41 Days

At 9:30 last Saturday evening, I shut off the television and turned off lights before heading upstairs to bed. My husband Gary was already asleep. I heard a yowling outside that sounded familiar. It started at the sidewalk, gained momentum up the walkway, and came to a fevered pitch on the front porch. I looked out the door’s window and was convinced the nachos I’d eaten for dinner had been laced with peyote. Our cat Little Mister stood poised like a bullet ready for the door to open.

I yelled at Gary. “Little Mister’s home!”

“What?” he said in drowsy confusion.

Little Mister had been gone 41 days. I thought he was gone forever. Yet there he was howling at the door. I opened it and he ran halfway up the stairs before stopping. I stood, frozen, transported to an alternate universe where I was staring into the eyes of a pet that I’d given up for dead.

Water!

I ran to the kitchen, poured water into a bowl and raced upstairs. I lightly petted him as he took a few sips.

Food!

Store! Go to the store!

I wrestled a jacket over my pajamas. Wait! Marcia has a cat and it’ll take less time to get to her than to the store. I prayed she was still awake. She was, and met me outside her house with a sandwich bag full of cat food. I sped back home, filled a bowl with food and ran upstairs.

LMRECOVERY4I sat with Little Mister and petted him while he munched on the kibble. He looked at me and meowed. It was pathetic and weak. I picked him up and felt the literal interpretation of the phrase “bag of bones.” His eyes were bright, but his coat was disheveled and dull.

For weeks after he disappeared, I expected to hear his meow when I passed by the front door, to find him in the middle of my bed when I went upstairs. I missed him most at night, cuddling at my side.

I didn’t miss his 3:00am—every 3:00am—insistence upon being let outside. And I especially didn’t miss having to keep him and our dog Lucy separated because he hated her puppy energy.

LMRECOVERY3I got into bed, tried to relax and pretend everything was normal. Little Mister, as is his custom, sat on my chest, wedging himself between me and my book. For the first time in 41 days, I cried. “You poor, poor thing, I can’t imagine where you were and how you suffered. I’m so grateful you’re back.”

Weeks earlier, in the midst of the Christmas holidays, I’d resigned myself to his disappearance by thinking he’d been ill and wandered off to die. My tears were a mixture of compassion for his plight and guilt over having so easily dismissed him.

His return was a cosmic slap in the face, making me realize his is a life that matters. I took responsibility for nurturing that life when he came into our home eleven and a half years ago.

The next morning, I got up at six and Little Mister wanted to go outside. We had no litter box and I took this as a sign that he was well enough to return to his familiar routines. (I now realize that I was still in the throes of suspended reality.)

A few hours later, I called him, but he didn’t show up. I walked to the sidewalk and heard a faint meow coming from next door. I found him crouched behind a bush in the neighbor’s yard. It broke my heart to see him looking so helpless, unable to traverse the short distance home.

I picked him up and scolded myself for having let him outside. His ordeal had drained much of the life out of him. His eyes, bright at his return the night before, were dull. He ate a bit of food and I settled him on the bed.

Gary and I speculate what might have happened. On that rainy night of December 20, Little Mister must have sought shelter, perhaps in someone’s rarely used garage or shed, and got locked in. He must have had access to water and maybe some critters. His frantic yowls upon his return convinced me that after 41 days he’d gotten his first chance to escape.

LMRECOVERY2I’ve set up a litter box and will keep him inside. He’s been to the vet who discovered that he has the “reddest throat and biggest tonsils I’ve ever seen on a cat.” She gave him a little IV hydration boost, some antibiotics, and a shot of what she called “cat morphine” to ease the pain in his throat. “Cats tend to like opiates,” she said. Little Mister agrees.

I’m happy that Little Mister is back. I promise to do everything in my power to return him to his normal fatty, demanding, Lucy-hating self.

The Spirit of Giving

A few weeks ago, my friend—let’s call her Nell—said she felt guilty about throwing away donation plea letters that arrived in December. Throughout the year, she was generous to charities, but during the Christmas season her money was spent on gifts for family and friends. Still, she wished she could answer all the pleas.

She remembered a quote attributed to Jon Carroll. He allegedly said that if you want to give away money, go to the bank, take out as much cash as you can afford, and distribute it to people on the street.

