A Candle in the Darkness

On Monday, a much loved relative will be having the same surgery as I had, five years ago, when I wrote this blog post.  I am reprinting it for her.

A few days before I was to have surgery, a close friend asked me to confirm the time that my operation would be starting. She would, she explained, be lighting a candle for me at that moment, and sending me her prayers and love.

I’ve always found that the most terrible moment of any surgery is that short, frightening journey as one is wheeled down corridors into the operating room.   The unutterable sense of loneliness cannot be described to anyone who has not had this experience.  I liken it to the final journey of death.  Friends and family in the pre-op room have hugged and kissed one goodbye, and then one is completely alone, facing an unknown.  No matter how simple the surgery, everyone experiences that nagging dread that they might not awaken from the anesthetic.  Everyone wonders if hands, feet, arms, legs, fingers, toes, will all function afterwards, or be forever paralyzed.  Everyone is aware that sometimes, in surgery, things go wrong.

Only once, as I was being taken to surgery, did the orderly pushing the gurney seek to lighten my sense of trepidation. Had I ever had surgery before, she asked, and when I answered in the affirmative, she patted my shoulder and said, “But it’s always a little scary, isn’t it?”  There are no words to describe how comforting I found her empathetic remark.

Being wheeled to this most recent surgery, I received no such comforting question or concern. I was taken a short distance to the operating room and helped onto the table.  In a surgery just two months prior, a nurse had introduced me quickly to everyone in the operating room, giving me their first names and their function in the surgery, leaving me to wonder fearfully if there would be a quiz afterwards!  This time, however, there was only the quick press of the oxygen mask over my face and the staccato instructions of the anesthesiologist to, “Breathe!  Breathe deeply!”  (Of course, since I am horribly claustrophobic, just having the darned mask pressed onto my face made me do nothing but instinctively hold my breath in complete terror, followed by the rapid-fire, quick, short breaths of a full-blown panic attack.  Perhaps this is a reaction for which anesthesiologists should be schooled in their method of approach.)

But, despite my claustrophobia, my lonely distress and anxiety, the image of my friend’s candle, burning brightly for me, shone in my consciousness. I found myself focusing on it during that brief journey to the operating room.  The image calmed me, reassuring me that I was not truly alone; that the prayers and concern of others were surrounding me.  A memory swam up into my consciousness, a poem I had written years earlier, Just a Light Left Burning, and I found myself reciting the lines like a mantra as I was carried into the coma-like sleep of anesthesia:

Just a light left burning for me
in my window of darkest pain;
just safe harbor, refuge, retreat
sheltered sanctuary from rain.

Just a kind hand, steadying me
when I stumble a rocky path;
just a heart’s strong, balancing beat
when I settle my face at last

to the shoulder, stable and sure
of a long-cherished friend who shares
light embrace, encircling me
in the knowledge that one soul cares.

Weeks afterwards, my friend told me that the candle she lit had burned throughout my three-hour operation (which had, of course, begun later than actually scheduled). Despite guttering a few times, the candle had continued burning until a call from the phone tree assured her that I was out of surgery and doing well.

But, in my mind, that candle is still burning, guiding me through the darkness, lighting my path with the beacon of caring and friendship.

If you enjoyed this essay, you might also appreciate “Twenty Hours After Surgery”, which you can find by scrolling down this page to the Archives.  It was published May 15, 2018.  And, as always, if you liked this post, feel free to share it!

The Cat Who Wanted to Stay

If you don’t believe in animal communication, I don’t expect this essay to convince you.

In March of 2021, my sweet big tomcat fell ill unexpectedly.

Now, as any cat owner will tell you, a cat who barfs all over the carpet (the carpet exclusively; never the linoleum or vinyl. A cat will walk half a block to avoid throwing up on any easy-to-clean surface)—anyway, a cat who throws up is nothing extraordinary. Cats are barf machines. So when, early one Sunday morning, Puffy Socks refused his breakfast and vomited, I thought nothing of it. I rubbed some hairball medicine on his paw, earning as dirty a look as any cat owner can be awarded.

But he stopped eating, and, more frighteningly, stopped drinking.

I had encountered this sort of problem before. A nauseated cat will not eat or drink, but failure to stay hydrated can kill the animal quickly.

So I forced water into my poor sick little guy, dropper by dropperful. I tempted him with fresh, cold bottled water poured into a tumbler—don’t ask me why, but cats often prefer drinking from a tall tumbler rather than stooping to drink from a water dish. But Puff grew worse, and finally desperation found me packing him into his carrier at 4:30 in the morning and racing down the road to an emergency veterinary office.

Hundreds of dollars later, all I knew was that he was a very sick animal. He had been hydrated, given anti-nausea meds, prodded and poked and X-rayed. I learned only that Puff, once a feral, had suffered a broken leg at some point, and that he had only one functioning kidney—bad news for a cat who had stopped willingly drinking water.

More trips to my regular veterinary practice followed, with very little change in either his illness or a diagnosis. When I refused an unaffordable CT scan, the veterinarian—the one I didn’t like at the practice, since the vet I usually saw was off work—washed her hands of us. She warned me that Puff probably would not last the month, but refused to even prescribe pain meds, so that my poor little cat would at least not be miserable.

