Tag Archive | loss

“We’ll Always Have Ditchley”

Kilmarnock library maple tree

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.

At Hughlett Point, Raven looks across Dividing Creek toward the hamlet of Ditchley.

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.

Boardwalk from the parking lot to Hughlett Point beach

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.

Ditchley lies across the water in the trees.
Stellar mastered flight at Hughlett Point.

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.

A different happy hour, with the same view of Hughlett Point from Jan’s dock. The solitary tree on the far shore marks the turnaround at the southern tip of the beach, where Stellar likes to fly.

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 courageously chose 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.

Rest in Peace, Rita Stephens, May 24, 1927 – August 6, 2010

Lifegiving Lilacs

Western tiger swallowtails frequented the lilac while it bloomed in May.

It’s been a quiet week here in Lake Weobegone — wait, no! It’s been a challenging month here at Mirador. Lots of life happening hard and fast, life including death, of course. Without the garden, exquisite pollinators, and five years of serious mindfulness practice under my belt, the weeks since Raven’s death would have been even more tumultuous.

A different individual shows resilience. I noticed right away that its right rear wing is tattered, but it took awhile to see that its hind end looks wounded, as if in a narrow escape from a bird…
… perhaps from a phoebe, like this one stalking beneath Buddleia alternifolia, domesticated butterfly bush’s wild ancestor, and an annual feast for pollinators that blooms after the lilacs are spent.
Red admiral butterflies were also prevalent, in varying stages of weatherbeaten.
Elegant flower fly, is what I’m calling this. Pretty confident that it’s some species of syrphid fly, a beneficial family that eats aphid larvae.

What with Raven dying, auntie’s stroke, Michael’s imminent demise, another friend in major-medical limbo, Stellar on his last legs… the cherry tree dying, the phoebe nest knocked down and chicks devoured… the little and the big, all against the national backdrop of socio-political upheaval (and hopefully, awakening), and the slow-moving catastrophe of climate chaos; it’s been like log-rolling in a swift river, but I’m no longer a beginner: I’ve stayed afloat, dancing on the rolling crashing logs, keeping my balance. That takes practice.

Spring’s generous reminder that change is constant, the mourning cloak.
For years I’ve heard ‘hummingbird moth’ and ‘sphinx moth’ used interchangeably to name the creature below. I just saw this translucent winged, brush-haired type identified online as a ‘hummingbird moth.’ Correction on IDs always welcome.
Many sphinx moths enjoyed the lilacs. So their larvae might eat tomatoes, there’s enough love for everyone in this garden.
Elusive broad-tailed hummingbird made my day. Elusive to the camera, plenty zipping around but hard to catch at the lilac.
After a few days the lilac grove got crowded…
A digger bee feeds congenially beside a swallowtail.
A well-traveled common buckeye butterfly sups by a bumblebee.
Bombus huntii, I presume? At times the lilac was thick with them.
I was surprised by the apparent aggression of many bees, as they seemed to attack each other and also butterflies… as though there was not enough to go around. I witnessed far more collisions than I was able to document.
The requisite honeybee holds fast.
A raucous crowd each day long kept me close to the lilac for weeks, absorbed in the thrills of nectar competition, absorbing the purifying aroma.
Another Papilio rutulus, because for the fleeting time they’re here, why not wallow in them?

Each spring, time with lilacs becomes more precious. Each year, time on earth becomes more precious. Various plants in the garden command their share of my attention during their unique brief windows, and my devotions keep pace as well as I can. A hidden blessing during this Time of the Virus for me has been more time, more time, what most people ask for on their deathbeds. More time than ever before with the lifegiving lilacs.

Suffering keeps going deeper, taking a turn you hadn’t anticipated. How does anyone ever think It can’t happen to me? The more I learn of what can happen, the limitless, infinite array of possibilities that might occur in any moment of any day, that expanding cone of possibility that flows outward, infinitely, from every individual sentient being based on the sum total of conditions present within and without that individual in that precise and only moment, the more gratitude I cherish for each and every moment of my life that holds beauty and serenity.

