I’m grateful today for allowing joy, in the face of sorrow, in the simple things: making a batch of salsa verde with tomatillos and peppers from the garden; eating some on a burrito with fresh chopped tomatoes and sour cream. I’m grateful for having the burrito in the freezer from when I made it a few weeks ago, to pull out for a quick, delicious, healthful meal at a moment’s hunger; grateful for all the implications of that gift.
I’m grateful for finding delight in the creative work of others, being joyful for their success. I’m grateful for camp, for British humour, for the return of the Great British Baking Show, and Season 3 of Drag Race UK; grateful to surrender my grasping mind occasionally to the entertaining delusions of being human. I’m grateful also for an increasingly healthy relationship with death, and all the ramifications that carries for a more meaningful and joyful life; and grateful for my soul sister who sent me this article about precisely that. I’m grateful for my growing capacity for allowing joy in this world of impermanence, of constant, inevitable loss.
When Rita was trying to decide where she would move from her last house, and considered leaving Kilmarnock to come up to Knollwood, I said, “But Rita, all your friends are down here!” She wasn’t worried: She told me, “Oh, you make friends wherever you go!” And she was right: She made many new friends here, and she found old friends from as long ago as high school: and here many of you are today.
Rita made friends wherever she went. She kept friends once she made them so that wherever she moved to she carried old friendships into her new ones, building relationships among many people. She was ebullient and generous, funny, playful, and above all, she was authentic. She loved fine things, luxuries, and comforts, yet she adapted with courage and resilience to losses of all kinds, from losing almost everything in a flood, to the death of her son, and so much else in her 93 years.
She loved sleeping late, rum and cokes, taking naps, reading, doing her nails, Jeopardy, creating art… She didn’t like: pictures of herself, chipped fingernails, swallowing pills, being ‘incarcerated’ during Covid, or meanness in any form…
Leslie remembers her creativity, generosity, and humor, recalling that when she was young, her mother happily made all her clothes because she was too small to fit in store-bought; and she remembers her putting cotton balls inside homemade fudge drops to give out on April Fool’s Day! She recalls Rita as ready for anything, any time.
Robin remembers her aunt as giving the most fun and appropriate presents for every occasion, keeping her company when she was sick in bed, and that she was always up for a game of cribbage, any time, anywhere.
Rita taught me so much about how to be in this life, throughout her life. When I was a child, I learned more during one meal at her dinner table about how to treat animals than I did from anyone else: she treated their dog Duchess, who may have been begging just a little bit, with such tenderness and respect. I watched her through the years turn this utter devotion toward all her dogs and cats, toward her friends and family, and even to her houseplants.
When I was a teenager, she modeled for me as no one else, how to be a strong woman: One of the most magnificent things I ever saw a woman do came after a big family dinner at her brother John’s home. John took all the men upstairs for cigar time, and Rita became impatient, wanting to spend time with her new husband Ford. She changed into her tennis outfit, opened the door to the study, and smacked three balls across the room. “Tennis, anyone?” she asked with a sweet smile.
As an adult, she was my favorite drinking buddy—she was many people’s favorite drinking buddy, perhaps even some of you here. One time when I had over-partied at their island home, and she found me in bed in the morning still drunk, she didn’t judge: she comforted and revived. She never judged me, or anyone she loved, fully accepting us with unconditional love just as she did her animals.
When I was an older adult, and helping her sister, my mother, through a grueling dying process, Rita was my strength and my sanity: We provided mutual support during this devastating loss for both of us.
Through my whole life until she died last summer, as she did for so many of us, she provided inspiration, refuge, boundless love and countless laughs. It is a source of lasting joy that I got to spend many months over the previous fifteen years visiting her in the Northern Neck. Some of the happiest memories of my life come from these times: simple lunches, jigsaw puzzles, quiet cribbage games, deep talks, spontaneous adventures, sunset cocktails along the bay or theRivah at the beautiful homes of her many friends, even if her friends weren’t home! She always kept a snakebite kit for emergencies, pulling out a couple of airline hootch bottles as needed.
Her gifts to me, and to others, were boundless, and live on in the values of compassion, unconditional love, joy, mischief, humor, strength, and acceptance that she modeled for me and for everyone whose life she touched.
I’m not alone in my adoration of Rita. To know Rita Wherry Cleland Stephens was to love her. I speak for her daughter Leslie, for her sister-in-law Clara, for her nephews and nieces: Leonard, Bruce, Robin, Gary, Jack, Bill, and Amanda, who knew her all or most of their lives. She made each of us feel special with her love and attention, and she will always hold a singular place in all of our hearts.
