Errands

I didn’t get a whole lot done today. I’d planned to spend the day working on a project – I’m designing a website for a friend. This is a new challenge for me, and I’m loving the way it stretches my brain, even though I feel useless and pitiful and old for finding it so dang hard!

But first I had to bitch at my doctor’s office over a prescription snafu, and that led – by a convoluted trail – to a fight over who in the practice was actually my doctor, and then I had to write an impassioned email to the practice manager insisting that they assign me to the doctor I actually like and trust instead of the one who, on the one occasion I saw her, clearly considered me an imbecile who doesn’t know my own body. I wrote it on my phone, held two inches from my nose with one eye screwed shut because all this erupted while I was still in bed and before I’d put my contact lenses in, and then for some reason it was necessary to read the email, compulsively, over and over again, until they called me back and said it was okay, I could have the doctor I wanted.

So then I got up and got dressed and fed the dogs / horses / chickens / and while I was fixing toast and eggs for myself and the Hubbit I had a call from a snotty young asshole at our mortgage company demanding a payment that we’d been told we didn’t need to make, so we’d spent the money on other stuff, like Equine Senior pellets and chemotherapy. He and I circled the conversational drain a few times before he went away and I flung myself (and my eggs and toast) at my computer and wrote my second impassioned email of the day, this time to the person at the mortgage company who had told me we were skipping the payment. (Synopsis: we refinanced. Shit happened.) There followed more obsessive/compulsive rereading, but this time at least I was dressed and able to see.

Roary. I want so much to give this dog a safe place for Christmas.

At last I yanked myself out of that vortex, determined to focus on the website, but first I detoured through my pet rescue’s email inbox, and was emotionally bludgeoned by a desperate appeal for help from someone who has a dog – a middle-aged male pit / mastiff mix – that her daughter rescued after he was left to starve in an abandoned house and then passed along to her when she (the daughter) landed in jail. This woman rescues cats – ferals, which she rehabilitates and rehomes. So far the dog has killed two of them, so the dog is now also in jail. Right now, cats are not being rescued, the dog has lost 15 pounds and has developed an array of stress-related health problems, and the woman is on the verge of a breakdown. She’s tried everyone she knows, she tells me, and no one will help. This is not a surprise; rescues are all in overload. Christmas is when people get a new puppy (and dump the old dog) or go skiing or to Hawaii (and dump the inconvenient dog), and of course this year there are all the covid-companions that are also being dumped because people are going back to work and “don’t have time to give him the attention he deserves.”

Side note: For fuck’s sake, people. If your name isn’t Musk or Bezos, never mind your dog, you’re probably not getting what you “deserve”. You’re quite possibly not even getting what you need. Suck it up, and if you have a dog, figure out how to suck that up too! The single most important thing a dog – or anyone – needs is a place to be, and if you don’t provide that, and the rescues can’t, he has to stop being. It’s that simple.

To stop being – to absorb a few CCs of blue magic and fall asleep: this might be all Roary gets, in the end. I can’t take him; I told her that a week ago, the first time she emailed me. I would if I could, but I have a kitty in my bedroom, and feral cats in the workshop, and chickens. I’m also getting too old and gimpy to cope with an unsocialized, out-of-control 100 lb dog, no matter how sweet he is deep down. And Argos is making it increasingly clear that he is over this rescue schtick of mine.

I called Cujo, who is my rescue partner, to ask if she had any ideas, and she said she couldn’t deal with it, couldn’t think of it – and of course she couldn’t. She’s grieving her sweet, bouncy, wilful, neurotic, beloved pit bull Jilly Bean. Little Bean came to us several years ago when the Animal Control director called to ask for help. She was just a baby – maybe six months old – and already broken and scary. Cujo took her home to rehabilitate her, and when that wasn’t possible she simply loved her and gave her a place to be for as long as possible. But the legacy of bad breeding, apart from behavioral problems, is bad health. She itched, all over and all the time, and after a while medication, special food and baths stopped working. And then her joints began to crumble. She was young and wanted to run and play but her body just couldn’t do it. She was stoical and joyous but life wasn’t good, and the pain began to make her dangerous. Cujo took her to the vet for the last time just a little while ago. I was there, and it was loving and peaceful and terrible, and now Cujo needs time to heal. She cannot be thinking about other people’s dogs.

So I wrote the kindest, most empathetic email I could to the woman, explaining for the second time – but in more detail – why we couldn’t help. I offered to pay for the euthanasia, since even her vet thinks that’s the route she should take if he isn’t placed in a new home soon. I offered to go with her to have him put to sleep, because I know – how well I know! – that it’s a terrible thing to face alone. It’s one thing to euthanize an animal that’s sick and suffering. It’s entirely another when the creature is eager to love and still greedy for life. And then I thought some more about it, and I wrote to our vet just in case she knew of someone who might take him, and I posted the appeal on Facebook with his picture … but I don’t expect anything to come of any of that. People will wring their hands and say how sad it is, but actually do anything? No, not too likely.

After that, I cried for a while, and by the time that was done it was too late to be thinking about websites. It was getting dark. I had errands to run, some of them urgent. I called Argos, and we took off together.

We went to the post office, where I picked up boxes to mail Christmas cakes – two to friends, and one to the guy who rescued me a few weeks ago. Dropped off a Christmas cake, newly baptized in brandy, with friends who foster a litter or two of puppies for us every year, thereby keeping our little rescue solvent. Went to the feed store, where I picked up several bags of the special old-horse-pellets we give Vos and Garcia, because Vos is now 30 years old and can’t chew enough hay to keep nourished, and Garcia is getting to the age where he needs a bit of nutritional support come winter.

