Hitting ‘publish’ on Cracker a few days ago left me positively giddy, not unlike a horse led out of the barn for the first time, after five months confined to its stall. There was no bridling my enthusiasm for the rest of the day. This surprised me. It seems my need for writing has surpassed my need for running, which historically, was responsible for that burst of joy.
However, sitting down to write since, anxiety is what bubbles to the surface. My enthusiasm is chain-shanked by the sentry at the point of entry. Known as procrastination, he is a surly, sweaty, slug of a soldier. As soon as I sit, suddenly, I need to pee. Then my glass needs more water, before I sit down yet again. I check my email, click the news on, click it off, check Twitter, blow my nose, by now I have to pee again. On the way to the bathroom I notice the peace lily needs trimming, so I go back to the kitchen, get the scissors, walk back to the bedroom, trim the dead leaves, return the scissors, go pee, sit down again, get up and adjust the blinds–the light is in my face after all, and sit back down. I adjust the cushion, pick up a book, scroll until I find something I’ve underlined, read it, glean inspiration, scroll for another underlined passage, get more inspiration, and put the book down. By now I need to pee again, and adjust the thermostat, but it’s lunchtime, so I’m hungry, What’s the election doing? I flip on the TV, sit down, and now I’m tired and need a break. Procrastination is the writer’s cocaine–highly addictive, but not a lot of fun. It’s just a line of pure misery, the writer’s main currency, with no ending.
Like most Americans (at least some Americans), I’ve been glued to the television this week, with brief interludes of reading to calibrate my thoughts. I picked up Anne Lamott’s Stitches from my pile under the coffee table, reserved for books already read, but kept close for handiness. She is a sensible choice when faced with an existential crossroad, the chicken-soup bandaid for a soul traversing the quagmire. Her words made me laugh when I read, “It would be great if we could shop, sleep or date our way out of this.” Ha! That might work for a lot of predicaments, but not this one.
I listened to a fantastic episode of Sway this morning. The host, Kara Swisher, interviewed author Jeff VanderMeer. A writer of fantasy, I am not familiar with him. This is an unfortunate consequence of my shallow scope and lack of depth within literature. VanderMeer is an award-winning writer. The New Yorker has referred to him as “The Weird Thoreau” or “The King of Weird Fiction.” He gives credence to the power of words, the good and the bad of it, and has a wonderful perspective about life and our current state of being. He is drawn to animals and nature, drawing tremendous inspiration from them.
Growing up as a kid in New Jersey, we spent a lot of time outdoors in nature. Dark summer nights were spent running across the lawn, a glass jar clutched tight against the ribs under our shirts. The grass cool under our feet, we chased the tiny lighthouses circling the air, full of magic, the impossible transformed into reality by the natural world. Like a herd of young gazelles, we leapt into the night, wrapping our hands around each small wonder, placing them carefully into the jars with the others. For a moment, their magic swirled together before our own eyes. How did they do it? Their mystery captivated us for hours.
Ladybugs were also unsurprising ambassadors of the natural world with their round little bodies, shiny shells shellacked orange, and trimmed black with polkadots. Landing on my arm, I laid a finger in their path, inviting them to board a railway with no end, traveling from finger to finger, until they flew to wherever they were headed next.
We had animals in the house too. My parents had dogs before they had kids, so growing up, I accepted they were part of the family, like eggs were a part of breakfast and cursive was a part of school. My first recollection of a family pet is Tigger. She was some version of a black Labrador acquired from a neighbor. A lot of my memories involve her being loose, perpetually evading capture while stealing golf balls from the course, forever outrunning the best of us. She was caught, eventually, by the only thing that could keep up with her… a car. The car won that confrontation and Tigger lost a hind leg out of the deal, but pretty soon, she was back to running, being loose, and still no one could catch her, not even the golfers, not even with golf carts.
Before I had a pet to call my own, I borrowed one. Our local church needed a place for the resident guinea pig to go for the summer while pre-school was on break. I didn’t realise it then (nor my parents), but that guinea pig was the gateway pet to the string of small, furry pets that followed for the next decade. I wonder if the story would have turned out differently had the church been home to a turtle instead.
As it was, I took my case to my parents, when the borrowed pet resumed duties in his classroom. We soon found ourselves in a stranger’s basement after consulting the classifieds of the local paper. A single lightbulb hung from the ceiling illuminating three rows of shelves built around the perimeter of the room. They were high-rise corrals, where the guinea pigs were separated by group, the criteria of which I knew nothing. You’d probably call it a pig mill today, but back then, it was just a 4-H project growing in the basement, that got a little out of hand.
The whole thing was scary, but exciting too. I was choosing my first pet, from the pig-palooza of all paloozas. It was like picking a flavor of ice-cream, at the precise moment the sales person asks what you’d like to order, while staring at the long list of flavors swimming in and around each other on the board in front. Only this was a serious decision in my short kid life, probably my first one ever. Swallowing my nerves, I plunged my arms over the panel fence, scooping up a young Abyssinian, a rough coat of mostly black with patches of brown. I called him Sweetie.