After lilacs, the pink penstemons: orchard bee on Penstemon pseudospectabilis.
Anthophora enjoying P. palmeri
Swallowtails seem to be courting in the tangled limbs of ancestral butterfly bush while it blooms in early June. May they breed well and prosper. Because why not? Who can get enough of them?

Goodbye, Raven

Of all the many things I thought I’d write about next, getting high on lilacs, Stellar’s last days, a neighbor’s sudden death, being an introvert on lockdown… Raven dying in my arms last night wasn’t even on the list.

Something must have happened while I was inside making dog food around six. When I called them in to eat, she didn’t come. I called and called, and saw her rise from a strange place by the fence, but she wouldn’t come. I walked up to get her, and coaxed her down and into the house, where she lay on her bed and wouldn’t eat even a cookie. She was moving oddly, all tight and slow. I thought she might have had a stroke.

At the canyon in March

Over the next few hours, she seemed to relax, then she got up on the sofa and I thought that signaled improvement. An hour later she got off the couch and collapsed on the dog bed next to Stellar, unable to move her back end. I lay beside her for the next few hours breathing deeply and calmly myself, massaging her spine and hips the way she likes, telling her what a good girl she has always been, and how I love her. She struggled to turn a few times, her breath coming more labored. Her gums paled, her paws cooled. Her breaths came farther apart, turned guttural, then thinned to a whistle. I prayed for her to be reborn in the best possible life, and rubbed sand from the monks’ mandala on her forehead, to guarantee her a human reincarnation.

In two weeks we would have celebrated her fourteenth birthday. She’s been a joyful, delightful, challenging, loyal companion since she came to me at six weeks old. She died peacefully in her own bed, in my loving arms, at 11:40 pm, of unknown causes.

Grooming her baby brother in March. I don’t know what he’ll do without her.
Double rainbow and the last ice, three weeks ago at the canyon.

Missing Topaz

Topaz, Stellar and I take a rest on a walk last September

This is not the post I meant to write this weekend. I’ve been planning to write about Stellar’s last days, but fortunately that can wait awhile. Little Topaz did not come home Wednesday night. She’s stayed out late a few times through her nearly five years, but never all night, never in winter, never for three days.

When a cat disappears on this mesa it rarely ends well. Neighbors have seen big cats and their tracks this month, both bobcats, and a lioness with cubs; foxes abound and vixens are no doubt eating for pups on the way, while the coyote population seems to be rebounding. The first night, when I still thought she was out late napping somewhere, or hunting, I heard an owl not too far off. Maybe she was napping, and came when I called, and got swooped on her way home, making a good meal for an incubating owl pair.

Though beautifully camouflaged in the juniper woods, she is not immune to predators.
They have each been through around a dozen breakaway collars in their first four years but the last two have lasted almost all of their fifth year. Sometimes I find one caught in a branch or on the ground. I’m hoping I’ll find the last one she wore, even if I never find her.
A morning cuddle

When was the exact last time I saw her? She got in bed for a morning cuddle, which she’s been doing more frequently this winter. She left half a bowl of food, which was unusual. Was she here after lunch? I left at four, and came home at dusk. Her brother waited by the door. I called, shook the kibble bag, stayed up til one. Nothing. Twenty degrees out. Acceptance settled quickly, a dark cape tied with a shred of hope.

Shortly before I brought her home, July 2015. Thanks, Mary, for the photo.
Topaz at six weeks, eyes changing from blue to gold

In some ways I was just beginning to get to know her. While very affectionate as a wee kitten, she became an elusive young minx once I let them go outside. She couldn’t stop hunting grasshoppers her first two summers, and needed twice weekly doses of powdered psyllium husk in her food to help eliminate their bountiful exoskeletons. She brought lizards and birds, which I discouraged, and rescued when possible. She spent most daylight hours of her first few years outside. She always came when called, but sometimes not til a few hours later after I’d resort to shaking the kibble bag.

On her bed in the sunroom table, holding down the garden calendar.

Only last summer did she begin to come inside before dusk regularly, without enticement. She’s always let me hold her on her back, but only this year did she actually seek more attention. She loves her creature comforts and napped away many a day this winter on her bed on the sunroom table, rather than spending them outside. She was growing up, and I was loving it, my peace of mind growing reliant on her skillful behavior. If she could come home to me, she already would have.

