Time out to rescue me

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

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

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

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

Zeus

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

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

Daisy

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

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

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

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

Donnabella

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

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

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

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

Pearl Fuzzybutt

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

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

Oreo, Tucker and Lucy Snugglepot

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

Dax

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

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

Nope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Violet

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

People make me tired!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blogging while distracted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seriously … where is my dang phone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He distracted me! It’s his fault!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

And the winner is…

… a mug of hot, sweet, milky tea and a peanut butter sandwich. Not fancy, and it makes my stomach hurt, but it’s still the ultimate comfort food.

It was the tomatoes and apricots that did me in, mind you. Kuja stopped by and we wandered out into the veggie garden, and – because she’s not one for half measures – she got busy picking pretty much everything that was ready. I’ve been wanting to do this – no one benefits from food left sitting on the vine – and somehow that resulted in just having to taste a tomato … and then a different one … and another. So my mouth started singing the Halleluja Chorus, which woke up my stomach, and then a few other things happened that demanded action … and so, to end an interminable story, I ate the samn damwich. It was yummy!

Anyway, I still think I’m a winner. Three days of no food? That’s pretty darn good for me! I am going to try to make fasting a regular part of my life, and I need to have another go at keto … although it’s really hard to wrap my head around being completely carb-free when we have all sorts of trees and squashy things and tomatoes right out there.

Right now I’m feeling pretty good. I’m tired, but I feel energized. I’m also as happy as all get out because Peter Pan is back … I don’t think I’ve ever told you about Peter Pan, apart from a brief mention here … Hmm, where to begin?

I’ll begin with a picture and end with a promise to tell you more next time I write. Right now, I need to use this welcome energy burst to Get Shit Done in time for an early night, because tomorrow morning I am once again taking up my quill and reconnecting with Henrietta Gurdy. I’ve told you about Henrietta – I mentioned her by name here, but she’s changed a lot since then. I learned just recently that someone I met at the PNWA Writer’s Conference last year is gifting me her reservation for this year, which gives me just five weeks to make Henrietta presentable.

Anyway … this is Peter Pan…

20161221_130311
He’s a tad more hairy than when this was taken in December 2016, but still the eternal boy. I’ve missed having him around!

And now I must go unskunk a dog. Gotta love life on the farm!

Do you ever find that winning and losing are hard to tell apart? 

I have to write a bible

Exploding head
This did not happen to me, but it was a close call.

Well, my head didn’t explode, so that’s good, but I had to skip most of the evening sessions and the whole of Sunday at the PNWA Writer’s Conference, or it might have. It was intense and I learned so much! And something about being immersed in an imaginarium of writers got my creative juices squirting so hard they darn near flooded me out of my own brain.

So, anyway, here is what I know: My book sucks. I have to go back to the beginning and start again.

On the other hand, I have learned things that will help me get it right. I will now share some of what I learned for the edification of fellow wannabe-serious-writers.