From there we headed across town to Petco. I went into autopilot and turned right, to the dog toy section, and stopped for a while and stared at all the toys. Rubber ones, and fabric ones. Ones that you can tug and shake. Bouncy ones. Fluffy ones. The kind she loved best – squeaky ones.

I realized I could buy any I wanted and be confident that they’d last. Because the small, bright-eyed, prick-eared, black-and-white person who used to dismantle every fluffy or squeaky toy I ever brought home, no matter how careful I was to keep them out of her reach, isn’t here any more.

I didn’t want to cry in Petco.

Boudicca. In winter, my personal nighttime neckwarmer. In summer, the terror of small wild furry things.

I backed away from the toys. Took Argos to his favorite area – where the animals are. It wasn’t too interesting; the chinchilla was hiding and the ferrets were asleep, and he was kinda meh about the mice and birds, although he clacked his teeth at the parrot and the parrot snapped its beak back at him, so I guess there was some sort of inter-species communication there. Anyway, we went and got the cat litter we were there for – the clumping kind for the barn cats, and the pellets made of recycled newsprint for Boudicca.

I loaded it onto the front passenger seat, on top of the soft, bright blanket that’s been there since her last ride to the vet. I ignored the blanket, and also the box of canned dog food in the footwell in front of the seat, as I have every time I’ve used the car in the past week. We went to Yokes, a grocery store, where I picked up veggies, and a random assortment of suppery things from the deli counter, and chocolate chips so I can make a batch of brownies as a thank you for the neighbor who is coming over tomorrow with his backhoe.

I so very badly do not want to think about this! Forgive me, please, for sneaking it in under a to-do list of errands and other nonsense. I needed to bury it somehow.

But … she deserves better. So here it is: a short In Memoriam for a small dog who has left the most enormous hole.

Patchee

Patchee came to us about ten years ago. She was only a year old, if that, when the local animal control director called and asked the Hubbit and me to take her in, because the dog rescue we’d started was becoming known as a place to take dogs with behavioral issues. “There really isn’t anything wrong with this dog,” the director told us, “But legally I can’t rehome her. I have to euthanize her unless a rescue agrees to rehabilitate her. And it wouldn’t be right to put her down. She’s a perfectly normal dog, and she’s too young!”

She’d been adopted from the pound by someone who wanted a cute puppy, and who thought a heeler mix would do just fine cooped up in an apartment while the woman – a lawyer – was at work twelve hours a day. The woman was most put out when her sweet little puppy took to dismantling cushions, the couch, and anything else she could get her teeth into. Then the woman invited her friends over, and – so disconcerting – the Heeler nipped at their heels, herding them around and then out of the apartment. So the woman took her back to the pound, and in an effort to excuse herself she said the words that amounted to a death warrant: “She tries to bite my friends. I think she’s potentially dangerous.”

Well, of course we took her in, and she was with us for quite a while – at least a year. People applied to adopt her, but while other dogs came and went she stayed. She had attached herself to the Hubbit, and she disdained anyone else’s overtures. Eventually a family came to meet her – an older couple and the four teenage grandsons they were raising. To our great surprise, Patchee welcomed them. The grandsons threw balls, and she loved fetching balls, and that was really all it took. So they took her away, and as they rolled down the driveway Jim broke down and said, “I think I’ve just made a huge mistake.”

Mistake or not, we had to live with it, and so he did – but he set her picture as the wallpaper on his cell phone and carried her next to his heart, and a couple times when we were near the town she had moved to he drove past the house, hoping to see her. We never did.

Eighteen months later they called us. They told us they’d adopted another dog, from a shelter in a different town. They’d chosen that dog because it looked like Patchee and they’d thought it would be cute to have a matching pair, but they weren’t working out. Patchee had started having accidents in the house, and was scared to go outside. Frankly, it all sounded a little weird. So we told them to bring her back.

“No, no!” they said. “We love Patchee – we want to keep her. But we don’t want to take the other dog back to the shelter. We were hoping you’d take her and find her a home.”

“Nope,” I said. “Sounds like Patchee has a problem. We’re responsible for fixing it. Please bring her back.” So, reluctantly, they did. They completed paperwork to transfer her to us. Just before they signed they started to pull back and I thrust it at them. “This is the right decision,” I said, and stared them down. I was implacable. Looking back, I can’t remember why … I just knew something wasn’t okay and we needed to take our girl back. I don’t know what had really happened to her while she was with them. I don’t know what happened to the other dog. Maybe they kept her, maybe not. Maybe she was okay. They’d said she was fine.

Patchee was not fine. For several days she was utterly shut down – barely eating, barely sleeping, just curled in a tight ball, refusing to make eye contact. Then one day the Hubbit and I were sitting quietly near her and chatting, and he … I don’t know what he did. Maybe he laughed, or maybe he used a phrase that triggered a memory. I just remember that suddenly she raised her head and looked at him. Stood up, went to him, and “Oh!” she said, with her whole body. “There you are!” And she began to heal.

She started following him around the farm. Curling up close by in his study. Playing fetch. Dismantling toys to find the squeak. Sleeping between us on the bed. She changed toward me too – decided I was maybe a little more than the person who fed her and threw the ball; I began to get my small allotment of snuggles and “Good morning” rrroooo-rrahhhs. She even decided she liked a few of our friends.