It is so sad, so fucking sad. She is just gone. I know nothing about where she is or how or when she went or if she’s still alive. In this moment, I know nothing of the only single thing I care to know. I tremble with recognition that this is only one peak in the ever flowing terrible unknowing that is sentient life: all our moments and all our days stink of this unknowing and yet we mostly manage to smell only roses.

Below, Topaz at 4 days, 5 weeks, 6 weeks, and 2 months.

My heart breaks with the not knowing, and with the loss of her. At the same time I acknowledge, If this is my worst suffering I am indeed blessed. She is a cat, however special, beautiful, unique and loved, she is a cat and not a child. Her demise is not the end of the world. She is one minute life in a teeming world on a collision course with human ingenuity. Chances are that a predator caught and killed her swiftly, and she’s returned to the cycle, some youthful lion making her first kill, or food for a den of wriggling fox pups. Though there remains the nightmarish possibility of some lingering death by inextricable entrapment, or the even more far-fetched possibility that someone picked her up and took her away. Or, yes, that she may yet return home.

I could stretch and blame myself, as I have rightfully in other animal departures. But in this case, though there were a couple of impatient moments in the past few months, You coming inside? You going outside? I can’t hold this door open forever… there is one thing this Topaz cat has always known for certain: this is her home, she is loved here, I love her. I’ve taken the precaution, some surely laugh at me while others understand to do the same, of telling each cat, each time it leaves the house, I love you, come back to me. I’ve never pushed this cat outside in anger, as I did once decades ago and never saw that cat again. Whenever the last time I saw her was, I am certain she knew that I love her and she intended to return. So I can’t agonize over any potential role in her departure, and that is a blessing: for all my life I have blamed myself when things are simply the way they are.

Often entwined, these two have been inseparable since they came into the world.

These were the cats who were gonna grow old with me, the precious pair of them. Ojo garnered all the extras with his dramatic health episodes during their first four years. Topaz was the easy one. Only around when she wanted food, never sick a day in her life, as long as we kept those grasshoppers, bones and feathers moving through. Always let me pick her up without complaint, sometimes draped like an alpaca shawl across my knees when I sat on the fire stool in front of a freshly-lit stove, either her spine draped along my pressed-together thighs, head lolling back over my knees, purring while I rubbed the soft flan fur on her tummy, last year’s weeds having rendered her lower belly fur-free like a brand new baby cat and just the merest fuzz regrown overwinter; or lying on her side across my thighs dangling her ends down along each calf, her front legs and head, her back legs and tail, hanging soft, relaxed, just hanging out letting me groom her, fire growing hot beside us, we shift, now heat behind us. She always chose her cuddles, and was skittish with most people and other animals, except our two dogs.

Weeds were so thick all last summer that Topaz groomed her belly furless, and even this winter it barely began to grow back.

It’s not going to be different, just because I don’t like it. It isn’t unfair. I had no reason other than happy complaisance to believe it would be otherwise. But why her? Why not some cat who was less beautiful, less loved, less appreciated? Some feral stray without a person grieving in its absence? Why not her? You sign up for this when you adopt a cat in a rural setting, and ever let it out of its box, your house. I decided Thursday night that Ojo will be the last outdoor cat, period, forever. If I ever adopt another cat once he’s gone, it will stay inside. I want to feed birds again.

Her eyes, more gold than green orbs, with an amber ripple around the outer edge of iris, her pupils narrow vertical slits. Her fur she kept clean and free of mats and burs with her extensive grooming, and it was soft as owl feathers, especially in her little armpits. Around her nose dainty short hairs on her soft muzzle and long whiskers white brown and black. She was a beautiful creature who graced us with the surprise of her life for almost five years.

Above, the most recent pictures of Topaz, including the last known shot of the missing person taken on a driveway walk two days before she disappeared. Our little family will be missing Topaz for a long time.