The next night, holding my sick pet cuddled on my shoulder, I stroked him and told him what I thought he needed to hear: “It’s okay if you want to go, sweetie. Mommy will miss you. But you don’t have to stay. You can go if you want to.”

And then came the moment which you may choose not to believe. For, as clearly as if he had spoken the words aloud into my ear, I heard him answer, “I want to stay.”

I could have doubted the reality of what I had just experienced. I could have told myself that I had experienced an auditory hallucination. But I did not. Instead, I took a deep, shuddering breath, hugged his little orange-furred self closer, and answered, “Okay, Big Boy. If that’s what you want, we’re going to do everything we can so you can stay with me.”

I won’t pretend that suddenly everything turned around; that Puff abruptly began to heal; that the despicable vet relented on his treatment; that we didn’t experience more episodes of terrible illness; that I didn’t rack up nearly $2,000 in bills, or make another rushed trip to an emergency office. But from that moment on, both my little cat and I were working toward a different goal: not to let him leave, easily, but to get him better.

A Reiki master for several years, I did not practice the art much, but I had never used it as regularly as I did now on my sick little cat. It didn’t seem to be making much difference, but…Reiki goes where it’s needed, my own Reiki Master Teacher had instructed me. So on Easter afternoon, driving home from my Dad’s house, I suddenly, urgently, knew that I must stop at the nearby pet store. I walked back to the cat food aisle, wondering if I could find a food that would not cause my little cat nausea.

And I did.

Within a few weeks, the cat whom I had been told would be gone in a month or less was recovering.

IMG_20210817_164546593_HDR

He ate without vomiting; gained some weight; began to sun himself and scratch evilly at my carpet once more. He was definitely not as robust and strong as he had once been, but he was no longer at death’s door.

Reiki goes where it’s needed. My little cat needed a food he could digest. I needed to find that food.

My preferred veterinarian returned to work and prescribed medications that I could keep on hand for any return bouts of Puff’s still-undiagnosed illness, warning me that it could recur at any time. I accepted that I might not have this sweet animal’s company for a long lifetime. But I knew now just how strong our bond was, and how much I would do to help him—and how much he wanted to be with me.

It’s been a year now since I was told that my big orange boy hadn’t long to live. It’s not all been smooth sailing, but he is still here; still eating his special food, still scratching my carpet, still cuddling on my shoulder to purr; still kissing the faces of favored friends.

The Cat Who Wanted to Stay is still part of my life. Every day I have with him is a gift. And for that I am unimaginably grateful.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “The Cat Who Thinks He is a Dog”, which you can locate in the Archives, below, dated June 15, 2018.

Customer Service, Act III

Small businesses, take note!

In January, my son-in-law (unvaccinated) and daughter (vaccinated and boosted) contracted Covid-19. Amazingly, I did not come down with the disease; neither did my three-year-old granddaughter. Which is how I, at the age of not-quite-68, came to be quarantined with said three-year-old granddaughter for nearly a week.

And remained sane. Both of us. Imagine that.

It wasn’t easy. At one point, my darling grandchild glared at me, remarking pointedly, “Too many sleepovers!” I agreed, especially as she was the only one actually getting any sleep. I haven’t yet figured out how a child that small could expand to fill two-thirds of a queen-size bed. Add my cats, and make that three-quarters. At one point, I slid right off to hit the floor—hard. Then came the evening that I found myself holding her close to apologize when I’d snapped at her. She’d burst into tears. “You’re making me sad,” she told me between sobs. I tried to comfort her, apologizing over and over; telling her that I was mean and grumpy and she didn’t deserve to be snarled at. “What can I do to make it better?” I asked, and she responded, “We could kiss,” suiting action to her words before hopping off my lap, happy as pie.

What kept the two of us from total nuclear meltdown was her fascination with her newest toys, a dollhouse and an antique babydoll crib inherited from her mother’s own childhood. These, along with a package of dollar shop surprises left on our doorstep by a thoughtful relative, prevented implosion.

Happily (or not, as you will see), days before quarantine descended upon us I’d ordered numerous accessories from various sellers for the dollhouse. A few of them arrived while we were in seclusion, adding new interest to her toy and staving off boredom. Others were due soon, I assured her.

Or were they? I watched my e-mail almost hourly, searching for a shipping notice that did not appear.

Now, in the era of online shopping, we’re all pretty familiar with shipping notifications. Notification in one to two days, superb service. Three days, good. Four days, average. Five to six days, a little slow. Seven to eight days, worrisome. Is the item out of stock? Nine to ten days… Hmmm. The shipper should really provide reassurance: “We value your business. We’ll ship your order soon”. Eleven to twelve days, well, the buyer almost certainly believes that they’re about to be billed for an item that will never arrive.

Day 10 rolled around. I emailed the supplier, a shop specializing in dollhouse accoutrements, explaining that I hadn’t received a shipping notice and asking simply, “Is there a problem?”

Receiving no response to my query, on Day 12 I emailed again, noting that I’d received neither a shipping notice nor a reply to my question. My card had already been charged, I said; my bill was due soon. If it happened that I did not receive the items, I would have to dispute the charge on my credit card bill.

That earned me a reply! The supplier canceled my order.

