Nature & animals


Tough guy stare and double paws

A little over a week ago, J and I adopted a new cat. “Magic” came into the shelter raggedy, scrawny, and sick, with bad teeth and uncontrolled diabetes. After starting regular insulin injections and having all but three of his teeth extracted, Magic was ready to come home. Since we often re-name cats we’ve adopted (and since we’re Celtics fans who didn’t want any of our pets to be named after a legendary Laker), we’re calling the new guy Larry.

Welcome home, Larry

It’s been just over a month since we put our cat Rocco to sleep after a two-year battle with small cell lymphoma, and it was Rocco’s passing that made room for us to adopt Larry. Although one pet can’t fully replace another, J and I view our house as a refuge for hard-to-place pets: when one dies, that frees up a spot for another needy creature. I’ve come to see the departed pet as a kind of sponsor for the new guy or gal who steps into their furry footprints. This is how Yanny followed Gumbo, Toivo followed Cassie, and George and Gracie followed Bunny.

Welcome home, Larry

If you’ve lived with a lot of pets, over time you start to see similarities between them. Hillary looks so much like Bunny, we often call her that by mistake, and lovable lug Luigi looks and acts a bit like Snowflake, who came (and passed away) before him. When we first adopted Cassie, I was disconcerted to realize her whine sounded exactly like Reggie’s, even though she looked nothing like him. Over time, Cassie’s whine became her own, and I no longer remember what Reggie sounded like.

Larry looking grumpy

But here’s the tricky thing: all those other pets came into our lives months if not years after their lookalikes had left us, calling to mind a pet whose memory was already starting to fade. But the eerie thing about Larry, on the other hand, is that he looks and even acts nearly identical to Rocco. The resemblance is so uncanny, it feels like we brought home a younger, healthier version of the cat we just recently lost.

The soon-to-be new guy

When we first visited Larry at the shelter, I immediately noticed how his floppy posture and long, every-which-way black fur looked just like Rocco’s, and once we brought him home, the resemblance became even more obvious. When we walk into the kitchen, there is Rocco–I mean Larry–lounging under foot. When I load or unload the dishwasher, there is Rocco–I mean Larry–trying to crawl in. And whenever one of us opens a bedroom or closet door, Rocco–I mean Larry–immediately appears and tries to dart into whatever space is supposed to be cat-free, just as he always did.

Larry meets Hillary, Luigi, and George

Seeing how quickly and even seamlessly Larry has acclimated himself to our household, I think of the various sayings that refer to constancy in the face of change. The Queen is dead; long live the Queen. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Rocco wasn’t exactly the boss of our household, but he did have a larger-than-life presence. Rocco’s been gone for just over a month, and just over a week ago he came back to us in a slightly updated version and with a new name.

Overstory

Over the waning days of summer, I read Richard Powers’ The Overstory, a novel about trees and interconnection. It’s a big, fat book, and I read it slowly, at a tree’s pace: page by page and leaf by leaf. Trees outlive us–at least the largest, long-lived species do–and thus they have much to teach us about time, patience, and the virtues of rootedness.

Looking up

This past March, one of the tall pine trees that fringe our backyard fell directly onto our neighbors’ house after a heavier-than-usual snowfall. Last month, we had an arborist come to look at our remaining trees: not just the tall pines out back, but also a slowly-dying ash near our back door. This particular arborist had never seen the pine that fell, but he examined the slivers of stump that remain. Could we have predicted, we asked, whether this tree would fall, or in which direction? The arborist suggested the tree’s trunk was sound, but its root system had been compromised by some nearby driveway work. But could construction work done nearly two decades ago have an impact on a tree today, J asked, incredulous, and the arborist said yes, of course. Trees live according to a different timeline than we do, our hurried scurrying looking like a blur when viewed from their ponderous perspective.

Five-fingered maple

Trees can teach us much about steadfastness and resilience, but we need to slow ourselves down to hear them. The most resilient trees tap their roots deep, while the wide-spreaders hug shallow soil and are easily uprooted. My mind branches widely and wildly with distraction, and I quickly grow discouraged by superficial trifles: I’d do better with a deeper taproot. Trees and the people who understand them best know a decade is the mere wink of an arboreal eye, and for a tree centuries pass like days. Marriage is easy, my grandfather used to say; only the first fifty years are hard. This is a statement to make a tree chuckle.

Dying ash

The arborist we hired will cut down the dying ash in our backyard, as it is growing too close to both our house and our neighbors’ garage, and he will grind the stump to sawdust, as its roots are far from any nearby trees. But the arborist suggested we cut but not grind the stump of the fallen pine, as its roots are tangled up with its neighbors’. I close my eyes and imagine the grief of trees: when one falls, his fellow forest-friends tremble down to their subterranean toes.

The Overstory is a fat book because it tells a complex web of a tale. The stories in the initial section are branched like roots, and later, they connect together in subtle and surprising ways: an ecosystem of individuals whose roots touch and tangle. The whole time I was reading the book, I found myself looking up on my daily dog-walks: who, exactly, are these quiet creatures who live their woody lives in our midst, silent and swaying, overhead and too often ignored?

