Time out to rescue me

They come in waves – swampy breath in your face, on the back of your neck. They bump against your knees to shepherd you away from a threat, slam into you during a wild game of tag, leap to snatch your attention. They snuffle at you – a cold nose in your ear, a whiskery muzzle against your cheek, the quick lap of a tongue swiping your fingers.

This is what it means to offer yourself up for rescue. There are so many dogs, and there are always more, and you want to write about each one – capture the who and the what and the why of each, but as one leaves the next comes and there are always more, clamoring. How does one write about that? How do you capture the essence of each individual dog in such a jostling crowd?

But writing is what I do. Even when I don’t do it, it’s who I am. This blog is my journal. In part, it’s my story garden,  to harvest as I gather the ingredients of my longer story of Henrietta Gurdy – my imaginary love child, my heroine, my nemesis. Henrietta and I have only one thing in common: we rescue dogs. If Henrietta were in fact writing her story it would have been done long since. She has her flaws, but procrastination and disorganization aren’t among them. So she’d be well into the series by now, instead of struggling to pinch out the time and creative energy and butt-to-chairness required to finish the first book.

So … this is my goal for today: to write about the daily round of dog rescue, preserving the stories of a few particular dogs and also capturing the relentless pressure of even a small rescue effort. This is more about the who and the why, than about the high drama of acts of terrible cruelty. Those acts do happen, and one deals with them as best one can, but mostly rescue is about a dog, and then another dog, and then another, one after another slipping a leash around your heart so that you have no choice but to take them home.

Zeus

Right now, I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Walla Walla, waiting for the vet clinic to call me to pick up Zeus and Violet. Do you remember Zeus? I told you about him, first here, then here. He needed all kinds of vet care before we could send him home, including having a broken canine extracted. He is the sweetest, most loving boy … but Zeus is a cop, and sharing a home with Argos, my Malinois and our resident delinquent, was an exercise in stress and vet bills. So it was a relief when he went home a few weeks before Christmas! He settled in well with his new Momma, Goldie, who rapidly became a friend to me as well, and flooded me with happy updates about how well he was doing.

Unfortunately that didn’t last. But before I tell you what happened, I should tell you about Daisy coming back. I’ve never told you about Daisy. She needed a temporary place to stay while her family moved house, so the Hubbit and I offered to take her in. That happened last summer, before Zeus arrived. You still with me? We had various dogs, including Daisy, during summer … then Daisy left and Zeus arrived … then Zeus left and Daisy came back.

Daisy

Daisy was a mess when we got her in summer. Her nails were so long that her toes were starting to dislocate. She had a roaring ear infection. And she was half out of her mind with the need for a job, and attention, and something to do, and to run, and to sniff, and loves, and to be seen, and and and just … more! She is a hard-driving, excitable working girl … and her designated owner was an angry teenage boy who thought he wanted a hunting dog, insisted on a purebred puppy, and then didn’t train her, wouldn’t walk her, left her at home with his non-dog-savvy family while he went out to hang with his friends. She grew lanky and wild and desperate for attention, and he grew surly and wild and refused to pay attention, and by the time Daisy came to me she was out of control (and so, apparently, was he, but that’s no concern of mine. I’m not in the business of rescuing, or indulging, teenage boys.)

So for the six weeks I had her I put her through biweekly visits to a groomer for nail trims, and took her to the vet to treat her ears, and let her run and didn’t let her be rude. I also lobbied the boy’s parents to give her up for adoption. It was maddening! They acknowledged that they weren’t a fit for her, but they couldn’t bring themselves to take her from the boy, and he insisted he loved her (although not enough to visit her, or take her for walks, or call to ask how she was doing). So eventually she went back to them, and a week or two later later we got Zeus, and it was only a few weeks after that that Daisy’s people called to confess that they’d realized life was better without her constantly wanting attention and exercise while they wanted to watch TV, and the boy was never home, and the fence he built so she could be out in the yard had fallen down, and his sisters were having to take care of her which wasn’t their job, after all, and would I take her back and find her a new home?

So after Zeus went home I fetched her. She was frantic. She couldn’t understand why she had to lose her people again. She was scared to go far from our house, but desperate to run. They’d failed to keep up with the toenail trims so her feet were hurting again. She tried to play with Argos and he was still pissed off over Zeus beating him up, so he beat her up. She tried to play with the other dogs and they snapped at her to chill the fuck down! She tried to play with the horses and they threatened to stomp her. She tried to play with the cat and I spanked her. She tried to play with the chickens and I dragged her away by the collar and wouldn’t even let her keep the feathers. At last she went home – to people with another hard-bodied happy-go-lucky girl in need of a playmate, and no cats, chickens or horses, and miles of trails leading from their back door – and we heaved a sigh of relief and promised each other to take a break.

But then the vet called. One of her clients had found an abandoned Shar-Pei … Would we help?

Donnabella

We don’t say no when a vet who helps us asks us for help. First she was spayed and had surgery to correct entropion, so she was a sad, sore, scared, skinny beast when I brought her home. She’d had puppies and was still lactating – they weren’t dumped with her – so we couldn’t feed her as much as she wanted, because her poor little body needed to stop producing milk. She had to wear a cone, and she was in any case a weird-looking dog with her skinny body and squinchy eyes and great hippo nose. Even our blase pack treated her like a pariah. But over a few weeks she healed. Most importantly, she healed inside. She learned to trust us, and to play, and to ask for snuggles. It was time for her to go home.