And that was pretty much the sum total of her life until a few months ago. She didn’t do anything extraordinary … She rolled in cow manure in spring and turned green. She chased the ball. She went down to the river a few times, and sometimes rode along when the Hubbit went out on errands. She found the squeaker in every squeaky toy, and pulled stuffing out of anything stuffed. She hung out with the Hubbit. She was happy.

A few months ago I took her to the vet for her senior wellness exam, and after a couple of tests they diagnosed early stage kidney failure and an inoperable tumor in her bladder. This was our second case of kidney failure this year … the Hubbit’s other little princess, Ntombi, died last April barely two months after her diagnosis. And when she got sick we were sad and worried, and I turned myself inside-out trying to feed her home-cooked meals suitable for failing kidneys, and when we had to let her go because she was simply fading away we were sad – of course we were.

Ntombi – our first death row rescue. She was just a puppy in 2007, scheduled to die because there was no room at the pound.

But she was an old dog, and old dogs die. It’s what you expect. One of the things that may carry them off is kidney failure. So when we got Patchee’s diagnosis I was sad, but she was eleven – not old old, but old enough. The tumor worried me, but I figured we’d just keep things going as long as we could and help her go when we had to.

The Hubbit didn’t react that way. “We need to fight this. I’m not ready to lose her,” he said. So we went back to the vet to discuss our options, and the vet suggested we take her to the oncology department at Washington State University vet school.

The thing about refinancing a mortgage is, you get a month, or occasionally two months, of grace during which you don’t have to make a payment. There’s the final payment to your original mortgage holder, and then you get whatever is left in your escrow account, and a month (or two) of no mortgage payment before payments to the new mortgage holder kick in.

The vet at WSU said a course of chemo might help her. It wouldn’t cure the cancer, she warned, but it might give her some time – quality time, with just a few tough days after each treatment. We would have to take her in every three weeks, and she’d need to have a blood test done at our local vet a week after each treatment, and sometimes other tests. She’d have to stay on the special kidney diet as well, and she’d be on daily medications. All this added up to a wild number of dollars. But … we could do it. So we did.

The first treatment was amazing. She could pee again! She’d squat and pee would come out – a bit reddish, but they told us that was a normal side-effect of the chemo – and in no time she’d be done and bouncing off to do something more interesting. Her appetite recovered a few days after the treatment, her tail went up, her rrroooo-rrahhhs came at full volume. She fetched the ball and hung out with the Hubbit and life was good.

By the time the second treatment rolled around, peeing was difficult again. It was slow, and she sometimes had to walk around a while to get herself into exactly the right position to make anything come out. We looked forward to another improvement after that treatment, but there was none, and there was no improvement after the third treatment either, and by then it was difficult to get her to eat even after she’d had time to recover from the chemo. We abandoned the special kidney diet – it was becoming clear that she wouldn’t be around long enough to die of kidney failure – and I spent hours picking at chicken breast, breaking the flesh into fragments, mashing them into rice that had been cooked in chicken broth. I bought canned dog food that smelled so yummy it drove the rest of the pack crazy with envy, and the Hubbit tempted her with bits and pieces off his plate. She developed a bladder infection and was on an antibiotic, so I loaded up a large syringe with Greek yogurt twice a day and forced her to take it. She developed diarrhea, so I made her eat canned pumpkin, pushing it far back into her mouth with my thumb and holding her muzzle so she couldn’t spit it out. The rest of the time – when she wasn’t peeing one tiny drip at a time, or grimacing at the thought of food, she was as she always had been – watching over the Hubbit out in the pasture, in his workshop, while he was at his computer. She loved him, and she loved her life.

Three weeks ago I took her for her fourth treatment. It’s a two-and-a-half hour drive to WSU, and I welcomed the respite from everyday life. I left around dawn to be there in time for her 9.00AM appointment, listening to Stephen King’s “It” on an audiobook, on time for once, no need to rush, loving the easy highway through the unfurling hills of the Palouse. I was in our new pickup, Argos on the back seat and Patchee, snug in the colorful fleece jacket Cujo made her, curled up on her blanket on the passenger seat beside me. The sun had been up for a while as I rounded a curve, loving the sparkle of the thin layer of ice on the roadway, taking it slow.

The quiet beauty of the Palouse

And then I was spinning and time shifted into slow-motion. I checked the dogs, and they were fine. I remembered not to slam the brakes because that would make the skid harder to control. I checked the road and was relieved to see no traffic. I steered into the spin. My foot hovering over the brake, I waited to regain control, but that didn’t happen. I looked at the barricade as I was carried inexorably toward it – it looked just so flimsy, and I studied the way the hillside sloped down into the valley below the road, and I wondered whether I’d be able to keep the pickup upright when we smashed through the barricade and slammed downward. I figured the truck was probably going to roll, and I thought, “Okay, so maybe this is how death happens for me. I hope it doesn’t hurt too much.” I hoped the dogs would be okay, and not run off and be lost and starve in those lonely hills. I felt the pickup slam into the barricade – a solid thump, and the barricade held and we were sliding and spinning back across into the left lane, still no oncoming traffic, and I think it was around about then that I started carefully pumping the brake, still steering into the spin as best I could, and the wheels bit into gravel at the edge of the road, and at last. We. Stopped.