Dismayed and irritated, I responded that I hadn’t asked that my order be canceled; I just wanted to know when/if my items would ship! The reply I received sent my head spinning off my shoulders. Referring to one of my recent blog posts (Same Argument, Different Decade), which the supplier had apparently read after seeing the link below my signature on my querying email, the seller now quoted me, repeating, “Words have power”, and sniping that I should not threaten a credit dispute for unshipped merchandise.

Say what?! This woman had managed to read my blog post, yet could not be bothered to respond to my email. She took the time to peruse an 900-word essay, but couldn’t press “Reply” to send a 12-word email: “Sorry for the shipping delay. We value your business. Please be patient.” Then, to plop the cherry on the cake of dreadful customer service, she had the consummate gall to fling my own words back at me, blaming me for cancellation of the order that I had not asked to have canceled.

The seller closed her correspondence with a hypocritical, “Have a blessed day.”

While it’s unlikely she genuinely intended those four final words, my grandchild and I were, nevertheless, blessed, as several friends located and sent us (from other sellers) almost every accessory from the canceled order. And though the items did not arrive in time to alleviate the stress and sadness of a three-year-old child quarantined from her parents, they came with the most important factor: love.

Only a few days later, I had reason to compare this customer service debacle to another failed purchase. I’d ordered a hard-to-find metal polish, which shipped quickly, but didn’t arrive. When I queried the supplier, I received a prompt, shamefaced and abject apology: He’d sent my product to the address of another customer. As a small seller needing the business, he told me, he’d like to replace my order, but the polish wasn’t in stock; he could not promise timely replacement. Would I like a refund?

Within two days, my money had been refunded. Although I was dismayed to not receive the product, I was pleased with the seller’s honesty and businesslike conduct. When the polish is available again, I’ll probably choose his small business when I place my order.

That’s how true customer service is done, les enfants.

Little dollhouse companies in a big Western state, take note!

If you enjoyed this post, there are several others you might like. Same Argument, Different Decade just appeared on January 19. Customer Service, or Not is from March 10, 2018, and We Look Forward to Your Apology was published April 14, 2021. All can be located using the Archives, below. Oh, and do be sure to send me a question through the Comments if you would like to know which dollhouse shop to NOT make a purchase from!

Crinkles

This all came to mind when I dropped my cell phone into the bathwater.

I am old enough that I can recall a time when drugs that are today either banned or at least strongly regulated were sold over the counter. As a child, I clearly remember my parents dispensing paregoric (a type of opium) mixed with kaolin clay to treat diarrhea—one of the more horrific tastes one can experience in a lifetime, I assure you. It was almost better to endure the diarrhea. The cough mixture we kids were given was a sugary syrup compounded with cherry bark extract, alcohol, and codeine. (That was absolutely delicious, by the way.) I know modern parents will shudder upon reading about these treatments. I shuddered myself as a young parent, treating my child’s illnesses while recalling what I’d been given. Nevertheless, the mixtures were once common; everyone used them.

But while I clearly recall the taste and texture of the medicines, I also have a faint memory of the bottles from which they were dispensed—bottles that did not have, as those today do, labels adhering to the plastic (or what would then have been glass). No, those old bottles had paper labels attached to the bottle with just a dot of glue here and there on the front and back. But the most significant feature of those old-fashioned labels was that the sides of the paper were crinkled. Corrugated folds and creases marched up and down the edges of the labels where one grasped the bottle. And these crinkles served a purpose—a dual purpose, actually. If one picked up the bottle in darkness, feeling creases beneath one’s fingers alerted the user to the fact that the contents were poisonous. Take too much paregoric, or too large a dose of codeine, and sickness, if not death, would be the result. The corrugated sides also served a second practical function; they provided a grip. It was much harder to drop the bottle and spill a dangerous substance if the label provided a firm grasp.

This all came to mind the other day when I dropped my cell phone into my little granddaughter’s bathwater. Oh, SHIT! I retrieved it quickly enough that no damage was done, yet it struck me immediately that, had the sides of the case been wavy, there would have been far less chance of this accident. Like those old poison bottle labels, a few crinkles could have averted disaster. That led me to think about the bath scrubby that was so often the bane of my existence as I tried, and failed, to find the little ribbon to hang it up after using it. That stupid little ribbon was always the same color as the nylon net scrubby itself, and, standing there, cold, naked and with dripping hair pouring water into my eyes, I could never find the darned thing. Often after fighting and failing to locate the ribbon, I just furiously tossed the scrubby down into the tub rather than hanging it up to dry. If the stupid ribbon had just been a contrasting or darker color, I could have located it immediately and hung the thing up properly.

Extrapolating from this, I considered how many times I’d dropped the blasted shampoo or conditioner or bodywash bottles because the sides, slippery with water and product, were impossible to hold. The bottles slid right through my fingers and crashed to the bottom of the tub, usually on my toes, and usually when the bottle was still mostly full and heavy. Oww-Oww-Ouch! Extremely bad words deleted, ouch! Just a few wavy crinkles would have solved the problem and saved my cringing feet from yet another onslaught.

Ditto the olive oil bottles. I don’t even want to think about the 2018 Olive Oil Disaster on the Freshly Mopped Floor. I was cleaning up that mess for days and days and DAYS. Not to mention what I found when I did the annual “stop pretending like you don’t know it’s there and pull that bottom drawer out from beneath the oven” cleaning.