Usually it’s a relief to hand off a dog into someone else’s care, as long as I know I can trust them. It was different with Donnabella. I knew she’d be safe and loved – I’d not have left her otherwise. But she was so afraid, when she saw I was leaving. She had given herself completely to me, by then – her squinchy gaze, her crumply smile, her starved little heart: they were all mine … and then, just as she believed herself safe, I left her with strangers. I acted in love but in the moment it felt like cruelty, and I sobbed all the way home.

Mind you, that might have been because I was so, so tired. Rescue is hard! You see such stupid-ugly things, you think such angry thoughts! And then there’s the pee, and the poop, and the visits to the vet, and the giving of pills, and the shed hair that you never have time to vacuum, and the house smells like a kennel, and your own dog gets resentful and starts acting out because he can’t even with all these damn strays!

Kuja and I agreed, and I promised the Hubbit: No More! We’re taking a break!

Pearl Fuzzybutt

But a few days before Christmas we got a call about eight husky cross puppies, only five weeks old but weaned so they had to go immediately. By the time we got to them, a couple days later, they’d already given away four, so we brought home four pups from that litter (we nicknamed them the Fuzzybutts), plus Bambi, a pup from a different litter in the same house. There were also a great many cats, but we found someone else to help them, and we had most of the adult dogs remaining in the home sterilized and vaccinated. We found a foster home for the four puppies; we did the vet stuff – vaccinations, microchipping, deworming; we took pictures and posted them online to be adopted as soon as they were eight weeks old.

And while all that was going on, just before New Year, we took in a litter of seven Labrador mix pups – the Snugglepot litter. They urgently needed to be removed from their home, but we didn’t immediately have a foster home for them, so they spent their first three days in the Hubbit’s and my spare bathroom, pooping enormous, tangled piles of worms like scoops of hellish spaghetti out of their grossly swollen bellies. They perked up pretty quickly once they were done with that, and soon learned to come running, full tilt, when I called “Hey puppypuppypuppeeee!”

Oreo, Tucker and Lucy Snugglepot

The next few weeks were a frenzy of processing applications for Fuzzybutts and Snugglepots, as well as little Bambi. That’s no small task, the way we do it. First, we write very detailed profiles of all our dogs, which we post on Adopt-a-Pet and Petfinder. That generates email inquiries – fewer for “less desirable” dogs (like adult Chihuahuas and Pit Bulls) but the floodgates open when puppies are on offer. Our application forms are around five pages long and comprehensive, and when they come in we follow up with online background checks, and phone calls to landlords, vets, references, the adopters themselves, and sometimes home visits. We’ll choose the best homes we can, and write to disappoint the people who didn’t get to adopt them. We’ll follow up after the adoption to make sure all is well , and advise if it isn’t, and post upbeat pupdates on Facebook to ensure our supporters don’t get bored and drift away, taking their wallets with them

Dax

The last of the puppies went home about a week ago, but by that time we had Dax. You know how some dogs just make you happy? That’s Dax. As best we can tell, his previous owners bought him for their teenage son (what is it with people giving ridiculously unsuitable dogs to their least reliable family members?) and then, when the son lost interest and didn’t bother to feed him, they let Dax go hungry. Eventually when that failed to accomplish whatever the hell they were aiming for, they advertised him (the dog, not the kid) for sale on Craigslist. One of our young volunteers was foolishly browsing the pet listings (I say “foolishly” because she can barely support herself, her kid and the dog she already has, never mind daydreaming about rescuing another one) and she was horrified by the sight of this poor skinny puppy, so she emptied out her bank account and went to get him. Then she called us, and voila, the Hubbit and I got to have another German Shepherd living in our house.

Actually, Dax was easy – a sweet, happy boy who gained weight fast and got on with everyone, even Argos. We all took a deep breath. He’d be easy to rehome, and then we could take a break, right?

Nope.

A few days ago the people who gave us the Fuzzybutt pups called us to take another two pups and Lola, the mama – now, now, NOW! – because Lola had killed a goat and Papa was getting ready to shoot her and her verminous offspring. How dare they insist on eating? Did they not realize they were only dogs? I took Lola to be spayed on Monday (she wasn’t done with the others in the house, because at that time Papa was determined to breed her to a husky and make lots of money) and yesterday a delightful couple of husky-lovers drove all the way from Bellingham – six hours at least from our small town – and took her home with them. They’ve offered only to foster her, but we’re hoping they and their husky boy will fall in love and invite her to stay for good.

The two new Fuzzybutts are pretty girls and will be easy to place in good homes … but Kuja is barely keeping it together, and I’m dragging so badly my tail is muddy. We handed them off to another rescue group that we trust.

Meanwhile, I got a call from Goldie, Zeus’ adopter. She was hysterical. Out of the blue, with no provocation and no visible warning, after six weeks of living together in harmony, he’d just tried to rip her other dog’s head off. He was also threatening to kill the cats.