This loss is hard not because I thought it can’t happen to me, I didn’t, but because it happened out of the blue, as these things do. Meanwhile, I’ve started counting up the benefits to one less mammal in the house. Half the cat food cans. Half the interruptions throughout the day, let me in, let me out, feed me, and no more cat piss in the bathroom sink. For the past six months, when she doesn’t want to go outside, she pees in the copper sink. So less scrubbing of the sink now, and less fur to vacuum up, wipe out of my mouth in the morning, wash from blankets. I’m sure I’ll be conjuring positive spins on this scenario for some time, just to assuage the grief.

Topaz wants her mother and brother Benito to have her scratching post…
…and she leaves the rest of her kibble to her brother Spider and sister Idaho.
Her brother Ojo she leaves bereft, and also she bequeaths him all the beds in the house.

Among the Cleome

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Cleome serrulata, Rocky Mountain Beeplant, wild relative of gardeners’ Spider Flower, is a magnet for native pollinator species as well as honeybees.

Someday, I will find the photo I took of acres of beeplant along the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument when I was a ranger there decades ago. Acres of it! Right next to the river, in a disturbed field. That was my introduction to this native medicinal, dye, and food plant. When I lived in a trailer here 26 years ago, I scattered a native seed mix, including Gallardia, Ratibida, Linum, and Cleome. Of those four, only the beeplant has appeared erratically. Some years there are many, some, like this year, few. Maybe it doesn’t like drought. This particular patch, essentially two large stalks, I let grow in the raised bed between the Mystery Tomato and the Bolting Leeks.

Certain times of day, much of the day, these flowers buzz with the camaraderie of multiple insect species feasting at the same table. What is wrong with us? IMG_6541-109-110IMG_6222IMG_6330-101-102

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I don’t know everything. But it looks like this tiny native bee is shaking or rubbing pollen from a Cleome stamen. Another series of photos shows a big yellow bumblebee stroking the underside of two stamens with her antenna, but for some reason they won’t export. Oh well.

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This juvenile Rufous hummingbird sips the flower, which simultaneously produces fruit and seeds as blossoms continue to bloom and ripen up the stalk.

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Two distinct colors of honeybees inhabit my yard, a range of light bees, and one dark strain.

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I also don’t know the name of this bee, or even if it is a wasp. It’s over an inch long, and I only see it on the Cleome. It usually curls in on itself on these flowers.

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Bye from the Beeplant

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Young hummingbirds, this year’s fast-fledged hatchlings, seem to experiment more with the flowers than adults who’ve become accustomed to the quick-fix of the single feeder that hangs below the deck. They’re trying out the patio pots with red and blue annual Salvia, and the hanging baskets.

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mean… fuzzy wuzzy!

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Next time, the Bountiful Peach Tree.

Amidst loss and chaos throughout the summer, in my personal life as well as in community and country, and around the planet, this peach tree has brought peace and joy. Nurturing and watching from the last snow, through leaf and bloom, drop and grow, these last weeks of ripening, I’ve savored this tree in far and away its most abundant year. It keeps reminding me what’s real. One fruit of the romantic debacle/deception is that it’s driven me deeper into the larger love of my closest friends, my community, and my garden sanctuary. Let me remember to be grateful for love and lessons, every living moment of every day.

 

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Bittersweet

Sugar, née Stella, gone with Spice to live with Pauline way out in the country. Way out.

Sugar, née Stella, gone with Spice to live with Pauline way out in the country. Way out.

The kittens have all gone to their new homes. It was a whirlwind adventure helping to raise them to three months. Fred and Mary were the best grandparents anyone could have been. It was a privilege and a delight to participate in their unexpected kitten bonanza. Over the course of their short lives they moved up one box, one room, one home at a time from their humble birth in an inverted wine box, to a bigger box, to a refrigerator box, to a storage room in the shop, to free run of the whole garage. Then a couple of weeks ago, Idaho and Spider went to live in first the tack room and now the whole barn at the Bad Dog Ranch; Stella and Blaze were whisked away to live even farther out past Crystal Creek with Pauline, who recently lost her old cat, and renamed these kittens Sugar and Spice; Sammy, née Oreo, now called Benito, stayed at Fred and Mary’s with his mama, once and again called Shelley now that her Heidi Ho days are over. But not before she went into heat not once but twice after the kittens reached six weeks old.

