Pick Up the Phone

Thursday night a good friend of mine experienced what I imagine is one of the most profoundly painful and tragic moments in her life. Her 30-year-old son murdered her husband at their home. Their tragedy played across the local news with photos of police officers entering the lobby of their condo, their son pinned to the floor, hands behind his back, an officer’s knee holding him in place, and finally his mug shot. One article tried to paint this in Middle Eastern tones: “the family of Middle-Eastern male descent.” (Last I checked, Algeria was in Africa, but hey we’re ‘Merica, we don’t do geography; we do sensationalism, and we do it well. I mean, let’s just ignore the bit that his mother is American; it’s not as interesting that way.) The truth of the story is it’s not about nationality; it’s a tragic story about mental illness.

For reference: This is the friend with whom I recently spent the evening painting a tilted Eiffel Tower while sipping wine with her a couple of weeks ago; she’s the reason you all got a blog entry and a photo of a terrible painting. She’s the person I’ve floated in a lake with laughing, stayed up with until all hours of the night watching movies, enjoyed countless meals and countless glasses of wine with. (There was the time I got completely tipsy with her sister, giggling madly in her kitchen.) We’ve shared a million stories, a few hardships, and we’ve laughed. (I mention this again, because it’s such a key component of who she is as a person.) Her laugh is the kind that lights up a room. Everything about her is open, welcoming, kind, and thoughtful. She’s exactly the person I would like to be when I grow up, and it’s why she has been my mentor for years.

She’s also the person who came over after Jay passed away to take care of our beagle, Sam, which allowed me to celebrate Jay’s mom’s 80th birthday. Jay, who was rarely one to say he enjoyed someone, really liked both her and her husband.

When I heard the news I was standing in our crowded cafeteria. My face crumpled, and I ended up in a ball in our lobby. I knew her husband; he was a beautiful person, the kind that exuded warmth, kindness, and genuine calm. He was brilliant, but quiet and self-assured. They had been together since college, had traveled the world together, and had been true partners who’d built an incredible life for themselves and their family.

That’s a small glimpse into my beautiful friend.

I hurt for her. Her life fractured into a million pieces Thursday night. I worry about who will be left behind as some lightness left my friend.

People say this a lot, and it always rings hollow, but realize I am sincere when I say: I wish I could take some of her burden. Because of Jay, I know what I can handle, and I can take on more and continue to move forward. I wish she could hand some of her pain over to me; I can shoulder it.

I’m going to switch gears here to talk about communication etiquette, because it has weighed on my mind the last couple of days, and I’m doubtlessly going to get a bit preachy. (Aside to my editor, David: David, you have my permission to slash/burn/fix/re-state what is about to come out, because I feel a wall of ranty little words are on their way, and they all want to explode out of my face and from my fingers simultaneously. My fear is they won’t make sense. So, would you kindly help me make sense?)

There have been some great/significant improvements in communication since the day Alexander Graham Bell first spoke the words, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” We’ve gone from a reliance on messengers, to telegraph lines, to the point where now I have an English professor in Japan who, after waking up in several hours, will declare, “Oh crap, why doesn’t she warn me before she’s about to post?” And all of it is arguably great, especially since it’s a rare day that I want to have a full-blown conversation on the phone. The way I work, like many of you, is I have a thought bubble, I send it out, and in minutes I may or may not have a lunch date tomorrow. That’s what instant communication does well – the short, unimportant, day-to-day stuff. It tells my boss I’m going to be late, my friends I’m sitting in the back booth of a restaurant, links to an article I might find interesting, shares a playlist, or shows a photo of some place I wish I were standing and enjoying with you.

What it doesn’t do well? Important things like communicating a great tragedy has occurred that may deeply affect the recipient.

When I learned of the recent tragedy that befell my friend and her family, I sent out three text messages that basically read: “I need to talk to you, please let me know when you have some availability. I am ok.” (Long ago, a friend of mine and I agreed that any bad news should involve a statement of how you are so no one is unduly alarmed. Fun fact: If I don’t include the words, “I am ok,” then please feel free to worry. )

I needed to talk to these folks in person, because I was not about to do a disservice to the severity of this event by glibbly linking an article with a few words of, “Oh hey, FYI just letting you know my friend’s life fell apart.” <insert sad face emoji so you know I’m sad>

Pick up the phone. If you can type a text that is that important, you can pick up a phone. If you can’t, if you don’t want to deal with the reaction, it’s ok – call someone who can. You know your friends, you know their strengths, so find that person who is better at delivering news than you.