So I told her to bring him back. I decided to put him in boarding for a week to recalibrate while I girded my loins for a prolonged period of juggle-the-dog – because obviously he had to come back to me for reevaluation, but equally obviously he couldn’t be trusted with any of our dogs until we figured out what was going on with him. I met her at a park to let him stretch his legs before we dropped him off at the boarding kennel … and while we were there, what should we find but a happy, friendly, pretty puppy. Of course I took her home – what else could I do?

Goldie named her Violet. I have no idea why, but I was too tired to argue. In any case, she was in good condition, so I figured she’d escaped from her yard and would be claimed soon.

Sometimes when an adoption fails you know it’s the adopter’s fault. Somehow you missed something about them, during the interview process. And after living with a dog 24/7 for several months, you know the dog. But in Zeus’ case … no. There had to be something else going on. He’d been through an enormous amount of stress – not just being dumped and then all the vet stuff while he was with us; within two weeks of his adoption, the family had been hammered by two deaths and a sad Christmas with people they don’t much like. But I think the root cause of Zeus’ behavior is some undiagnosed physical problem.

So I persuaded Goldie to quit beating herself up, promised to figure out what was wrong with him and place him in a “better” home … and gave her Dax. I get almost daily updates about him, and they invariably make me smile

Violet

Violet, meanwhile, has turned out to be a disrespectful, destructive, jumping-up, counter-surfing, pushy, loudly opinionated, completely clueless, piddle-anywhere pain in the butt. It’s very clear that she didn’t run off – she was dumped – because, after all, when you get a puppy you expect it to be fun and cute and cuddly, not to grow into a big clumsy beast who needs training! Right?

People make me tired!

Anyway, as I write this she’s being spayed and vaccinated. Soon she’s going to a foster home where there are kids, and cats, and younger, energetic humans who will teach her manners. Then we’ll find her a home.

Meanwhile Zeus is back in our home, living in my study (while Argos reigns supreme in the bedroom). We’re putting him through an array of blood tests. So far everything looks normal, but we’re waiting on results for his thyroid test. And right now he’s back at the clinic that extracted his canine, because it turns out they left a chunk of it behind – which is something that can happen with canines, but dang I wish I’d known this one had broken during the extraction! It’s entirely possible his behavior was due to a sudden twinge of toothache! Bits of broken tooth were pushing up through his gum – can you just imagine? And … can you imagine if it had twinged when Goldie’s seven-year-old son walked past him, rather than her dog? The thought gives me the cold horrors!

Anyway, he’s with us now, and we’re working with a behaviorist and figuring it out. Hostilities between him and Argos continue, but he’s comfortable with Jim’s four, so managing the war zone is less complicated than when he first returned. And after the thyroid test results come back, and we know whether that’s something that needs attention, we’ll post him for adoption again … and this time, I hope, we’ll get it right.

I’ve just received a text from a woman I loathe and despise. She’s a backyard breeder of Belgian Malinois – a breed that only a few hardy souls, outside of the police or military, should even think of owning. (Yes, I have one. No, I really shouldn’t. But … I had one before, and they’re addictive!) She sells them for a royal sum to whoever will write her a check, and when her dogs are no longer cute, entertaining puppies, and start tearing up their homes and threatening the neighbors, they flow into our local shelters and rescues. Anyway, she wants to know if we “still take dogs”. I don’t pretend to be friendly. “Why?” I ask. She’s “in overload”, she says, is “thinking about rehoming one”.

I’m not encouraging … but … It’s a Malinois. What will happen to her if I don’t take her? I tell her, “If you decide you want to, contact me.” I hesitate, my finger poised over my phone, then hit send. I’d like to jump through my phone behind the text and bite the silly bitch! If she must breed something, why not Golden Retrievers? It’s inexcusable to pick a breed every damn fool out there wants (because so smart, so much drive) and most can’t handle (because too damn smart and in perpetual overdrive).

The vet just called. It’s time to pick up Zeus and Violet and head back home.

This was good, taking time out to write, even if all the time went to a blog post instead of the novel. I promise myself to take more time, and next time to work on the book, not indulge myself by blogging. Because rescue matters, it’s important … but writing stories is why I’m here. It’s what I do. It’s who I am. Somehow … somehow, between the waving tails and lolling tongues, I have to find timeouts like this.

Blogging while distracted

Lately I’ve been trying to blog more often than I did before. Before what? Well, before I started trying to blog more often. I’ve realized that some of my favorite bloggers simply rabbit on about their everyday lives and random thoughts. Others among my favorites put serious thought and research into their posts.

In a spirit of blatant self-indulgence I have to confess that I’m too lazy to emulate the second kind – at any rate, not on a consistent basis. Also, who am I to pose as an expert on anything except my own small life? Fact: this blog is intended to entertain (mainly me) and also to record Thoughts And Happenings That Are Interesting (at least to me), as well as getting the old verbal juices flowing so that I’m able to glide smoothly into Serious Writing Of The Novel. So that’s why I want to blog more often, and if I manage to do so in a way that makes you want to stick around for the coffee and donuts served after, so much the better!