Rocco in window

On Friday night, J and I put Rocco the cat to sleep after a two-year battle with small cell lymphoma. We’d lost our cat Groucho to the same disease in November, 2015, so we were familiar with the typical progression: weight loss leading to diagnosis, sudden improvement and weight gain with chemotherapy, then a gradual and irreversible decline when the drugs stop working. In our experience, feline chemotherapy works very well until it suddenly doesn’t.

Rocco resting

Although Rocco had been gradually losing weight for the past few months, until Friday he hadn’t acted sick. All through the summer, he was still eating, interacting with our other cats, and pestering for attention. But on Friday, Rocco was lethargic and aloof, and when he finally defecated on himself and didn’t even try to clean himself, we knew his spirit had given up before his body had.

Rocco reads

This is the third pet we’ve euthanized this year: we put Cassie the dog to sleep on New Year’s Day, before the start of spring semester, and we euthanized Gumbo the cat at the end of April, as the semester was ending. I don’t know why so many of our pets die at the beginning or end of my academic semesters or why their final throes so often happen on nights and weekends, when only emergency vets are on duty. As another fresh-faced vet–we never seem to see the same one twice–prepped Rocco for the procedure, she asked if we’d ever been present for a euthanasia. I had to stop myself from saying, “We’ve probably been present for more pet deaths than you have.”

Rocco on window sill

The passing of a pet is an emotional and even spiritual experience: a journey to the border between the Here and the Hereafter. Watching a pet slip away at the quiet push of a plunger makes you realize how tenuous and ephemeral this mortal life is, and the quiet absence you face when you get home reminds you of how outsize even the smallest creature’s soul can be.

This is no longer a litter box. #catsofinstagram #roccothecat

Rocco was the last remaining pet that J had when I first met him in 2007: the end of an era. When I met J and did not (due to allergies) think myself a cat person, it was Rocco who helped win me over.

Anyone who thinks cats don’t have personalities should have met Rocco, who was positively dog-like in his gregarious, goofy, and (yes) dogged demeanor. Rocco was not a shy or retiring creature; like a dog, Rocco would come right up to anyone who entered the house, walking on bowed legs that made him look like a hockey goalie in leg pads. When Rocco reached you, he’d collapse in a furry heap right under your feet, forcing you to either pet or push him away. One of the final signs that Rocco was not long for this world, in fact, was his complete indifference when I dried the dishes on Friday afternoon. Healthy Rocco would have pestered me by rubbing my legs, flopping at my feet, or trying to climb into the dishwasher, curious.

Rocco helps unload the dishwasher

People who have never euthanized a pet sometimes wonder how you will know it’s time, but in my experience it it always abundantly clear when an animal is ready to die. If you know how your pet usually acts–if you know their most basic and obvious joys–you will notice when they no longer are interested in those things. If you listen deeply to your pet, you can’t fail to notice when their spirit leaves and it is time for you to help their body follow. Throughout his life, Rocco pushed and pestered for affection, and on Friday night we gave him the last dose of love he needed to cross to the other shore.

Science Center

Today I drove to Framingham State for the English department’s annual retreat for first-year writing instructors: the first time I’ve been on campus in months. Every summer, the first-year writing retreat feels like a dry-run for the start of the semester: a reminder of what it’s like to get up early, scramble to get ready, and then commute to campus for morning classes. Soon enough, my teaching-day routine will be a once-again familiar habit, but today I felt like I was fumbling through a forgotten dance.

Ripening horse chestnut

I’ve taught at Framingham State long enough now that I recognize the grounds’ own seasonal cycle. There is a horse-chestnut tree I regularly pass on my way from the parking lot to my office, for example: in September when classes start, it will drop buckeyes, the culmination of the flowers that appeared as classes ended in May. On my office windowsill, I have a collection of dried horse-chestnuts I’ve gathered beneath this tree. During the early weeks of Fall semester, buckeyes emerge from their hulls round and shiny, but over the course of the term they shrivel into misshapen lumps and lose their sheen.

Ripening horse chestnut

I suppose this is a metaphor for the school year itself. The start of Fall semester is a round and shiny time when one’s supplies are new and ample, one’s intentions are strong, and anything seems possible. In time, the sheen of a new school year will fade and enthusiasm will wane and wither. But seeds aren’t designed to live on a windowsill forever. Buckeyes are built to be buried, and only then do they open and emerge into the infinite promise of tomorrow’s trees.

Lounging with my fur-shadow

Our house doesn’t have central air, so during heat waves J and I hunker down in the rooms that have window AC units. Our bedroom, which doubles as my office, has an air conditioner, so Toivo and I have been spending a lot of time this week inside: me with my books, notebooks, and laptop, and Toivo with her chew bone and dreams of rabbits.

Bobbi in the window

Last week, our credit card company contacted us, suggesting our card had been compromised. There were no unauthorized charges on the account, but apparently there had been a breach at a business where we had used the card, so the company cancelled our cards and sent us replacements just to be safe.