Where I Make This a Bit About Me

Most of you know how Jay died – maybe not the details, but you can probably imagine it was bad. (It was in fact bad.) You can imagine, or you have seen, the abject pain it inflicted and still inflicts. With that in mind, when you hear that someone I care deeply about suffered a traumatic/violent loss, take a few beats to think about what you’re going to say to me and how you’re going to deliver that news. Really think about whether sending a mugshot and a short text is the best way you can think to let me know. Think about your motive. Why is it important that you tell me, and that you tell me in this way? Are you truly affected or are you swept up in the excitement of the story where a person’s life not only fell apart, but it fell apart in such a big way that all of our big city news outlets are reporting on it? Are you telling me because you’re worried about me and how I’m handing it, or are you trying to suck a little more marrow from my own personal tragedy? Also, be thankful that beating up messengers has gone out of fashion (though probably not in Florida).

I received approximately five text messages that day, along the lines of “Hey, did you see what happened to Rita? It’s in the news. <story link><tear face>” And I received exactly one call outside of the three people I asked to speak with that day.

If you have bad news to deliver, pick up the phone. Don’t send me a text. If you must text, then please purchase two tickets – one for me, and one for you – to Florida. Let’s talk about it there. Once we’re done, you can Snap Chat, Tweet, FB, Instagram it all… if you’re able.

Give Me These Moments Back

Hodi

The day I met her she burst out of a crate, puffed up into a large 1 lb. ball of defiant fur and hissed her displeasure at a very surprised German Shepherd.  Thelma remained curious though a bit taken aback by the sheer hubris of this uppity, fluffy snack.  Her sister, who later became known as Sage stood meekly behind her looking on.  This was Hodi 호랑이 (Holang-i) or more accurantely 검은 호랑이 (geom-eun Holang-i) – the black tiger – named by an ex who spoke Korean fluently and clearly wanted to trip everyone up who happened to possess a tongue

After trying to pronounce the name time and time again (which to me always sounded more like Hodang-i) a friend suggested “Hodi” – much much easier.  And that was the first of many names for our little fussy fuzzy 호랑이.

Hodi was an oddly shaped girl – a type of Manx called a “rumpy.” She was rather round with two oddly placed tiny back legs.  We finally saw an x-ray of her spine last week and some of the way she moved (which was to hop more than run) was due to a compressed lumbar vertebrae right near her teeny tiny tail. Not a big problem when you’re an agile kitten, but something that affected her more as she grew older especially over the last year.

As the fluffy one, people gravitated towards her – hands outstretched.  She got to the point where she really couldn’t be bothered with strangers and tended to hang back on top of a chair lest those hands muss her fur.  Quite the opposite of her sister Sage who merrily greeted each new person at the door, letting them know, “hi! I’m available for all petting! Right here! I’m down here! Hello, I’m very friendly! Nice lap! Hey there, do you have hands? – psst, please take me away from here.”

Where Sage would go insane for a laser pointer, Hodi would only dain to slap it a bit if it were directly in front of her paws.  No need to get worked up for a light that’s impossible to catch.  Although, sometimes she’d forget and move a whole foot or two just in case her “it’s just a light” theory was wrong.  She wouldn’t want me to mention this, but on rare occasion she’d roll over trying to catch that light.  Of course, she’d quickly realize how undignified that was and then defiantly stare directly at me as I tried to entice her to roll one more time.

For her first two to three years she couldn’t quite figure out laps. They were oddly shaped  and seemed to come apart at unpredictable times or be positioned in odd ways.  They appeared interesting, but the best she could do was put two paws on my leg and lay her head down.  Then one day a fluffy lap blanket appeared and that’s when we learned she loved loved loved fluffy blankets.  If a fluffy blanket presented itself, she’d hop over to my newly fluffied lap and go to sleep.  It took a bit longer for her to realize that legs were the things supporting fluffy blankets and once that light bulb went off, she became a lap cat (though a blanketed lap was preferred and the moment she’d see me lay a blanket in my lap, she’d perk up and start angling for quality lap (blanket) time).