The problem I have with blogging … Well, there are several problems, actually. Sometimes the Black Dog pins me down and … I … just … can’t. Other times I’m so busy Doing or Being Done To that I don’t have the time or energy to write about it. That’s frustrating, because I’ll be going through the doings, and quite often my primary link to sanity and a sense of “this too shall pass” is the mantra “blog fodder”. I write so many posts in my head while on the run!

Road trips with Argos
Road trips – so much more fun with a Malinois!

Somewhere I have one of those little digital recorders. I really need to learn to use it.

Actually, I think my phone might have a digital recorder app. Hmmm.

Right … where was I? Oh yes – another problem is the perpetual presence of distractions. I mean, just two paragraphs up I was about to abandon this leaky little boat and go in search of the digital recorder. The only thing that stopped me was the recollection that the Evernote app on my phone might do the job.

Do you know how much I want to get up now and rush off and find my phone and test it???

Seriously … where is my dang phone?

Moving on! Then there’s deciding what to write about, and when to write about it. Should I start a post in the middle of the events I want to write about? If I do, will I remember to come back with a second post to tell how the story ends? (So far that would be a no; usually I wind up telling the ending in the comments, if people ask.) If I wait until I know the ending, will I still feel like writing about it? (Quite often not – either because I’m in the middle of something else, or because I’ve blogged about it so relentlessly in my head that it’s just not entertaining any more.)

Anyway, all this is merely a prelude to telling about what happened yesterday, which I can do very quickly because it’s not that big a story, but it caused some palpitations and foaming at the mouth all the same.

There’s this blogger I follow, David Bennett – his photographs are lovely. You should go take a look. Not now – later! For now I’ll just tell you they make me want to rush out and take pictures – which is a challenge all on its own because a few birthdays back I bought the Hubbit a rather nice camera after years of listening to him boast of his photographic prowess, and he has lost the charger.

Okay, it’s possible that I put the charger Somewhere when I was reorganizing his Hubbit Hole while he was in rehab early this year – which, by the way, is a classic example of an activity I blogged about extensively and hilariously in my head for so long that I could not bring myself to sit and write it all down … The point is, the charger wasn’t in the fancy camera case I also bought him. So now the camera is friggin’ useless.

Not that I ever really figured out how to use it. Cameras have changed a lot since I bought my first one, a Box Brownie I got for R5.00 (that’s five rand, South African money, which back then was worth US$10, but today would be worth around US$0.75) that I carefully saved up when I was ten years old. I take pictures with my cell phone, and sometimes I’m pleased with them – they’re better than anything I managed with the Box Brownie, anyway. In fact, since this post really doesn’t lend itself to illustrations, and just for the heck of it, I’ll include a few of them here.

Suffusion of yellow
A suffusion of yellow. I spent fall gorging on colors until I was ready to burst with pleasure.

The reason I mention David today, however, is that in addition to sharing his photographs he tends to write his way through various technical challenges, and lately he’s been fiddling around with the design theme of his blog. So there are these posts referring to this theme and that theme that he’s been trying out, and to be honest I don’t read those in depth … but I notice them.

So yesterday I slapped myself around the head because it’s been more than a month since my last post, and I’ve been writing and writing inside my head but never quite making it as far as butt-in-chair, fingers-on-keyboard. After the head slap I plonked myself down, fired up the laptop, and prepared to Expound.

Garcia
Two-dimensional horse – Cherry Garcia at the vet a couple days after he moved in with Vos

But … about what? I have things to say about Trump – but those require research if I don’t want to be just another liberal whiner. I want to update you about Zeus, and I have other thoughts to share about rescue. I read a post recently that calls for a response. I don’t think I’ve ever told you about Garcia – did I  mention I got my horse a horse? There was a minor disaster with our Thanksgiving turkey, which has led to the production of fabulous bone broth, and I really should tell you about bone broth. So Many Things!

Well, I clicked over to see what other people were writing about – not so much for inspiration as to give my subconscious time to chew over the matter – and there was David, with a gorgeous picture of an iris, yattering away about his latest blog theme adventure.

He distracted me! It’s his fault!

Because obviously after that I wandered over to the WordPress collection of themes to take a look. After all, I’d been thinking my blog needed sprucing up. One theme looked interesting, and I wondered how it would look on my blog.

There were two icons – one labeled “Activate”, the other “Preview”.

Just then, the dogs broke out in an uproar, and as I irritably rose from my seat to find out what the problem was … guess which icon I clicked?

Just like that, everything went beige! It was horrible! And there was no way to un-activate it!

I wrote a frantic appeal for help to the WordPress Happiness Engineers, and spent a palpitating few hours restlessly clicking between forum responses to people who had also accidentally destroyed the careful design of their blog, and also bouncing around the house distracting myself with chores, and, of course, periodically clicking hopefully on my blog to see if it had magically returned to normal.

It hadn’t. Also I learned, during the course of all this clicking, that the theme I’d been using was “no longer supported”.

So eventually last night, at only about half an hour past my intended bedtime, I went “Screw it” and sat down and test drove a bunch of themes. Found one I liked. Got it all set up. And here it is! Voila!

It doesn’t do all the things I want … but for that I’d need to (a) spend a lot more time searching through hundreds of themes, (b) probably pay for it, and (c) figure out how to make it work. Ehhh … Life’s short. I think this one works, and the picture I took last summer of our little farm and our cows is okay – don’t you agree?