5This appealed to Nell. Nearly every day, she saw homeless people and others in need. But she never paid much attention as she whizzed by in her car or, when walking, crossed the street to avoid them. She thought about her “Fiver Envelope.” Whenever she receives a five-dollar bill as change in a transaction, she saves it. After gathering a bunch, she uses them to treat herself to a massage or some other luxury. She decided to take the $100 she’d accumulated and give it away.

The prospect of approaching complete strangers scared her. She formulated a couple of rules: she would only interact with solitary people, no one in a group; and she would not interfere with those who looked mentally unbalanced.

PostOfficeShe found her first person one early cold morning at the post office. A dented maroon car stuffed with clothing pulled into a parking space, the back bumper tied with a rope on top. A weary woman with thick black curly hair struggled to get from the vehicle and up the post office steps.

Nell pulled a five from her wallet and folded it in half. When the woman entered the building, Nell asked, “May I give you something?”

The woman looked wary.

Nell held out the money.

The woman looked confused and asked, “Why?”

“Because it’s Christmas.”

The woman took the money. “That’s it? For no other reason?”

Nell said, “Yes,” and wished her a Merry Christmas.

“Thank you so much.”

Nell felt happy, very happy.

The second was a young wispy woman wrapped in layers of clothing to stave off the cold rain. She was walking with a black pit bull that wore a padded doggie jacket. Nell pulled to the curb and got out of her car. “May I give you something?”

Again a wary look.

Nell held out a five.

The woman grinned, yet looked close to tears. “I’m so glad I turned around and started walking this way. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have met you.” She gave Nell a hug.

DSC02402The next day, Nell was walking to her car in the Purity parking lot. She noticed a heavy-set woman putting her baby in a car seat in the front of a yellow dented pickup.

As Nell held out her offering, the woman backed slightly away and adjusted her glasses. “I shouldn’t take it.”

Nell reached her hand out further. “Please, I want to give it to you.”

“Thank you. I really do need gas money.” She invited Nell to the live nativity scene produced by one of the local churches on Christmas Eve. She said her baby would play the role of Jesus. She blessed Nell as she walked away.

DSC02477A few days later, Nell saw a middle-aged blonde woman fishing through a public trash can. When she gave her five dollars, the woman beamed. “Thank you. It’s my birthday.”

Nell’s heart soared. “Happy birthday, my dear!”

Every time Nell gave away money, she felt immense joy. She was as grateful for the offering as the recipients were to receive. Most interactions were less than a minute, but during that time she was able to look a person in the eyes, touch his or her hand and, in a few instances, receive a hug. In those moments, she felt something she had never allowed herself to internalize—these are human beings just like her. They have feelings, fears, hopes, and dreams. Yet their daily lives are immeasurably more difficult than hers.

She felt compassion.

DSC02540Her last five was given to someone she sees frequently—a tall, lean man who sports a camo jacket and walks a dog with a matching bridle coat. He’s a loner, who appears to avoid others. It was shortly after the New Year and raining. She spotted him on the sidewalk. He was walking so fast that she pulled over a block ahead. She got out of the car with trepidation. He’d always seemed stoic and she wasn’t sure how he’d react to her approach.

“Hi,” she said.

He returned the greeting with a slight twinkle in his eyes.

“May I give you something?” She held out the folded bill.

“Are you serious?” he asked.

“Yes, please, I want to give it to you.”

He grinned. “Thank you.”

She had never been close to him. She looked at his face—really looked at it—and saw a kind man in his forties with well-sculpted features and dark brown eyes who somewhere along the line learned to keep to himself. She reached down and petted his dog, grateful that he had a companion.

“Happy New Year.” As the words left her mouth, she regretted them. They sounded hollow and trite.

“Happy New Year to you,” he said, leaving her with the gift of his smile.

 

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Goodbye Little Mister

LilMrEleven and a half years ago, our son Harrison graduated from high school. That summer, he was left alone for a week while his sister, dad and I went out of town. We returned to a house wiped clean of any evidence of partying and a fluffy gray kitten to add to our menagerie of two dogs and three cats. (While we were gone, he’d encountered someone outside a restaurant with a box of kittens.)