She was funny.  Her favorite pastimes included: stealing the dog’s beds (yes, beds – all of them), trying to steal the dog’s crate, stealing the dog’s under-the-desk cave, blocking the dog from going down the hall or approaching me (this latter pastime would cause serious protests in the form of pitiful whimpering and pleas for me to escort said dog around the kitty roadblock).

She was gentle.  I could bathe her (something long haired rumpies need help with on occasion),  I could pill her easily and I could drive her around without much complaint other than a mrr of protest.  She never bit and rarely swatted (swatting was reserved for when humans would tease her with waggling hands).  The vet and their assistants always said she was super easy to handle (like her sister); she just had a really pleasant temperament.   If something unpleasant was happening, I only needed to extend my hand and she’d rub her face for comfort and I’d rub her forehead.

She would tuck me in.  In fact, the whole house tucks me in and they wait until I fall asleep before clearing the room.  If she was still hanging out on the bed and I was in the middle of tossing and turning, she’d gently pat my hand (how she’d tell me she’d like kitty rubs) and purr me to sleep.  If I paced around the house, which I do sometimes at obscene times in the morning, she’d hop into my lap, pat me and in turn get her pats until I could settle down enough to sleep.  And then my favorite, those moments where she’d rest her forehead against mine.

I miss her pats.  Pats said, “I’m here.” or “I’d like you to lift me to my bowl” or “I just want you to stroke my face for a bit, please”.  A pat followed by a mrr was her way to emphasize the importance of the request.

I miss that gentle paw softly tapping my leg  – softly reaching for my hand.

I didn’t realize that the Monday before last would be the last time she’d hop into my lap at 2:30am and purr us to sleep; I wish I’d stayed in that moment a bit longer. By Friday, she was no longer able to move – unable to reach her bowl that was strategically placed next to her muzzle – all related to complications from her recently diagnosed diabetes that mysteriously almost sent her into an insulin coma (possible pancreatic tumor) with a glucose level so low it was “barely able to sustain life.” The incident left her so weak she couldn’t use her back legs (initially), which they believe led to her injuring her back.  She appeared to be in great pain.

I rubbed her face on Friday and urgently explained that I really needed her to get up – that I didn’t want to be in a world that she wasn’t in, but she laid there looking vacantly towards the door, occasionally closing her eyes as I’d find that perfect spot on her nose. Gone were the days where we’d sit and quietly contemplate one another.

On Saturday we took her into the vet one last time and stroked her fur.  The vet promised to give her kisses.

Kitten, I will miss stroking your nose until you fell asleep. I will miss your gentle paws and the way you’d nuzzle my head while sitting on the back of the chair.  I will miss you stealing all of the pet beds and walking behind you – the world’s worst drum major in the slowest hall parades.  I will miss sharing string cheese. I will miss sharing all the fuzzy things.  I will miss your mrrs and the way you’d come to me for reassurance when you were nervous. I will miss wrapping my arms around you and stuffing my face into your fur; thank you for being tolerant. I’ll even miss your indifference as you’d block the dog from coming down the hall, or coming in from the back porch, and your refusal to move despite her pleas; you were funny… and beautiful… and fussy… and stubborn… and absolutely lovely.

I hope for a “What Dreams May Come” heaven where I will find you.  I hope you’ll look for me, too.

A woman gleefully declared on Monday, “it’s time to find a new cat!” and my response, “the only cat I want to find is Hodi.” 16 ½ years just wasn’t nearly long enough for me.  It will never have been enough.

My Beautiful Kitten

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”

Anatole France

I’ve never been good at eulogizing.  The words I write and say fail. How can you possibly sum up a life in a sentence? How can you convey the depth of love you have – the multiple layers of complex feelings and emotions woven around this single point in your life – limited by a vocabulary that is never quite big enough?  I’ve never been a writer.  I can’t paint a beautiful picture with words.  I’m merely an anecdotist.  My apologies, Sage as I look at my list of words and stories trying not to let you down one more time.

This post is for my kitten and for me.

