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.

Gaps in the fence

The other day I was driving home when our neighbor’s wife called to say her husband had died. We didn’t know them well. I’d only ever spoken to the wife over the telephone, though I knew him to say hello or wave. He and the Hubbit were friendly; they’d call on each other for help as needed – to borrow tools or equipment, or work together on some or other repair. For a while we took care of their pasture in return for grazing our cattle there. More than once he zipped over in his golf cart to help us chase down a runaway steer.

Somehow I never got around to inviting them over to barbecue, and we had no idea that he’d been diagnosed with throat cancer in February.  When I got home I told the Hubbit the news and he was dismayed. “Well, dang!” he said. “I’ve been thinking I should go over and visit, but…”

A few weeks ago I learned that my Aunt Marietjie had died. She was in her nineties and I knew she’d become frail, but the last time I saw her – just a few years ago at Marmeee’s memorial service – she was as I’d always known her: calm, unfalteringly kind, resolute. We weren’t close; I didn’t see her that often and in the 23 years since I moved to the US we’ve never corresponded … but when I named this blog it was with her in mind, because she was someone I kinda wanted to be like – strong, unflappable, salt-of-the-earth, a woman of strong faith and stronger Scrabble skills, a quiet source of wisdom and comfort food.

My father, the Olde Buzzard, used to refer to her as a soustannie, and it was only after I named this blog that I learned that the word didn’t mean an intelligent, powerful woman with excellent culinary skills. It’s not a compliment. It means someone who is female, fat and bossy. Well, some might say that makes it a fine name for my blog …. Oh well. [Insert shrug emoji here.]

Moment of truth: the Olde Buzzard was intimidated by strong women, and that made him mean. He had uncomplimentary nicknames for me too. He died a few years ago, and … well, all I want to say is, I’m grateful that in the end I was able to do my duty, to treat him with love and kindness, and that everything needing to be said and done between us was indeed said and done.

Getting back to Marietjie … I thought of changing the name of this blog, but decided instead to stay with the image I’d originally had in mind – an image largely inspired by this aunt, whom I am not at all like, yet who was extraordinarily kind to me at random intervals throughout my life. She was the one person I could trust to love my Girl Child when she needed it and wouldn’t accept it from me. I always meant to write to her care of my cousin, but…

Some years ago I wrote a post that won a response from a different cousin, from the other side of the family. I replied, but he never commented again. But from then on, every time I wrote about dogs, a small part of me wrote for him, because I grew up hearing stories about his extraordinary ability to connect with animals.

I grew up loving him.

I have many cousins and I’ve had crushes on several of them, but Michael was special. He was so handsome, tan and blue-eyed and blonde, with ruggedly regular features and a smile that reached out and pulled you in. When he invited me up onto his lap and taught me how to tell the time on his big wristwatch, he made my four-year-old heart flutter. I was convinced I would marry him, and I was devastated when he married someone else.

The Old Buzzard had adored my cousin – they were close in age – and he disliked the wife, and now I realize that she’s probably strong and intelligent as well as being “a damn liberal who thinks we aren’t good enough”. Back then, viewing her through the distorted lens of his resentment, I couldn’t warm to her. But I spent a month with them, while I was a university student with a vacation job in their city, and I remember she was kind, and their home was beautiful, and they seemed happy. (Who wouldn’t be happy with Michael?) I remember that she collected silver, so at the end of the visit I spent almost everything I’d earned on some too large and probably tacky addition to her collection because I needed to prove that I’d been raised right. I remember I fell and sprained my ankle getting off the bus, and Michael – who was a successful vet by then – bound it up. When I complained that he hurt me, he laughed at me for making more fuss than a dog with far worse injuries. But I forgave him because he still made my teenage heart flutter.

After I got that message from him on my long-ago blog post, whenever I wrote about dogs and hoped for another message I thought about making contact. I imagined going to see him on my next trip to South Africa. And then a couple months ago I heard that he’d died. Hoping for more detail I looked at his sister Midge’s Facebook page – and that’s when I learned that her daughter had just died – a beautiful, bright, happy woman that I’d never met, barely knew existed, just gone. There are wedding photos on Midge’s Facebook page, and she shines. I wept over them for several days – I don’t know why the loss felt so agonizing; I didn’t know her! And then I tried to write to Midge, but…

Then I got a message on my last post, from Michael’s wife, reaching out, and that’s when I learned that he’d actually died long before I heard about it – last January, of covid – such a horrible, horrible way to go! And I wanted to write to her, but what to say? Where to send it? We’re not even connected through Facebook – which I rarely visit anyway. It’s not that I can’t figure this out – and I will – but…

But I want a do-over. I want a neighborhood barbecue, and after that maybe conversations and coffee with a few new friends.

I want to talk to Michael and his wife, and see her with my own clear eyes. I don’t know what we’d talk about … dogs, probably, but what else? I want to know!

