Archive for January, 2013 | Monthly archive page

You Can’t Go Home Again

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

The word “nostalgia” literally means “home-sickness”, pain caused by a longing for one’s home. And make no mistake, nostalgia is a sickness: desire for the past means dissatisfaction with the present, and if I’m dissatisfied with the present I have nobody to blame but myself. Fortunately, I don’t think my true home is in the past. It’s true, the Me of a quarter century ago would have been horrified by the paths my life has taken, but then again the Me of a quarter century ago was kind-of a jerk. I am where I belong.

But there are times when the past is brought back to me so vividly that for a moment I am reconnected with it. Suddenly the weird, twisted path between Me-Then and Me-Now seems surprisingly clear and straightforward. In the spirit of Auld Lang Syne, it’s happened again just in time for New Year’s… and this time it’s “home-sickness” in the truest sense of the word. It was my home, and what’s happened to it makes me sick.

For several years when I was at University, I lived with my dear friends Chris, Michael and William in a four-story building over a bakery. The address and even the city are not important. It was a kind of ramshackle place, a little oddly laid-out, but a fun place for a group of college-age guys to live and hang out.

The entrance to the bakery was in the front, on the busy main street, but the entrance to our lodgings was located on the side street. A flight of steep stairs led up to the main floor of our residence; my room was here, facing the main street, while at the head of the stairs was the living room. The stairs continued in an L-shape up the side of the building to the second floor, where there was a second bedroom just over mine; Michael lived there for a while, while Chris made his home on the spacious (but not exactly climate-controlled) landing. A further flight of stairs led to the attic, which was William’s room.

There was a terrible galley kitchen over the stairwell on the main floor — it had apparently been added as an afterthought somewhere in the building’s long history; there was a step up from the living room into the kitchen, and a step back down again as you went into the one-time dining room that led to the apartment’s only bathroom. That kitchen was a horror. When we’d first moved in, the tiny refrigerator had a freezer-full of accumulated ice. You could barely fit a shoe into the remaining space, which we called The Maw because it resembled the frosty fang-ridden mouth of some hideous monster. Since we lived over a bakery, the kitchen had frequent visits from roaches and mice… we got used to a little extra nutrition in our corn flakes every morning.

While we lived there, we had a wonderful one-eyed cat — my very first cat! Yay! — but he was a little cranky about his mousing duties. One night, we had a particularly bold little critter foraging through our leftovers… while we sat there in the living room, not three feet away. We went and got the cat, and put him down on the counter only a few inches from the mouse. The cat gave us a sour look, as though to say, “What do you expect me to do?” Needless to say, the mouse kept on eating without missing a beat. Of course, the next morning it was a Lucio Fulci movie in the dining room, with mouse bits everywhere… as I discovered as I walked barefoot to the bathroom.

Thinking of furry visitors: we had a poltergeist of a squirrel, too, who lived in the walls and roof. We called him the Ceiling Badger, because he regularly kept us awake at night scuttling around overhead. Once he got out into William’s closet and made a nest out of his down parka… William went to open the closet door one day and — FOOMF! Feathers everywhere.

In other words, it was exactly the sort of place you’d hope to live in during your adventurous early adulthood.

I suppose everybody has stories of their chaotic college digs, but in our case, with four such insanely creative people under a single roof, the chaos was much more structured and purposeful than it might have been otherwise. We were partly a weird little family, and partly members of a performance art troupe in which the house itself was an enthusiastic participant. There was always some improvised music or improvised comedy going on, a remarkable amount of which escaped from the house and into our outside creative lives: for example, our brief fascination with Hanna-Barbera cartoons led Michael to write a piece for brass ensemble, and one of William’s extempore surrealist poems became the inspiration for a composition of mine for oboe and piano. Even now, 25 years later, I still find that bits of music and conversation from those days often resurface into my day-to-day life.The house and its environment were the primordial soup from which my adult personality emerged.