15 years ago I was sitting on the back porch of my parent’s house with a dog crate in front of me.  My not-yet-ex and I sat in front of it waiting to see these two Manx kittens my stepmother had rescued from her tree.  A tiny “rumpy”, Hodi, who didn’t have a name quite yet, sprang out and fluffed up as big as she could to hiss at Thelma, my parent’s German Shepherd. Thelma had the audacity to take a sniff of this tiny precocious ball and Hodi needed her to understand that she’d made a huge mistake.  Fueled by Hodi’s bravado, Sage (a “stumpy”) confidently pattered out behind her.  “Do you want the kittens?” was the question that lingered in the air.  I didn’t.  I had my cat Jones and I was content. However, I didn’t have the final word.  No, that was my not-yet-ex’s call who enthusiastically replied, “we’ll take them!”

She didn’t have a name for a while.  My not-yet-ex had declared we could each name one kitten.  As I saw it, I had.  His name was Jones.  That didn’t get me off the hook. I had to name mine.  He had already named his Horangi (this eventually was shortened “Hodi” – pronounced Hoe-dee, thanks to Kati, which made things easier on her and everyone else).  I turned over the naming to a friend since I wasn’t particularly attached and she offered up “Sage” and so Sage it was.

Sage was tiny – skin stretched over jutting bones, with short sleek hair – a contrast to her larger, fluffier sister.  She was hard to pat at first – all you could feel were the vertebrae along her spine and tiny little kitten ribs, but she desperately wanted to be loved.  Early on I realized everyone gravitated to Hodi – she was big eyed and fluffy whereas no one really touched Sage.  Sage became my project to make sure she was properly socialized – a little project that eventually got out of hand as I turned her into an attention seeking love monster. Once she realized hands were maybe the best thing ever (right next to freshly opened cans of tuna) and all of these people seemed to come with a pair of them, she made it her goal to make sure that happened   If they weren’t touching, she’d start talking to them about how they should probably bend over a bit more and get to the touching.  She would also let it be known that if bending presented any special trouble, she would be ok with perching on their laps.  Very accommodating.  Until recently she would greet everyone at the door waiting for those lovely arms to lower themselves and bestow some patty goodness. She was the one who would stomp on us at night or curl up in Jay’s lap when he’d sit at his computer.

In the early years my cat Jones didn’t take to her.  In fact, truth be told, there were never “later years” that he did.  His one and only love had been for a ferret named Apple Juice and Sage was neither a ferret nor did she sound like a fruity drink.  Within in a couple of weeks the novelty of Sage had worn off for Jones.  He was 5 and well beyond kitten antics.  He decided that as the oldest he should address the problem, since clearly I wasn’t going to handle it, so he walked over her and plopped himself down on her body.  Jones weighed about 23 lbs. (a big guy) and easily had 19-20 lbs. on this tiny kitten. I couldn’t see a single bit of Sage peeking out from under him and Jonesy just stared ahead like nothing was going on.  Jonesy’s only attempt to rid himself of this obnoxious bony upstart and I unceremoniously ruined the moment by making him move.  He was incredulous in the way that only a cat can be properly incredulous.

Top: Jonesy, L to R: Hodi and Sage (in purple)

When my divorce happened, I had  three pets.  Jonesy had passed away and I had a fairly new puppy named Dakota. My ex was in no position to keep these cats he had insisted we get and most apartments were not going to allow three pets.  Since I had a more adoptable lab puppy, I had to give up my dog for his cats.  I wasn’t going to take a chance on these two being euthanized, since they were into their awkward teen phase – well past “cute”.  That decision sometimes made things hard. They were “his” cats and “my” cat and one of “my” dogs were dead due to his idiocy with animals (one reason he’s an ex) while my other dog had to be given away. (Another story for another time.)  I’d remind myself it wasn’t their fault and that they needed me to protect them – to give them the best life they could have.  I used to ask people, “do you want two free kittens” as a way to add levity to my feelings.  It was never a real offer and they were never going anywhere. I began working on appreciating them for their different personalities – their idiosyncrasies – their goofiness, which takes me to:

What I loved about Sage over these 15 years:

  • She never stopped being a kitten.  While her sister is content to pick out the best pet bed, Sage always wanted to bat something around.

