Nature & animals


November carpet

When I walk in the woods, I spend a lot of time looking down. Maybe it’s because I’m short, maybe it’s because I spend the spring and summer months looking for wildflowers, or maybe it’s because I let my ears alert me to birds overhead. But in November, looking down makes sense, as many of the brilliant leaves up above have already fallen, leaving a thick, crunchy carpet underfoot.

Above

But even these days when the dog stops to paw and sniff, rooting through leaves for whatever treasures she smells underneath, I remind myself to look up, where the remaining leaves shimmer against a sunlit sky. Soon enough, all there will be above will be the veiny lines of bare branches. In November, I remind myself to remember the gleam of golden maple leaves before they fade away.

Honey locust

Maple leaf

Front yard

Once a year, usually in November, the Japanese maple in our front yard turns bright red. The leaves on this tree are reddish year-round, but once a year, J and I are reminded of the huge difference between merely “reddish” and truly “red.”

Maple and maple

Some years, it’s rainy or foggy when our Japanese maple ignites. But today, after days of drizzle, the sun showed up and the entire landscape gleamed. On bright November days, the sunlight doesn’t shine from any particular direction; instead, the air itself seems illuminated, as if the earth itself were a light bulb and each of us a glowing filament.

Bathroom view

This morning while I showered, there was a red glow on the bathroom wall from the maple outside, and when J and I walked to and from lunch, the streets and sidewalks glinted with the golden glow of Norway maples. Soon enough, these tree tapestries will be stripped bare, but for now, an afternoon when both the sun and the trees shine together is a red-letter day.

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.

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