Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Urge for Going

Soundtrack:  Joni Mitchell "Urge for Going" 

The new year in my mind is always clear blue and white, fresh, and full of possibility. This image plus my page-a-day calendar reminding me that "Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it," and I've decided to find small pleasures in 2018 to chase out the overwhelming noise of 2017.  It's not deep stuff, this quote from my "What We Learn from Cats" calendar, but it offers a recipe to escape a funk and seems fitting for the new year. Therefore, when faced with a dearth of positive, I'm now determined to recognize the sunny side wherever I can.   

On to find it!

Pleasure #1: Analog life. 

My husband and I spent the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve on the Delaware coast, in a frigid and nearly-empty tourist town.  We had miles of vacant beach just outside our door, shared only with local residents and their exuberant dogs seasonally freed from the no-dogs-on-the-beach ordinance.  

Dewey Beach, DE in December

On the beach in my eskimokini.

Sand pipers like school kids, dashing in small groups in and out of the frothy surf. 

The boardwalk won't look like this in six months. 

Frozen foam.

Sunset over Rehoboth Bay. 

...and what the sunset does to the sea oats. 

A thinking man's horizon.

During this no-cats-yet time, we're also taking advantage of being able to look at each other and say, "Let's just grab a bag and explore somewhere."  This long MLK, Jr.  holiday weekend felt like the perfect time to do just that so we headed west into hills of north-central Virginia.  There's something so calming about an expanse of empty landscape, whether it's a beach dotted only with sand pipers darting in and out of the sea foam, or farm fields, their crops shaved close to hunker down for winter.  I appreciate the understated beauty of winter's muted colors, the tinkling of icicles along moving water, and the satisfactory crunch of walking over icy crisp fallen leaves. It's far more subtle than the sensational spring or flamboyant fall - their colors screaming for our attention.  

Frozen above, rushing beneath. 

With the backdrop so neutral, the few bright colors shine. 

Icicle glockenspiel.

Strong sunshine leaves strong shadows in the tiny town of Washington, VA.

Farm house with Shenandoah National Park as it's backdrop. 

Almost tall enough to remind us of the Romanian wooden churches. 

Weathered barn in Brandy Springs, VA

I'm drawn to timeless landscapes, easy to find in this region's rural colonial towns.  No billboards to sell me things, nothing digital to attract and then distract - just glimpses of times when life seemed a lot less noisy.  I'm certain that these days we could all use a break from the screaming.  Therefore you'll find us pulling off the road to simply survey the horizon, watching the light change or laughing at the squirrels chasing each other barber-pole style around the trees.  

That's my 90% recipe for reacting to life these days.  Give it a try.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

2017 - Good Riddance!

We rang in 2017 in Herastrau Park, Bucharest. 
My husband, step-daughter and I trundled across the street to the park from our apartment, bundled in our cold weather gear. Me in an odd but practical assortment of clothes from the bottom dresser drawer: fleece-lined riding breeches, a heavy wool Aran Islands sweater, down jacket, ski gloves and a Soviet rabbit-fur hat from the 1980s.  We stopped along the edge of the large frozen lake that is the park's centerpiece, alone save for a park guard posted in his phone booth nearby, and toasted the arrival of the new year with champagne from plastic cups. Fireworks lit up the horizon from all sides of the park. Imagining party-goers beneath the colorful bursts - the women in their cocktail dresses, strappy heels and kitschy "Happy New Year!" tiaras and the men with too much cologne and slicked back hair - made me feel very frumpy in comparison, but also exactly where I wanted to be instead.  

With the new year only a few minutes underway, we continued through the park's snowy lanes towards a thumping bass line coming from a bar hopping with activity. My step-daughter and I tried to cajole my husband into coming inside the bar for a few songs, but he refused and plunked down on a bench with his brandy flask instead. Despite being dressed like a winter road crew, my step-daughter and I couldn't resist going into the bar for a glimpse of the revelry. It was just one week earlier, days before Christmas, that we'd lost our Dodger cat and I needed of a dose of positive energy. Unfortunately, it was too hot inside the packed bar to dance wearing all that gear, so instead we let ourselves go and danced like mad women to OneRepublic's "Counting Stars"  in the lane outside the bar.  It was just the release I needed.  Maybe 2017 would be okay after all. 

I was wrong.  

Before I sound like too sad of a sack, let me explain that I generally consider myself a bright spark.  I prefer to be lighthearted, don't take myself too seriously and believe that what I put out will come back - so why be a grump? But let me tell you that 2017 stepped on my daisy and then twisted its boot toe for good measure.

Re-reading the posts from February this year, I see the signs that the dark cloud had already blown in. At that time, I hoped the "general malaise" I was feeling was temporary. Perhaps it was just a reaction to the political divisiveness assaulting us from the headlines. There were plenty of reasons not to be cheery.