Playing God with cats and dogs

I’ve just got off the phone with the vet clinic that helps with our “more complicated than spay/neuter and vaccinate” cases. Later today I may get a call requiring me to decide whether a cat should live or die.

This is never an easy call. It particularly sucks when money is a big part of the equation.

Take this cat. I haven’t met her; a friend, who is associated with the pet rescue Kuja and I started last year, picked her up. She’s a sweet kitty, except when she’s not. Loving and affectionate, until she whirls around and bites or smacks you.

Also, she is ferocious in attacking other cats and dogs, so we can’t find her a foster home, and finding her a forever home is going to be hard.

All this makes her a challenge and a pain in the arse … but it’s not a reason to kill her. Instead, we sent her to the vet with a request for evaluation. Maybe she’s mean because she’s hurting, and we can fix the hurt and let her sweet self come out. Or maybe she’s sick in a way we can’t help, and we’d do best to end it for her without more pain.

I emailed the vet – because putting things in writing is the best way to ensure that all involved have the same information. Then I followed up with a call to ensure that they’d check their email. And now we wait.

This is what I asked them to do:

  1. Sedate her. She can’t be properly examined without that.
  2. Check her mouth. Her behavior suggests she’s in pain, and also she drools a lot. If her teeth are a really terrible mess that’s going to cost a fortune to fix, or if she has some condition that will continue to hurt her, euthanize.
  3. Test her for FIV and FeLV (feline immunodeficiency virus and feline leukemia). These are incurable, highly contagious diseases. There are sanctuaries where infected cats can live together as long as their quality of life holds out, but that’s not an option for a highly territorial kitty, even if we could find one with room for her. So … if she’s infected, euthanize.
  4. If her mouth is a reasonably simple fix, and she’s disease-free, she gets dental, spay and vaccinations … and, we hope, eventually a new home. In the meantime she’ll continue as an outdoor cat, cared for by her rescuer. Perhaps if her dental issues get fixed she’ll become a gentler, sweeter kitty, and bringing her in to live with other dogs and cats will be an option. That would also make her easier to rehome. One can hope.

Making these decisions is hard, and it’s harder knowing that, if we had more money, we’d simply fix her up and then figure out what to do next. And it’s hard not to feel guilty, knowing that if she were a dog we wouldn’t even be asking the question. For both Kuja and me, we care about cats and will try to help them … but dogs are people. You don’t order a person’s euthanasia unless you really and truly have no options.

Take Zeus, the German Shepherd the Hubbit and I took in last week. There were no questions, no discussion. I simply let Kuja know, “He needs a vet – I’m taking him to Urgent Care,” and she said, “Of course,” and that was that. Several hours and more than $400 later he was back home with a bucket on his head.

It helps that he’s the sweetest, most mellow German Shepherd I’ve ever known. It helps, but it’s not the reason. We’d have taken him in anyway.

It bewilders me, though, that a dog like this could be starved, apparently for most of his life, and then thrown from a moving vehicle onto a gravel road. Who does such a thing? How does a dog to whom such a thing is done continue to love and trust humans?

IMG_20191107_101237484 (2).jpg
Zeus. The wounds on the outside are healing, and soon there won’t even be scars. On the inside there’s nothing but love, trust and gentleness. Well, except where Argos is concerned. All the German Shepherds I bring home hate Argos, because they try to get him to line up straight and … he’s a Malinois. Lining up straight simply isn’t on his itinerary.

In cases like this, I find I have to make up a story, just to try to make sense of it. So this is Zeus’ Story According to Belladonna:  He was bought as a puppy from a breeder who didn’t worry too much about bloodlines, but who probably didn’t let him go until he was old enough to leave his mom and his litter. While he was a puppy his family loved him and played with him, and there were probably other dogs in the family as well. But as he got older, he became an outdoor dog. Every day his food bowl was filled, but only with the cheapest food – Alpo or Old Roy – something that goes in, fills the belly for a little while, and passes through without leaving any nutrition behind. His coat got coarse and dry and sunk into the gaps between his bones, and he failed to grow as big as he should have.

Maybe his owner was old. Maybe they died or went into a home. However it went, something happened that separated him from the person who loved him – not enough to have him inside, or groom him, or feed him good quality food, but enough to win the whole of his big old Shepherd heart … Something happened, and he became the responsibility of someone else. Someone who didn’t want to be bothered with him. Someone who loaded him into the back of a vehicle, and drove down a country road, and then accelerated fast and gave him a shove and sent him flying onto gravel that tore the fur and skin off his face and neck, pitted his body and legs with puncture wounds. And then they drove away. And a few days later the Hubbit and I took him in.

It isn’t fair that he’s getting whatever he needs – treatment at the Urgent Care vet last week, dental care and a neuter last Monday, a visit to a groomer next week, and meanwhile a safe haven, affection, good food, a warm bed, and the certainty of a safe and loving home in time for Christmas. It isn’t fair that he’s getting all this just because he’s a German Shepherd, and the cat has to go through a series of steps in order to qualify to wake up from sedation this morning because she’s … just a cat.

Usually I like to end my posts with some sort of neat conclusion. This time I don’t have one. It isn’t fair, and I can’t do anything about it.