Contemplating all this, though, it struck me to wonder why we tend to think of every idea, every concept, from previous generations as “old fashioned” notions that can have absolutely no modern relevance. I’m certain contemporary manufacturers, who spend a fortune on designing products for eye appeal, would never even consider a bottle that did not have a sleek, up-to-date appearance. Not for them a papery label with corrugated sides to provide a grip and alert one that the contents could, if misused, be dangerous. How unattractive a bottle, meant to be used in a wet environment, with wavy indentations that made it easy to hold. How ugly to string a black ribbon on the pale pink scrubby so that it would be easy to spot. How foolish to make a sleek cell phone with ridged and grooved grips.

How old-fashioned.

How sensible.

We could all just use a few more crinkles.

Liked this essay? Then you might also enjoy ” ‘New and Improved’ Just Isn’t”, which you can locate in the Archives, below, from March 25, 2020.

Acknowledgement and Thanks

People deserve to be thanked.

I wrote the thank-you notes following the funerals of each of my parents. In Mom’s case, I wrote them knowing that my Dad would almost certainly fail to do so, and that, even if he did, his handwriting was so execrable that no one would have been able to read them, anyway. But writing letters of appreciation for flowers and contributions was just one more small responsibility I could take from his bowed shoulders.

Eleven years later, on a rainy December afternoon, I wrote similar courteous messages to those who sent contributions and flowers in Dad’s memory. Penning the notes carefully in my clearest handwriting, trying over and over to achieve a slightly different manner of saying the same thing, I attempted to express that the cards, the flowers, the contributions, someone’s presence—all were appreciated. They helped. They proved to us that Dad was loved, thought of well; that his life meant something; that he would be missed. For two and a half hours I wrote; addressing and stamping and sealing envelopes, and finally delivering them to the post office. I found the action healing. It put a period to the long sentence of my Dad’s failing health, and to the difficulties and resentments one experiences as a caretaker, and that had been such a shock to my consciousness.

But that afternoon also made me think: think of the times that I, and others, had not received either acknowledgement or thanks in similar situations. I recalled one funeral in particular, that of Cathy, who had been a member of my “Monday Night Group”, a discussion and meditation forum that I’ve attended for years. I wrote a bit about Cathy’s passing in an earlier blog post (Cathy’s Roses, July 24, 2018). Her death in a car accident was shocking, devastating all of us who knew her. Cathy, who was energetic and dynamic, riding her bike everywhere. Cathy, who in her 70s had hooted off to Nepal one summer and provided massage therapy to a Sherpa’s wife; who trotted off to Mexico to have extensive dental work done on the cheap. Cathy, who said, “If you stop moving, you’re dead”—and then ended up on life support after the accident, life support that was discontinued when there was no hope. Cathy, lively, vigorous, and often tactless, who took in waifs and strays and gave them a place to live. It seemed impossible that she was gone.

Her family arranged a memorial service outdoors in a park on a stiflingly hot day in July, and many of us from the group attended. There, hearing from them about the time that she had planted 6,000 trees in a single season to help the environment, we of the Monday night group discovered the perfect way to memorialize our companion: we anted up funds to have several trees planted in her memory in a National Forest. Meanwhile, I personally, speaking with Cathy’s daughter, mentioned an incident that had occurred following her mother’s passing—a surprising occurrence that, her daughter agreed, could only have been her mother’s spirit, reaching out. I explained that I planned to memorialize her mother in a blog post, and promised to send her a hard copy once it was published. I also promised to send her Cathy’s Talking Stick—a branch, decorated with charms representing the deceased, that would be passed from person to person as we group members spoke a few words about her in our private memorial ceremony. The post soon appeared on this blog, and I duly sent Cathy’s daughter the promised copy; her mother’s Talking Stick was dispatched to her, also.

Months later, though, all of us, comparing notes, realized that no one had received any thanks. The group’s gift of trees in Cathy’s memory went unacknowledged; I’d received no response at all to the article in her mother’s remembrance, or the Talking Stick.

Sighing, we all agreed that receiving recognition was not why we had made the effort. We’d given our time and money and actions to honor Cathy, not to be thanked.

But now, having for the second time spent an afternoon writing appreciatively to those who acknowledged the life and passing of a parent, I believe that outlook is wrong. Granted, those who have lost a loved one (and, after two years of Covid, they number in the hundreds of thousands, and we are all, every one of us, weary of loss) are often numb, in shock, and painfully unable to fulfill societal expectations of courtesy and etiquette. Nevertheless, as I found, making such an effort is, in the end, healing. It benefits the one expressing thanks even more than the recipient. And, given that people grieve differently, while it need not be done immediately following the passing of a loved one, it does, after all, need to be done. People—friends, family members—deserve to be thanked. They are entitled to acknowledgement of their efforts to care for the bereaved in their time of sorrow.

Three years following Cathy’s passing, it’s safe to assume that such acknowledgement will never be made. And that is a travesty that can never now be remedied.

If you would like to know more about the Talking Stick ceremony, you can read, “Another Talking Stick”, which you can locate in the Archives dated December 10, 2017.

For Good (The Dollhouse)

Good heavens! Five hundred dollars? Should I even allow a 3-year-old to play with it?!

