Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Aria and Kitties
September 21, 2008
Subject: Aria and kitty cats
Before I launch into yet another tale about the farm in general and kitty cats in particular, let me give you an update about Aria and her clinic visit on Friday September 12, 2008. This appointment was only a finger poke and an evaluation with her physical therapist. She has been doing exceptionally well so this visit was completely relaxed and almost enjoyable. You may recall that 2 weeks before I had talked with a mother whose son was scheduled to finish his 3 1/2 year chemo treatment this day and I was hoping to run into her so I could congratulate them. I have been thinking about her ever since feeling so thankful for having met her and having had such a genuine conversation. I was eager to thank her personally and express my gratitude.
The finger poke went without incident. Aria's beloved Krista was there playing the guitar for her and that exchange makes everything right in Aria's universe. I was all set to take off since we didn't need to wait around for results and I thought this would be a nice in-and-out kind of thing. Aria was downtrodden thinking that she wouldn't be able to play with the Playskool farm/barn set with Krista, who, as you can imagine probably had far more important things to do than this, but humored Aria completely. I allowed Aria to play for 10 minutes or so and just as we were packing up to leave, in walked the mother I previously mentioned and her son. I nearly knocked her over with my enthusiastic leap out of my chair to greet her. I breathlessly rushed into thanking her for our conversation 2 weeks earlier telling her how much it meant to me. I congratulated them on a huge day. The end of chemo! The end! Wow. I was amazed and all smiles. She, on the other hand, was completely reserved and guarded.
She smiled and thanked me and told me she felt relieved that I hadn't misunderstood her perspective. She worried that she was too negative and gloomy. I reassured her that I was completely taken with her and felt like I had finally met someone willing to refuse to wear the mask of bravado and optimism instead of a genuine face of realism. It is very easy to be positive about the prognosis for her son and for Aria but at the same time the process is a grueling one and the bubble in which we once lived that was made up only of fictitious worry, namely "what if something happened to one of my kids" has been shattered. We are now learning to live among those shards and sometimes it is very painful. That is the reality. It is an almost balanced mix of both positive and negative things and this mother was so gracious to share with me what these 2 sides mean to her. She mentioned that she is thrilled about the end of this treatment and at the same time dreading "what now?" She admitted that she is scared to death about having him off his chemo knowing that when his body was left to its own devices, it developed leukemia. She is petrified of a recurrence and knows that it would more than likely mean a bone marrow transplant. I was fascinated listening to her. One minute she was saying, "I know, this is so great! When we're done we'll have to go and get a cake or something and celebrate!" which was soon followed with, "I'm so glad we're still going to have to come every month for follow-up because, God, what if it comes back? That means we move for 6 months to Seattle for a bone marrow transplant? I don't have 6 months for that! I don't want to do that!" It was agonizing listening to her. This is the next chapter for her and I instantly understood that all she wants to do is read ahead and know what their future holds. It was all I could to stand before her when all I wanted to do was kneel at her feet and thank her. She is like an emotional portal to what my future is going to be like. She is mentoring me and I am paying very close attention.
Her conflicted emotions are significant and completely understandable and yet you'd be so surprised by the kind of messages bombarding our psyches. "Aren't you happy you're all done? You should be so thrilled! Why aren't you jumping up and down? You're all done!" She told me these were the kinds of things she was hearing constantly and it was driving her nuts and filling her with horrible guilt. She wants to be happy, oh so happy, but she's frightened. She wants to think that this is it and that they're in the clear but she knows better. She wants to tell her family and her friends and everyone else overflowing with wonderful intentions how she really feels but she doesn't. She fears that it would leave the wrong impression and she knows that they may not understand. She doesn't expect them to and so she tries to absorb their enthusiasm but the armor she has had to wear these 3 1/2 years doesn't come off that easily and has become a second skin. She isn't ready to shed it yet. I listen intently taking in every single word, every bit of intonation, every emotion, every eye blink, and every breath. I want to remember this exchange for a long, long time. I know it will sustain me.
I was teary listening to her and feeling equally conflicted. I'm so happy for her and at the same time I completely understand her fears and how they can gobble up her joy. I want to be consoling. I want her pain to end. I want the light at the end of this tunnel to last and last and last. I see so clearly that one chapter has ended but the next chapter, prithee, what will it tell? I take a deep breath and I put my hands on her shoulders and I said, "I am celebrating you and your son and your family today, in this moment, right now. It is an enormous moment and I am thrilled that you get to experience it! As far as tomorrow is concerned, I'll simply continue to hold you in the light to face what you have to." She smiled and whispered an emotional, "Thanks." We had to leave and so we did. I gave her my contact information and I hope this is the beginning of a friendship.