Between one beat and the next

Photo by Patricia Tser on Unsplash

My friend Bridie and I used to ride our bikes to school together. Every morning I rode the half mile or so to the corner near her house, and then we rode the remaining two or three miles side by side, giggling, ignoring her bossy older sister Jan who pedaled and puffed behind us. One morning Bridie wasn’t there so I rode to her house, leaned my bike against the wall, started to walk through the back door.

Someone – her mother? – grabbed my arms and stopped me. Told me Bridie wouldn’t be coming to school that day because her father had died. He and her mom had gone to bed the night before, but only her mom had woken up. His heart just stopped beating.

Some time later I stormed into her house, raging over the latest fight I’d had with my father. “You should be grateful you still have him,” Jan told me – so pompous! I snarled at her, “You have no idea how lucky you are!” and her face went white as her heart missed a beat. After that we didn’t speak for a long time.

By the time my father had his first heart attack, I think in 1997, which was the year before I married the Hubbit and moved to the US, he and I had achieved a truce of sorts. I was on my way to an interview when someone – my mother? – called me on my cell phone and I changed direction and sped to the hospital. The Egg and her husband were already there, huddled together on one of the long benches in the large, empty waiting area. They directed me to another waiting area next door, where I found Marmeee standing beside him, clutching his hand and looking scared. He was on one of those narrow, wheeled metal hospital beds, gasping for breath, his face the dull yellow of old fat that’s been exposed to air.

Not far from them was a counter, and behind it an empty reception area, and beyond that a room full of nurses engaged in loud conversation while they drank their tea. There was a bell, which I rang furiously with one hand while slapping the wood of the counter with my other hand. A nurse emerged and looked me up and down. “Yes?” she asked.

“My father needs attention!” I demanded.

She glanced dismissively at him. “We are waiting for his file,” she said.

“Where is his file?”

She flipped a languid finger back toward the room where the Egg and her husband were waiting. “The messenger will get it. But now he is on his break,” she said. I stormed through the door, rang a different bell, slapped a different counter. Demanded the file, which I carried back and slammed down in front of the nurse. She rolled her eyes, flicked the file open, froze. Called more nurses. Moments later they wheeled him away, Marmeee scurrying alongside as he clung to her hand.

There was nothing left for me to do, except … I could call for favors. I called Cass, a cardiologist I’d interviewed a few weeks previously. He was a hot shot, associated with a private hospital. My father, who didn’t have medical insurance, was in a state hospital. Cass had liked the story I wrote about him, and had asked me to write another story about organ transplants and the need for donors. I’d told him I would, but that it would be a better story if I could actually witness and write about a heart transplant. So at that point – the point I was at, sitting in the waiting room while my father clung to my mother’s hand in a different room full of machines beeping and nurses scurrying and doctors barking instructions – at that point, we were waiting for one of Cass’s patients to be matched with a donor heart.

Well, if your father has a heart attack and you happen to know the top cardiologist in town, maybe happen to have impressed him enough that he wants a favor, obviously you call him. And even if he can’t personally get involved in the case, he makes a few calls, lets it be known that he has an interest, and the awed cardiac team responsible for your father’s care snaps to attention and gets the job done. The Olde Buzzard had surgery and it went well and he got medical insurance and started seeing Cass regularly, and his heart kept up a steady thump for nearly twenty more years, until Marmeee’s stopped and his no longer had a reason to keep on beating.

It was late Friday afternoon, a hot day at the end of a too-long week. The voice on the phone was warm. Sexy. “Hey there – would you like to spend the night with me?”

My pulse quickened … but … I was in Johannesburg, and the only man at that time likely to make me such an offer was on the other side of the planet. “Who is this?” I squeaked.

He chuckled. “It’s Cass,” he said. We had a heart!

I met him at the hospital a couple hours later, and he took me to meet the patient’s wife. I had forgotten the wife until I read my notes today. At the time she was merely background, barely relevant to the story. It’s interesting how life has a way of teaching one empathy.

I had my laptop with me, and I made my notes in the form of a letter to the Hubbit. He wasn’t my Hubbit yet, of course; we were still at the internet romance stage of our relationship, he in the US and I in South Africa. We didn’t yet expect to meet, but we’d got into the habit of sharing the events of our lives.

Hiya, honeybun!

I’m sitting on the floor of a large passage in the hospital. Nothing much is happening … I need to write down what I’m experiencing, and – hope you don’t mind – it’ll be a lot easier just to tell it all to you. I guess it’s one way to spend the night with you … <smial>

Oh yeah – we got pretty steamy back then. Even with the full bulk of the planet between us he could make my heart flutter!

I told him about the family – Hindu, a large crowd, the women all dressed in saris. The mother, who sat lotus-legged and praying on a plastic chair, one eye covered by an eye patch held in place by masking tape – she’d had cataract surgery a few days previously. Three sons, the youngest 13. A brother who was a cardiologist, who later showed up in the operating theater.

The patient is only 47. He has had heart disease for about six years and they had been keeping it under control with medication, but early this year he went into heart arrest and Cass said it was time to plan for a transplant. He’s been incredibly lucky – he’s had to wait only five weeks. Some people wait years.