I guess the whole thing took less than a minute, but it lasted half a lifetime. I guess I must have hit a puddle of black ice, not yet melted although the sun had been up for at least an hour along that stretch of roadway. I’ve since learned that because the cruise control was on, when the wheels hit ice and lost friction they automatically accelerated, and of course until I tapped the brake the cruise control kept the pickup moving. So obvious … I was waiting for it to slow down, and it couldn’t – not until I deactivated the cruise control by braking. And I hesitated to brake, because I didn’t want to make the skid worse. So … a lesson for any who don’t know: don’t use cruise control in potentially icy conditions.

It wasn’t long before a car came along and pulled over, and a young man asked if I needed help. He loaned me his cell phone to call the Hubbit (mine wasn’t picking up a signal), and then he took me and the dogs to WSU. There was another accident a little further along the highway but he said he’d grown up in the area and preferred using the more scenic back routes anyway, and took off along a dirt road that wound through the hills. It was very pretty, but I spent most of the drive thinking how ironic it would be to have survived the accident only to be done in by a serial killer, and wondering whether the Hubbit would be able to find the dogs. (Spoiler alert: I’m still here.)

And then … we were at the vet school, and back inside the painful reality of regular life. A vet student came and took Patchee to have an ultrasound. Argos and I made camp in the lobby with the pile of blankets and my Kindle and other random crap that I’d thought I needed to pull from the pickup. After a while the Cool Dude, the Hubbit’s friend who lives in a motorhome parked next to our house, arrived to take us home. He’d left the Hubbit to figure out how to get the pickup back to the farm. We hung around and waited, and eventually the vet emerged and told me that Patchee’s tumor was still growing, and she wanted to try a different chemotherapy drug, and a course of radiation therapy to start in a few weeks. I said okay to the chemo, and agreed to discuss radiation with the Hubbit. At last the day was over and we loaded up in the Cool Dude’s car and drove home.

She loved when I snuggled her up into one of the jackets Cujo made her. She didn’t like being cold! But then after a few days she’d go out and scrape it off wriggling through a pasture fence, and the Hubbit would have to go looking.

We hoped, so very much, that this new chemo drug would work – that she’d at least be able to pee easy again. But … no. Mostly she leaked. She was scheduled for her fifth chemo treatment this week.

Last week, on Wednesday morning, I noticed she was passing blood – not just bloody urine, which was somewhat normal, but actual blood. I called the vet, and they said to take her in and they’d check her out in between appointments and call when they knew something. A couple hours later they called me, and I told the Hubbit he needed to go and be with her. It was time to let her go.

We don’t know for sure without a necropsy, but we think the tumor blocked her urethra, or maybe it just got too big, and her bladder ruptured. The extraordinary thing is that she still sang a song of joy to the Hubbit that morning, and she glommed down half her breakfast a few hours later, and she was … just … happy to be alive, hanging out with the Hubbit, doing her thing. She wasn’t afraid, and she didn’t complain that she was hurting.

The Hubbit brought her home in a little cardboard coffin the vet provided, still wearing the bright jacket that can no longer warm her. He put her in the big chest freezer we keep in the workshop. He insisted that he and the Cool Dude would dig her grave, but they’re both gimped up and I need her not to be in the freezer any more, so a couple days ago he agreed to ask our neighbor for help.

Tomorrow morning I’ll get up early and make him a batch of brownies. He’s coming with his backhoe at 10:00AM, and it won’t take long.

At 11.00AM a woman is arriving with a little freaked-out Mini-Aussie who needs a place to be and someone to teach her how to stop biting and be happy.

On Sunday I’m meeting with someone who needs me to do write something for her.

On Monday I’m working on that website.

Sometimes life spins out of control, and sometimes it’s in slow-mo, and sometimes both happen at once. You have to drive into the spin, tap the brake lightly, and hope the barricade will hold. Usually it does.

A beautiful day

I called my mother from Los Angeles Airport while waiting to board my plane. It was around 7.00pm on the Pacific coast, about 4.00am in Johannesburg, and the WhatsApp message the Kat had sent while I was en route from Seattle to LA said she was awake, and alert for the first time in several days.

She was in the cancer ward at Johannesburg’s Donald Gordon Hospital. My sisters, the Kat and the Egg, were with her. She had been there for a couple weeks already, but a bureaucratic hairball had blocked me from returning to South Africa. At last that morning someone in the Department of Home Affairs coughed up permission for me to go, and I hurled clothes into a couple of suitcases and the Hubbit drove me across the state to Seattle. We arrived just in time for me to miss my plane to Heathrow, but I found another flight that went Sea-Tac – LAX – Heathrow – JNB and took only 12 additional hours to get there.

Marmee's Baskin Robbins boob solution
Laughter. An insatiable appetite for ice cream. A bawdy sense of humor. Delight in the little things. That’s my Marmeee.

The plan for the Marmeee that day was a procedure to draw fluid from from her overburdened lungs. The revised plan for me was to arrive at Johannesburg International Airport on Sunday morning, where the Girl Child would meet me and take me straight to the hospital. After that, my sisters and I would plan where she should go to recuperate – to Hospice or to somebody’s home – until she was ready to return to the retirement complex where she lived with my father.

Plans are so easy to make. You just say them out loud, or write them down, and … voila! Life goes right on happening.

My personal short-term plan was to chivvy her off that ridiculous hospital bed and whisk her away to eat ice cream. Oh, how she loved ice cream! No matter how satisfying the feast, there was always room for ice cream because “it trickles into the interstices between the intersections of your intestines.” Her mother used to say that, and now I guess it’s my turn.