I have said this many, many times, but clinic no matter how long or short is always a profound experience.
Aria was oblivious to this exchange, as well she ought to be and we went along with our day. We spend many afternoons outside playing in our large sand pile. The kids like nothing better than to strip naked and run frigid well water onto the sand creating puddles for hours and hours of blissful muddy amusement. We had one incident maybe a week or so ago that is probably rather unique to farm living, although not unheard of in suburban settings. Like many farms all over, we have and have had an array of cats. Admittedly, we are not the most conscientious cat owners because we don't spay or neuter our kitties on a regular basis so we have had several litters of kittens. That, and we do little to protect them from the elements that constantly threaten them, namely our dogs, coyotes, hawks, snakes and so forth. Cats don't live long out here and frankly a 3 year life expectancy is considerable. When we first moved here, I remember meeting a neighbor who simply numbered her cats, which at the time I thought was strange and a little cold. I completely understand her reasoning now and we barely name them at all. We've had up to 14 kitties at one time and until very recently we got down to 3. Such is life and death on a farm. I know that sounds rather curt but it is the truth.
The 3 kitties remaining were beginning to go outside using a cat door that we have fixed into a window leading to our root cellar/basement. I hadn't spent much time with these kitties for the past few months because most of my time has been devoted to Aria. Needless to say, they are shy of me, skittish and a little bit wild. I think this suits them and their survival instincts that they'll need in abundance if they intend to stick around for very long. Don't be fooled, however, that sentiment is nothing but a pathetic excuse to curb my guilt at having neglected them. I wouldn't be honest if I didn't admit that this is not the way I normally feel about our cats. They are members of our family and I adore them and feel great sorrow when they don't make it. These kitties were a little different and were part of a long line of kittens that I unfortunately was not able to befriend very well. It is fair to say that I didn't feel strong attachments to them but I wouldn't go so far as to say that I didn't care whether they made it or not. I do care.
One day, I was hanging laundry on the line and the kids were playing right along with me. They love to run through the sheets and underneath the hanging clothes, letting pant legs, skirts and sleeves drape over their faces like ghostly shrouds. I call them Casper and they have no idea what I'm talking about and don't find it funny in the least. Not only that, but I interrupt their game, which is highly inappropriate. Regardless, this is one of my favorite chores and everyone seems to enjoy it. At one point they tired of their game and Reo decided it would be good fun to whack crabapples off the tree using a large spear like stick. Rianna thought it was great fun chasing after falling crabapples and Aria was interested in 2 kitties that were literally hanging to the upper most branches of the tree. Aria began whistling to them, encouraging them to come down to 'safety.' This got the attention of the dogs and 4 of our 5 began circling the tree. Do I need to finish the story? Reo joined in too and was cooing at them with baby-like goo-goo words of tenderness and encouragement trying to get them out of that tree to someplace safer. Rianna was under the tree pointing and screaming at them. Did I mention that the dogs were circling like earth-bound vultures? I was still hanging clothes on the line and wasn't all that concerned.
Suddenly, the kids started screaming, "Mama, Buddy's got a kitty! Buddy's got a kitty!" I could hear the cat wailing as Buddy was running toward the playground. I couldn't believe it! The stupid cat climbed down that tree into the jaws of one of those dogs? It was incredible. Buddy dropped the kitty to the ground, who immediately began hissing, spitting and clawing at anything that moved. My first thought was, "This thing is gonna make it!" He was wild and tough. I ran over and got in between Buddy and the cat. Meanwhile, my other 2 dopey large dogs were getting into pack mentality and starting to skulk around the poor little thing. I went to grab it by the scruff of its neck, so as to keep his claws out and away from me and keep him high enough in the air that the dogs wouldn't torment him any more. Unfortunately, he lunged at me giving me a mighty scratch and this set off the dogs. In a blink of an eye Buddy had the cat in his jaws and was running full steam into the pasture. I picked up Rianna and Aria and ran after him. None of us had shoes on, which is why I was carrying the girls, and the pasture is pokey-pokey-pokey this time of year. Reo was walking slowly behind to meet up with us. Buddy had set the cat down again who was swiping at him constantly. At one point, one of his claws nailed Buddy in the lip and he hung on for dear life. Buddy was enraged and in pain and grabbed the kitty again flinging him into the air. Tipper and Asia were right there teasing him, playing a twisted perversion of cat and mouse. Buddy grabbed the cat again and took off in the pasture closer to the playground. He held him in his mouth for a few more seconds and I noticed that the kitty was losing the fight. Buddy laid him down and walked away. That's what this dog does. He doesn't eat these kitties. He just kills them. It is some weird instinctual thing. The other dogs soon lost interest too but the kids and I were determined to stay with our friend until he died.
