Monday, April 22, 2013

Beanie's Beantown Finale

You can't get a new pet to take the place of one that you've lost any more than you can replace your very first car or your favorite threadbare sweatshirt.  Each one has its own personality, feel, and relationship with you.  But that's what I was trying to do when my much loved black and white tuxedo cat, Sam, died just months before my father, in 1997.

I found Sam during a visit to my parents' house after I moved out, when I heard what sounded like a human baby crying near the shed in the back of the property.  "You tak-a da kitty home," the Italian woman who lived next door yelled over to me.  So I did.  From the beginning, Sam made it a habit to crawl up onto my chest while I was lying on my back, positioning herself to stare into my eyes as I read.  After months of this, I finally put down my book and stared back. "What is it?" I asked her. "Are you my grandmother, Florence?"   She slept draped over my head, with her paw on my hand.  Maybe she was my grandmother.  I don't know how old she was when I got her, but I had her for nineteen years.

My mother could never stand to see any of her family in pain, and was eager to help me find a replacement for my irreplaceable cat.  Just weeks after Sam's death, she learned that her cousin had a new litter of kittens, some of them black and white.  We pulled into the driveway of their house in the Lakeview area of Waltham and I met my mother's cousin and his family for maybe the second time in my life.  In the corner of the living room was a basket full of kittens, snuggled up and piled on top of one another inside an old comfy sweater. I reached down inside this basket full of kitties - black and whites, grays, and multi colored, and pulled up the one at the very bottom, a funny looking black and white fluffball with long whiskers on her tiny face that curled inward and met at her nose like the unopened petals of a black-eyed Susan.  To be honest, she looked like a tiny Gremlin, and her nasty hissing as I lifted her from the comfort of her litter mates made her seem more so.  I glanced sideways at a sleek and gentle gray kitten with an admittedly cuter face, but for some reason I still don't understand, I chose the gremlin.  At home we named her Bean for two reasons - she had brown oval paw pads, and she tended to pop straight up from standing like a Mexican jumping bean.

I won't lie and say she had a friendly personality.  In fact, our dog Roxy, who joined us when Beanie was six,  learned quickly to walk a wide berth around her after just one warning scratch to her nose. Many of our friends and family had other nicknames for her:  Mean Bean, Mean Kitty, and That Nasty Cat.  True, she attacked us and bit down on our hands til they bled if we didn't understand her request, but we saw her sweeter side - the one she liked to hide from the rest of the world.  She was our Beanie girl, Beanie Baby, Bean Head. On the Sunday nights when we returned from a bi-monthly weekend in Maine, our tenants knew to let her out after dinner to wait for us.  Laura and I always joked as we neared our home about what we would see at the end of the driveway - little Beanie's face in our headlights, her wide mouth meowing soundlessly outside our car's closed windows as if we had left her for dead.  We hated leaving her, but she despised car rides and would have foamed at the mouth at the four hour trip to Maine, and the four hours back, so we compromised by not staying at our cottage for more than a long weekend, so that we could get home to her.

Just a month or two ago we noticed a small hard bump at the top of her head, but we didn't think too much about it because we were busy with other things.  My mother, Beanie's "finder," passed away in late March.  Just days after we buried her, I decided to follow through on a five-day work trip to Ireland, and when Laura and I returned home, Beanie was great for a day or two, crying for a drink from the bathroom faucet or waiting outside the shower stall for our game of throwing bowls of water onto the shower floor for her to lick up.

Although she didn't seem interested in chasing her plastic jingling balls down the hallway, she continued her habit of turning down our initial offering of cat food and treats until we spooned and scooped enough that she could pick from the smorgasbord laid out in front of her. But late on the second day we noticed the lump on her head had grown, and she had a reddened abscess on her back.  We treated it with hydrogen peroxide, which my mother always insisted could cure anything.  During the following days as her appetite diminished, I took a good look at her and found a lump on her neck, another under her throat, and several on her stomach.  We took her to our vet on a Thursday morning, and she confirmed that Beanie appeared to have a breast lump and other hard tumors that were most likely cancerous judging by the growth on her back. Laura and I quickly agreed that we would spend a couple good days with her and then let her go before she was in any pain.  She was still purring and grooming her gorgeous long black coat with a white ring around her neck which had earned her the temporary nickname "Ringo" early on. Her black and white rear legs resembled pirate boots, which added to her irascible personality.  She was still able to jump on and off the sofa and beds, but she was no longer crying outside our bedroom door in the middle of the night for a drink and extra attention, and only took water from the faucet when we lifted her onto the sink and held our wet fingers to her mouth. She seemed to have forgotten all of her familiar routines, including eating.  The sight of her treats in an untouched pile pulled at my heart.