We had more than enough cats. Harrison was, technically, the owner of one. As a child, he’d been given a short-haired, half feral kitten that he named Indiana Jones Riley. (Indiana turned out to be a girl.) He argued that Indiana was far from friendly and he’d always wanted a fluffy gray cat. We explained that he was going off to college in a couple months and we’d be stuck with it. In order to sway us, I think he finally said please or something nice. But I really don’t remember.

He named her Pancake. Laine called her Lily. I called her Harrison’s Parting Gift.

Lily was a feisty little thing that hated physical contact. In an effort to domesticate her, she was required to eat while sitting on someone’s lap and being petted. It didn’t take long before she begrudgingly relaxed. She lurked about with jaunty confidence, and tortured our two older females with surprise pounce attacks. Laine’s male cat Figaro would have none of that, whacking Lily with a paw whenever she got close. I nicknamed her Little Sister—the obnoxious baby of the pack.

When it came time for her to be spayed, the vet discovered that, under all that fluffy fur, Little Sister was actually a Little Mister.

Over the next few years, as the older cats died off, Little Mister reigned supreme. Our two large dogs gave him a wide berth whenever he strutted about the house. He was a talker and not shy about asking for what he wanted. “I need food!” “Let me in!” “Let me out!” “Pet me!” “Stop petting me!”

Two years ago, we were given a puppy and Little Mister’s dictatorship came to an end. All Lucy ever wanted was to establish a playful relationship with him. All he ever wanted was for her to go away. My efforts to integrate them failed. Relative peace was finally established by erecting a baby gate on the stairs. Little Mister spent his indoor time upstairs, safe from intolerable puppy energy.

***

On an early evening nearly four weeks ago, I put him out. He’d been sleeping all day and company was coming over. If he didn’t go out then, he’d insist upon it later and wake me in the middle of the night to get back in.

Before going to bed, I opened the front door, expecting him to rush in, scold me for leaving him out for three hours in the wet cold, and race upstairs with a chirp which translated, “I’ll never speak to you again!”

He wasn’t there. I called and called, but he didn’t show up. It wasn’t the first time he’d failed to come home. It was no longer raining. He’d probably show up howling in the middle of the night.

But he didn’t.

cat(7)It was the week of Christmas. We had a house full of people and activities. I was concerned about Little Mister, but consoled by the knowledge that he’d sometimes disappear for two to three days at a time. On our walks around the neighborhood, Lucy and I looked for him. Several times a day, I’d open the door and call his name.

As time went by, I wondered if he’d been ill. For the past few months, he slept a great deal. Unless it was three o’clock in the morning, he rarely demanded to go outside. I’d have to hunt him down in the afternoons to put him out where he’d usually spend less than an hour.

The day after Christmas, Laine suggested we check the Humane Society to see if someone found him. I agreed, but wasn’t surprised when he wasn’t there. Little Mister would never, ever let a stranger capture and transport him.

It’s an odd feeling to have a pet disappear. I’m sad, but not emotionally broken. Over the years, I’ve experienced the heart-wrenching grief of watching five dogs and three cats deteriorate to the point where they had to be taken to the vet to end their suffering. I suspect Little Mister wandered off to die, but carry the hope that he’ll return. A tad of wishful thinking allows me to fantasize that he found another home—one with a sweet little lady who doesn’t have a puppy and lets him lounge on her lap all day.

At times, I hear his chirp at the front door only to open it and find the porch empty. Whenever I go upstairs, I anticipate him nestled in the middle of the bed. I miss his insistence upon being petted as I read at night, wrestling his way onto my chest, between my face and book, purring and drooling.

I’ve finally washed his bowls, taken his remaining food to the Humane Society, and removed the baby gate from the stairs.

Four weeks ago, I watched his gray fluff scurry out the front door. If I’d known it was going to be the last time I’d see him, I would have at least said goodbye.LilM

Luck of the Draw

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino leave me with face in hands, shaking my head in despair, and asking the great unanswerable question: What are we, as human beings, doing to ourselves?

JourneyOver twenty years ago, my husband Gary and I loaded the wagons and left a metropolitan area peppered with gang activity, drive-by shootings, and armed robberies. We trekked north to tiny Fort Bragg with the aim to raise our two young children in a town reminiscent of what life was like when we were growing up.

