Of all the many things I feel grateful for today, including a wonderful night’s sleep in my bed on clean cotton sheets, and coffee in the morning, and a meaningful day’s work, and not getting food poisoning from questionable canned tuna fish, and teaching my first mindfulness practicum class to two delightful volunteers… by far the highlight (sorry, ladies), was the thrilling adventure that Stellar had on our last walk of the day. I give you, Driveway: the Trailer.
I mean. He was playing! For the first time in a year! or More! Just to see him frolic, feeble though he is, brought laughter and joy to my heart. Yes, there was a little concern that he’d twist on a foot stuck in the mud or snow and fall to the ground, but really, there was nothing to do but enjoy his joyful encounter with the puppy next door, whom we met for the first time walking up … the Driveway!
We passed Ditchley House after an evening drive around the interior of the Northern Neck Peninsula, to entertain the dogs and to enjoy the last of the fall colors.
“Have you been to the ferry?” Auntie had asked. I hadn’t yet. So the Corotoman River ferry provided our initial destination. The river flows softly flat past the ferry dock at the end of the road. Beside the dock lies a small triangle of river sand, below a bluff with opulent private homes on top. We let the dogs out to run on the sandy beach before continuing our ramble.
We wended our way back east and a little south, in the general direction of home, along small roads getting smaller, crossing the peninsula on Goodluck Road. It was almost my last day there, and I hadn’t yet taken a detour to see the hamlet of Ditchley, on a point flanked by two creeks.
I saw Ditchley from across the creek on my walks out to Hughlett Point sanctuary along the Chesapeake Bay. The historic Ditchley mansion, up Dividing Creek from the bay, was once the home of Jessie Ball duPont, a teacher and philanthropist who helped create the Hughlett Point Audubon preserve, where I walked as often as possible during my autumn in Virginia.
From the sanctuary parking lot in the woods, you walk east through a short strip of lovely swampy forest, cross a grassy strip and a low dune, and arrive at the Chesapeake Bay, a couple of miles north of Hughlett Point. There’s nowhere to go if you turn left, but if you turn right, it is a different walk every day, every tide, every weather. The dogs run, Stellar flies, Raven runs away, and I walk and walk barefoot in wet sand or dry, wade in turnunder waves or tidal pools.
Most days I walk all the way to the point, savoring sea and sky and solitude. From the very tip of Hughlett Point I can see Ditchley, so I’d always wanted to drive down Ditchley Road and check out Hughlett Point from there.
It was cocktail hour when we drove past the mansion’s driveway toward the village dock, so we didn’t turn in, though Auntie insisted we should do so on our return. I thought it looked more like a private drive and I said so a couple of times, but she said, “No, this is Ditchley, it is a private home, but they use it for all kinds of public functions. I just want you to see it. We can drive through, there’s a turnaround.”
Then she pulled another friend out of her magic hat and said, “Let’s go have cocktails with Jan.” Jan lives on Dividing Creek, almost to the bay. She wasn’t home, but we walked out on the dock behind her house and watched for a few minutes as the water pinked up, then greyed over, and the sky to the west lit up. The dock had a great view of Hughlett Point, our main objective anyway, so after enjoying that we headed for home. It was dusk, and I was hoping she’d forget about Ditchley House.
As we approached the Ditchley mansion driveway, a sporty red car turned out of it and zipped past us toward the bay. I didn’t like the idea of turning in while they could see us. I was hoping nobody was home. I resisted.
“Turn in, turn in!” Rita insisted, so I made an acute right turn and drove slowly down the colonial-style brick drive through a huge lawn, toward the brick mansion on the right. The driveway narrowed suddenly as it approached the mansion, and passed directly below the foot of the front stairs. I saw with dismay that there was in fact nowhere to turn around but the perfectly smooth green lawn, that the driveway went right up to and around behind the caretaker’s cottage, across a concrete carport, with a grill, bikes, a basketball hoop, and worst of all, a pack of barking dogs. The moment I saw the dogs, I said, “Cover your ears!”
The driveway funneled us through this very private domain: we were bayed up by a large black lab, a midsize gold dog, and a little cocker spaniel. Our dogs were snarling and snapping and barking their heads off trying to get through the car windows. It was a tense cacophony. Our car was so big, and the carport so small and so crowded! I was afraid I would hit one of the dogs snapping at our tires, or knock over a garbage can, or that someone would run yelling out the door. After we slowly, carefully, rounded the back of the house I sped up as fast as I dared and we lost the gold dog, but the big and little dogs pursued us another few hundred feet, Raven and Stellar still snarling and barking.