There were a slew of other guinea pigs after Sweetie, including a couple hand-me-downs bequeathed to me by my older sister, who had moved on to other things in her own kid life (either tennis or boys, or both). I learned early, taking care of two rodents was no different than taking care of one, but it was more fun. Much later, this epiphany evolved into the steely argument I often used to convince myself one more horse was a good idea. That got me in trouble plenty, but it never stopped me.
All the guinea pigs, and subsequent hamsters, lived out their natural lives, confined by their indentured domestication within the household. With every passing, a shoebox was scrounged from the closet, a Bible located, and my best friend Heather was rounded-up as witness. The two of us walked in silence, single file, out the front door and down the steps to the brick walkway. Heather stayed behind me as I cradled the shoebox with the Bible on top. We were a solemn processional, heads bowed, slowly rounding the house, back to the steps where we began. A couple of passages were read, we had a little cry, before handing the box off to Dad. Somewhere in New Jersey, next to the vegetable garden in the back yard, is a small cemetery, full of one kid’s pets.
Another guinea pig, Harry, had the misfortune of passing in the winter. After performing the same death ritual all bundled up, we wiped our faces dry, turning away as Dad took the box from my hands. A couple weeks later when the snow subsided, I took the shortcut to Heather’s house. It went through our backyard, across the golf course, into a couple of other backyards, before crossing the street to her driveway. As I headed out, I noticed a bright wedge of color peeking through the pile of monotonous debris in the compost, constructed with chicken wire next to the garden. Edging closer to get a better look, I stopped a few feet away after confirming it was indeed Harry’s box. I was horrified my dad could toss Harry into the compost, like trash, without a second thought…that would later nourish the vegetables we ate?? The rest of the afternoon I stewed about how to broach this betrayal to Harry’s dignity. That evening, I demanded an explanation. Sitting in his big comfy chair following dinner, Dad looked at me over the evening newspaper, nonplussed. Flipping a page, he said, “The ground is frozen. Can’t bury him. He’ll be alright there until Spring.” It was hard to argue against this, as much as I was insulted on Harry’s behalf. I gave the garden a wide berth after that, all through the spring and summer too, not wanting to know whether the vegetables on my plate were fertilised by Harry or not.
The guinea pigs morphed into hamsters, and like Tigger, they also spent a lot of time on the run, just indoors. However, it was at this time, Tigger got a friend. My lobbying was bolstered by a classmate’s poodle, who unexpectedly found herself knocked up. Bonnie Belle, named by my sister, cost me $5. My mom just reminded me of that detail. I thought she was free. Mom shook her head and said, “No, your classmate’s mother talked about the puppies being ‘somewhat well bred.'” However, framing it like a proper transaction was a clever tactic on the mom’s part to ensure the puppies were never returned. Many years later, I would buy a horse for $5, for the same reason the mother charged for the puppy, and also to ensure against the possibility I might sue them down the road, but that’s another story.
Back then, “Doodles” didn’t exist. When people asked her breed, Dad would puff up, holding her leash proudly and say, “She’s a Miniature Wolfhound!” They bought it every time–hook, line and sinker. “Miniature Wolfhound” still sounds much more distinguished than “Doodle,” but I suppose she was technically a “Doodle 57” when you get down to it. When our family moved to Texas from Jersey, I no longer took our furry family for granted. In Texas, Bonnie and Tigger were my only friends for a long time. I had grown out of the rodents by then, into tropical fish, but they too faded, until there were none. Eventually there would be horses, but before then, it was just Bonnie and Tigger.
I recently flew to Texas to visit my family and check on our parents. A lot of things happened while I was there. A neighbor living alone needed help after hip replacement surgery. Another neighbor ended up in the hospital, leaving her elderly father home alone. I was glad I landed when people really needed help getting through a rough patch. Two days before returning to DC, my parents took their cat Leroy to the vet. He had looked puny for a couple days. The vet told them Leroy was in kidney failure. His days were numbered. I think she really wanted to say “Today is as good a day as any,” but she didn’t, and after giving him fluids, my parents brought him home. He felt a little better after that, giving my parents a couple days to spoil him, and prepare themselves for the inevitable.
Leroy was the first of many strays my parents adopted. All told, they’ve taken in five over the last few years, not counting the feral ones who they still feed outdoors, or the ones my sister and I “gifted” to them. I “borrowed” my first pet, but my parents “inherited” their first cats from their kids. They started adopting the strays that showed up soon after and haven’t stopped.
The day I flew home was the day my parents took Leroy back to the vet to say good-bye. We’ve done this dance many times over the years, but it never gets any easier. This time was made worse by the fact my parents couldn’t accompany Leroy inside the clinic. They had to wait in the car. I’ve thought about this a lot. What if Cracker had passed this year, instead of 2018? I’d have been in the same situation. It makes my heart hurt just thinking about it. All we want to do is provide comfort in the moments when they pass to the next world. It’s the least we can do after all the comfort they’ve provided to us in this one. I said to my dad:
You gave Leroy a great life, a life full of love and comfort he would never have known, had it not been for you.
That includes taking care of him at the very end.
You gave Leroy the most any of us can hope for.
You gave him a death with dignity.