Then in April my father-in-law passed away and we returned to Virginia for his memorial and to spread his ashes in the woods behind their home.

In July we left the country we'd grown quite attached to and moved into our temporary Virginia apartment in time for Toby's health to start to seriously deteriorate. 

By late summer, to quote Julia Sweeney, God said Ha! and the cloud overhead continued to darken. 

In September, we lost the smart, sweet and lovely 21 year old son of my husband's cousin in a drowning accident.  Their only child gone - I can't even begin to imagine their grief. 

October 7th Toby died and for the first time in 19 years, our lives felt empty without the loving, funny presence of our fur family.  

October 9th I received an early morning text from my sister-in-law telling us not to worry, my elderly father and step-mother had evacuated from the wildfires and were okay.  
Umm... what?
We'd been out of communication after heading to the mountains for some post-Toby solace. Days later, one of my sisters and her husband also evacuated their house threatened from a different branch of the same fire complex. The following days found my father, step-mother and his dedicated caregiver moving further and further south to escape the smoke from the Sonoma and Napa Valley wildfires. We stayed glued to any source of news that could tell us the fate of their house high in the hills above the town of Sonoma.  Mid-way through the week, my siblings and I resigned ourselves to the fact that the house was gone as the official fire maps showed big red swaths over their property.  At least they had the two rental properties in town to return to when it was all over.  Amazingly, my sister and brother-in-law were able to return to their house, their town spared the fire's devastation.  

Then one Saturday morning, while watching the Weather Channel reporter standing in front of a house engulfed in flames, I heard him say he was at the intersection exactly in front of my father and step-mother's two rental homes.  The reporter said it was an ember, blown down from the distant hills, that had picked off two houses in the middle of the block.  And with that - we figured it was all lost. But two weeks later, with the fires becoming contained and evacuation orders being lifted, updates started running through social media from neighbors, that in fact the two rental houses were still standing. It seems the reporter had "estimated" his location during his on-air reporting. Even more incredible, just days after that, we learned that despite being surrounded 360 degrees by fire, and 100% due to the incredible efforts of the fire crews - their hill top home was also intact.  The scorched ground and trees were only 10-15 feet from the wooden house where they'd lived over 35 years. Miraculously, my father and step-mother were able to return home. 

Signs of gratitude hanging everywhere. 

The approach to my dad's house. 

View of the fire line from their deck. That line exists because fire crews from across the county, state and country worked 24/7  for weeks with shovels and chain saws to create fire breaks to save strangers' homes. 

Airborne embers burned holes in their deck umbrella, but somehow didn't ignite the deck. 

My father's iron sculpture rises unscathed from the ashes.

A few of Sonoma's seven flags still flying over a vineyard and charred hillside.

But they didn't stay home long as my dad was admitted to the hospital just a week or so later.  He had some kind of infection from an unknown source. At one point the doctors told us he had only days to live and I immediately flew across the country to be with him.  His ship righted itself somewhat, but seven weeks later - he's still in the hospital. I'm thankful that I was able to tell him everything I wanted him to hear.  I choose to believe he understood me.  

By Thanksgiving we'd lost my brother-in-law to a sudden aneurysm and one of my sisters was left a widow after over 20 years of marriage.  

We're now nearing Christmas.  Despite this litany of horrible events (are you even still reading?) - we still have a lot to be thankful for. My husband found a job teaching English that he finds interesting and occasionally amusing.  My position within Consular Affairs is challenging in a good way and I'm energized being able to teach again.  But other than that, we're holding out hope that the new year will bring a change in the metaphoric weather, a universal shaking off of the dark cloud perhaps.  I have to have faith that the simple act of turning the calendar page and dancing to a favorite song at midnight - in a cocktail dress or in snow boots - will bring about this transformation. 

To 2017:  Uncle. You win. Now good riddance. 

Monday, October 23, 2017


The summer of 1998 found me living alone in my first own house with two little kittens.  Growing up, we'd always had cats and for years I'd wanted my own, but I was living the life of a young person: moving regularly for college, working abroad, and renting apartments.  I felt it wasn't a stable enough life to bring little ones into (and trust me, by that I mean the feline - not human - kind).  Months after buying the house, litter mates Dodger and Daphne joined me.  My home was complete. And then one month later, I bought the wrong box of cereal and it changed all our lives. 

Actually, the box of cereal I bought was the one I wanted, it's just that the wrong cereal was inside the box, and it was the kind I didn't like.  No, I'd never had this happen before either, not in cereal or canned fruit or anything for that matter, and to top it off - it had dried dates in it which I didn't like as they annoyed me by getting stuck in my teeth.  Miffed, I decided to exchange the box at the grocery store on my way home from work that evening.