This cat was a fighter. He would not let me touch him let alone pick him up. So I sat down on the sun baked pokey ground with Rianna and Aria in my lap and Reo beside me. There we watched him take his final gasps. It is a strange experience and one I've witnessed a number of times. The kids were sober as I was talking them through the process. Aria asked, "Mama is he going to die?" to which I replied gently but gravely, "Aria, this kitty is already dying. We are watching him die and letting him know that he isn't alone." Reo tenderly added, "Ah, poor little guy. He was a good friend." Rianna pointed at the dying kitty and shrieked, "Meeeew!" We were startled when he started to choke, taking his final breaths. It was alarming and Reo took a step back, Aria gasped and I knew I had to come up with some kind of gentle explanation quick. "Look!" I said with excitement, "He's spitting out his spirit!" With that, our friend died. I couldn't believe I said it and what's more, I thought it rather clever. We all took turns saying good-bye and telling him to have fun in the Spirit World. Aria began to cry and I knew she needed a little more explanation. Reo, skipped back to the crabapple tree to resume his whacking game. It should be noted that in the commotion the other tree'd cat ran into the basement and to safety. Rianna amused herself in the sand pile, while Aria and I sat on my swing and discussed the matter. "Oh, Mama, I just feel so sad that he died. I'll never see him again. Will he be ok in the Spirit World?" I reassured her that he'd be more than ok in the Spirit World. As we swayed in the swing with the creak of an old branch as a soothing tune I told Aria, "When our friends die, we'll miss them and that is certainly something to be sad about. The Spirit World, however, is a place we all must visit in our own time." Aria interrupted and said, "But Mama, I don't want to die!" "Well not today!" I began, "but someday you'll die just like someday I'm going to die." "But Mama, I won't ever see you again!" I smiled at Aria and asked if she was ready to hear what I had to tell her. She gave me a whimpery, "uh-huh." "Aria, that's the thing about the Spirit World. The Spirit never dies. When I die, my Spirit will always be with you. Always." Aria paused for moment and said, "Just like Obi-wan!" then she recited, "Darth, if you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can imagine.....Luke! Trust the Force!" It was all I could do not to burst into a fit of giggles because she was dead serious and at the same time she was right on. I was thrilled and hugged her and said, "That's exactly right Aria. Luke was so sad to lose his friend until he realized that his spirit was always with him." Aria hugged me and climbed off my lap and raced to the laundry hanging on the line. I walked over to her so that I could finish the job when I noticed the most brilliant orange butterfly I had ever seen. I immediately called Reo and Aria over to look at it and I told them, "Look, our friend's spirit has hitched a ride on this butterfly to let us know that he's ok in the spirit world!" They looked at me disbelieving but smiling and in that moment, the butterfly flew away and so did the spirit our furry little friend.
The kids have witnessed several such deaths and it is always a story to be told again and again by Reo and an event to be processed by Aria. They view the same situation through very different lenses and I find it fascinating.
As I sit here typing, I'm almost out of breath thinking about the comings and goings of our days. They are still very simple, uncluttered and quiet but keep me, nevertheless, in almost constant wonderment about the cycles of life and death, letting go and welcoming, presence and impermanence. The things Life takes only to be replaced by something else. The hard-hitting curve balls Life throws one minute followed by tender feathery moments of equal significance in another. Everyday miracles like this keep me centered somehow or perhaps it is the desire to find balance in the illusion of these dualities that I seek for centering. I'm not certain, yet this is what I ponder these days. I suppose the easiest way to describe it is the constant fear I have of something happening to Aria, as if what has already happened isn't enough to satisfy the hunger of that particular anxiety. I fear something else. I can almost taste the dread it conjures. At the same time I sense the fear coming on, I'm learning to pause and to ask myself what exactly it is that I fear. I suppose when I peel enough layers that ultimate fear is still death. Clearly I have much work to do in order to rest easy and peacefully in the very opposite of my fear which is the strength I acquire when I think of "Come What May." I suppose I should sit with my own advice a little while longer and remember that Spirit lives forever. My Spirit dwells in so many respects in my children and I can see with greater clarity now how their Spirits have always dwelled in me. ~j