Meanwhile, at LAX, I had a pocket of time, a seat in an uncrowded corner near the boarding gate, and a WhatsApp connection. I called on the Kat’s phone. “Hello!” the Kat said. “She’s awake. Hang on, and I’ll hold the phone up to her ear.”

There was a pause, then I heard a strange hissing noise, like a tap running, or loud interference. I thought the call had dropped, and was about to dial again when I heard the Kat’s voice at a distance. “Hey, Mom, it’s Belladonna on the phone. She’s in LA, and she wants to talk to you. You ready?” I understood then that the sound I could hear was the hissing of her oxygen mask.

“Hey Ma?” I said. I paused, waiting for a response, but heard nothing but the pulsating mechanical hiss. I remembered that they’d told me she couldn’t speak. It was still my turn. “Hey there!” I said. “I’m so glad you’re awake! I’m on my way, I’ll be there soon, but I wanted to say hi, and to tell you I love you. In case you’ve forgotten.” She made a sound – something between a gasp and a groan. My chatter slammed to a stop as I strained to understand. She made the sound again. She was speaking, saying “hello”, or maybe it was “I love you”. I didn’t have to hear it; I already knew. “Hush, little Marmeee,” I said, speaking more slowly and gently now. “Don’t tire yourself. We can talk properly when I’m there. I just want you to know I’m on my way – I’ll be boarding soon – and I want to tell you why it’s taken me so long to come. I really couldn’t help the delay.”

It was important to explain because I’d promised, back in February when she was sad that it was time for me to leave, that I’d return when she needed me. And although she hadn’t asked me to come, she’d asked the Girl Child why I wasn’t there. She knew that I knew she wanted me, and while she would not have doubted my love the delay must have puzzled her. But I hadn’t wanted to tell her about the closed door at Passport Control, because I didn’t want her to worry that it might not open in time.

There was no longer any reason to worry, so I launched into a chaotic account of Belladonna’s Battle with Bureaucracy – starting with me being declared “undesirable” when I left South Africa in February because I’d stayed 22 hours past the 90 day limit on my American passport, through to the breakthrough that very morning when my heart daughter Ngalitjeng realized she knew someone who knew an influential someone who worked for the director general of Home Affairs. Sitting in the LAX departure lounge I told it as a funny story, and she smiled and smiled, her eyes sparkling above the oxygen mask. (I know this because the Kat told me so later. She and the Egg had wanted to hear what I was saying too, so they could share her amusement, but when the Kat tried to take the phone to activate the speaker Marmeee shrugged her off, clutched the phone greedily to her ear, and wouldn’t let go.)

My tale rambled as I worked at amusing her while ignoring the relentless hiss of her oxygen. At intervals incomprehensible announcements erupted from the public address system; there was no getting away from them, so I would just stop talking and let her listen to the airport noises and know that I was indeed on my way. Then the boarding calls for my flight began, and segment by segment my plane began to fill up. It was becoming difficult to keep track of the conversation, but I wasn’t ready to stop.

I told her again that I loved her, and that I would be there in time for breakfast on Sunday. I sang her the little prayer she used to sing to me each night when she put me to bed. I told her that really she didn’t need to go to such extreme lengths to get me to visit. And then I said, “But just in case you’re not faking, just in case time really is short, I want you to know you don’t have to wait for me. I’d love to see you again, but if you need to go, it’s okay. I know where you’re going, and I’ll find you there one day.” For a moment I listened to her air hiss. I let her hear my boarding call, for rows 60 to 54. I said goodbye.

She released the phone to the Kat. She was still smiling. I know this, and all that followed, because people I love have painted that day for me in words and silences, in smiles and tears, so that it is etched in my memory as clearly as if I had been there.

Seated beside her bed, my sisters chatted softly, laughing at shared memories, as the dark inched toward morning. They held ice cubes for her to suck on, and at timed intervals they allowed a carefully measured teaspoonful of water to trickle down her throat. They rubbed cream into her hands. At one point she batted irritably at her mask and the Kat said, “Is it bothering you? Does your face need a rest?” She nodded, and the Kat lifted the oxygen mask and said, “Come on – exercise your face!” She grinned broadly, then pursed and pouted her lips, wrinkled her nose, blinked her bright eyes. Later that morning the Kat pulled the mask away again and had her perform her new face dance tricks for the rest of the family.

Every four hours nurses came to massage her and turn her so that she wouldn’t develop bed sores. They changed her diaper, put ointment in her dry mouth, checked her blood pressure. She smiled with relief and gratitude.

Twiglet, the sister of my heart, arrived. “Hey, special lady,” she greeted her, “What’s this nonsense now?” She kissed her, and Marmeee beamed at her with love.

The doctor came to check on her before the procedure to suction her lungs. His shoulders sagged and his face was sad as he told them she was too weak – they couldn’t do it after all. Gently he touched her swollen hands, and told them it was time to take out the drip. Her body could no longer process fluid – it was just making her uncomfortable.

Twiglet sent the Kat and the Egg home to rest. She picked up Marmeee’s Bible and read to her. She prayed for her, and sang Amazing Grace, and was quiet while she slept.

Loving hands (2)The Girl Child arrived with the Olde Buzzard later that morning. He took her hands, kissed her, said, “You’re so beautiful, my darling. I love you so much.” Then he sat as close to her as he could, refusing the comfortable chair because he couldn’t hold her hand unless he was in the hard upright chair.