Fred called one morning while Mary was out of town. “Can cats go into heat while they’re still nursing?” he asked. “I think so,” I said, and turned to ask a friend who happened to know. Indeed they can! Patricia said she once fostered a cat who’d gone into heat when her kittens were ten days old! Fred recited the behaviors he was seeing: snappish to him for a couple of days, then frenzied (for what turned out to be a week) whenever she saw him, weaving around his feet yowling, rubbing her neck on his ankles or hands with her butt in the air, desperate to get outside; a big black tomcat was hanging around the yard except for a few times when a big orange tom with a white face like two of the kittens’ was hanging around the yard. With due diligence we kept her inside with her babies the whole time. She is now recovering well from the surgery. We have put an end to a long line of feral cats on Fruitland Mesa. And four families in the neighborhood have new adorable companion animals. The little all-black boy kitten Ojo, and Ajo, the sweetest girl of all, came to live with me. Things unfold in the most remarkable ways sometimes.

After deciding that morning they were born, after burying the little cold dead one, the eighth kitten, a black and white that surely would have been another boy, that I would not succumb to the temptation to take any kittens, I gradually began to reconsider. Gradually, as in, the next day. I weighed pros and cons for weeks, considering all imaginable angles. On my yes days and on my no days, I always maintained that I would not choose my kittens (if I got them) based on their looks, how cute or how stunning they were. I held off deciding until the whole community was impatient with me. After we celebrated their six-week birthday with champagne cupcakes and adult beverages, I concluded that I couldn’t take any. The next day I was very sad. So I reconsidered again. And again. And we finally settled on this plan: If I could successfully introduce them to Brat Farrar, my dear old diabetic cat, that little orange kitten that saved my soul once upon a time, and assimilate them into the household, I would take two kittens; If Brat would not accept them within one week, I’d return them next door and my good neighbors would find them another home.

And then things became acutely more clear: Doc said it was finally time for Brat Farrar to have some troublesome teeth removed. His blood sugar was good, he seemed strong and stable. I got cold feet, but then agreed to the procedure when I was informed that most kidney and heart failure in pet cats derives from bad teeth. On a Friday I dropped him off; the next Thursday he died. Maybe it was inevitable, maybe some better decisions could have been made. He came home from the surgery in shock and never recovered. With a scabbed mouth he ate a little, but by Sunday morning his vital force was leaving him. Monday afternoon a blood panel revealed multiple organ failure. “So, we’re saying goodbye?” I asked Doc. “Yes,” he said, leaning on his forearms on the exam table. “I’m sorry.” “I know you are,” I said, my voice catching, and I touched his solid shoulder. Some more words, and I took my sweet cat home. I kept him comfortable and witnessed his death with dignity. It was both grueling and peaceful. I came to terms with death in a new way.

All through that painful week I kept in mind that there were two little bundles of joy around the corner that would be mine at the end of this sadness, two new little lives to love and nurture. No one ever takes the place of a companion animal who dies; but in this world of ferals and strays, I’ve realized, there will always be another cat, another dog, a kitten or puppy coming my way, as long as I’m alive. The timing this time could not have been more perfect. As sad as I was I’m now happy.

Benito

Benito, who stayed at home with Mama (once and again called Shelley now that her Heidi Ho days are over).

Ajo, one of the two that came home with me.

Ajo, one of the two that came home with me.

Ojo, the other one who came to live with me, little black brother of Ajo.

Ojo, the other one who came to live with me.

Mama at the end of a takedown, after Ojo pounced on her, vigorously washing his face.

Mama at the end of a takedown, after Ojo pounced on her, vigorously washing his face.

Mama washing Stella.

Mama washing Stella.

Benito (of the perpetual exclamation point!) and Spider romping.

Benito (of the perpetual exclamation point!) and Spider romping.

While I am already enjoying and look forward to years ahead of me inhabiting life with the two new kittens, I’m still unpacking the shocking death of Brat Farrar. Reflections on all that the many facets of the little orange kitten, iCat, Ferrari, Brat Favre, Culvert Kitty, Puma, the complicated cat, brought to the past eleven years of life will continue to churn and settle for some time to come.

the little traveler

The good little traveler: Brat Farrar on his way home from Virginia with me in the Mothership, spring 2005, on the River Road from Moab.