A few weeks ago, cleaning out the attic at my late father’s home, my brother brought down two items from my daughter’s childhood: a nearly 100-year-old babydoll crib that had been passed down for several generations, and a dollhouse.

I knew the crib was quite valuable as an antique toy, but I also knew it was the perfect time for it to be given to my little granddaughter, who at age 3 was a wonderful “dolly Mommy”. She would be delighted by it. My mother, I, and my daughter had each played with that doll crib. It had, as I had always heard the tale, been a used toy donated to a collection effort organized by a local fire department during the Depression. Cleaned and restored by the firefighters, it became my own mother’s childhood Christmas present. When she’d passed it on to me, she’d pieced a small quilt for it, which also still survived. There was no question but that the doll crib, valuable antique or not, would be given to my granddaughter to play with.

I was even more thrilled by the dollhouse. I’d spent far too much money on it when I bought it for my daughter in 1993; it was a true gem. She’d loved it and taken such good care of it that nearly all the miniature pieces remained intact, even to the tiny blankets that I’d crocheted for the little beds and cribs.

So I brought both toys home and began the arduous process of cleaning them up. They were filthy with dust and insulation from their 25 years of storage in the attic, and (though I’d certainly never seen a rodent in my Dad’s house) smelled faintly of mouse. I washed and wiped and disinfected, and used up an entire package of cotton swabs cleaning tiny nooks and crannies. My efforts paid off; cleaned and restored, the toys looked wonderful.

I knew that this type of dollhouse was no longer manufactured. Large and well-made of heavy plastic, with intricate accessories, the cost of such a toy all these years later would have become prohibitive. But I began to research the dollhouse on resale sites, hoping to find a few more accessories to add to it. That’s when I received my mild shock.

A complete set, dollhouse, two families of dolls (Caucasian and Asian) and virtually every one of the tiny accessories, was worth at least $350, and probably closer to $500. For each of those 25 years that the dollhouse had waited there in the attic, accumulating dust, it had been gaining in value.

Good heavens! Five hundred dollars? Should I even allow a 3-year-old to play with it?!

Of course I should. After all, what good was a toy sitting untouched, unloved? If she broke it, lost the pieces, then Rah-Shar*! So be it. It had been her mother’s toy. It was now hers.

My decision was totally vindicated when, arriving at my home, the little one approached the dollhouse slowly, not quite believing her eyes. Then she knelt before it, her breath exhaling on a long, slow expiration of wonder and delight: “Aaaahhhh!” IMG_20220209_115630804_1pWithin moments, she dived in like a swimmer into deep water and began to play, surfacing for air only occasionally. The whole day went to hell in a handbasket as far as normal activities–getting dressed or combing hair, brushing teeth or taking a nap, or even eating meals–was concerned. Darting between the doll crib and the dollhouse, she played, and played, and PLAYED. Later she would tell her mother, “We didn’t have the TV on all day!”

In the afternoon, when a friend arrived to visit, she provided a “tour” of every accessory, doll, and feature of the dollhouse. Together we called her mother to say, “Did you know this thing has a doorbell?” (No, she didn’t.) When Mom arrived to pick her up, she repeated her service as a tour guide to the astounding wonders of the dollhouse.

Watching them—her mother grinning, the little child carefully displaying every marvelous feature of her new toy, I suddenly remembered something I’d written and posted to this blog nearly five years earlier, in an essay titled, “Saving Things for Good” (November 9, 2017). I’d been speaking about regularly using my fine china and crystal, regardless of the fact that I might break the lovely pieces, “…taking pleasure in them, because no matter how precious they may be, they are valuable only if they are appreciated”.

Like the beloved toys of the well-known movies, the dollhouse, awakening from its long sleep in the attic, had gained new life under the loving hands of a delighted child. Its worth lay not in its assessed monetary valuation, but in the joy it gave; was giving.

As I had written all those years earlier and now remembered: “Hoard nothing. Treasure everything. And save nothing “for good”, for our good is right now.”

You can find the post “Saving Things for Good” in the Archives. *You can also read more about the exclamation “Rah-Shar!” in the re-published post by that name from January 5, 2022.

Ghost Kitty Walks…

If you don’t believe, I don’t expect this essay to convince you.

On the night my father died, the ghost of my dead cat came to comfort me.

If you don’t believe in survival, or spirits, I know that sentence will have you rolling your eyes, or even laughing derisively. To me, however, it is simple, verifiable fact; undeniable personal experience. Bella, who was always my comfort cat—“The more you pet me, the better you’ll feel”–came to care for me as I grieved, reminding me that her continued existence proved that my father, too, survived.

My brother had called me with the sad news at about 9:30 that Sunday night. I was shocked; we’d been preparing to initiate hospice care for our Dad the very next day. I’d anticipated more time—weeks, at least, maybe months. But Dad had, after chatting amiably with the aide at his assisted living facility, indicated that he was going to go to sleep. Twenty minutes later, that same aide found him gone.

A relative who had also been involved in Dad’s care hurried to my home to spend the night. I was indescribably grateful for her presence: grief shared is grief halved. Finally, around midnight, we went to our beds. I did not anticipate sleeping much, if at all, but I turned out the light and pulled the covers up, sliding onto my left side as I usually do when preparing for sleep.