I want another game of Scrabble with Marietjie, with a plate of koeksisters and big mugs of rooibos tea. And I want to walk on the beach and then loll about comfortably and talk about cats with my cousin, her daughter, who is still this side of the dirt but on the far side of the planet.

I want to hug Midge, and meet her daughter, and maybe be invited to the wedding, or at least send a gift. And I want to meet her niece, my goddaughter, whose parents thought it would be cute to make 12-year-old me a godmother, since they didn’t take such things seriously, only I wish I had. And actually I’d like to see her parents again too.

And then there’s the other cousin who used to look so hot in his SA Airforce uniform, and his brother who was in a quite popular band and then became a DJ. They used to tease me, and one time I played in their mother’s cactus garden and ended up sprawled over my mother’s lap, butt exposed to the sunshine and their gleeful mockery, while I shrieked my outrage and she picked out tiny needles with a pair of tweezers. Those cousins are still alive, as far as I know, round the other side of the planet, and one day it’ll be too late for a do-over, but right now I have no idea what to do about that. We had a friendship – the DJ cousin and I did, anyway – and then it fizzled and we drifted and … truth be told, there’s probably no way back. None on my map, anyway.

I have cousins scattered all over the world, and others – nieces and a nephew, second cousins – so many people that I love or have loved or wish I’d loved. And although I know I don’t have the capacity to reconnect deeply with all of them – or even with more than a very few – being strangers just feels wrong.

And then there are friends. Like Deej. I want to sit with Deej and lay out all my questions about God and ask him how he, one of the finest and fiercest champions of Christ I ever knew, could possibly think well of Donald Trump. I actually tried to ask him that, via WhatsApp, but he didn’t answer, and over time he ghosted me. That stung, because he was my pastor more than anyone else ever was or will be, and I want to look him in the eye and ask why he wounded me. But I can’t, because he’s gone, and there are no do-overs. He died last December, a week shy of his eightieth birthday, leaving me still burdened with so many questions and no one else I’d entrust them to.

I ache every day to go on a road trip with Twiglet, the sister my heart gave me. Talking on WhatsApp doesn’t cut it, especially as her connection is so bad that usually I just listen to her voice; it’s impossible really to follow what she’s saying. I want a cream tea with Luscious. I want to talk about God and poetry with Fair Bianca. I am homesick for the friends of my young womanhood!

I want to kick back and laugh with the Kat, and talk deep talks with the Egg and Homeboy, and argue face-to-face with the Girl Child instead of getting mad and frustrated over WhatsApp. I want to laugh and talk and eat with my foster kids, and watch the granddaughters they gave me grow up, and be there to love them through it when their mothers make them angry, and go to their weddings and cuddle their babies – or not, if they choose a different road. But they’re all, all on the wrong side of the planet.

I want to find a way back to the Stranger, but I don’t think there is one, and the meeting place where I’d hope to find him might not even exist.

I remember my blessings. Here I have friends, a few anyway, some quite elderly, and a Hubbit ditto, that I love as best I can – although never enough. I have neighbors that I may invite to barbecue next summer.

I’ve been thinking that the people we touch are like fenceposts. They enclose the fields where we grow our lives.

I look at my fence, and there are gaps in it. It’s been standing a while and has reached that stage in the life of a fence that gaps form more and more frequently. Some of the timbers are broken, others are weathered and warped and working loose, and many are out of my reach. Beyond the fence I see the wilderness pressing in.

I’m not afraid of the wilderness. Often I’m drawn to it … I stand next to the fence and imagine what it would be like to push through and see what’s out there. Then I remember that I have work still to do on this side and I turn back.

But it troubles me sometimes to think that one day the gate in the fence may open, and it won’t matter because the fence itself will be down. I’ll walk through, as one must, but I wonder who will know.

Photos by Denise Karis and Foto Maak on Unsplash

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 long, sweet and crazy

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My beautiful girl left us tonight.

Destra came to us as a five month old puppy who needed a safe place to recuperate after breaking her leg. She’d been in the very early stages of training for a career with the police or military when she broke her leg while playing with her trainer. The trainer was going to have her euthanized but a rescue stepped in and arranged for her to have surgery. After a month of crate rest they asked us to take her in for a month of R&R while she finished her recovery.

A few days after she arrived we started seeing bloody footprints all over the house. It took a while to figure out who had been injured – she wasn’t limping, because either the initial accident or the surgery had damaged the nerves in her leg and she couldn’t feel anything. By the time we figured it out, she’d run the pads right off her foot.