When they fell off, my dogs settled down. We drove a long silent stretch under arched trees, both of us looking straight ahead, until we turned onto the road. Then Rita turned to me and broke the silence by saying, with a satisfied smile, “Well, now you’ve seen Ditchley!”
I laughed so hard I almost lost control of the car. We laughed all the way home. We laughed through our cocktails. Six months later, we are still laughing about Ditchley, when one of us mentions it over the phone.
Auntie turned 85 yesterday. I cherish every laugh with her and every memory of our wonderful autumn together. What I treasure most about that moment, that smile, that “Well, now you’ve seen Ditchley,” is that it was utterly unexpected. I should know by now to expect the unexpected from my Aunt Rita, it has always been the way she rolls. But in that moment, after the violence of the barking dogs, the awkwardness of our intrusion through a private home, the tension of our escape from Ditchley, and my anxious sense of guilt, her sweet satisfaction was the last thing I expected.
Eight years have elapsed since I wrote that. I visited Kilmarnock again, but not for the past few years. Occasionally through those years Auntie and I will be chatting, and she will say, “Well… at least we’ll always have Ditchley!”
Auntie died Thursday, after months of suffering. She had a stroke three days after Raven died, the Sunday before her 93rd birthday. After struggling to recover, she courageouslychose to relinquish her attachment to living.
There’s been a lot of loss in my world since May. Of them all, I will miss the most my dearest Auntie Rita, my last mother in this world, my friend and role model, my drinking buddy, my favorite person on the planet, whose flair and humor and kindness showed me the way so brilliantly.
Going through photos from our visits through the years, a lot more memories are coming up, bringing laughter, tears, gratitude, joy. She loved to play cribbage, and delighted in a great winning hand…
After cousin Leslie told me that her mother had died, I hung up and walked a few steps farther into the woods, then laughed out loud: in my head I heard so clearly, in that sweet satisfied voice, “We’ll always have Ditchley!”
I’m not claiming that it was she speaking to me; just that I heard her, from within my heart at the very least, though I didn’t realize for two days how much that moment has helped me cope with the loss of her. Having this trove of memories is a gift beyond measure, an enduring connection with her beautiful, mischievous, loving soul.
How is it that with all this extra time on my hands I still can’t unclutter my house? Oh yeah… the garden is waking up.
I simply don’t have words to convey the maelstrom of emotions that swirl within like March winds this spring. Above all there is gratitude for the many blessings this life has given me so far. I’m grateful to be an introvert who works from home anyway. I’m grateful that I have a reasonably healthy body, though my immune system is not robust and neither is my right lung, which never quite fills all the way. I consider myself to be fairly high risk, and so I’m grateful I have friends willing to shop for me and deliver necessities. I’m grateful I’ve worked hard for nearly thirty years to create this beautiful refuge, which now offers solace and peace amid global turmoil, and I’ll be grateful when I am again able to share it with people.
Other emotions may be less healthy but are also valid: rage at the rampant greed and graft manifesting at the highest levels of government during this pandemic when all humans should be working together to stave off despair and death; disgust at the ignorant response by trump cult believers that is causing so many more Americans to sicken and die; despair that the dying petroleum industry and the politicians that subsidize and profit from it take advantage of our distraction to rape and pillage even more egregiously our fragile planet. If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention: Broaden your information horizons.
Meanwhile, the Say’s phoebes are back shoring up at least two nests around the house. A day after they first fluttered into the yard, I took last year’s nest off the top of the ladder leaning against the north wall, and lay it down so I could use it this summer if I needed to. The next day I felt so bad that I gathered scrap wood, tools, and screws to build a little shelf in the same spot where I could replace the nest. But once I stood there with all the materials I realized it would be way too complicated, so I propped up the ladder against a joist to provide corner stability, and tucked the old nest securely back into place. It’s one small thing I can do…
Ojo cuddling in simpler times, before he started using up his nine lives.
Seven to go. That I know of. But who can know what life-threatening predicaments they get into when they’re out of sight in the wild world? Near-misses with fox, coyote, owl; nasty things they eat and throw up that you don’t see; how many of their nine lives they may have lost that you never knew about.