  • She loved feathers and mousies and this ball that went round in circles in its track.  She loved the laser pointer and she loved batting my earrings off the nightstand.

  • She loved nuzzling into my hair and pressing her nose against my scalp especially if it was wet.

  • She always appeared on the edge of the tub whenever I was taking a shower or a bath and only fell in once, but proved she could fly once her haunches hit the water.

  • She loved to nuzzle my blush brush, burying her face between its bristles.

  • She loved being touched to the point that she’d allow us to put her in cat hats for her thanks to those hands we seemed to have.  A few of her cat hat photos were even selected to appear on a Cats in Hats website (which seems to have disappeared) and she also won “Fashionista” for one of those photos at our office’s charity fundraiser for the ASPCA.

  • She had this one little pink toe and the game was always to declare  “pink toe” and then stroke her paw, which made her flinch, but again there was touching so she didn’t want to run away.

  • She deeply loved Jay, her pet human, whom she always wanted to be near and would let him cradle her like a baby.

Both she and Hodi were indoor cats, going out occasionally on the balcony when we lived in our apartment.  I met my neighbor, Jessica, because of Sage when she jumped the wall that divided our balconies and a couple of hours later Jessica appeared holding her.  She’d scared Jessica, because Jessica had walked by her bedroom and seen Sage asleep on her bed.  Sage looked just like Jessica’s cat who’d passed away and Jessica had to call her boyfriend over to make sure she wasn’t seeing things.

When she stopped being able to clear the fence, she finally got to spend more time outside here.  (We had done a test run early on, but behind one of the fences was a pit bull who had a bark collar on. He was silent and I felt instant death waited for her if she went to that yard. Incidentally, that was her favorite yard. Of course.)  When she got to spend all the time she wanted outside, she’d hang out in the shade under the picnic table or bury her face in a tuft of grass. She was always the last pet to come in if it rained.  I imagine she just enjoyed the feel of the water as it gently fell on her fur.

One of many hats.

As a Manx we tried to encourage her to grow a tail.  She let us know early on she couldn’t be bothered.  She was absolutely fine with her sassy little nubbin.  Then we tried to convince her it was time to find a job and she scoffed as both Hodi and Sam have done.  Cats these days.

Where Hodi had her special issues and Sam has had her bouts with Horner’s Syndrome, torn CCL’s (yes, plural) and physical therapy, I always knew Sage would outlive all of them  She was the healthiest.  Sure, we had to give her subcutaneous fluids a few years ago once we discovered she wouldn’t drink standing water and needed water constantly flowing to stay hydrated.  Yay Drinkwell! And even when she started dropping weight last summer and was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, I knew her condition was manageable – just part of her aging process – still in the best shape of the pets..  Sure. the vet noted raised kidney enzymes, but that was largely due to her age.

Then I came home in June and found her laying in a puddle of urine.  She hadn’t moved all day.  I rushed her to the emergency vet where they placed her on an IV.  The test results showed e-coli in her urine.  A round of nausea invoking meds was started to clear that up and it didn’t clear up, so a new round of meds started at a higher dosage where I had to force feed her to help with the nausea and it didn’t clear up, then a newer round of a different/riskier medication that could impact her kidneys started; we had to clear that infection out.  When the vet said the latest meds could be hard on her because of her pre-existing kidney problems I focused on the “could”. I knew Sage was the most resilient of my pets and “could” meant the 1% of the pharmaceutical test study where the animals had a bad reaction. Sage was in the 99%.  I knew that.  Unfortunately, she was the 1%. Monday, after a vet visit on Saturday,  we had to make a choice since she wasn’t improving.  I broke down. I failed her.  Today they ship her body to the crematorium.  A clay cast has been made of her paw print and then some time next week I’ll pick her up from the vet for the last time.

If I could make a thousand paper cranes and get one wish it would be for her to understand that I always loved her. That she was both a good and beautiful kitten.