What’s probably both the high point and the low point of my participation in the Art Installation which was our house came on one chill fall evening. Everybody else was out doing stuff, but I was in a bleak mood, so I’d decided to stay home and sulk. To cheer myself up, I thought I’d play a little joke on the others: I had a very realistic prop skull from one of our various skits, so I constructed a scarecrow body for it out of some of my clothes. I placed Chris’s stiff leather motorcycle gloves into its sleeves for hands, put a pair of my shoes at the base of its trouser legs, and propped it up on a broomstick at the dimly-lit top of the second-floor stairs. It was a very convincing ghost. I thought everybody would come home, pause at the first-floor landing to take off their coats, glance up the stairwell… and get a brief, harmless shock. We’d all have a laugh, and that would be that.

But when everybody came back late that night, they paused in the stairwell… and didn’t look up. Instead, they all came into the living room, where we sat up talking for over an hour. I kept a perfectly straight face the whole time. Finally, unexpectedly, Chris decided to go up to bed by himself. Again, I thought he’d get to the foot of the stairs, look up, see the ghostly figure — BOO! — and that would be that. So I still said nothing. Imagine my surprise when I heard his footsteps mount the stairs and keep going — he still hadn’t noticed the ghastly skeleton. It wasn’t until he got to the very top of the stairs that he looked up and saw it… at which point it was standing right in front of him, with arms outstretched, eyeless sockets staring.

Yes, this was the night in which I very nearly killed my best friend by causing him to fall halfway down the stairs in terror. But in my defense, it was pretty funny.

(I did tell you I was a jerk, didn’t I?)

So. Fast-forward a very long time. A little while before New Year’s this year, Michael sent us all a link to a certain real estate listing on YouTube. Our old house was for rent. Only it wasn’t recognizable as our house any more. Where once the building had been one big home, now it was broken up into self-contained units. There’s probably a metaphor in there somewhere, but I haven’t the heart to look for it. The unit that’s being advertised is the first floor, where my room was. It’s been… “renovated”. And by “renovated”, I mean cheaply done over, neutered and rendered inert.

The ground-floor entrance, where the bakery used to be, is now the entrance to this unit, while the remaining rooms upstairs are serviced by the old side-street entrance. I have no idea what’s in the ground floor these days, or how anyone would get to it. The brief glimpses the video provides of my old bedroom show a room that’s been updated on the cheap. The living room — this made us all deeply suspicious — is not shown at all.

The appalling kitchen has been torn out, and (believe it or not) it looks like a worse one has been put in. Instead of taking up the passage between the living room and the dining room, the kitchen looks like it’s been moved to the far wall of the dining room… right next to the bathroom. Would you want your stove about six feet from your toilet? Separated only by a door which opens inward into the bathroom from the stove itself, creating a nice ramp for aerosolized droplets of toilet water after every flush? Hmmm?

That’s even assuming you want your kitchen in the outer corner of your dining room.

Also, as you can see by these pictures, not only has the kitchen been redone with the cheapest off-the-shelf components available… it also has no sink fixtures:

Sure, they may have added fixtures since the photo was taken… but remember: this is the impression of the place they put in their advertising!

There’s something heartbreaking about seeing the old place rendered charmless like this. It’s like seeing your old college girlfriend show up as a drug-raddled harridan on TV’s “Intervention” or “Hoarders”.

It isn’t so much that I wish it were still 1986 or ’87, and that I were still there with my friends: everything important from that era is still with me, after all, and I’ll carry it with me for the rest of my life. But I suppose I’d always hoped the place would still be there, giving a similar kind of home to succeeding generations of students like us. I’d half-imagined some shade of myself — of the best part of myself — still haunting that old house, like a ghost at the top of the stairs.

And the part that really rankles is this: I might never have realized I thought & felt that way, if this crappy video hadn’t shown me the sad reality.

2012: A Bad Year for Calicos, Part 2

Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

I wrote earlier of losing our ancient calico cat, Nikita, in June this year. Sadly, we’ve now lost a second ancient calico cat.

We’re not sure how old Nala was. Lisa found her at a shelter-cum-clinic nearby, where she took foster cats to be spayed or neutered before being adopted. Nala — that’s the name she’d been surrendered under — was scheduled to be put down… because she was considered too old to be adopted. According to the shelter, she was eleven years old, and nobody wanted a cat that old.

(That was seven years ago! And frankly, we think the shelter’s records were off by a year or two. She could very well have been older.)