This community sheltered our tender saplings from the harsh winds of big city realities and allowed them to grow strong and tall. Along the way, we exposed them to places outside this protected island. We encouraged them to eventually leave and experience the real world.

By their senior year in high school, each was eager to squeal their tires, lay rubber, and flip off this small town. They left for college, junior years abroad, and eventually to careers in San Francisco. They have no desire to take up residency here again—even after all the terror that’s sprouted up in “civilized” cities across the world.

Our older children and grandchildren live in Seattle and Boston. I want to scoop everyone up and gather them in Fort Bragg to keep them safe from random acts of violence. But I know they won’t agree to come.

This is the world they’ve matured into and they are much more adaptable to change than I am. childmeI grew up in an era where people didn’t lock their doors—even when they went away on vacation—and often left keys in their parked cars; where children could safely walk alone without fear of abduction; where crazy people didn’t storm public places with automatic weapons and open fire. Today, none of this holds true; it is merely a quaint tale from the distant past.

Fear for my family occasionally becomes my sparring partner and I work hard to beat the crap out of it. turkey_map_02When our daughter Laine recently announced she was going to Turkey, I went to the atlas to reaffirm that the country shares a border with Syria. Fear and I went a full ten rounds. The day after her arrival in Istanbul, we woke to a headline that Turkey had shot down a Russian fighter jet for allegedly violating their air space. I spent the day punching fear in the face.

The following day, Russia stated it would not declare war on Turkey. Thank God. I needed a breather. Now that she’s “safely” back home in Oakland, those two countries can have at it. I am powerless to stop whatever madness is to come.

The chances of an encounter with a life threatening, potentially life ending event has always been the luck of the draw. Lately, though, the odds seem increasingly stacked against us. We are being given far more opportunities to draw the short end of the stick.help

Cash Flow

In the summer of 2008, after numerous citizen complaints, the Fort Bragg city council passed an ordinance against panhandling. I was relieved.

PanhandlingFlyerIn lieu of giving strangers money, I prefer to donate to organizations that help the homeless and those in need. But as the town’s panhandling situation escalated, I felt pressured. It got to the point where I couldn’t go grocery shopping or walk downtown without being asked for spare change. When I finally mustered the nerve to deny one guy, he told me to “Have a nice day, bitch!” Well there he went, ruining it for everybody. With few exceptions, spare change has stayed in my wallet from that moment on.

Some years ago, I drove around Spokane, Washington, with our son Harrison collecting what he needed to move into a dorm at Gonzaga University. On our one hundredth trip to the Valley Mall, I pulled onto the freeway off ramp and stopped at a light. A short, stout woman with hair the consistency of a bird’s nest stood in the dry weeds next to the street holding a sign that stated, “I need money to get out of here.” Perhaps it was her extreme twitchiness that prompted me to roll down my window and ask, “Where are you going?”

“Idaho.”

She was only twelve miles from the Washington-Idaho border. Her chances of success were quite high.

“And then I’m going to the state after that and then the state after that and the state after that….”

I reached into my wallet and pulled out the first bill I touched. It was a five.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you.” She shouted as she took the money.

The light turned green and I proceeded to the mall.

“You know she’s going to buy drugs with that money, don’t you?” Harrison said.

“I suppose.” I didn’t tell him I had experienced times in my life when I wanted to make a run for the border and keep going to the state after that and the state after that.

mycarThis past spring, about a month before a van tried to run me over in The Purity parking lot, I found a dollar on the sidewalk. I put it in a cup holder in my car. I would give it to the first street person who asked for money, preferably someone encountered in the parking lot at The Purity.

I was surprised how long it took to pass along that dollar. Seven months after finding it, I was downtown on Laurel, walking along the north side of the street. As I approached Pippi’s Longstockings, a young man and woman crossed the street from the alley.

Both were tall and lean, the kind of lean that borders on emaciated. Despite the warm weather, they wore sweatshirts, the hoods pulled over their heads and down to their eyebrows. His was gray, hers a faded red. There was a dark desperation about them, the kind of look I get when I’m denied my mid-morning sugar fix. I gave them a nod of acknowledgement, a smile of understanding. I’ve been caught without cookies in the house when I dearly need them.

As if I’d tossed a lasso and pulled her in, the woman approached. “Do you have a dollar?” she asked.