Early Friday morning, I woke to purring.  Laura is allergic to cats, but the morning routine is this:  Laura gets out of bed an hour or so before I do, pulling up the sheets and comforter on her side of the bed and throwing decorative bedding over her sleeping pillows.  After Bean's second breakfast and third drink of water, she jumps on the bed to lay next to me, and all was well with the world when I opened my eyes and found her there, knowing Roxy would join us once she and Laura returned from their morning walk.  On this particular morning, Laura lifted her up onto the bed.   As I petted her, I was hit with the realization that this was her last full day with us, and I hated to go to work and leave her.  I whispered to Bean how much I enjoyed our mornings together and told her I would be home as early as possible to spend the night with her.  I was forcing myself to get up when Laura appeared at the side of the bed with a grave look on her face.

"Bevy," she said.  "It's been a nice quiet morning here at home, but I have to tell you something."

"Is someone hurt?"  I could feel blood flushing my face, and my heart was already racing. She had never learned to approach me in a different way, despite knowing how I jump to horrible conclusions with a sentence that begins this way.

She said, "A police officer at MIT was killed last night outside the Stata Center." That's where Noam and I work.  She went on to tell me it was suspected that the guys who shot him were connected to the horrific Boston Marathon bombing on Patriot's Day, the Monday before. And that wasn't all. Watertown, where we live, was under lock down, and we were all being asked to "shelter in place."

"Shelter in place?  What the hell does that mean?" I asked.  I understood what the words meant, but I didn't understand what was going on.  This day was supposed to be about Bean.  Laura told me that she had locked all of our doors, and our tenants had done the same.

"But why?  What's going on?" I asked, probably a little impatiently.

"There was a car chase after the shooting, and one of the two men was killed around the corner, at School and Mt. Auburn Streets. The other one sped off in the car, and then fled by foot, and they haven't been able to find him.  The men were shooting and throwing hand grenades from the car, and the police think the guy who got away might be wearing an explosive vest."

This was a hell of a way to be able to spend my cat's last day with her.  It felt like the world outside our home had fallen apart.  We soon found out that Jay had been up all night watching the news, and he had tried to call me and texted Laura around four in the morning to make sure we knew what was happening, and were safe.  The day had barely begun and it already offered more sorrow than we could contain. I was mourning the ending of our verbal and demanding little pal. I knew it would be difficult to focus on Bean, who had become an integral part of our family, while all of this hell was going on around us, but I was going to do my best to be with her during her last full day. I was also still mourning my mother, and it hit me hard once again that I couldn't commiserate with her about all that was happening, or be grateful with her that my son Jay, who was between the two blasts at the Marathon, had delayed walking to the finish line just before the blast.  Later in the day I thought about how I would have called to convince her that my nephew Erik was safe at the Arsenal Mall, where the police had taken him and others who were too far from home as a safety precaution while the second man - the younger brother of the one who was killed - was at large.

I had a difficult time prying myself away from the endlessly looping news stories, waiting for police officers from Watertown and surrounding cities to find some clues in their door-to-door searches, and tried to block out mental images of the bomber running through back yards to end up hiding in our basement.  I went downstairs and checked all of the locks, sick with dread and sadness.  Beanie was next to me on the sofa, and I followed her to the guest bed when she became restless, and laid next to her, covering her with a soft blanket, and singing the song I made up for her when she was first with us, never making it past the phrase, "Beanie, McQueenie, I'm so in love with you..."  When my tears fell onto the top of her head I smoothed them into her soft fur, and thought of the Catholic ritual of dipping ones fingers into holy water as I gently ran my moist index finger over the growing lump near her left ear.

As if things weren't difficult and stressful enough, Laura finally shared with me that earlier in the morning she had received a text telling her that her close friend in a nearby state was in trouble and needed to go to a hospital. It was all too much.  The universe seemed to be shaking itself up on our doorstep.  And speaking of shake ups, she received a text later in the afternoon that there was a tsunami warning in Hawaii, where her father lives.  Fortunately, we learned through a phone call to her father that the report was an exaggeration, and we found space to be grateful for that one break.

By the end of the day, the second brother was found in a back yard in our town, hiding in a covered boat, where he lay bleeding but alive.  He was taken into police custody, and by some miracle and the good, capable work of the police officers, nobody else was hurt in the process of his capture.

