Monday, June 26, 2006

Pet Cemetery

Mr. Pseudonym and I moved to Inalienable Heights in 1983, when our oldest child was not quite two years old. We bought a small rancher on a big lot, thinking the baby would enjoy tearing around the large yard and that our family would remain small.

Wrong! Two more kiddies arrived within three years of the first, the endocrinologist having found out what was wrong with me. So we found ourselves a family of five, stuffed in a family-of-four house, with several of us having a deep longing for pets. (Not Mr. Pseudonym; the only thing he has a deep longing for is the remote control.)

The first pet was a kitten for
#1 Daughter. Despite a few moments of hysteria when daughter was informed that Mom had mistaken the gender of kitty and that he would have to be named Jessie instead of Jessica, Jess turned out to be a much-beloved pet. He met his untimely end on a busy cross street a mere year or so after we got him. I had to go claim his body, shovel it into a garbage bag and store it in the neighbor's garage until Mr. Pseudonym came home and hacked out a grave under the giant oak tree at the northeast corner of the Pseudonym Manor estate.

I'd had previous experience with hacking out kitty graves when my neighbor's Snowball crawled under a shrub the year before and gave up her ninth. Kathy and I had to get the job done before her two boys came home from school and saw Snowball's deflated remains, so we set to work with vigor. Problem was, our back yards were mostly crabgrass, clay and tree roots. We tried digging a grave on her southwest corner, but the roots were just too thick. We both worked feverishly at her northeast corner, and we managed a shallow depression just big enough to hold the black plastic Hefty bag. We flung Snowball's bagged remains into the poor hole, shoveled dirt over the top and tried to tamp the dirt hill down with our feet. But every footstep set the grave to undulating since neither of us had thought to let the excess air out of the Hefty bag. We stood there, panting, in 90 degree heat, staring at each other. Kathy leaned on her shovel, gagged once and lowered her head. "Well, look, Kath," I said, "unless it rains real hard or Spot decides to investigate the interesting aroma, it will probably be OK." Kathy gagged again, and we piled a few fallen tree limbs and assorted sticks and rocks on top of the rippling grave.

Jessie went under a bit easier, thanks to Mr. Pseudonym's exemplary digging skills. And he even made a little tombstone for Jess out of pressure-treated wood engraved with puss' name and dates. We got our Onyx from the local shelter the same day because I do things like that for no apparent reason. She was six months old then and is still alive today, some fifteen years later. She just doesn't look too good these days.

A long string of pets and random animal corpses have been interred under the oak tree since those early days. We had to expand our pet cemetery out from the oak and into the surrounding yard over the years for lack of space. There was a snake found flattened on the road; a few heat-exhausted birds; two or three cicada exoskeletons; Beaureguard the guinea pig; Caramel and Lucifer, the hamsters; Uncle Blackie the fish (after a lovely, candlelit, public viewing of his cadaver on a cardboard coffin/catafalque made by #3 Daughter), Creamsickle and Alex (also fish); Rumply the Brave Stray Cat (we only had her for a year--she was old but very determined and personable); our first dog Roxy, who lived for fourteen years; and, most recently, #2 Daughter's pet rat Nutmeg and #3 Daughter's pet rats Snowflake, Sniffy and Hambone.

To be truthful, when the kids were little, a few "bad" fish went down the toilet to "live with the other bad fish in the sewers" after chewing the fins off their sisters. Recently, Floppy, sister of Flippy and Flappy, was found in a mummified state where we keep the fish food, so she went down the toilet too; it was just more expedient. In addition to the two less-adventuresome fish and Onyx the cat, we currently have cats Jean, Peanut and Buju, Daisy the Terrier and pet rats Pokey and Sprinkles. (Pokey is my thumbnail picture; she's fat and sleek from her daily milk and cookies snack at exercise time.)

The old oak tree was here when we moved in; as a matter of fact, the old oak tree was probably here 100 years before we moved in. And there was an old maple on the other side of our lot. But Mr. Pseudonym and I had planted everything else in the yard ourselves--the burning bushes, viburnums, Norway maples, tulip tree, two lines of white pines along the east and west fences, two Japanese maples, the bridal wreath and, most recently, a little hydrangea bush which serves as a memorial for our Roxy. All of our plantings were little when they first went in, and now several of the trees tower above us and shelter the yard and house. They will all come down, eventually, but we probably won't be here to see them change. They will all go back to the Earth to begin again, just as our little furry (and scaly) friends have gone back to the Earth.

Mr. Pseudonym and I are getting older and older by the day - our children are all grown, and we sometimes think about retiring to another state when the time comes. We no longer need to worry about uprooting the kids from their neighborhood, there are more peaceful places to live and our current hometown is too loud and smells funny. I daydream a lot about Virginia, or the New England states, or even the ancestral home in Ohio. But then I step off my back landing and feel the life vibrating there: life we planted, life our kids climbed and carved their initials into, life in the air and flitting around above the grass, life we helped send on to its transformation, life we are only dimly aware exists. It's all out there, rollicking around in a small square of the Garden State, lifeforms too numerous to be counted.

And it's life that gives us a sense of experience and emotion. The scent of an early summer morning, the echo of my children's laughter, the memory of butterflies flitting around their wading pool, red tomatoes hanging from tall plants, squirrels swinging back and forth at the top of Mr. Pseudonym's little experimental cornfield, tiny blue robin-egg shells, thunderstorms that failed to wake the little children, the smell of digging in the earth, the soft brush ends of white pine branches, birdsong, dew on spider webs, ants forming a line into the house to get at spilled juice. I wonder if I can really leave this place and these memories some day.