Now, I’m well acquainted with that “almost like being touched” feeling when the bedcovers, pulled just so over one’s back, move eerily, usually in sequence with one’s breathing. It’s a familiar, if unnerving experience. But it is distinct from the feeling (well-known to any cat owner) of a cat who, wanting attention, begins to pick at the blankets: “Pet me!” Since Bella’s passing only one of my three cats, Zoe, was in this habit—and I really preferred it to her other habit, that of getting in my face and howling like a lost soul crying to Heaven from the Gates of Hell! So when the “pick-pick-pick” began, I wearily reached my hand backwards toward the small of my back to stroke Zoe and get her to stop.

My hand touched nothing. There was no cat there. I reached further around, all over that side of the bed, in fact, but could not find her. Puzzled, I sat up and switched on the light.

There were no cats in the room. The bedside lamp cast its light into the hallway, also. None of my cats were in the hall.

And then I understood.

“Bella,” I said quietly, “Mommy’s okay. She’s sad, but she’s okay. But thank you for taking care of me.”

Then, turning out the light, I slid back beneath the blankets and, surprisingly, slept for an hour. Waking, though, I knew sleep would not easily return. So I plumped the pillows and turned onto my back, staring at a ceiling faintly illuminated by ambient light seeping through the curtains from the distant interstate highway.

And then I felt it again. Impossibly (because my bed has an iron bedstead against which my pillow and head butted up, leaving only a smidgen of room, certainly not enough for a four-legged animal to stand), I felt it: “pushy paws” kneading the top of my head, rustling through my hair. As if a full-grown cat, perched in a spot not large enough for a newborn kitten, was kneading against my scalp. Wide awake, I lay there, feeling that comforting, uncanny massage for several minutes, before, once again, reaching up a hand to touch…nothingness. No kitty. No kneading paws. Only the cold iron headboard and the top of my pillow.

And I smiled again. “Bella,” I whispered again, “it’s okay. Mommy’s going to be all right. But thank you for taking such good care of me.”

In the difficult days and nights that followed—making arrangements for my father’s funeral; going to his assisted living facility to pack and remove his things; and lying, wakeful, night after night, I wondered if my best beloved, lost little cat would come to me again. But she, having done her job and done it well, did not return, instead going on to whatever busied her there in Bubastis, the great citadel of the cats in the Egyptian afterlife of Amenti, where she was worshipped and adored.

As I say, for anyone who does not believe, this epistle will be something to mock; to laugh at long and scornfully. But for me, just as on the night my grandmother died and came, impossibly, to surround me with love in a space and at a time when no one could have been there—to me, it was just one more brick on the wall of proof that we do, indeed, go on; that we continue; and that love will not, does not, could not ever die.

The title of this essay is drawn from an earlier post, the poem “Ghost Kitty Walks”, October 30, 2017, about the little ghost cat who has always lived in my home, and with whom all my other cats play. You can find that post in the archives.

Home Economics

“Not a Domestic Goddess!”

I was re-reading a favorite childhood book a while ago, and came to a section describing two little girls being taught to sew, not by their mothers or grandmothers, but in elementary school. The passage made me grin wryly. Taught to sew. In elementary in school. Imagine that.

Now, I was taught to sew, and to embroider, by my mother, who was a master at both arts. Although I never achieved her degree of skill, I got pretty good at both. Later, my grandmother taught me to crochet, and until carpal tunnel took over, I enjoyed all three domestic arts. As a young woman, I actually sewed an entire full-length barred muslin gown by hand, without a machine, and a plaid jumpsuit, as well. The medallion lace which trimmed the entire border of my six foot wedding veil was added laboriously, stitch by stitch, by hand. For years I crocheted endless afghans and baby blankets; my daughter still uses the Christmas tree skirt I crocheted in my 20s.

Despite this fact, though, I never learned any of this—not cooking, cleaning, budgeting, marketing, nor, in fact, anything connected with keeping a household up and running–in school. In fact, I once shocked a fellow student at my high school by being unable to follow a teacher’s directions to take some materials up to a certain room in our vast and sprawling building complex. “Go up toward the home ec rooms,” the teacher’s directions began, and I had to stop her immediately. “I don’t know where the home ec rooms are,” I interrupted. The female student standing beside her was flabbergasted. “You don’t know where the home ec rooms are?!” she exclaimed. I noticed a slight, odd smile on the teacher’s face as I snapped back, “No, because I never took home ec! I learned at home.”

The subject, on which I was now a little testy, arose again a week or so before graduation, when I went to the school office to determine my class standing (in the top ten percent of my enormous graduating class, as it happened). The counselor, smiling, gave me my number—I think it was 72—saying, “Well, you’re right up there, aren’t you?” Standing next to him, the popular, pretty, smug student office volunteer, snapped, “I’m ahead of her!” The counselor started to murmur something about how to praise one was not to belittle another, when I, in a rare burst of outraged courage, stood up to the Mean Girl. “Yeah, but my score is based on real classes, not four years of home economics!” Then I blushed and darted away. Standing up for myself was too uncomfortably unfamiliar an experience.