Brat Farrar, the cat of many names and many lives, last April.

A decade later, last April in the house that matched him. Rest in peace, little one, under the apricot tree.

 

Full of Surprises

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My friend Deb is allergic to cats, but has ended up with a few over the years because we live in the country with lots of feral cats and she has a soft heart. Currently she has only one, Shadowcat, who has wormed her way into the house. But last winter a couple of black cats started showing up on the porch, a short-haired bow-legged boy who’d run to greet you, and his long-haired more skeptical sister. We discovered that Deb’s neighbors had moved away and left the young cats behind. Within a few months, the boy was predictably run over, and the girl was adopted.

The friends who adopted the girl left on a long trip a few weeks after they took her home, with our promise that we’d take care of her in their absence. Since we were sort of the reason they adopted her. And because that is the kind of place we live, where we all pick up the pieces. They set up a nice bunch of beds and roosts in their garage, with all the things we’d need to care for her with the utmost convenience, including a free-feed station where she could eat all the kibble she wanted. She was a prickly little thing, hissing at Deb when she tried to pet her, and just ignoring me.

After a week, I thought she was getting too fat on the free feed, so started rationing her to one cup a day. A week later, she was even fatter! I was pretty sure what this meant. So Deb and I hauled her off to the good doctor, who confirmed that she was pregnant.

"In thirty years I've only done five or six C-sections on cats," he said. "I do that many every year on dogs. Don't worry about it, she'll do just fine."

“In thirty years I’ve only done five or six C-sections on cats,” he said. “I do that many every year on dogs. Don’t worry about it, she’ll do just fine. Cut a door or window in a box, give her some privacy.”

“Not just one or two pregnant,” he said, “more like four or five. And you can expect them in two or three weeks, closer to two I think.”

The neighbors were still a month away. They had no idea! Clearly there had been a miscommunication when they’d had her checked out. They hadn’t settled on a name before they left, and gave us license to name her if it came clear to us. We laughed all the way to the vet playing with names, and on the way home the name did come to us: Heidi. Heidi Ho.

I went into midwife mode, committed to building her trust before her time came. If there were any complications with the birth or afterwards I wanted at least a chance of being able to handle her and the kittens. And I wanted to start handling the babies shortly after they were born, so the proud grandparents didn’t come home to a shop full of feral kittens with a hissing mother that wouldn’t let them close.

For a couple of weeks she looked like she had a football stuck inside her sideways. Last week she started that legs-wide pregnant-lady waddle. Then one day the football had shifted.

For a couple of weeks she looked like she had a football stuck inside her sideways. Last week she started that legs-wide pregnant-lady waddle. Then one day the football had shifted.

I brought a quarter can of wet food every day, and sat across the room while she ate. I set up three nest boxes, two carrying crates with blankets, and a cardboard box arrangement lined with towels. I talked and sang to her (“oh she’s da heidi heidi ho!”) and stayed with her for ten or twenty minutes after she ate, watching her waddle around the garage and check out the nest boxes, or sit and clean herself. Eventually she’d take a treat from my fingers and let me rub her head a little, but I never heard her purr and she never wanted a lap or a real petting.

I set up nest boxes.

I set up nest boxes.

Last week I eased into touching her belly while she ate, checking her nipples and letting my hands rest on her swollen sides. On Sunday I felt one of the kittens move, and more action on Monday. Tuesday I opened the garage door and she didn’t come running. Across the room I heard little peeps and mews. Two weeks four days.

As I cleaned the litter box she came trotting across the room. She gobbled her wet food as I snuck a peek into the cardboard box she had chosen for a nest. She ran and checked on me a couple of times but let me take pictures. After she ate she curled back around her babies and let me watch them nurse. I couldn’t get an accurate count the way they were squirming all over each other, but thought I counted eight. I was surprised at how huge they seemed, to have been out of her less than 24 hours. I congratulated her on the wonderful job she had done.

How huge they looked.

How huge they looked for being out less than a day. How had they all fit inside her?