That evening and the next morning, Laura made phone calls on behalf of her sick friend, petting and sitting with Beanie when she could.  I told Beanie stories from her life, and listed her favorite sunny places, and told her what I would miss about her, like her wide-mouthed greetings every time we returned from Maine, and pulling up in the driveway and spotting her through the window on the back of her red living room chair where she waited for us to return from work every day.

My son Jay and his veterinarian friend Pat showed up just before 1 pm the next day, a Saturday.  Pat had his black bag with him, and I hugged him and called him the Grim Reaper.  After a sedative, some time together, and two shots, Beanie, stretched across our thighs, left us.  I cut some fur from her neck, where the white ring mixed with her soft black mane. I lifted her little body and folded her into the carrier and let Patrick take her away for cremation.

As I think about Beanie's last full day with us, I think how fitting it was.  It was mean, biting, and nasty.  But the love that  rose from it, and the community that bonded together in fear, relief and gratefulness, reflected the sweet, soft sides of the Beanie who shared our home for sixteen years.

On Sunday Laura drove for three hours to pick up her friend's dog to stay with us for a while - a beautiful black border collie with a sweet disposition - and a white ring of fur at her collar.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Fields of Gold

Today is Sunday, and Laura is still sick with the cold she caught from me after I caught it on the plane on our trip to Ireland less than two weeks before.  I hate when Laura is sick on Sundays because it means I have to get out of bed to walk Roxy at 7 am, which might as well be 4 am.  The Boston Globe was on the front steps when we walked out.  At least it wasn’t raining. I heard loud chirping and looked up at the house from the bottom of the front stairs and saw birds in our gutters – pieces of nesting were poking up in two different spots, near two altogether different birds – one a robin red breast and one a starling, or something like a starling. I would have to clean out my gutters.  It never ends, this upkeep of a house. What I really want to do is separate my two-family house into condos and move to a quiet condo with a pool and a fireplace, where someone else does my landscaping and fence repairs and worries over the siding, the driveway, and birds in the gutters. 

Roxy pulled to the right when we reached the street, which was a bad sign.  She wanted to go to the park, and this meant a longer walk. I thought of Pavlov’s dogs. Laura usually takes her to the park on Sunday mornings, just after the paper has been delivered.  Did the yellow-wrapped over sized newspaper on the front steps signal to Roxy that this is walk-to-the-park day? I walk her there sometimes on my day off, but I didn’t feel like it this morning. I was barely awake, and I’d forgotten my Fitbit, a gift from my son at Christmas.  What a waste – to walk well over a mile and not have it register on my Fitbit.  I am not a morning person, and I wanted credit for this walk.

I made a last-ditch effort to steer Roxy off course and take the shorter route, but she stopped short and wouldn’t budge, staring me down with her plaintive cocker spaniel eyes until I relented and turned right, over the rocky, leafy overgrown lot to a path that slides precariously down to the railroad tracks.  Before crossing the set of double tracks, I looked both ways like my mother taught me more than fifty years before, and leaned into the steep incline of loose rocks, cheating a little by locking Roxy's leash and letting her strength help pull me up.  We turned right at the top onto a sunny footpath toward Beaver Brook.  I was not enjoying this. Blocked sinuses made me dizzy, and I was already planning the apology I would give for my sloppy appearance if I ran into someone I knew.  A bad habit.

We turned left and slid down the slope toward a stream that emptied out from two rusty and corroded half barrels poking up from beneath the ground.  Roxy was hastening my stride at the front end of the leash – what would the Dog Whisperer say about this? - and I found myself taking a deep breath and humming, “Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go.”  It struck me, as it does almost constantly these days, that there is no longer a grandmother for my son or nephews.  We buried my mother, Charlotte, at the end of March, just before Laura and I left for Ireland to meet up with Noam.  After ten nights with little sleep, I hadn’t even dozed on the calm overnight flight to Dublin. I remember looking out the window and finding some peace watching the half moon hold steady in a clear sky, with a soft bed of clouds below.  At that moment I wasn’t afraid of death.  My mother had already passed over, and I felt that she, or her spirit, would be waiting when my turn came. This thought took me by surprise, as I had been too sad and angry after she died to feel spiritual. 

Heading toward the park, the song was still playing in my head, the words “grandmother’s house” echoing over and over, and I realized I was thinking like a writer again.  What’s the story here?  What’s the feeling, the thread, the theme?  My mother is gone, and I have been too numb to write about it, or anything, since my brother and sister and I summarized her life in a neat rectangular one-page obituary.