Election day was stressful enough, but add to that that Ojo cat was fine one hour and the next curled up tight and trembling in pain. As I watched with growing dismay the turning of the planetary tide, I also worried for my little cat’s life.
That crisis was diagnosed as constipation. The vet felt hard feces. Maybe there was another lump even then that she couldn’t feel for the fecal mass. Two days of extra powdered psyllium husk and double doses of laxatone and he was pooping like a champ again and back to running up trees at full speed. Whew! Something went right that week.
You try your best to protect them. You get all their shots on time, you feed them well and monitor the output, you bring them in before dark so they stand a better chance of surviving wild predators. I didn’t let these kittens outside for their first eight months: first one thing and then another made it seem prudent.
Then you go and accidentally leave out an innocuous-seeming pill, and his life is at stake. Last Friday in an awful deja vu Ojo seemed fine first thing in the morning, then became listless, wouldn’t eat, didn’t follow me around talking as usual. I’d better make sure it’s just constipation again, I thought, and took him to Doc that afternoon.
Doc palpated his belly and looked at me gravely. The buzzing started in my head when he said “…Leiomyosarcoma…could have been aggravated by that Advil.” He felt a golfball-size tumor in Ojo’s intestine. The next thing I heard was “blah blah blah exploratory surgery.” He stood there waiting for me to say something. “Now?” I choked out. “Tonight. A week can make a big difference. This is an aggressive cancer, it likes to move around. We’ve got to try to stop it from spreading.”
And so I left my little black cat in a steel cage that afternoon. I drove home without him, thinking A cat is a hole in your heart where you pour money. Also, I kept this in perspective. He is just a kitty; all over the world at this same moment, there are families hearing similar news or worse about their mother or their child. All over the world there are millions of other sentient being suffering atrocities at the hands of humans in their insatiable greed: orangutans slaughtered in the wake of expanding palm oil plantations, human refugees fleeing despots and civil wars, and hate crimes on the rise in our own great country.
So I held my own sadness together until I got home, and then I cried about as hard for an hour as I did the whole day long a week earlier. I find I can have hope in small things, though, and settled myself down more quickly than after my dark day of despair when the election numbness wore off. Doc called later that evening to tell me the tumor was out, he’d resected a small section of bowel, and Ojo was doing well.
My friends held me in their own ways during a nerve-wracking weekend. Diane offered me tickets to the classical concert at the Blue Sage that night for a brilliant performance of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, which I shared with Cynthia, who drove there and back with her heated seats on high, a ridiculously sublime comfort to my fretting soul.
And lest she get jealous of all the attention I’m paying her brother, here is a token photo of Topaz on a typical perch, like any good female cat, looking down on the rest of us.
Doc let me visit Ojo Saturday morning before starting his day full of surgeries and was optimistic, though the cat, to be frank, looked pathetic. Michael picked me up in town and let me play with his kitty while my car was in the shop. Cyn gave up her ticket that night for Brahms and Chopin, and Ellie offered me a seat in the second row (how the fingers flew over the keyboard! how the music moved me). Philip loaned me his car when the key finally refused to turn in my ignition. So much to be grateful for.
I missed him so much the past two nights. He puts me to sleep and wakes me up nuzzling his wet little nose and kneading his velvet paws into the arm I drape around him. When I went to visit Ojo this morning, Doc let me bring him home.
“I think he’ll do better there,” he said. “He just sits here looking around like What’s the plan?”
A week ago on FaceTime, I showed Amy Ojo through the window, pawing to get inside. I told her how much it had cost to get him through his Advil-induced kidney failure. “I’d keep that cat inside the house and locked in a box,” she laughed. Well, Amy, this one’s for you:
He only needs to stay in Badger’s crate for a couple of days, I hope, before he can have the run of the house again. He needs to eat incremental small amounts to keep his digestive system moving, but not too much to stress the stitched up bowel.
“Time will give me answers that nothing else can,” said Doc, when I asked him how we’d know if the cancer has spread. Yes, it always does. Time will give us answers to this, and to the many and much bigger questions that loom over us now. In the meantime, all we can do is love who we love, be grateful for the good in our lives, let the joy and the sorrow rise in and move through us, and offer compassion to those we meet of any species who are suffering.