She rolled over and let me watch her nurse.

She rolled over and let me watch her nurse, purring loudly all the while.

Naturally I was smitten the moment I looked in on the little wad of wiggling kittens. But right now my hands are full and my pockets empty. The Colonel always advised me never to take responsibility for more lives than I could manage to care for adequately. I went into this thing knowing that I would not take a kitten out of this litter. I was sorely tempted to think about it, though, after watching them for just a few minutes.

When I checked the pictures at home, I could see there was a little foot that never moved in all the images and videos. Uh oh. A little dead one. So I ran back over, tricked Heidi with another blob of food, and reached in quickly to the back of the box to remove the kitten carcass. Poor little cold dead one. I brought it home and buried it under the peach tree.

There was a little cold dead one.

There was a little cold dead one.

I buried it under the peach tree.

I buried it under the blooming peach tree.

That was my kitten, the little dead one. Holding its cold little body for just a few minutes, stroking the soft dead fur on its little head, looking at its little open paws… I felt a little surge of love and grief. I said a few words about what a good kitten it would have been, such a good cat, how much it would have meant to me, and then covered it with dirt and straw, inside the tree fence so the dogs can’t dig it up. I placed a tiny bouquet of apple blossoms over the grave. A silly tiny thing, but still: one small thing I could do in a world of endless death. Lately I’ve been remembering that child I was at nine, and thinking maybe that was my prime. Before everything else. At nine, I would have buried that kitten with somber pomp and circumstance, deep and heartfelt ritual. And so I did something like that yesterday.

It was so much easier! So much easier to bury a stillborn kitten that could have been mine, than to love and live with it for five years, or ten, or fifteen as I have with other cats, and then lose it to the inevitable death that comes for all our pets before we’re ready. We’re rarely ready for death, even when we’ve had weeks or months to prepare. That first final emptiness when we look at the dead body of a beloved pet, or person, is always a shock, at least for me. So I got that loss over with preemptively, bringing home my share of the litter, living that little moment of might-have-been, and laying it to rest. Whew.

Seven little warm unnecessary adorable kittens.

Seven little warm unnecessary (adorable) kittens.

I went again today to tend the little mama, un petit d’un petit herself, and her litter. While Heidi was eating I took the top off the nest and folded up the damp, birth-stained towel, set in a clean one, and started to move the babies. MWEEE! MWAAA! they shrieked, and she came running. She stepped in and watched anxiously as I hastily, gently, moved them all onto the new bedding and removed the old. Then she curled around them, and I settled the box back over them. She purred and purred on her nice dry towel. Seven of them! Seven little warm unnecessary kittens. Deb and I have already lined up homes for most of them. Maybe, just maybe… Day Two, and already the wheels of rationalization are turning. No! I will not!

Practical Math

The river runs full and red yesterday through Paonia.

The river runs full and red yesterday through Paonia. 

Welcoming snowmelt.

Welcoming snowmelt, roaring down to fill reservoirs and bigger rivers.

Going with the flow.

Going with the flow.

More found time this morning. A phrase I’ve recently become quite fond of. All week I’ve been finding time, or being given found time, which is more accurate I think. A gift from the universe in this peculiar spring; three appointments were canceled last week, giving me hours more time for my devotions. Time added to my days.

This morning, one neighbor planned to come over at ten and pick up some boxes for a yard sale and another was to pick me up at eleven to drive over and look at my fields across the canyon, make plans for him to harrow or mark or do whatever spring maintenance is needed in order for hay to grow bountifully. We awoke a little after eight, when Rocky wanted out; he was prescient. Half an hour later when I had to get up, the rain was starting and the big dogs wouldn’t leave the door. I fed the cat and went back to bed for the half hour until I could give him his shot.

Our new normal. Each morning Brat Farrar gets homemade, raw food, weighed in grams; half an hour later I give him an insulin shot. Half an hour longer, more or less, and I take away any food he didn’t eat, weigh it, do the math, and record how much he ate. We are doing science. The goal of the calculations, and weekly blood draws to measure sugar, is to bring the kitty back into balance. Beautiful Brat Farrar, my special special cat. Always so fragile and timid.