An orderly brought him his pre-med while I was there – a tiny plastic tot glass of water and a handful of pills. The orderly told him not to drink more of the water than he absolutely had to, but he must have been thirsty – he downed the whole lot almost compulsively. Then they had to give him an injection; wanted to give it into his shoulder, but he’s so thin there’s not enough flesh there. They had to inject him in the buttock.

Suddenly it was time to take him away. Orderlies pushed his hospital bed speedily toward the operating theater, and his family streamed behind, keeping pace with his bed until a nurse stopped them, gently told them to say goodbye, that they’d see him the next day. They stood in a small cluster, waving and smiling with determination, and kept waving even after he was out of sight, their fear surrounding them like a fog.

Then a nurse brought me a hideous green overall to wear. Needless to say the one-size-fits-all trousers didn’t, but she found me some bigger ones. I had the MOST frustrating time trying to persuade my hair to stay tucked inside a silly little cap. I’m wearing nothing but thin plastic overshoes on my feet, because I didn’t think to change into sneakers and the overshoes won’t work with the heels I was wearing. My feet are freezing! Now I’m sitting in a little room outside the theater, drinking tea and waiting for something to happen. In TV hospital programs hospital life looks like one adrenaline rush after another. Not so. This evening has been mainly waiting.

And now I’m in the theater! I rushed in and was promptly chased out – I’d forgotten my face mask! Put it on – how do doctors wear these things? After less than a minute I felt as though I was suffocating.

The operating theater was a small room crammed with equipment and crowded with people – several nurses, an anesthetist, two cardiologists, all chatting and joking as though they were at a party. The perfusionist – the person responsible for the heart-lung machine – sat next to the patient reading a Playboy magazine. The two cardiac surgeons had their own extra-high-sterility area, separated from everyone else by a low divider covered with hanging towels.

At the center of it all is the patient. He is very still, and is almost completely covered by green sheets; even his face is covered, except for a little slit where a tube goes in. On the cardiac monitor his heartbeat is erratic, frantic… They’ve started cutting and his heart is going crazy… They’ve sawed open his sternum. It looks like meat, but the smell is strange, nasty.

Okay … I went to stand above the patient’s head, and watched the surgeon cut open the pericardium. I saw inside his body. I saw his heart, laboring sluggishly to keep going. And now … we wait. The new heart is on its way. They are ready.

Time is of the essence in a heart transplant. The donor heart must be in and beating within four hours or tissues start to break down. In this case, the donor heart was flown up to Johannesburg from a town on the coast. To save time they opened up the patient and were ready to go, but they didn’t disconnect his old heart until the new one had actually arrived.

The heart is packed in ice, inside a plastic bag, the whole kaboodle inside the kind of polystyrene cooler box one uses for picnics. They’ve put it next to an identical box that’s full of ice and soft drinks. The packaged heart looks like someone’s groceries.

They have taken out the old heart. It fibrillated for about 15 minutes while they were connecting the heart-lung machine, before they removed it and the monitor finally fell silent. Now it’s lying off to one side in a kidney dish, still trying its best to beat. Cass says it wouldn’t have lasted longer than a few more weeks. It makes me sad to think of it being thrown away now, though, when it’s tried so hard.

The new heart looks more solid, meatier, than the old one. The surgeons agree that it’s a nice heart. It used to belong to a 43-year-old woman who lived in a small coastal town. Today she had a cerebral aneurysm – she had a massive bleed and died – just like that. Well, technically, she didn’t die until they took her heart out about two-and-a-half hours ago. I wonder what she’d planned to do today.

And right now, technically, this patient is also dead. A machine is doing his breathing and moving his blood, and his temperature’s right down at 28 Celsius. Every now and then a nurse takes some ice out of the picnic box and puts it into his heart cavity to keep it cold. I touched his head. It felt … horrible. Icy. Not alive.

The surgery I watched was something of a milestone. I’d forgotten that too, until reading my notes. It was the first time of using surgical superglue in a heart transplant in South Africa. They spent an hour stitching the heart and supplemented the stitches with glue. I’m sure by now surgeons use glue alone to connect the blood vessels to the heart tissue. According to my notes that was the goal, anyway.

They’re trying to start the heart by pumping blood into it, massaging it gently by hand, and shocking it. It doesn’t want to start. They massage, shock, look at the monitor. It fibrillates, then stops. They try again and again. They look like Sunday afternoon mechanics huddled around a car engine, coaxing it to life.

Ten minutes in the beat is strong and steady. There are a few little leaks, which the surgeons are stitching and gluing. There’s gore everywhere, and the surgeons are spattered with blood.

Everyone is tired, coming down off a high. The final stage of the process is mechanical. They disconnect the heart-lung machine and the perfusionist packs it and his magazines away. Release the clamps that have been holding his rib cage open, remove the swabs, finish cauterizing the wound – that disgusting smell again. Insert drains and sew him up.

I thanked the hot cardiologist for giving me one of the best nights of my life. “I learned a lot!” I told him, and went home.

The Hubbit’s new cardiologist isn’t especially hot. He’s a large, blustery man, a kind man, I believe a good doctor, but as hard to pin down as a picnic blanket on a windy day. I’m learning from him that the language of the heart is imprecise. Love … fear … loss … failure … What do these words actually mean? I tried to ask him: in the context of this husband, in this consulting room, at this moment, what exactly is heart failure?