  1. Amazon is amazing. It has a bazillion (free!!!) platforms for different types of writing. Terry Persun, who gave a detailed presentation about marketing writing through Amazon, is a writer, not an Amazon employee, and by the time he was done he had me thinking “Pah! Self-publishing is clearly the way to go – I don’t even need a publisher, much less an agent!”
  2. Agents and publishers still regard self-published authors with suspicion. They acknowledge that times have changed, but by damn they’re taking a stand for traditional values!
  3. It is possible to be hungry and distracted and psyched up enough to pay $8.00 for a bottle of water and a banana. I know this because it happened to me at the hotel where the conference was held. Needless to say, I stayed a mile or two down the road at a hotel that didn’t serve bananas or bottled water at any price.
  4. It is also possible to be stuck with a bill for $27.00 for five hours of parking.
  5. Riding the bus is a relaxing and efficient way to get a mile or two down the road.
  6. Back story is key, and you have to write it down in something called a “bible”. This contains everything you know about every character – and when it comes to main characters, you’d better know everything – when they were born, where they went to school, that weird birthmark, sexual proclivities, number of earrings, favorite flower, verbal tics, wishes, fears and dreams – it all gets written down, and as the characters reveal themselves to you during the course of writing the book, you keep updating the bible. The bible also contains maps of any locale where any action happens, building plans, timelines – in other words, anything you could conceivably need to remember 50,000 words into the book.
  7. You don’t start your story with a giant dump of the main character’s entire back story. You dribble out tiny crumbs of information as you lead your reader through the forest to the witch’s house. This means that, to create believable characters, you have to do a shitload of writing that no reader will ever actually see. (How could I not know this? I did know it, but I forgot, and my first two chapters are just this giant blurghh.)
  8. Some things give away a person’s nationality even better than accent. For instance, I was oblivious to Cherry Adair’s South African accent, but when she mentioned  Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs I had a flashback to my university days, playing glassy-glassy (aka ouija) with my friends and spending hours researching my perfect mate (as outlined in Sun Signs) while ignoring the fact that I was not, as advertised, a tall, slender, green-eyed blond. Then she talked about how all her characters have lots of hot monkey sex, but it’s important for them to have a solid back story, so that the novel isn’t just a sex book, and even though I still wasn’t sure of her accent I knew she had to be South African, because Americans don’t talk about monkeys in the context of hot sex. Anyway, apparently when Ms Adair is getting to know a character, she gives them a birthday and then looks it up in her old copy of Sun Signs, and that tells her everything about the character that she needs to know. (She figures out the sex stuff on her own.)
  9. According to an agent who gave a talk on “How to Hook an Agent”, it’s not that hard to hook an agent, but if they don’t pick you it’s not because your book is no good – it’s because … something about going to a supermarket to buy a snack and even though the chocolate looks delicious you walk past it because what you really want just then is popcorn. Seriously – who would do that? I didn’t get to tell him about my book, so I don’t know whether he’s a chocolate or popcorn guy. The point is, don’t feel rejected, just keep doing your chocolate (or popcorn) thing until someone eats you.
  10. There are many different ways to write a series, but you’ll be sorry if you try to do it without a bible.

What else? Oh – I had my first experience of meeting a blogger I follow face-to-face, so that was cool! Lynn Price of Behler Blog is an excellent resource for us wannabes, so go check her out.

And, of course, I mustn’t forget to mention the main reason I went to the con. On Saturday morning I pitched my book to three agents and two editors. The way it worked was, about an hour before the pitch session they let those who had booked for the session into a special room. (Security was tighter than it is at the airport – there was no way anyone got in without the special ticket.) I was one of the first in line (I was early for practically the whole conference!) so I got to sit in the front row of seats. Five minutes before the session started they opened the door, and every author present released their inner buffalo and stampeded for the pitch room. (Sometimes it helps to be on the wider side of chubby – I simply stuck out my elbows and didn’t let anyone pass me.)

The agents and editors were lined up in alphabetical order behind tables, about two feet apart…

A pride of lions soaking up the mid-day sun. Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
They looked like this, only more lions and less grass. (Source)

… and we lined up in front of them, behind a strip of tape. A buzzer went off and the first writer in line scurried forward, sat down, and started talking really fast. Four minutes later the buzzer went off again and if they didn’t get their butt out of that chair immediately a volunteer came up and “persuaded” them, and then the next writer plopped down, while the seat was still warm. This went on for an hour and a half and then they kicked us out, and those who could still walk went and got drunk.

I’ll get the really embarrassing one out of the way first. Delegates got a list of all the editors and agents and what they were looking for, and on Friday morning there was a forum, where each editor/agent talked about what mattered to them and we wannabes frantically took notes. That’s what we used to figure out whom to pitch to. But in the middle of all this figuring out and lining up and scurrying forward to grab a warm seat and talking fast, I got a couple of the agents confused. Consequently, I sat down in front of a sweet lady who listened to the first half of my pitch and then said, “Ermmm … Is this a YA book? Because I do books for children and young adults.” I should have got up and walked away then, but instead I blinked, swallowed, and pitched her a YA book I haven’t looked at for about a decade because … lots of reasons; anyway, it is so not ready for publication. This time she didn’t interrupt me, but when I ran out of words she said, apologetically, “Ermmm … it sounds like a fantasy. I don’t do fantasy.”

So yeah, someone gave me a pity pitch.

The others went better. One agent wants to see a written proposal and 20 pages, another agent and an editor each want 50 pages, and an editor with purple hair wants the entire manuscript.

And it sucks so much!!! I feel like a con artist! Please note: this is not a request for Encouraging Words. This is real, but it’s okay. I confessed to the purple editor that the book needed a little work, and she said as long as she had it within six to eight weeks that would be okay. I’m going to assume the same is true for the others. So now all I have to do is write a novel in six weeks.

That sounds doable. No pressure. I’ll start work on the bible tomorrow.

What lifelong dreams are you getting ready to unleash? Is it scary for you too?