There was no way Lisa could allow this cat to be killed simply for being eleven years old. We had a very good track record at placing older cats in good homes, so Lisa filled out the paperwork and had her transferred into our care. Not long afterwards, we found a home for her with a woman who seemed perfectly sane and stable. We figured that was that.

A few months later, we got a call from the local Animal Control office. A cat had been abandoned in a carrier at the side of the road. It was Nala. When we got her back, she was all skin and bones: we thought at first that she’d been starved before being abandoned, but we soon found out what had really happened. Nala had developed a thyroid condition, and had started losing weight in a frightening manner. Her owner had panicked, but had been afraid to contact us or the local shelter. She’d left the cat on the roadside about a quarter-mile from the shelter, hoping that someone would come along and find it.

Once we got her back, we were determined that nobody would ever abandon her again. We held onto her; we got her treatment… which meant for almost a year she was living in quarantine in our bathroom. I donned rubber gloves twice a day and gave her medicine that would have seriously screwed with my metabolism if I’d ever got it on my bare skin. Eventually we contributed over a thousand dollars to getting her the radiation therapy that would stabilize her condition. And cranky though she always was, and though she would continue to have health issues for the rest of her long, long life, she became our cat de facto.

Nala started going downhill late in 2010. We thought she was about to die in November of that year, but she bounced back miraculously. For two years, she wobbled back and forth from death’s door — you know how cats are about doors: you can imagine her standing on the threshold, rubbing up against the jamb, while the Grim Reaper shouts, “Are you coming in, or aren’t you?!”

Each time she fell ill, it looked as though she couldn’t possibly recover. But then she’d spring back to life in vibrant, kitteny health, and stay well for quite a while. And with each passing year, she got sweeter and sweeter. She’d always been a good kitty in her way: demanding, yes, and irritable — it used to take a whole shift of staff at the vet’s to draw blood from her — but you expect that sort of thing with a calico. She mellowed as she aged, and seemed really to be enjoying her last years (during the times when she wasn’t actually ill).

But recently the troughs had been deeper, and the peaks of her recovery less pronounced. Her bad periods were coming more frequently, and it would take a longer for her medication to bring her out of them. The vet had warned us her body would not last much longer: her poor kidneys had shrunk to the size of raisins, and it was frankly a miracle that she’d made it as long as she had. Who even knew exactly how old she was? She was at least 17, but then again Nikita, our other ancient calico, had been 17 when she died… and up until the end she’d looked far more robust than Nala. From the look of her eyes, the vet guessed Nala could have been as old as 20 (though for my part, I suspect that when she was a kitten, dinosaurs ruled the earth).

And then we realized the end had come. Even with a cat who’d come back from the edge of doom so many times, the moment arrives when you know there will be no recovery. For Nala, that moment came abruptly. First she refused food; then she refused even water. Soon she lost the ability to stand, or even support herself. After that, nothing helped — not antibiotics, not subcutaneous fluids, not syringe-feeding; and about three days later, it was time.

And now she is gone.

I thought it might be easier to grieve when you’ve had a little practice. After all, we’ve expected Nala to die so many times that I suppose our first reaction’s been shock that it actually happened. Here’s one thing, though, that complicates matters: her special care and feeding had become a huge part of our daily routine. Now that that’s gone, everything’s changed. Habit is waiting to remind us of her, for a long time to come. A month from now, I’ll still get up early to grind a can of food with water — soft mush for the aging cat who’s gone now. I’ll realize with a shock I’m using one of her special bowls for something else. I’ll expect her to curl up with me in the night, or come to visit me while I work, as she often did, and I’ll reach out to give her her expected scratches… and it will be somebody else, and suddenly I’ll remember.

And the other thing? Old as she was, decrepit as she became, you could always see the kitten behind her eyes… up until the moment she died. It seems impossible that she should be gone. And we will miss her terribly.


2012: A Bad Year for Calicos, Part 1

Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

Nearly 17 years ago, my wife Lisa took in a little kitten. It was a tiny pale-calico cat — “stone-washed,” she called her — abandoned in a collar that was too tight for her. She was a hissing, spitting little ball of resentment. Nobody was ever going to adopt this cat, Lisa thought. Nobody was going to want this semi-feral creature; she’d languish in the shelter for a couple of weeks, perhaps, and then be euthanized with the other unadoptables. And that just didn’t seem right. The kitten was way too young to be subjected to that kind of fate.