Some of our pets could have had better lives, and I think of this often. No excuses offered, but I didn't always fully understand my moral obligation to treat all living things as I would wish to be treated. I didn't always see them as my little brothers and sisters. I didn't always see that all life nourishes all life, that we are all of the same substance and that we will all swirl through the life cycles of Earth continuously for as long as She exists. It takes living through times of "birth" and times of "death" to understand our part in the big picture. No animal in my care now ever wants for food, a comfortable house and a respectful, loving relationship with his/her human companions.

We will meet again, all of us. There's so much work to be done.

--Revised 7-01-06--

Friday, June 09, 2006

PANIC (or other things just as amusing)

Waking up from a dream of my parents; they were walking like mobile wax figures, expressionless yet somehow disapproving. A new house with many rooms--each room with one or two washers/dryers and piles of dirty clothing. I'm telling Mom I'll make lunch for Dad. He's ill and old. She goes off with one of my brothers. But it's Christmas, and there's very little time before company descends like locusts with a yen for candied sweet potatoes. I have to run out and get presents for everyone, but the house isn't cleaned, and the turkey is lying on the kitchen counter, naked and pale...

Start down the corridor... something's wrong. I'm awake, but not walking a straight line, and I keep scraping my arms on the bookshelves. Thirsty...terribly thirsty. Can't breathe through my nose... and the dream pops back in for a few seconds: didn't set the long tables, white tablecloths, who's supposed to cook the turkey? I'm falling forward...

Wait. I'm facing the wall. Again. Fell back asleep while walking. Well, at least this time I'm not waking up facing a wall and then turning around to see Mr. Pseudonym facing me. I just can't bear that strange, Christ-Kicked-Over-A-Hurdle look on his face. Maybe Junket will make coffee. Pain's running up and down my spine in cruel waves. Go back...get medicine. Junket's asking what's wrong. Don't want to talk. Thirsty, so thirsty. Can't breathe. Air's too heavy - too stale. Junket's ready to talk agenda: what time is mammogram appt?, is Dad still going for his foot x-ray tonight?, do I still need the car?, if I need the car, can I be ready to take her to work in fifteen minutes? Just sit down for a minute and take deep breaths...

Voices - first of the herd of company - and I'm not dressed yet...not even showered. What presents was I supposed to buy? Why does house look so torn apart? Who's going to do all of this wash? Why is the turkey lying on counter like a sodomized backwoods trail hiker? Falling again...

Something's wrong. Just breathe. What do I need? Junket's asking what's wrong again. Phone's ringing. Find remote control - maybe t.v. will divert from pain. Click remote, click, click... . Junket's saying Mr. Pseudonym wants to know if his foot x-ray is still on for tonight. Wave of guilt (was supposed to have arranged for referral to be sent to radiologist on Wednesday - forgot - oh, SHIT! SHIT!)

Waving away phone at Junket's exasperated, "It's DAD!" pronouncement. I really don't care if it's Jesus inviting me out to the diner for steak and eggs and an x-ray of hubby's foot with his eyes when we get back to the house. I gotta go stand on the back steps and look at the sky for awhile. Just BREATHE!!!

This is a bad day, as so many of them have been recently. Trouble sleeping, trouble waking, physical torment, nightmares, guilt, telephones ringing, lost hours... ah, GOD! Junket has to call Kathy, our friend and next-door neighbor, a middle-aged lady who is also at a stuck-point in life. Neither of us can get away from our increasingly-distressing family situations. My girls are breaking free of their "this is all I deserve" relationships, and I feel pain when my kids feel pain. My neighbor cares for an end-stage Alzheimer's mother without much help or understanding from her all-male family.

Kathy flies over in record time, having loaded her mother onto the daycare bus just minutes before. I've stood by her for the past sixteen months
or so, since she's been providing care for her mother entirely by herself. She's done the best she can with the situation, Alzheimer's being almost as cruel as money-hungry relatives. Her sister - who had shared caregiving responsibilities with Kathy ever since their father's death three years prior - waited until she could legally get her sticky hands on her share of their father's estate and then, on the magic, legal date, bailed out on caring for their mother. The sister screeched up to the Heritage Dairy store where they traded off Mom every other night, yanked their mother out of her car and shoved her into the back of Kathy's car, yelling, "I hate the f***ing bitch! I don't care WHAT you do with her!"

So, I became Kathy's sister, because if your own family bails on you, then you have to make a new family. Kathy needed a sister, I never had a sister - VOILA! I got a spare Mom out of the deal, my own mother having died in 1995. The spare Mom smiles at me, holds my hand, and speaks in long, rambling, rhyming sentences about dogs and her father and little kids being cute and helpless. Even in end-stage, curse-word shouting, nose-picking, crayon-munching, milk-spilling, cell-phone hiding, talk-to-mirrors, bead-playing, trashcan-browsing, rawhide dog-bone licking, crap in your giant diaper Alzheimer's, Marie is kinder, gentler and more thoughtful than many "normal" adults I know. And Kathy and I have grown much closer in the past sixteen months. We raised our kids together, but now we share things we never touched on in over 20 years of friendship. And when one of us is in trouble, the other is right at her side.

Kathy makes me stand on the back steps and breathe the cool morning air. She pats me on the shoulder and tells me it's just Panic (which I already figured out), makes me a cup of tea and takes over the world for me when I can't think one more thought. I'm so grateful to have her.