Other family members came, and she captured each in turn with her bright, clear gaze, sending love like an arrow straight from her eyes to their hearts. Embraced by a room filled by her own most dear people, she basked in their conversation, laughter, teasing. She didn’t need to speak. She had forgiven all hurts, shared all she knew, told each one she loved them. She had left no business undone.

As the day drew to a close people began to leave. They kissed her goodbye, told her they loved her, promised to return. The Olde Buzzard was shuddering with cold and exhaustion after a too-long day. Gently the Girl Child coaxed him from his seat. “Come on, Granddad – Granny needs to rest. We’ll come back tomorrow.” The Kat took him home to her little Kat-House, and got him fed, washed and settled into bed. The only company left with Marmeee were my sister-in-law Sol and her children. They chatted quietly while Marmeee dozed, and sang Christmas carols to her when she woke, “Because,” said Sol, “she likes songs about Jesus, but I don’t really know any hymns.”

After a few hours, Sol had to leave. The Egg and the Kat were on their way back to take the late night watch, and she was alone for just a little while. When my sisters were just a short distance away, a nurse called to tell them to hurry. They said her blood pressure was falling fast. The Egg telephoned Twiglet, who said, “I think it’s time to call the family. Tell them to come quickly.” The Egg sent out a series of urgent messages on WhatsApp, while the Kat slapped her foot down onto her accelerator. They flew red lights and whipped around corners and slammed into a parking space, and they ran up to the ward.

There was really no time for anyone else to come. As they watched, she fell more and more deeply asleep. Her breathing, labored when they arrived, slowed to a whisper, to silence. The pulse in her neck flickered, stopped.

It had been a beautiful day, a beautiful life, but she was tired. She had said her goodbyes. It was time to go home.

Marmeee at Sol Duc Falls, Olympic Peninsula

Running ahead of the storm

When I came home in mid-February, I was exhausted but optimistic. Marmeee was okay, for a couple years at least, probably. The Old Buzzard was losing his marbles but at a rate of only two or three a week, and his Alzheimer’s medication had transformed him into a happier, pleasanter person than he’d been in years. It was good to be back in Washington, and not too painful to be gone from my people in South Africa.

It didn’t matter that we were seven weeks into the year. I named 2016 My Year Of Reclamation, convinced that 10-and-a-bit months was all I needed to finally, at last, once and for all, turn my life around. This was the year I would have a productive vegetable garden, get serious about training Argos the Madcap Malinois, lose weight, start riding again, get our finances under control, and clean my house from top to bottom and end to end. I had a great idea for a series of fun, lightweight (but, of course, also thought-provoking) novels and I was going to start writing every day, and make money from it. And blogging. I promised myself I’d start blogging regularly every week about my fascinating life and amazing insights – you know.

collapsing like a house of cards
House of cards. (Source)

Yeah. That was the plan. I even signed up for Evernote and started a whole new super-efficient system of to do lists.

Plans are like card houses. You build them ever so carefully, handling each card with the most delicate touch as you add it to the structure. And then someone opens a window and a draft blows in and all your cards go flying.

So here it’s the end of July, and I’m looking back at the year to date and shaking my head and wondering what the fuck happened. I have been in such a horrible funk! I’ve been gobbling my way through books, most of them lightweight, easy reading or stuff I’ve read before – because even the most two-dimensional borrowed life has been more appealing than the one I’m living. I’ve been eating way too much crap, and suffering the usual consequences. All I’ve wanted to do is sleep, and when I do I wake up tired.

Depression? Well yes, but I’ve had reasons to feel sorry for myself, even without tripping over the Trump of Doom or Shillary every damn time I log onto my computer. (Seriously, America? I cannot believe that’s the best we can do!)

First, in February I accidentally overstayed my US passport’s welcome in South Africa by a whole 22 hours, and was declared an Undesirable Person and forbidden to return in under 12 months.

So then I tried to renew my South African passport, and learned that I had accidentally forfeited my South African citizenship by becoming an American citizen. I’m still trying to figure out why this was devastating, apart from the practical difficulty it caused. As someone who fears and distrusts the patriotic impulse, I should simply shrug it off with a casual “Whateverrr” … but in fact I feel robbed, and also homeless, and I’m sorry but the Land of the Free just can’t get my heart soaring the way it does under an African sky.

Then my precious Marmeee went into a downward spiral. Just before I left South Africa the oncologist told her she probably had a couple years to live … but apparently without me there to keep reminding her of this and force-feeding her chocolate milkshakes, she just … got tired, I guess. And then she died. And because of the bloody bullshit with my passport, I couldn’t be there to hold her hand. I know this was a “God thing” – I’ll explain why in another post (probably) – but it still aches.

I did manage to get through the border in time to help with her memorial and to figure out What To Do With Increasingly Dotty Dad, but while there I got sick with a deathwish-inducing flu that I didn’t shake for nearly a month. It made the 25 hour trip back a lot of fun.

Before I left we got the Old Buzzard into a home – a pleasant, homey sort of place – but instead of continuing to dole out his marbles one or two at a time he started throwing them away by the fistful. In a matter of months he went from affectionate, forgetful and occasionally grumpy, to aggressively uncooperative, to unwilling to walk and unable to speak coherently. He died a couple weeks ago. I’m not going back for the memorial, which is this coming Saturday … there’s no point, really. Today I have to write a tribute to go into the order of service, and I have no idea what to say.