Roxy pulled me along and I braced myself for the chaos of the park.  She doesn’t play well with other dogs, and we usually take our own, circuitous route, which is fine with me.  The cool air and physical exertion were making my nose run, and I sniffed as I walked, having forgotten to stash tissues in my pocket. The small, familiar bridge appeared just after the crest of the hill, and a few ducks floated underneath us in the still, sparkling water.  Roxy didn’t seem to notice the ducks – she was too busy sniffing the base of a tree.  The park appeared pristine and sun drenched in front of us.  And something else.  There was nobody there.  No barking dogs, no people whistling and throwing sticks and balls.  The quiet, welcoming beauty was so surreal that I kept Roxy on her leash until we rounded the corner and took a good look, but it was truly empty.  I unhooked her collar, put my hands in my pockets for warmth against the damp morning chill, and watched her investigate the low-lying bushes.  Eventually we crossed the open grassy area and took a right up into another part of the woods, then scurried down into a valley, where we were forced to cross the brook again.  It was only four feet at its widest, and we found a muddy two-foot expanse to jump, climbing another small hill to exit the woods again onto another open field.  When did everything turn green, I thought.  Just weeks ago the ground was grey, and it surprised me to look ahead at small undulating patches of green.  I was trying to find the words for an Irish song about the fields of something, the fields of Dover?  Clover? But Eva Cassidy queued herself up in my head instead: “Fields of Gold.” I sang the words to myself, maybe aloud, I wasn't sure.  My first cry of the day.

Many years have passed since those summer days
Among the fields of barley
See the children run as the sun goes down
Among the fields of gold

You'll remember me when the west wind moves
Upon the fields of barley
You can tell the sun in his jealous sky
When we walked in fields of gold

Heading toward a welcoming circle of grass at the top of an incline, I recalled a conversation I had with a barrister/boxer/singer named Gary Daly in Dublin during the recent hazy days following my mother’s funeral. Gary impressed me by phoning his “Mummy” after having his picture taken with Noam, whom he had always admired.  We got to talking about music, and he told me that Eva Cassidy was extremely popular in Ireland.  I hadn’t realized Sting's wonderful song about the fields of barley was written about Ireland, but it’s no surprise that it’s running through my head now.  

I recall this version of the story: Eva Cassidy sent her music to a record producer who liked to throw arbitrary tapes into a recorder and listen while he dressed.  One particular morning he chose Cassidy’s tape, and after just a few minutes rushed to his phone in his stocking feet and called his office.  “We have to meet this woman.  Her voice is phenomenal,” he said.  But he was too late – Eva Cassidy had passed away some months earlier from cancer.  Many of her recordings were released posthumously, like one of my favorites, “Somewhere over the rainbow,” which I learned a few years back is often played at funerals.  Geesh.

My mind turns back to Ireland, where my mother’s dear grandmother was born in County Cork.  My mother, terminally ill with cancer and complications from chemotherapy, asked me a few weeks before to buy her a ring in Cork. I never imagined she would die just before the trip. 

At least the sun was out to counter my thoughts of cancer and death. Roxy and I had by now turned back toward the woods where we first entered the park, and I was about to re-leash her when she took off to chase a squirrel.  I heard the train before I saw the top of it just a couple hundred feet in front of us, and I noticed Roxy running ahead.  I pierced my own silence, yelling above the train, “Roxy stay!”  No, that’s not right.  “Roxy stop!”  Laura always warned me to keep her on leash.  Roxy finally heard me and waited for me to catch up to her and reattach her leash.  I was wide awake now.  The train passed and we scrambled back down the rocky path and crossed the tracks once again, on our way back home a few streets away, where the birds and the Sunday paper now welcomed us like a scene from “Our Town.”

My mother always told me to relax more, to take more time to drink a glass of wine, to walk outside and enjoy the sun.  I think I will use some of the money she left me to hire someone to clean out my gutters and replace a leaning fence section while I take more time to walk through fields, and breathe.  And maybe now I’m ready to write about our Ireland trip, where I hoped to find a sign, or proof, that we remain connected to those who leave us. 

I gained something personal on that walk, but I lost at least a mile land a half by not taking my Fitbit with me.  I will slip it into Laura's coat pocket before she takes Roxy out for her last walk of the night, and maybe I'll get back a half mile.  Better than nothing.