I was working as a riding instructor in those days and it was common to head home from the barn about 9 pm after the last student left and the horses were cared for and put away.  Cereal box night was no exception.  Being the Pacific Northwest in summer, even that late it was still light out.  Walking through the store's automatic doors, I noticed a teenage girl sitting near the entrance with a box on her lap.  I don't recall if she called out to me, or was talking to someone else, but somehow I heard the word "kittens" and turned on my heels - just to have a look.  Inside the box were two teenie kittens: one black and gray tabby with a white nose and tuxedo and an even tinier white one with gray patches.  They were each smaller than my hand.  She explained that they belonged to her neighbor who had already drowned their mother in a bucket and was planning to do the same with the kittens. The girl saved them from this vile man and took them to the grocery store to hopefully find them homes.  But now it was after 9 pm, she had to get home and there were two left. Her parents forbade her from keeping them.  I explained that I already had two little kittens and I certainly couldn't keep four.  Thankfully she was persistent and convinced me that if I just took them that night, tomorrow I could take them to a pet store where she was sure they'd be happy to have free kittens to sell, but she just couldn't bring them back anywhere near that horrible neighbor.  

I think you know what happened.  Minutes later with a new box of cereal in hand, I took the box o' kittens and drove home.  
Toby and brother Froggy soon after we met.
Not knowing if they were sick or how Dodger and Daphne would react to the newcomers, I set them up in a spare bedroom for the night.  I estimated they were about one month younger than my two, but they seemed to be eating and drinking on their own just fine. 

The next morning I began to call local pet stores who let me know politely, but firmly, that it just doesn't work that way.  They'd be over run with kittens if they simply took in litters that people couldn't give away.  Call a shelter. Or hey, adopt them out yourself.  
Knowing they were still too young to be separated, I decided to foster them until I could find them proper homes.  With a schedule full of riding students - there had to be someone who would take one or two darling kittens.  I can't remember how long it took me to name them, but the little white and gray became Froggy because he was kind of bullfrog shaped with itty-bitty bowed legs and a bigger body. The fluffy tuxedo with his anime eyes became Toby as he was so sweet and I'd had fond memories of two horses I'd known over the years named Toby.  But anyway, they were just a placeholder names until their new families were found.  It only took about a week to see they weren't sick, and the little two were incorporated into the pride and instantly accepted by the "big cats." 

Shortly thereafter, I found a future home for Toby.  The grandmotherly baby sitter of two of my riding students decided she'd adopt him when he was just a bit bigger and I agreed to keep him a few more weeks. She said he'd be called Sylvester and I was happy to know that the little girls I'd see each week in lesson would also be with him each day and be able to give me reports. 

Just try to tell me that's not the cutest kitten you've ever seen. I dare you.
Then suddenly Froggy went from frisky and boldly exploring the garden with the others, to puny and not eating.  I took him to the vet who told me he couldn't even draw blood from him because at his size - it would have been too great a loss to his little system.  In a very short time, and despite our desperate efforts to save him, he died on his own.  The vet simply said that some kittens were "poor doers" and there was nothing that could have been done.  It was crushing to lose the little guy after he had been doing so well. I buried him in the garden under the plum tree in a pretty little box and decided right then that there was no way I was losing Toby, too.  I told the babysitter lady that I was afraid she'd have to find another Sylvester and Toby became a permanent member of the family. 

His personality grew along with his unusually large paws and his luxurious coat.  Soon, there was no size difference between the three of them and they got along marvelously.  Toby's penchant for sleeping in what I called "kitty porn" poses resulted in a series of centerfold photos spanning his whole life:

Toby the Kitten Pin-up Boy

Have some shame man, really!

Teen Toby and his magnificent stripey belly

Even as a geriatric kitty - he couldn't resist.
Although he was shy and headed under the nearest bed when company came, with family he was all about the on-contact purr as he melted into a boneless bundle in my arms or on our laps. 
Post-Thanksgiving dinner? I don't remember him quite this... fluffy.

Let me tell ya' 'bout my best friend...

As each of the other Tabbies did, Toby also collected a list of nicknames. For a while he was "Tub-pee" for self-explanatory reasons. My husband figured if he was going to "think outside the box," the tub was the best place to do it and we just rinsed out the shower before stepping in.  Later he was Tobias T. Cat, Toblerone, Hoss or Big Beef (because of his big boots), Buddy and T-Bone after a particular Seinfeld episode. Over the years, he and Dodger became the best of buddies.  In fact, the whole clan got along famously; Daphne mothering the boys and each one taking turns cleaning the others' hard to reach spots. 