I haven’t been able to grieve either of them. And mixed up in all that unexpressed grief is another deep sadness over the loss of my brother. He’s still walking around, breathing, saying things to people … but somewhere in the middle of everything else that’s been going on I learned that he hated me, has hated me for more than 30 years, has badmouthed me to people I care about – and they believed him. His claims about the way I treated him, his perceptions of who I am, have been woven into the fabric of our family dynamic – and until a few months ago I had no idea of it because the one person he never spoke to about it was me. I learned that the man I thought he was didn’t exist, the relationship I thought we had was a figment of my imagination. He has morphed from the sibling I loved most deeply and missed most painfully (even while he made my eyes roll) into The Stranger. Even if the latest nastiness “blows over”, the kind of confidence borne within mutual affection is gone. Trust is broken, and the loss feels like a death.

Sailboat in front of a tsunami
Fleeing the tsunami. (Source)

So grieving has become complicated, and I’m trying to stay ahead of it for now. Every now and then I feel tears starting to well up, but … I’m so busy, you know? If I could run away for a few days, just me and my dog, maybe then … but right now my to do list is simply too long. I don’t have the time – I don’t have the capacity – for a tsunami.

Oh – and I nearly forgot: earlier this month the Hubbit broke his arm. He tripped over his own feet, but of course he blamed my dog. Then he insisted he didn’t need xrays, didn’t need to see a doctor – so of course he ended up needing surgery. And bad tempered? Let me tell you, my guy is a generous fellow. When he’s in pain, he shares it. We all get some. So even though I got to say “I TOLD YOU SO” on several satisfying occasions, life would have been better if he’d managed to stay vertical.

Oy … this post has turned into quite the pity party. I’m sorry about that. I’ve been gone for a while, and I thought some sort of explanation was in order.

Also, here’s the thing – and I need to write this down so that I can come back as often as necessary and read it: I know that tsunami is coming. I know I can’t escape it. But I am reclaiming my faith in God – not that I lost it, but I’ve been angry, confused and resistant. I lost myself for a while. That book series I mentioned? It still looks promising, and every day I see my heroine more clearly. I like her a lot and hope you will too, when I set her loose upon the world. And the weeds didn’t completely win in my veggie garden this year. I’ve found tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower and onions lurking out there.

As for right now this minute … I’m here, right? I’m blogging, aka writing. I’m not sure why that matters, but it does. It gives me hope.

In other words, to hell with the funk – this is still My Year of Reclamation.

So … how’s your summer going?

 

Grief postponed

My first day here, around the middle of last November, I didn’t think she’d make it to her birthday. I walked into the Fogies’ little house at the retirement complex, and there was noise and excitement and hellos, and a hug from the Old Buzzard, and the Girl Child finding a vase for the flowers I’d brought, and she stood quietly waiting behind all the fuss.

She looked so small.

I put my arms around her and it was like hugging a baby bird. So small. So fragile.

IMG_20151201_170217Those first weeks, when I sometimes wondered whether she’d even make it to Christmas… they were hard. There were days spent waiting for x-rays, for CRT scans, for medications to be ready to pick up. There were arguments with the medical aid, whose protocols  demanded this, that and the other painful and pointless test. There were tears and Serious Talks and figuring out what-to-do-about-Dad. There were visits to doctors who were compassionate but not encouraging. There was Hospice, a nurse who was warm and so kind, who gave us things to read with titles like “How to cope when someone you love is dying”.

There was oxygen. It perked her up. There was time working together on editing her book. That tired her out, some days we couldn’t manage more than a few paragraphs, but it made her smile. There were flowers. Visits from friends. Meals she enjoyed, at least for a few mouthfuls. A whole chocolate milkshake at the end of a morning’s shopping.

When we finally saw the oncologist (actually we waited only ten days for an appointment, but it felt like forever – Christmas was close, and I wanted, needed him to work a miracle and ensure she was able to celebrate) I pummeled him with questions. “Should we change her diet? Cut out sugar? What about exercise? Is it good or should she rather rest? We have a source who will sell us cannabis oil – she doesn’t like it but… will it help?”

He looked at her and said, so gently, “It doesn’t matter what you eat. You can eat as much ice cream as you like – and if you don’t feel like eating, you don’t have to. Exercise if you want to. Rest when you need to. Don’t let anyone bully you – you can try whatever magical remedies you like, but you don’t have to do anything that makes you feel bad. Rather, spend time with your family. Enjoy the time you have left.” And then he prescribed hormone therapy, since that worked 20 years ago during her second bout with breast cancer, along with various other medicinal compounds, and he went off on a skiing trip, and it was Christmas.

She celebrated with us.

At the beginning of January we went back to the oncologist. When she walked into his consulting room, still small and somehow fragile but walking on her own two little short stubby legs (sorry, Ma – you passed them on to me; I can be rude about them if I want to) his eyes lit up with surprise and pleasure. The x-rays showed that her lungs were almost clear of fluid, and she was breathing just fine. He didn’t stop beaming at her the whole time we were there.

When I came to Johannesburg in November, I thought for sure we’d be planning her funeral by January. Instead, we went on a road trip.

Look!

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The tiny church in Reenen

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A walk in the woods

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A stroll on Ballito beach

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Paddling in a rock pool

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A visit to my nephew’s boarding school. He played one of his own compositions, which he had written specially for her.

Last week, when we visited her oncologist again, he told her to get more exercise. He said, “You’ve been really sick, and now you’re going to have to put some work into getting better.”

