a line taken from the Rainbow Bridge poem: “…a faithful friend is never forgotten.”

Be that person your dog thinks you are. Be the faithful friend.







How to get out of a comfort zone, part two

So if there’s anywhere that you can get a drink 24/7, it’s the airport.  And that is where I am, presently sipping on a Stone IPA, and it is just right. Not too grape-fruity, which many IPA’s are. Not that I need a drink 24/7, I just find it interesting that it is so readily available in this setting.

I’m sure all the varying  time zones have something to do with this, as well as arriving anal-retentive early and having hours before one’s flight. Not that this is us, mind you. Still, I am thinking the  phrase, “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere ” had to have originated in an airport.

And now to take up where I left off, with my buddy Loren. I neglected to add previously that when his mom was hospitalized, she never left. Loren wasn’t sure exactly how she died, since it seems there were many complications. And I wasn’t going to press.  I was already invading his space, after all. I could already feel my composure slipping when we touched upon this subject.

“My mom died too, 4 years ago. I miss her, just like you probably miss your mom,” I said. He got quiet, and looked away. “Yeah. You know, she tried to do her best. You know something really bad? I had a baby brother, he was a mongoloid, or something, some long name that I forget. Well, my father, he took him after he was like 2 years old, and took him to a home. And my father left him there, and then left us too.”

I stared at him. “Do you mean your brother was put into an institution?” He shook his head. “Naw, not really. People adopted him. But my mom tried to get him back. We never saw him again.” I expressed my sympathy, which he brushed off. ” He stopped talking and looked at me. ” You don’t want to hear all this, do you? I’m tired a talking about myself. ”

I hurried to reassure him. “Please. I really do want to hear. Tell me more.”  And so he started talking again, and I studied him behind my sunglasses. He was neat and clean, comparatively speaking. And he was considerate. He said, “you don’t smoke, do you?” I said no, but I knew his question meant that he did. I told him to go ahead. He said, “But if I do, the wind will blow it right in your face the way you are sitting.” I smiled.  “Loren, I used to tend bar back in the day. Do you know how much second hand smoke I inhaled back then? It’s fine.” He lit a cigarette, but kept it tucked down in the gate so it wouldn’t drift up in my face anyway.

I never asked him about jobs, or his work history. He told me of his own accord, and his voice was tinged with shame.

“I used to do janitor work a while back. Then I got fired because I had to miss work to take care of my mom. Then, I helped a guy deliver newspapers for a long time. He quit doing it so I kinda had to, too. And now, for a while I been having these leg pains. To where they buckle from under me, and I get dizzy, and I just about pass out. Nobody is gonna hire somebody who is always about to pass out.”

Not surprisingly, doctors are not a favored group either. When I asked if he had been seen, he said: “Ah, hell. They did a bunch of tests on me and it didn’t show nothin’. Even a neurologist saw me. He said I had some kinda seizure disorder, but he wasn’t sure. They wanted me to take this one medicine, but I said no. If they can’t tell me what’s wrong with me, why should I take it? And I was afraid of side effects.”

I told him he had a valid point, and I wouldn’t take it either if it couldn’t be explained.  I asked him if he remembered the name, thinking it might be a schizophrenic drug. The homeless are well known for going on and off meds, exacerbating problems. He said he couldn’t remember. We talked about whether he might qualify for disability benefits, and he said some other worker had broached it with him. This process also involves a doctor’s diagnosis, and Loren said since they couldn’t find anything wrong with him, that was that. I am fairly sure there is a lot more to this that he either doesn’t understand or isn’t willing to offer up, so I say nothing and just listen. Who am I to say anything, anyway?

Interspersed in between all these admissions, I asked him about the books laying next to him. He said, “Yeah, that makes the day go faster. But I can’t read very good. In fact, I just learned to read in 2008.” I said, “Wow! That’s great. Did you have somebody help you, or did you teach yourself?”  “Well, kinda both. A lady at St. Vincent’s helped me, and I kinda picked it up little bits here and there. Like I said, I’m slow and some words I don’t get. I did real bad in school, ya see. But mostly I can figure it out. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have my books.” I asked him how he obtained them, and it seems “book people” visit the streets once a month, usually a man and a woman. And they just hand out paperbacks to anyone who wants them. Loren thought they were from a church.

I asked him if the nearby churches helped him, and he said yes. “I take a shower and stuff once a week at St. Vincent’s, and church people run that, I think. They have food, too. Sometimes, I sleep there. I been through some bad stuff in my life, but I do believe in God. When I get to feeling bad, I give it to God. And that helps me.”  I said I was glad for him, and asked him about living in the shelter. He made a tsk tsk sound, shook his head, and said, “Man, I’ll tell you what. I just can’t do it, because they don’t have the same rules for everyone. You know, they let these tattoo-ed guys who are drunk or high stay there, and that’s against the rules, but some of ’em, just look the other way. And me, I don’t do that stuff. I don’t drink or do drugs, and I don’t do tattoos. See?” He held his arms up to me as proof, and not a needle track or trace of ink could be found. I nodded approvingly. He went on: “And one time a lady who was drunk, she started yelling at me, and I’m the one who got kicked out. Can you believe that? So I just don’t stay there no more.”