Where's breakfast? #catsofinstagram #hillarythecat #SNELovesPets

I’ve often thought my credit card account must be incredibly boring to monitor for fraud, as I typically go to the same places again and again, often on predictable days and at predictable times. I go grocery shopping at the same store every Friday afternoon, for instance, and I typically stop for gas on the way. During the summer when I’m not teaching, J and I frequently go to lunch at a handful of places, always at the same time. I frequently buy things on Amazon, I take one or another pet to the vet every few weeks, and I occasionally buy shoes on Zappos. Any charge outside those predictable parameters was Probably Not Me.

In Frankie-speak, this translates as "Please scratch my head, but don't you dare touch my belly."

Spending habits aside, J and I are predictable by nature: I’ve always thrived on routine, and recent circumstances have only deepened that already-existing rut. Tending a houseful of pets, for instance, is good reason for regularity. Dogs in particular thrive on routine, and we’ve trained ours to rely upon a religious schedule of meals, walks, and exercise times that is almost monastic in its regularity: a domestic liturgy of the hours.

Bobbi chills out. #catsofinstagram #bobbithecat

Having three diabetic cats–our Insulin Girls–only underscores the need for predictability. Whatever else might be happening on any given day, J and I know that one of us has to be at home to give Bobbi, Hillary, and Frankie their meals and twice-daily insulin injections at the proper time. This routine has become so regular, the Insulin Girls are trained to follow me into the kitchen when I sing “Breakfast” or “Dinner” while our non-diabetic cats stand back, knowing they get second-dibs at mealtime.

She knows she's queen. #catsofinstagram #hillarythecat #SNELovesPets

When we adopted Hillary, the shelter said her previous home was chaotic, with a constant coming and going of roommates who were never quite certain whose responsibility it was to feed and give her insulin, or when. An erratic meal and medication schedule is disastrous for a diabetic of any species, and Hillary, Bobbi, and Frankie have all thrived under the steady routine of our household.

Bobbi in morning light

Last week, J and I rented The Incredibles, as we wanted to watch it again before seeing its sequel sometime this week, when J has time off from work. After revisiting the animated adventures of Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, Violet, Flash, and Jack-Jack, I announced to J that we too are superheroes. “We’re The Predictables!” I declared. “Our super power is extreme punctuality.” J laughed and ran with the joke. “Our uniform is matching T-shirts with Red Sox hats…and no capes!”

It's been just over a year since we adopted Frankie. She has one eye and twice the attitude. #catsofinstagram #frankiethecat #oneeyedcat #SNELovesPets

Imagining oneself as a superhero is fun, but being the king and queen of dependability has its downsides, too. J and I can’t (and don’t) drop everything for spontaneous social events; if we want to be away from home for an evening, we have to gradually adjust both the Insulin Girls’ medication schedule and the dog’s exercise routine accordingly. Because of our pets’ special needs, it’s been years since J and I have traveled together. Like farmers who can’t leave the livestock for long, we can’t trust the household to just anyone, so we take turns going places so there is always one of us here tending the pets.

You know you want to pet me. #catsofinstagram #hillarythecat #SNELovesPets

What J and I lose in spontaneity, however, we make up for in reliability. There is a great security in routine, as any monk would tell you; when Thomas Merton entered the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, for example, he described himself as taking shelter in “the four walls of my new freedom.” J and I lead a fairly boring life, but we see more of the outside world than a cloistered monk does. We’ll go see Incredibles 2 at a movie theatre as planned this week; we’ll just make sure to go to a daytime showing so we’re back home in time for the Insulin Girls’ dinner.

So, how are *you* keeping warm through the storm?

Last month, we euthanized one of our cats. Gumbo (pictured above, on right) was a medical mystery: when we adopted him as an adult in 2015, he had a chronic respiratory infection, and soon thereafter he was diagnosed with a severe congenital heart defect that should have killed him as a kitten. Given Gumbo’s diagnosis, we knew he wouldn’t be with us long, so we took care to give him every comfort. When the end came, he died in my lap, which was his favorite place to be.

Welcome home, Yanny

These past few weeks, we’ve been looking for a cat to take Gumbo’s place. Gumbo had lived in our master bedroom with toothless Nina (pictured above, on left) and one-eyed Frankie; the two of them were quiet and calm enough to keep Gumbo company without putting stress on his heart. In looking for a new cat, we wanted one who would be affectionate enough to cuddle with Nina, the gentlest cat on the planet, and savvy enough to give standoffish Frankie her space.

Yesterday we brought home Yanny (pictured on right), a sweet shelter cat who was hard-to-place because of age and medical issues: glaucoma that claimed one eye, an uncertain prognosis for the other, and an unresolved urinary issue. Now that Gumbo’s gone, we have another medical mystery in the house. Already, Yanny is quietly coexisting with both Nina and Frankie: nobody is cuddling yet, but nobody’s fighting, either. When you adopt a medical mystery, you commit to provide whatever that creature needs for however long they decide to stay with you: a quality of life measured in depth rather than length.

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