The three of them were already 13 years old when we signed up for a Foreign Service life and packed them off first to FSI (just the boys with me, and Daphne stayed behind with my husband for six months), then to Bogota, FSI again, Juarez, FSI again and finally Bucharest.  By their teen years they were no longer shy, no more hiding under beds when company came and while I can't say they liked it - they traveled very well and adapted to their new environments quite quickly.

But last Christmas, around the same time we lost Dodger, Toby's health changed.  It started with occasional incontinence, then regular incontinence.  We removed the apartment rugs and invested a king's ransom in doggy pee pads, paper towels and Nature's Miracle.  In June, around his 19th birthday, my husband gave Toby his last nickname -  Captain Underpants - and he became a true Pampered elderly gentleman.

Captain Underpants in his de-luxe bed. 
Diapers? Why not! Toby never ever complained and just pulled his rabbit-thumper paws up to his ears when it was diaper-changing time. 
 It was about this time, as our Romanian adventure was winding down, that he was also diagnosed with mesenteric cancer. There was a mass in his abdomen, perhaps in his bladder and lymph nodes. Even with this diagnosis, outwardly he looked great: maintaining his usual personality and strong appetite.  At his age, full exploration to treat the cancer was simply not something we wanted to put him through. My husband and I decided that he'd have palliative care for any symptoms that came along and we'd just love and nurse him at home, as he'd known all his life.  

Late this summer, the cancer progressed and he began exhibiting visible signs of the disease.  Despite a strong appetite, underneath his still-luxurious coat his muscles were wasting away.  Then the seizures started.  My husband was home with him for each one and comforted him through the fits and the single yowl that punctuated each episode. We tried anti-seizure medications, but they made him too groggy and wobbly to walk well and unwilling to eat, so we stopped them.  Two Fridays ago and sleeping in our bedroom, he had three seizures in the course of one night.  By morning, my husband and I knew that it was time.  

Two buddies hanging out on the balcony, October 2017. 
We'd been referred to a service called Lap of Love that has veterinarians who will come to patients' homes to help pets through their last moments.  We made an appointment for 3:00 that afternoon and spent the day with him.  It was a perfect fall day so we took him out to the grass on the grounds of our apartment building and let him sniff around, feeling the sunny breeze in his fur.  He plunked down on his side and just hung out with us instead. After a bit, we gathered him back up and returned to the apartment for his appointment. The vet was delayed 15 minutes, and at 3:00 exactly, Toby had one last, bad seizure which erased any lingering doubt we may have harbored as to whether or not this was the right time.  Dr. Stephanie was exceptionally kind and patient, and talked us through the peaceful procedure as Toby stretched out on the couch between my husband and me.  We pet him and talked to him until his last breath.  The vet let us take our time in saying goodbye, then wrapped him sweetly in a blanket, put him in a basket and took him to be cremated.  His ashes arrived a week later. 

Toby's last day on my lap, as relaxed and beautiful as ever. 
The pain of having to put a beloved fur-family member to sleep has two sharp edges: the grief of their loss from our lives and the horrible second-guessing, guilt and doubt that comes with wondering if we made the right decision that he wouldn't be with us anymore.  With all three Tabbies, the sharp deterioration in their health helped ease this second part as we saw how their lives had become more about the disease than life.  (However, having said that, I still feel a stabbing "what if" about Daphne and guilt that her last week was spent at the vet instead of home with us.)  With the last one gone, what remains is the emptiness of not having their little furry selves at home.  For the first time in 19 years, I woke up the next morning, walked into the living room and kitchen, and simply didn't know what to do with myself.  There was nobody to feed, nobody to greet me entering the room, nothing to scoop or wipe up, no one to scoop into my arms and step onto the balcony to greet the day - nothing; it was just our furniture and a stack of unpacked cardboard boxes.  I walked aimlessly from room to room a bit, put the kettle on, and took a shower. That was it. 19 years as the Cats' Mother was over. 

So much of my adult identity had revolved around these three - heck, look at the name of this blog. I've always been that cat lover. Picking a cat-themed gift for me has been a sure bet for two decades. I still hear myself saying, "Oh, we have cats, too!" in conversations, and at home catch movement out of the corner of my eye when it's actually just slippers. 

I do know that we gave them the best lives they could have had in terms of love, care and attention. I am proud of that. And I know we'll have cats again; I can guarantee that.  
But not now. Not for a while.  My husband and I need time to just be able to walk out the door, get in the car and go away for the night without planning for their care and fretting over how they're doing the whole time we're away.  I feel a little sad for the next kitties that come into our lives, frankly.  They'll have huge shoes to fill and I can't imagine they'll ever be as funny, sweet, loving, cuddleable as Dodger, Daphne and Toby.  

As for the title of the blog? We remain Tabbies in Tow; these three will never leave us.