However, I find it’s true that these things tend to skip a generation. The kindest thing one might call my daughter is “Not a Domestic Goddess” (and that’s just fine; at least she doesn’t suffer from my dreaded OCD house cleaning compulsion!) This despite the fact that she did endure a semester of home economics while in middle school, learning helpful skills such as whipping up instant banana pudding. (She also suffered through a semester of shop class, which was equally calamitous. But I digress.)

Home ec class was, for my beloved offspring, one disaster after another. Instant banana pudding was, in fact, just about her only success. She failed at sewing on buttons; the bobbin popped out of the case when she tried to insert it in the machine and rolled wildly across the classroom floor, unwinding as it went. She loathed the teacher (see “Teachers Good and Bad, Part 1”, January 22, 2018) and the feeling was mutual.

The breaking point came when she, enduring anguish over my divorce from her father, desperately needed help. Her guidance counselor suggested that a new group counseling program the school had established might be valuable to my child; the only catch being that she would have to miss some of her home ec classes in order to attend counseling sessions. Considering this to be a blessing, not a problem, I readily agreed.

The counseling sessions began to make an immediate difference to my daughter’s emotional health (and launched her on her eventual career as a mental health counselor), but also an immediate difference in her already pathetic performance in home ec class. Finally, the Teacher From Hell cornered her one afternoon, telling her, “I don’t know what it is you’re going through, but if you keep missing classes for counseling, you’re not going to pass.”

Daughter, wrathful and devastated, came home and reported TFH’s remarks to me.

But 28 years had passed since the day when I, confronted by Mean Girl in the school counseling office, blushed and hurried away from my rare burst of self defense. I was on the phone immediately with the school counselor, reporting TFH’s remarks to my suffering child. “If there is any class I care nothing about her passing, it would be home ec!” I stormed, and the school counselor agreed.

My child continued with her group counseling, and still somehow managed to pass home ec, slipping through by the skin of her teeth, but making it nonetheless.

Anyway, all this came back to me as I reread my favorite childhood book the other day. I smiled to myself, knowing that home economics classes have gone, are going, the way of the Dodo. And that, I feel quite sure, is a very, very good thing.

I described that favorite childhood book in the blog post “Miss Happiness and Miss Flower”, published April 22, 2020. If you’d like to read it, you can locate it in the Archives, below.

The Christmas Card Pail

Slowly, almost reverently, I remove the old cards and begin to reread them.

Shortly after taking down my Christmas tree and decorations, I start on my “First of Year Clean Out”. This event is separate and distinct from my spring cleaning, although a similar form of madness. But instead of attacking all the textiles—laundering curtains and pillows, blankets and throw rugs and quilts—and vacuuming, mopping and dusting little used or seen nooks and crannies and knick-knacks—I attack paperwork. Rustling through the file cabinet, I toss old receipts and outdated files. I shred and sort and reassemble hard copy paperwork. Sifting through computer files, I delete mounds of unnecessary junk. Finally, I remove the big blue, oval carnival glass bowl from my china cabinet; the bowl where I have stored every card and note received during the previous year. Riffling through it, I remove all the birthday, thank you, get well, or various other cards that I’ve stored there. I read through them once more, appreciating and enjoying their messages. Then I return only a select few, the most precious of these, to the bowl before dropping the rest into the waste paper basket—or, in these later years, the paper recycling bin.

CardBasket

But there is one group of cards which is never to be found in the carnival glass bowl: my Christmas cards. Far fewer these days, as rising postage costs deter sending cards, while quarantines, virus and lockdowns keep people from venturing out to purchase them, these cards, once read and enjoyed, are dropped into a winter white bucket festively painted and decorated. At the end of Yuletide, when I “take down the Christmas”, I never remove my cards from the pail. Instead, cards and all, the bucket goes into storage with all the other decorations, awaiting another Christmas season.

Months later, on a day soon after Thanksgiving, the card pail again sees the light of day. Extracting it from where it lies nestled in the tub of garland and stockings, I take a break from my decorating and curl into an armchair, the container in my hands. Then, slowly, almost reverently, I remove the old cards and begin to reread them. Each is opened appreciatively as I scan handwritten messages and look at now-year-old enclosed family photos. Sometimes I re-read a letter included with the card, marveling at how much, and how little, has changed in the passing eleven months.

And often, I cry. For there, huddled within the standard, jolly or religious holiday greetings, lurks nostalgia and a touch of old pain: the card, cards, from those who have passed away during the intervening year. I open the pressboard to find and touch the loops and curves of their signatures, once familiar, now never to be seen again.

One year, tears slipping down the curve of my face, I reread the letter, sent by surviving family members, describing the last weeks of a friend’s life. Denied (if he left the area of his medical service network) the dialysis he needed to survive, he went on one last vacation anyway, travelling to Hawaii for a few weeks. There he spent his final days in lush and gorgeous surroundings before returning home to close his eyes and die. I’d read this information in shock and dismay the year prior; this time I read it in renewed sadness, once more saying goodbye to a good and kind man.

In 2021, as I scanned the cards, I found included a host of pet sympathy cards, sent to comfort me for the loss of my best little cat just before the prior Christmas. Bittersweet reminders of my sweet, mink-furred Bella hid there amongst the holiday greetings, drawing yet another sigh and a tear or two from the depths of my heart. I opened, too, the last Christmas card my father would ever send me—a simple card, probably a freebie received from one of the charities he supported. “Dad and Lucy Cat” he had signed it—the very Lucy cat whom I and other family members had spent six months looking after, as he slipped from hospital to care facility to death.