I agreed that didn’t seem fair, and then he said, “Now, that’s enough about me. Are you from San Diego? What are you doing here, just tryin ‘ to kill time?” I replied I was here because of my husband’s work, and no, I wasn’t just trying to kill time. I said, “I noticed you a couple of times, and I wanted to know a little of your story.” He made a kind of noise. “Well, I don’t have many good stories to tell, as you know. Don’t you want to do a little shopping, or something? There’s a mall just 2 blocks from here. Or if you wanted to see a movie, I could tell you where.” I laughed and said no, I had done enough of those things. I said, “Okay. Fair is fair. What would you like to know about me?” He asked where was I from, and did I have kids. I told him about Michigan, and our bracing winters.  Then I said, “Would you like to see pictures of my sons?” He said he would. So out comes my iPhone and I show him my two red headed jewels. He smiles obligingly and comments of my eldest, “Oh, he looks like you. You have the same smile. The same pretty teeth.” I say thank you, and he looks down. “I don’t have good teeth,” he says casually. I tell him I had a dentist who took care of me when I was growing up, and I had braces to make them straight. I change the subject by asking to see pictures of his mother, if he had any.

Loren brightens up a little, showing me his few crinkled photos in his wallet. I ooh and ahh at what a beautiful young woman his mom was, and I am not lying when I say this. She had lush, dark brown hair and eyes…kind eyes. I blink back tears thinking of her life. No partner, one son taken away, one on the street with her, a daughter that didn’t speak to her, and suffering from what sounded like dementia and God knows what else.  There was one thing she could be proud about though, and there are probably many people, maybe even extremely wealthy, who couldn’t say it about their own families. She had a son who had loved her, who tried to do his best to help her.

This is the human element, the commonality, that gets to me the most. The huddled figures under the bridge or the crazies muttering to themselves, they were all children  upon a time. Were or had been someone’s child, as ill-equipped for parenting as they might have been.  I think about their dreams, the dreams every parent has for their child. And I wonder what went wrong, and I wonder if anyone cares what went wrong.

I tell him then that I like to write, and did he mind if I wrote about him, and took his picture too. He took a few seconds and then said, ” That would be fine.” So iPhone again in hand, I take one with his glasses on. He thought that was too dark. I take another without the glasses, and he says, “yeah, use that one.”

Even among the hints of mental illness, (or should I say, including, because who isn’t on the wacky spectrum in some way?) Loren’s politeness, his awareness of me, and his gratefulness when we parted convinces me more than ever that we are more alike than we are different. He is my brother. And in these moments of time, I’m not going to “change” him. I’m not going to lecture (only once do I get preachy, and that’s when I talk about food), or push my beliefs on him, or cluck cluck about how can anyone live like this. It is what it is, or so it goes. Even if it’s just for this morning, I want him to feel that what he has to say is worth listening to.

The sun is beginning to encroach upon us, and Loren says this is when he usually retreats to the park’s cool shade to read his book. I take this as my cue, and I get up creakily because the metal grate I was sitting on was uncomfortable as hell. And,  nearly 2 hours have flown by. I look at the thin piece of cardboard he is sitting on, the only thing separating him from the hard slab of cement. I say to him, “Loren, before I go, I want you to tell me of some things that you really need out here to make living easier. Physical things, like toothpaste, or whatever. And I want to give you some of these.” He hesitates. “Well, I got enough of that kinda stuff, the mission gives that stuff a lot. But, the one thing that I could really use, if you don’t mind, is some neosporin. Because if I get a cut, I don’t like it to get infected.  Oh, and baby wipes.”

He held out his hands and said, “I don’t like it how my nails get dirty, and those wipes help me keep clean in between showers, see. But, that stuff is awful expensive. Are you sure?” I say, yes I am sure, and thinking of that grey concrete, ask him if he could use a pillow. I panic momentarily, wondering if he said yes, where the hell in downtown San Diego would I find a pillow. The streets are lined with boutiques and restaurants, not exactly a magnet for home furnishings. He shook his head. “Naw, it’d just get dirty. Besides, I just use my roll-up pad or some sweatshirts.” I nod, and say, “Okay, I’ll be back in just a bit. You’ll be here, right?” He said again that usually he went to the park about then, but that he would wait till I got back.

I practically sprint the 2 blocks to where I know there is a CVS store, as well as a used book store. I had asked him what kinds of books he liked, and he said westerns. I pick out 2 that seem to have a simpler story, and take off again. I go fast because I am afraid he will leave, and the sweat is pouring down my back. I needn’t have worried; he is still under the tree. I give him the items and I can tell he is embarrassed. “That was a lot of money,” he says. “But you needed them,” I say, “and here.” I tuck another bill into his hand. This is where I allowed myself to get preachy. ” Now, I want you to get something GOOD to eat. Not fast food.” He started to protest, but I say, “C’mon, treat yourself. Please.” It did occur to me to just ask him if I could take him somewhere, but I knew he wanted to get to his park. He said that maybe he’d have a carne asada later, at a burrito stand down the block. They were cheap, about 6 bucks, and that was his favorite place when he had extra money.

I left him by shaking his hand, telling him how much I had enjoyed his company. I wished him luck and he even gave me his phone number. “A worker gave me this phone to me for when I need to make appointments and stuff. But I can text a little. I’m not too good at it though.” I said I didn’t mind, and he thanked me profusely.  “God bless you,” he said at least twice. Yes, that he has, Loren. More than you can know.

And, this has been a very long post, friends…but I couldn’t make it any shorter. And who knows, there may even be a part three in the future. I hope you have enjoyed meeting Loren as much as I did.  Cheers!