I asked him question after question, and his words were like bits of dry grass swept up by a dust devil. They had no shape or pattern. He tried to answer. He opened a folder and showed me printouts – the results of many tests over the past few weeks. He used words like “ventricle”, “left”, “right”, “congestion”. I think he may have showed me a diagram. At last he gave up, ordered another test. It’s scheduled for the day after tomorrow.

Perhaps it’s not his answers that are imprecise, but my questions. I will rephrase them.

Will his heart keep going, or will it just stop between one beat and the next?

Will I wake up one night, hear the soft snores of the dogs snuggled between us, raise my head and strain my failing ears, hear silence from his side of the bed, reach out and touch him and find him cold as ice?

Can you fix it?

In the context of right here, right now, how best should I cherish him?

Usually I end with questions for you, dear reader. An invitation to engage. This time, my questions are all directed elsewhere … but please engage anyway.

So I got phished

Well, that’s three hours of my life I won’t get back.

It’s my own fault. I was supposed to be Writing The Book, and instead I let myself be distracted by a [presumably fascinating, but I don’t really know, since I didn’t actually get to read it] article about how some stars appear to be older than the universe.

Suddenly this enormous red square bloomed on my monitor, and upon it a lot of words, the largest of which read MOZILLA FIREFOX CRITICAL ERROR. The gist of the subsequent, smaller words was that my computer was being hacked, my data was at risk, and I had to call the Microsoft help desk.

There was also a phone number.

Which I called.

Yes, really.

rachel bloom bang head on desk GIF by Portlandia

Look, that square? It was really red. Not a bright happy red, like cherries or a toddler’s cheeks on a cold day. It was a gory, gloomy sort of red, like old ketchup the morning after you brought dinner home in a paper bag because you’d had a shitty day and were too tired to cook, but you’re not a complete slob so you ate off plates, only you were too tired to wash up afterwards. And it took up the whole screen.

Anyway, the young man who offered was so helpful and sympathetic, and he explained that it was our “home network” that was infected, not just the computer. We don’t actually have a home network, as such … but I figured he meant the bad stuff was leaking in through the modem and into both the Hubbit’s and my computers and our smart phones.

Naturally, when he said he needed to access my computer over the internet in order to see what damage may have been done, I couldn’t wait to say yes.

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Well, sort of. I did have a moment of sanity. You see, you have to hold down the Windows icon key on your keyboard and another key – I think “S” but not sure – and then a window pops up on your screen. And you type some things and click on things and then you have to input a special number, which the helpful person on the other end of the phone gives you. And then your computer asks you if you want to give that person permission to access your shit … and at that moment I did hesitate.

“Wait,” I said. “Give me a moment. I need to verify that you’re real.”

He was a little impatient, but polite. If he’d been more impatient and less polite he’d have lost me … but he was reassuring. He gave me his name and his employee number. So when Google didn’t immediately scream “SCAM!” I went ahead and clicked yes, and he was in. Then I sat and watched as he poked around my computer. It was a bit like having a plumber in to fix a leak and to do it they have to empty your sink and – oops – you have underwear soaking in there. I mean, my internet habits are boring (as is my underwear, to be honest) … but still.

Eww.

So then a display appeared on the screen, and it was this long list of attacks. More than 1,500 warnings (bright yellow) and error messages (bright red) zipped up the screen. My new friend tutted in my ear. “See?” he said. “This is just from this month. You’ve been under a heavy attack!”

“But what could anyone possibly want?” I asked plaintively. It’s not as though we have any serious money, or interesting secrets.

“Well,” he said. “They could be using your personal data to commit international fraud. See there?” He showed me columns where the action was headed “Local” and “Foreign”. “Or maybe they’re after your money. It doesn’t matter how much or how little it is – they want it all! Tut tut tut. This is terrible. I’m so sorry,” he said. Then he showed me where I had a trojan – only, he said, he couldn’t fix it. It wasn’t clear why not.

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Helplessly I sat and watched file names scroll rapidly up my screen, and after a while he said he needed me to wait on hold for a minute or two while he spoke with his supervisor to try to figure out the best way to help me.

Well, waiting is boring. And since I wasn’t actually doing anything with my phone, I clicked over to Google again … and found … this.

Sigh.

So I ended the call and ignored his attempts to call back, and logged off my computer, and unplugged the modem just to be sure. And then I went and confessed to the Hubbit, who sighed and rolled his eyes but was otherwise forbearing. I figured out how to change the access to my computer, and I changed our most critical passwords. And then I called Microsoft – the real one, this time – and paid $99 for a year’s worth of technical support for all the internet devices in the House of Took. And after that I spent about an hour and a half on the phone with a very nice young man, who also requested permission to prowl around in my underwear computer, and while he was in there he did a whole lot of necessary housekeeping.

Which is something I didn’t get to do today, owing to spending the entire damn day on the computer – and not a fresh writerly word to show for it.

Except this post, of course. Does this count? Probably not … but it does make me feel better!

Have you ever been scammed? How stupid, exactly, did it make you feel?