Destra - malinois 1

Nine long months of fighting infection followed. Every morning I’d throw a blanket over my dining table and she’d jump up onto it and flop over onto her side with a sigh of resignation, and I’d clean and treat and dress her foot, and then all day she’d fuss and beg to be let out to play with the big dogs. I tried to keep her occupied with games and toys; she loved “packaged meals” – I’d wrap up her kibble, a few bits at a time, in layer after layer of newspaper, each layer thoroughly duct taped, and she’d get to spend a glorious fifteen minutes shredding her way through it. But every few days she’d sneak out, or brazenly break out, and go running in the pastures with the big dogs, and come back with her tongue lolling with joy and her paw bloody. Sometimes she ran it clear down to the bone.

So of course she developed a bone infection, and it didn’t get better no matter what remedies I tried – and I tried everything from a poultice of raw honey to various creams and unguents the vet recommended, in addition to pills that had to be rammed down her throat because she never, ever, ever consented to swallow them, no matter how deliciously disguised or carefully wrapped. She’d nibble off the tasty stuff and spit the pill on the floor. The vet recommended amputation. The rescue that had been providing for her care cut off funding; they said it was time to euthanize. We didn’t have the money for surgery, but we found another rescue that did.

Her amputation surgery was scheduled for a Thursday afternoon. I called the next morning. “So … how is she doing? May I visit her? Maybe bring her something to chew?” She loved to chew almost as much as she loved to run. They said I could, and on my way in I stopped at our local butcher. It was late fall, the time of year when butchers are usually very busy cutting and wrapping farm raised beef, but they didn’t yet have ours. I rushed inside and demanded to speak with him. “My dog just had her let amputated and she needs a really big bone!” I informed him, and after only the briefest pause for bewilderment he gave me the biggest, juiciest, meatiest bone I ever saw.

At the vet I sat in the little consulting room, waiting for them to wheel her in on a trolley (they’d warned me, before the surgery, that she might need help learning to walk). Well, she’d heard my voice and came barreling through the door, dragging the vet tech behind her, and flung herself joyously into my lap. They told me they’d knocked her out after the surgery, wanting her to have a good night’s sleep, but when they’d come in that morning she’d been standing up on her one remaining hind leg, tail wagging, waiting to hear what fun was planned for that day.

Destraglamour1 - Copy

She spent the weekend at the vet, working her way through that bone, and by Sunday afternoon she was well and truly ready to come home. We pulled up at the gate at the end of our long driveway. One of her favorite tricks before the surgery had been to jump out of the car and take off up the driveway, her feet hammering the gravel and ripping her pads to shreds. She’d always got into trouble for that. But as I pulled through the gate I asked her, “You want to run?” She looked at me, not quite believing. “Go on. Run!” I said.

She leaped out of the car and took off up the driveway, and she didn’t care one iota that she had only one hind leg to hammer. That was my girl … Her focus was always on what was in front of her. Hind legs? They were history, and she paid them no mind.

We were still planning to give her up for adoption. I loved her, but even with only three legs she was capable of so much in terms of training – and I was so taken up by rescue that I didn’t have the time to give her what I felt she needed. But then she let us know that she really didn’t like kids – she said they were creepy, stunted and weird, and needed to be bitten. The Malinois rescue that had taken her on had a zero tolerance policy for aggression – and rightly so; Mals can be dangerous. So we kept her; we don’t often have kids visit, and after a few years she decided maybe they were okay after all and the issue went away.

She remained a complete lunatic – really smart, quick to learn how to please, even quicker to learn how to get away with murder. She slaughtered a couple of my goat kids and numerous chickens. She shrieked with excitement, bossed the other dogs, made me laugh every day, and drove the Hubbit crazy.

I wish I’d done more with her. I think she’d have enjoyed being challenged more. But life was good all the same … For most of her life she went everywhere with me, and right up to a few weeks ago she loved going to the river. She loved to swim.

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Over the years, inevitably, she slowed down. Her forequarters, which did most of the work when she ran, grew big while her hindquarters became skinny. Her spine twisted into an S-curve. She needed heavy doses of medication to manage the pain of arthritis. She still liked riding along but needed help getting into the car, and being in unfamiliar places began to bother her. She shared car-dog duties with Argos, and increasingly was content to be left at home.

The vet found a lump on her throat, an inoperable tumor, probably thyroid cancer, about a year ago. It didn’t seem to slow her down, though – no more than she was already slowing down just from being old and achy. We’ve been monitoring her health; last time she had blood work it looked pretty good, and she was due to go in for another test around about now. She collapsed a few weeks ago and I thought then that she was on her way to the Rainbow Bridge, but she rallied and has been her usual self – bossy and impatient with the other dogs, but eager to eat, play, get loves, ride in the car,

She went down this evening, though, and an hour later she was gone. She’s on her cushion near me as I write this. I look at her every now and then, and even though I know she’s gone, it’s hard to believe she really isn’t breathing. I stare at her ribs and they seem to move. I know I’m just imagining it, but all the same when the Hubbit suggested moving her outside for the night I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving her out in the cold.