I do.” It’s difficult to describe the joy that came over me. Someone had finally answered my call and I was able to relinquish the responsibility of being a good steward of found cash.

The original Purity dollar was in my car, but I had a substitute in my wallet. I pulled it out and handed it to her along with a big smile. She snatched it from my hand. “Thank God,” she said, with a deep sigh of relief. It was the same relief I feel when, hopeless, I remember a stash of mini-muffins in the freezer.

Her man friend had continued north through the alley. She quickened her stride to catch up.

Perhaps she’d use that dollar to feed her addiction. Maybe it would help her buy some food. Possibly it would help get her to the next state, and the state after that, and the state after that.

Tattoo You

One of my greatest talents is avoiding self-reflection. I’m content with believing that I’m hip and easy going. Unfortunately, I have kids who call me on my crap. Unlike fair-weather friends who can be kicked to the curb when they criticize me, I take to heart the observations of my children.

For example, I like tattoos. I really do. I own a couple myself and admire the courage of those who have murals painted on their arms, chests or backs.

I recently discovered that as much of a fan I am of tattoos, I like them on others more than on my own children.

Our son Harrison has no tattoos. Our daughter Laine got her first one in December of her eighteenth year, when she was home for Christmas break from college. As a veteran of one tattoo at that point, I was excited for her.

Lainetat3When she was at the tattoo parlor, I wandered in to take a look. I nearly fainted. The artist was painting a very large antique key across her left shoulder blade. “It sure is big,” I said. (Okay, I probably said it more like, “IT SURE IS BIG!!!”)

Later Laine said she didn’t know it was going to be so large and asked if I was okay with it. I apologized for my initial reaction and told her she could have whatever she wants painted on her body.

Lainetat1A few years later, she got a single lens reflex camera tattooed on her right ankle. It was small and dainty. I liked it.

Lainetat4A few years after that, she and a couple of her girlfriends decided to get red button tattoos behind their right earlobes. I thought this sounded sweet and fun. I envisioned a petite shirt button. She came home with a coat button. “It sure is big,” I said. (Okay, I probably said it more like, “IT SURE IS BIG!!!”) Noting her disappointment, I added, “But I like it.” She was twenty-three, it was her body, and she could tattoo whatever she wanted on it.

Flash forward a few years to Harrison’s wedding. Months before the event, Laine—who is now twenty-six—chose a strapless bridesmaid gown. I encouraged her to wear a shrug to cover her back, thinking some people in the audience might be offended by the large key on her back. (Yes, I did and yes, I am now ashamed to admit it.)

A couple of hours before the bridesmaids were scheduled for photos, Laine asked if she could speak with me privately. I panicked. What could she possibly have to speak to me privately about? I feared I would be reprimanded for some inappropriate behavior. I had no idea what I might have done.

She spoke softly as she took me on a retrospective of her three tattoos and my reactions to each. She said she would not wear a shrug to the wedding ceremony because she is who she is—a woman with a large, beautiful tattoo on her back.

I was ashamed that I had asked her to compromise who she is in order not to offend others. I apologized. (Mostly, I was relieved that she didn’t point out times when I might have acted like a fool during the wedding weekend.)

Then she said, “A few months ago I got another tattoo. It’s on my arm. And it’s big.”

I braced myself, took a deep breath and said, “That’s fine honey. It’s your body and you can do what you want.”

Lainetat2

Lyric from the Bright Eyes song, “June on the West Coast.” Also a description of Laine’s hometown, Fort Bragg, California.

She pulled up the sleeve of her robe to reveal a quotation in beautiful calligraphy on her left tricep. I won’t lie—IT IS BIG and caused me a moment of shock. I hugged her and apologized for making her think I disapproved of her previous tattoos. She is a successful, kind, productive citizen of this world. She can tattoo whatever she wants onto her body.

In the days that followed, the need to reflect on what happened between my daughter and me poked me in the ribs. Why could I accept and admire body art on others, yet have such a difficult time accepting it on her?

When I gave birth to her, I created a perfect masterpiece with delicate, soft skin that I lovingly bathed and caressed, protected with sunscreen, and bandaged when wounded. I now realize the sense of ownership I still harbor toward that skin. Deep in my heart, I can’t help being offended that she so casually lets people scribble on it.

On others, I consider tattoos art; on her, it’s graffiti.

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