This November, should I be here to do so, I will lift the card pail out from its nest of garland and stockings and, carrying it to the armchair, extract all the condolence cards sent to comfort me for the loss of my father during the 2021 holiday season. I will mourn his passing once more, and then laugh a little, remembering how very much my Dad hated Christmas! I will recall how, bringing a tiny decorated tree to him at his care facility, I was berated and scolded and told to “Get that thing the hell out of here!” I’ll laugh one final time, shaking my head and rolling my eyes, remembering his Scroogism.

And then I will place them all, holiday greetings and expressions of sympathy, into the recycling bin, and, returning to my Christmas decorating, move on.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Taking Down the Christmas”, which you can locate in the Archives, below, from January 3, 2018.

Aging Prayer

If I live long enough….

I’ve worn glasses or contacts most of my life, having gotten my first pair while in the fourth grade. Ugly things, glasses, and I never liked them, but (having needed eye correction long before my parents conceded the fact and took me to an optometrist), I liked even less being sniped at by my teacher, a nun at the Catholic grade school which I attended. When I begged her to move my desk further to the front, explaining, “Sister, I can’t see!”, she berated me, snarling “It’s not my fault that your parents won’t take care of your eyes!” (I’m quite sure that Sister-Whatever-Her-Name-Was firmly believed in the Roman Catholic church’s doctrine of Purgatory. Well, in her case, I really hope that place of torment does, in fact, exist, and that Nameless Nun earned at least extra decade or so there for her bitchy retort to an innocent child.)

Whether Nasty Nun is suffering in Purgatory or not, I, not being a candidate for laser surgery due to an old eye injury, have worn my glasses or contact lenses without complaint through all the decades since. And now, realizing that my hearing is beginning to diminish (yep, I have to turn on the subtitles when I’m watching TV, and not just when I’m watching British shows!), I’m preparing to get an audio exam and invest in an OTC hearing aid, which I will also wear without complaint. I do not want to miss a single whisper from the lips of my beloved little grandchild.

Which begs the question: Why do so many elderly people simply refuse to wear hearing aids? The jokes abound between all of us afflicted by an elderly family member who (despite having worn glasses throughout all the years of their own lives) simply will not put in a hearing aid. Instead, these old quirks snarl, “Speak up!”—and, when one does just that, snarl again, “Don’t yell!”

Please God—don’t let this ever be me! Don’t let me be the person demanding, “Look directly at me when you speak!” Let me just put the damned hearing aid in my ear, and smile, and converse pleasantly with people. And, when I occasionally still can’t hear, let me remember to say politely, “I’m so sorry; I missed that. Can you repeat it?”

Now, I haven’t yet reached that stage where my thinning layers of skin and disappearing subcutaneous fat layer (oh! for some disappearing fat!) render me more susceptible to feeling the cold. I still prefer chilly or even cold weather to hot, humid heat. But this will change, and I know that day is probably just around the corner. So when it does arrive, when I am finally feeling cold all the time, please God, please Goddess! Let me recall that my guests’ comfort supersedes my own. Let me remember that I can put on extra layers of clothing, but my guests can’t take off their own epidermis!

Never in my lifetime, not even in childhood, have I known what it is to sleep well. A pattern of waking at night and being unable to sleep again easily has always been my bane, and, as I age, is growing distinctly worse. But, please Heaven, please—let me never begin whining about this difficulty. Let my attitude for the whole day not be predicated upon how well, or not, I slept. When, after a particularly bad night, I am asked how I feel, let me just smile and say cheerfully, “Hey, I’m still topside, so I can’t complain, right?” Or, if I can’t be that jovial, let me at least have the grace to admit, “Well, I slept poorly, so I’m grouchy—but then, I’m retired, so I can take a nap, right?” Please, please, let me acknowledge the silver lining!

And, above all, let me not become the elderly person who conflates age with entitlement; who feels that the younger people in one’s orbit must serve and attend and assist and oblige, totally without acknowledgment of their service or sacrifice. Simply put, let me never forget the lessons of courtesy that I imbibed in earliest childhood: the “Two Little Magic Words”, please and thank you. Let me proclaim those words (and all the attendant phrases) with regularity: Would You, I’d Appreciate It If, That’s So Kind of You, I’m Grateful. Let me say, and mean, the words, “I appreciate that you’ve taken this time out of your day. I know your life is busy. It’s good of you.”

And, if it should happen that I do not, when (if) the time comes, remember these prayers; if I should, despite my plans and supplications, become the worst version of myself, then, please, all gods and goddesses and heavenly beings who look over such matters, give someone the strength to hand me this essay and say, “Read this!” Let me put on those ugly glasses and read, as those mean nuns taught me, carefully and with comprehension. Let me read, and then practice everything within this instruction manual for being aged yet not entitled; friendly, smiling; likeable, even lovable, and, most of all, beloved.

Usually at this point, I refer you to an earlier post that you might enjoy. However, this time, let me just say that this essay was inspired by my Dad, who passed away 12/12/21. However much I loved him, he was everything that I mention here. He drove me–all of us–completely nuts! And I miss him.