Tomorrow we’ll bury her in the yard in front of the house, and in spring I’ll plant a tree on her grave.

And that’s all there is to say about that, really. I feel this post hasn’t done her justice. I’ve spilled out a whole lot of words and, in the end, they don’t say much. I haven’t told you how soft her coat was, or how intensely alive she was, or how maddeningly shrill her bark was, or how funny and smart she was, or how totally she didn’t give a shit about being a tripod. I haven’t described how, when I took her and Argos to the park and threw the ball, I’d have to keep her on a leash so she didn’t hurt herself trying to beat him to it, and every now and then I’d make him sit/stay and toss the ball close by so she could have a turn without hurting herself. She would never bring the ball back to me and if ever I tried to take it from her she’d be so excited I’d get bitten, so I learned to wait until she decided where to drop it, and then Argos would fetch it. And when she was tired she’d take the ball back to the car, and that was the end of our outing to the park.

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I guess that’s what happened this evening. She got tired, so she grabbed the piece of my heart I threw for her and she’s taken it to the Bridge. I’ll get it back one day, but there’s no hurry. It’s hers, after all.

Please talk to me. There’s no easy way to lose a friend, but sometimes shared stories help.

The Olde Buzzard and the Easter bunny

After my mother died we put my father in a home.

Funny how that sounds like a confession! It sounds like abandonment, like kids who don’t care and don’t want to be bothered with a dotty, demanding old man.

In fact it was the best we could do for him. The home – actually two houses on adjoining suburban lots – was a little shabby, but the lawn was green and mowed smooth enough for walkers and wheelchairs, and the tree between the houses was huge, with comfortable chairs set out in the shade. The caregivers were kind. The food was delicious and plentiful. It didn’t feel like an institution, but it was safe, staffed by people who understood how to care for people with his condition.

He had a little room to himself that opened out onto a grassy area. Outside the sliding glass door we put potted plants that used to stand on their stoep – his and Marmeee’s – and a small clay garden gnome that my sister the Kat had given them. The room itself was very small, but we made it big with the framed photographs from their trips to America, and the life-size photograph of the first (and last) trout Marmeee ever fished for, the intensely colorful blanket she had crocheted on the bed, a few books that we hoped he might still be able to read. You know … the random odds and ends that one hopes, against all odds, will make a place home.

Lindt Easter bunny

Oh, and a chocolate Easter bunny. That was a housewarming gift from me; of all his children, I’m the one who has inherited his chocaholic genes in their most potent form. He loved plain chocolate with licorice shoelaces, and as a child I gave him some in a brown paper bag every birthday – and then demanded my share, which he would eke out with a stingy hand. You haven’t been able to get licorice shoelaces for years, but he was happy with chocolate on its own – always plain; he didn’t want any potential chocolate space in the slab taken up by nuts or raisins or other junk.

But that was for everyday munching. Everyone knows Easter chocolate is better – a special treat, guaranteed to make any situation more bearable! (Actually, in the US Easter chocolate mostly sucks. But this was in South Africa, and anyway it was a Lindt bunny.)

I put it right next to his bed where he couldn’t miss it, and imagined him nibbling on it on his first night in his new bed. But when I visited him the next day it was still there, untouched.

I picked it up and brandished it at him. “Oy! You didn’t eat your bunny!” I said.

He blinked at it bemusedly. “Is that mine?”

“Yes, you silly nit! That’s why it’s next to your bed!”

He looked down at the bed he was sitting on (there was space for only one chair in his room) and fingered the crocheted blanket. “Oh! Is this my bed? This looks like the blanket Mom made.”

“Yes, Dad,” I replied gently. “This is your bed. You live here now. And this -” I brandished the bunny at him – “is your own chocolate Easter bunny! You must eat it before it gets old and yucky.”

“It’s an Easter bunny? Well, when is Easter then?” he asked.

“It was a few weeks ago. Never mind about Easter – we’ve already celebrated that. But the store had a bunch of leftover chocolate bunnies on special so I got you one.”

He took it, stroked the ribbon with his forefinger. Said, “I think I’d better save this for Easter. It’s so pretty… It wouldn’t be right to eat it on an ordinary day.”

The next time I visited I took a slab of plain Cadbury milk chocolate, which I put into the top drawer of his bedside table, where he had no difficulty finding it. The bunny was still there … and it was still there a week later when I went to say goodbye before flying back home to Washington. I wonder whether he ever ate it? I like to think that someone eventually slipped off the red ribbon, peeled away the gold paper, and shared it with him. I like to think the taste of good chocolate melting on his tongue brought him a moment of simple pleasure.

But if my sister the Egg found it when she went to clear out his room, and either ate it or gave it away … well, that’s okay too. At least it didn’t sit there long enough to get stale.

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