He Kindly Stopped for Me

I am descended from a long line of martyrs.  Now, you might be thinking the lion snack, pyre kindle, rock dodger sort, but you’d be mistaken.  See, I’ve long suspected my family actually survived through the centuries by being fabulous finger pointers.  “Oh, you’re looking for a witch?  Have you spoken with Goody Johnson?  No reason.  I’m just saying there may be naked devil frolicking.  Hey, since her property is right next to mine and she doesn’t look like a pond floater to me, if you catch my drift, I was thinking you know maybe we could just add that to our lands.  Hey, did I mention the frolicking and the warts? I think there was cavorting!”  In fact, all of my friends know that if they ever need someone to bury the body, they should definitely not include me due to my finger-pointing genetics.  Even If I wanted to keep their secret, my DNA would kick in and the next thing you know I’d be at the local sheriff’s office spilling my guts.  No, we’re more the sort of martyrs with our ever-lengthening faces who believe we were meant to suffer.  It can make the holidays a real hoot.  And while I’m not always like this, I have some glorious moments.

A recent example: I was driving home one night and I suppose the radio wasn’t entertaining enough and the traffic wasn’t particularly challenging, so that allowed for some quality me time. Time to really over think things – to rework reality.  I started picking on myself and it went something like this: “you know, none of your friends parents like you – true story”.  I made a list in my head of all of my friends and their parents – a list that would make what I was saying completely true.  I crawled out on that mental ledge and followed with “you’re kind of unlikeable, there’s probably something wrong with you.”  Now let me say this was up there with the time I called April and declared, “I only have three friends” to which April calmly took a breath and asked about several other people that I hadn’t counted – people I really liked and she was able to negotiate through my very German, “no, that’s an acquaintance”- the “du” vs. “Sie” roadblocks I threw in her way until I came down off of that ledge.  I’m kind of famous for these glorious moments, I’m not so proud to say.  So, as I drove and thought of every parent that disliked me including in-laws, I became smaller and sadder.  This was my narrative I chose to tell myself that evening for no better reason than I was bored.

And then the small part of me that hates to be beaten up rallied. “Julie’s mom doesn’t feel that way. Ern’s parents don’t feel that way. In fact, if you think about it, more of them like you than don’t and the ones who don’t, you’ve always had a “right back atcha’” attitude anyway, so let’s admit we’re being silly.”  I perked back up and recounted the ways that Julie’s mom had shown me over the years that she did still think about me and she did believe I was an ok person.  I used that knowledge to feel ok again.  To feel likeable.  To feel like I wasn’t some friend toad who when introduced to parents was seen as some loathsome and repulsive parasite latched to their beloved kid. (Did I mention I’m very skilled at making myself suffer?)  Those were the people who mattered to me – those incredible, amazing people who I admire and they like me.  I’m ok.

Reminding myself of the real truth, the real story, allowed me to not only feel better about myself, but about the people around me.  And the real story is that Ernie’s parents always ask about me when Ern comes into town.  Julie’s mom follows my blog and was one of the top people to respond to my Facebook posts – something that goes well beyond what my own family does and it’s something that means a lot to me.  And all of that helps me feel connected to my past.

Last week Julie told me that her mom had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  Julie, who is a doctor, explained what that meant for the coming year and then asked if I would write a reminiscence – something her mom could read because she likes my writing.  I had a small meltdown, and then I sat down at 3:30 am the following morning and wrote a small bit that will never do this amazing lady justice or properly express how much she means to me or how incredible I think she is.

Of all the phases in my life – school, graduation, college, marriages, friend’s children being born, this is the one I like absolutely the least.  I want to stomp my feet hard enough or hold my breath long enough so that Death pauses, furrows a brow and says, “you know you’ll just pass out, but I suppose this once because of your moxie and that particular shade of blue on your face, I’ll cry uncle then come back in about 15 years, deal?”  (I basically want Death to be the character from Terry Pratchett’s novels. Relatable with a great fondness for cats.)

Like my aunt and my mom, she’s one of those people I have always assumed would always be there.  That decades from now I would still be hearing stories of her wanderings or hearing her boasting about and celebrating her incredible children and grandchildren. That I would be admiring her beautiful nature photos or the latest art piece she had created.  That wherever the wind stirred the tall grass and gently encouraged the wind chimes into performing a fairy’s chorus that I could smile in the knowledge she was somewhere out there – Monte and Polly at her side.

And quite selfishly, on the 6th anniversary of my mother’s death,  I admit that among the reasons I’m sad is that there will be one less person in this world that thinks I’m ok.