My rancher neighbor called before I was up for real as rain poured down outside in sideways sheets. “I think we should go over and look at those fields now, don’tcha think?” My first belly-laugh of the day. We postponed it til tomorrow. I postponed the yard-sale neighbor as well and settled in for a day of quiet introspection.

Change is afoot in the neighborhood, as the road crew carves a new curve before paving the  county road.

Change is afoot in the neighborhood, as the road crew carves a new curve before paving the county road.

Forsythia fills the window where I park at Small Potatoes Farm to pick up the week's bread from the brick oven bakery.

Forsythia fills the window where I park at Small Potatoes Farm to pick up the week’s bread from the brick oven bakery.

Snow blew down in spirals, an inch in an hour, fat wet giant flakes like daisies spinning from above. After a cup of coffee and a melt-in-your-mouth, gluten-free, ginger-pecan scone from the Brick Oven Bakery, I turned my attention to my neglected kitchen.

Tulips in snow, this fleeting bittersweet beauty. A friend in sunny Florida fights for her life.

Tulips in snow, this fleeting bittersweet beauty. A friend in sunny Florida fights for her life.

This afternoon, I continue cleaning the deepest recesses of the house; I finally accomplished the pantry last week, the mudroom yesterday, and today, that hell-hole corner cupboard left of the sink. With small cardboard boxes salvaged from the recycle pile stacked yesterday, and colorful duct tape, I made small bins for daily cleaners, rarely used cleaners, oils and waxes, dusting all the containers and washing down the cupboard boards before implementing the new organization. I feel desperate to reduce clutter and mess in my life. I believe this ties in with my overall health as it gradually improves. On every level, bringing my life into balance in this season of upheaval.

A candle for Karla.

A candle for Karla.

Before the cleaning frenzy began, I turned on the Found Music and lit candles in loving ritual for friends and family gone, going, or in duress. I’ve spent the day in wholesome cleansing and reflection. For the first time in months I have the energy to tackle a winter-dirty house full of seasons of clutter. Motivated by the music library serendipitously shared by a friend, tunes and artists that I mostly don’t know but songs which suit my endeavor, I move through the day lightly despite the heavy weather.

Through snowy almond blossoms...

Through snowy almond blossoms…

... the apricot is also covered in snow. I watch it all day through the window as snow melts and blossoms show pink, then watch it get covered again. Each blooming tree a singular gift of changing beauty.

… the apricot is also covered. I watch it all day through the window as snow melts and blossoms show pink, then watch it get covered again. Each blooming tree a singular gift of changing beauty.

Snow tapered off in the afternoon. During a break we got out to run around the yard and fill the bird feeders (the dogs the one, and I the other), check the rain gauge, feed a friend’s cat. A cacophony of finches in the feeder trees. How many is that? Practical math: If you add .40 inches of warm water to the slush in the rain gauge and swish it around til it’s all liquid, then pour it back into the measuring tube and have .68 inches of water, what is the water content of the snow so far today?

This evening white rain pelts down again, a hybrid snow and rain that isn’t quite sleet and definitely not hail. Or maybe tiny, tiny hail. I light a fire in the woodstove and prepare a meal, leftover salmon mixed into salad with fresh chives and basil from pots in the sunroom, on a bed of chopped baby spinach and arugula with a ginger/sherry vinaigrette. On the side, one half a Brick Oven garlic bagel toasted, with butter, cream cheese, and thinly sliced farm-fresh red onion. Oh the way we eat around here.

Tonight I’ll decant the kefir I made from kefir grains that Touffic gave me and start a new batch with the organic milk in the fridge. A new way to get probiotics, from an heirloom strain passed on through community like sourdough starter. Bread and yogurt will be the next new staples on my homemade journey.

“You look great,” said Deb when she came to pick up Rocky around three. “What have you been doing?”

Adding gratitude, finding time, subtracting dirt, losing burdens, measuring snow. Practical math. “Rejuvenating,” I said. “Choosing Life.”

Mary holds a margarita.

Mary holds a margarita.

Every day takes learnin’ all over again how to fuckin’ live. ~ Calamity Jane