Of course, technically she’s still sick. Stage 4 cancer doesn’t just go away. So she uses a wheelchair if she goes anywhere that requires a lot of walking, she takes her medications, she rests often, and she spends around 12 hours a day hooked up to oxygen.

But she’s not letting a mere disease take one flicker of the sparkle out of her life. Last week she had cataract surgery, because it looks like she’ll be needing her eyes for a while yet and she doesn’t want to miss seeing anything. On Thursday, undeterred by her eye patch, we celebrated her birthday by wrapping up the edit of her book, then we went out for dinner with the rest of my siblings. On Sunday we celebrated again with a picnic for 25 friends and family at one of her favorite places, the Walter Sisulu Nature Reserve.

Just look at her.

Isn’t she lovely?

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Dislocation

I got a WhatsApp message 18 days ago. This is what it said:

Hi. Day of tests (eg CAT scan) and stuff happening, have some rather rough news. Luckily Dad was here to hear it direct from the doctor. The fact is, subject to confirmation from Oncologists, I have cancer, and don’t have a whole lot of time. Could be as little as 6 weeks, could be 6 months, he couldn’t say without opinion of oncologist.

The message was from my mother.

So now I am sitting on my sister’s stoep in Johannesburg at 3.30AM, 10,164 miles (that’s 16,358 km) from home. At home right now the time is 5.30PM, which means it’s been dark for more than an hour. The temperature is 29 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s -1.7 Celsius) and it’s raining, but at least it’s not windy. The Hubbit has had to put heaters in the water troughs to prevent them from icing over, and he’s hung an infrared light next to the water supply in the chicken house. I am wearing a short-sleeved nightshirt and a light shawl, and on my feet I have thick non-slip socks that Himself brought back from some or other hospital visit; my legs and arms are bare and I’m enjoying the cool pre-dawn air. It’s pitch dark and not windy here too.

I have been trying to write this post for more than two weeks and I still have no idea how to proceed. How does one describe such profound dislocation? Does the language to do so even exist?

Fifty-eight years ago I slept and danced in the center of her body, just below her heart. A few months later, I rested on her breast, soothed by her heartbeat. As the years passed I shifted my orbit further and further out. I acquired my own satellite, I allowed my heart to take me to another country, separated from her by the full thickness of this planet. But always, any time I thought of it, I could hear the beat of her heart, and it beat for me … for me … for me.

I am afraid. How will I find my way in the terrible silence when her heart stops beating? How will I hold my orbit when she is no longer at the center of it?

Those questions are way too big. I cannot comprehend their answers. Instead, I focus on to do lists. I created one before I left home and completed most of what was on it – hay bought and stacked, a foster dog rehomed, filing and budget up-to-date, house cleaned, appointments canceled, Plans A, B and C in place to ensure that my crazy puppy doesn’t send Himself clear over the edge. I did all that I could to ensure the Hubbit’s well-being, even as I prepared to leave him to cope with a supremely shitty challenge on his own. And now I’m working off a new to-do list, featuring items like “Call Hospice” and “Deal with medical aid re oxygen”, and also “Birthday party for Dad”.

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Focus on happy memories … The Fogies, with various dogs and Marmeee’s snow maiden – winter time at Siyabonga in 2007.

I focus on living in the now. Now she is here, and most days we work together on the final edit of her book. We have conversations about life and death and stuff that we remember and God and that peculiar woman who just walked past their unit at the retirement complex. We pray together. We go out for coffee. We are relearning how to chuckle at the small things.

I am also using this time out from the everyday to recalibrate my own life. I’m spending time with the Girl Child, reconnecting with my siblings and best friend and others that I love. I’m paying attention to my health – yesterday my sister and I started the ketogenic diet together, and I have aspirations of swimming daily in the pool at her complex just as soon as I kick the sinus infection that I managed to pick up on my way here.

Sometimes I am troubled by my calm. I feel guilty because it seems I’m not sad enough. I’m finding it too easy to make lists, to diet, to remember how to drive on the left side of the road. I get irritated by other drivers and angry with my Dad for not behaving the way I want, and I am pleased that the exchange rate is working out well for me, and I read and watch TV and go to restaurants and argue about politics.

It’s only now and then that grief overwhelms me, and I find myself sitting in parking lots or pulled over to the side of the road, with snot running down my face as I wail and bite my fist and pull my hair. A few days ago, after an agonizing conversation with my Dad, I came home to my sister’s condo and I couldn’t go inside because no one else was home. So I hammered on her next door neighbor’s door and, when he opened it, begged the poor startled man for a hug – which he gave along with tea and lemon cream biscuits and a quiet place to sit and pull myself together.

But one cannot live in that place, and I’m learning that that’s okay. I know a dark day is coming. I know that none of my puny lists and preparations will make the least difference in the horrible breathless silence of that day. But right now, as I sit here on my sister’s stoep and coming to the end of my first blog post in more than a month, I am embraced by the dawn. I hear songbirds and hadedas, and the traffic of people going about their lives in the city. In a few hours, my precious Marmeee and I will work together on her book, and the oxygen delivery guy is coming, and a friend of hers who is a nurse. Maybe I’ll take the Fogies out for coffee and cake after lunch. This evening I’m roasting a chicken and my friend is coming for dinner.

Today is a gift, and I will rejoice and be glad in it. Tomorrow’s sorrow can wait its turn.

 

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