After struggling for months to recover from a debilitating stroke, she courageously chose to relinquish her attachment to living. She was at peace with her life ending, and made time to say goodbye to as many of her beloved family and friends as she was able. In death as in life, she was a remarkable person, wise, courageous, adventurous, ready for anything.
At last, another one of those recently-all-too-rare days when I can heave a sigh and enjoy the benefits of months of practicing the skill of relaxation; awareness that there has only ever been and will only ever be one thing in Life that I can control: my response to anything. This is true freedom.
A negative Covid test has released me from four months of holding my breath. From Covid only incidentally, the pandemic being one equal part among many distressing external conditions that have cascaded over me this year, and that’s only the overwhelming sadness of a single particle of humanity, the insignificant itchings of a lone flea on a small dry patch of the planet’s skin.
I’ve tried so many ways to say this, and it’s kept me silent since August. Ojo was eaten by a mountain lion.
Lots of Life went on, as usual and unusually, all summer in the garden and the forest: the roller coaster careened through weeks and months of joy and sorrow, contentment and compassion, and the grueling, rewarding practice of mindfulness. Bees pollinated, flowers bloomed and went to seed.
Life began and life ended in the wild.
All summer long I have accepted deaths, and threats to the lives of others, those I love and those I’ll never know, with equanimity. Years of practice have really helped develop a calm abiding, regardless of what happens. Ojo didn’t come home on August 24, and two mornings later, after numerous searches, I followed a magpie and Stellar’s nose to a grisly scene not far beyond the yard fence in the woods. I felt calmed, knowing what had happened to him, and that it was quick, and he probably didn’t suffer. I suffered less, knowing, than I would have wandering the woods for weeks, months, years, looking for some sign of him.
I gathered up what I could find, three legs stripped of muscle, and his sweet, perfect head, and brought them home to bury under the apricot tree. The shock of finding his remains. The finality of it. A small black cat left a huge black hole in my life, into which, in my darkest moments, all hope and love and light vanishes. On the surface, I’ve kept my sense of humor, and joy in the fawns growing up, satisfaction in the garden harvest, pleasure in connections with friends and family mostly online, interest in my vocation. I’ve rejoiced in Stellar’s unexpected improvement with a new magic potion from his holistic vet, and Topaz has grown fatter and furrier than ever in her brother’s absence.
For weeks I saw him everywhere in the house that he used to perch or sleep. He filled the house and the garden with his remarkable energy. I struggle even now to write any more about him because when I do the ache swells inside and mutes me. One might say, the cat got my tongue.
Meanwhile, the pandemic rages on, infecting more and more people I know, taking the lives of friends and relatives of friends, and as of today more than 1.6 million others around the globe, including 2500 Americans just today. The malice and ineptitude of the Trump regime’s lying, denying, misguiding, and dividing also renders me speechless. Thank god for the integrity of scientists the world over, for the dedication of healthcare workers, for the kindness, compassion, creativity, and fortitude of people everywhere, delivering the best that human beings are capable of during this monumental crisis.
Add to the current regime’s catastrophic handling of the pandemic their escalating onslaught eviscerating environmental protections: It’s been hard to grieve the death of a single cat in the midst of such overwhelming human and planetary suffering. I search my soul for something I can do. I meditate. I pray. I try to offer help and comfort where I can, and fight as I am able. I cherish the wild world that surrounds me, I love the lion that ate my cat, I surrender my self to the larger body of the living Earth who spawned us all. I wake up each morning determined to celebrate the miracle of being alive, choosing to turn my attention to gratitude for all the beauty and joy that each day offers, even in the midst of suffering and loss.
I listened to an interview with Joanna Macy that reminded me that Hope is a verb, Apathy is the refusal or inability to suffer, and “Unblocking occurs when our pain for the world is experienced and expressed.” I recommend it as an antidote for anyone else who feels despair at the suffering of the planet, panic or paralysis induced by this pandemic or the climate crisis, or the isolation of living in a fragmented world. We belong to this Earth, our mother. Hang in there. Happy Solstice.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
This juvenile Rufous hummingbird sips the flower, which simultaneously produces fruit and seeds as blossoms continue to bloom and ripen up the stalk.
Two distinct colors of honeybees inhabit my yard, a range of light bees, and one dark strain.
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.
Bye from the Beeplant
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.
I mean… fuzzy wuzzy!
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.
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, 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.
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 washing Stella.
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 good little traveler: Brat Farrar on his way home from Virginia with me in the Mothership, spring 2005, on the River Road from Moab.
A decade later, last April in the house that matched him. Rest in peace, little one, under the apricot tree.
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. 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.
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.
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 for being out less than a day. How had they all fit inside her?
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.
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.
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!