So she took the little creature home… figuring that even if the kitten never got over her dislike of humans — even if she stayed a little monster for the rest of her life — at least she’d have a safe place to live, and regular meals, and someone to take care of her. At least she’d still be alive. It wasn’t her fault that, in her month or two of existence, she’d learned that human beings were cruel and unreliable creatures.

But a funny thing happened when Lisa brought the kitten home. As soon as she arrived, the kitty calmed down. And from that moment on, she became the cat she’d be for the rest of her life: a calm, even-tempered, patient and loving animal. She turned into Nikita… named after the main character in the movie La Femme Nikita, who was taken off death row and given a second chance as an assassin. The name seemed appropriate, somehow.

Of course, Lisa wasn’t my wife then. In fact, we hadn’t even met. We ran into each other a month or so later. By that time, one of her criteria for figuring out if I was good boyfriend potential was… whether or not Nikita liked me. She did. What I thought of Nikita wasn’t quite as important, but for what it’s worth, I liked her, too… in spite of her flat Massachusetts accent — Myaaahh! — and the fact her meow sounded a little like a foghorn.

At the time, Lisa was living with her brother, who had a big hundred-pound Labrador retriever. Little Nikita had that dog terrified. It’s not that she’d do anything to hurt him — in all the years we had her, we never saw her be mean to anyone or anything. No: once the dog got a gentle swipe of Nikita’s paw, all she needed to do was look at him, and the dog immediately knew he’d been outmatched. Much later, when we had dogs of our own — a 110-pound lab mix and a 70-pound Vizsla — they, too, instinctively understood that Nikita was Head Dog, and was not to be challenged (even at the end of her life, when she would go to sleep on the stairs with barely the energy to climb all the way up or down, our surviving dog would sit at the bottom of the stairs and woof for our help getting past her).

Eventually, Lisa moved down from Massachusetts to New Jersey, where I lived. In the middle of the night, we drove with two cats down I-95 (Lisa’s older cat Zeus got out of his carrier and spent about half of the drive walking around on the back of our seats). What we didn’t realize at the time was that we weren’t just bringing two cats. Nikita was pregnant.

At the time, there was a great deal more controversy about when a kitten could be spayed or neutered. Since then, early-age spay/neuter has become much more common, and the research on its long-term effects has been much more conclusive. But we were woefully ignorant of the whole issue, and by the time we’d even thought of getting Nikita altered, the decision was taken out of our hands. We had no desire to abort her kittens. We figured we’d try to keep them if we could.

One day in early August we came home from work, and Nikita wasn’t there at the door to welcome us. We cast knowing glances at one another: this could only mean one thing…

A quick search revealed Nikita curled up in our bedroom closet, with four tiny creatures nursing from her: one orange boy, a calico girl, and two grey-and-white females. Lisa was particularly happy to see the orange kitten, since she’d lost an orange cat the year before and missed him terribly.

The orange kitten was the first to die.

We were horrified. Being terribly inexperienced at that point, we’d had no idea about how to care for a kitten; but we weren’t completely stupid. We knew Nikita was producing milk; we’d even had them all to the vet only the day before, and he’d given them a clean bill of health. The little calico girl died the day after her brother. It was agony, not knowing what to do, or what we might have done to prevent their deaths; so we determined that from then on, we would learn all we could about cat care.

Nikita’s two remaining kittens, Sage and Mircalla, lived, and grew to be beautiful long-haired cats. They inherited their mother’s sweet temperament, as well as her foghorn voice. It was because of them that we first got involved in animal rescue: we started volunteering for cat and ferret rescues, and we learned as much as we could about basic home veterinary care and responsible pet ownership.

In the years since then, several hundred foster animals have passed through our care. Some of them have been in urgent need of medical help; some of them have frankly needed psychiatric help. We’ve learned enough to have achieved some very dramatic results. We’ve brought seriously ill cats, many of whom had been written off by the vets, back from the brink of death. We’ve found good homes for animals slated for euthanasia in other shelters, because they were considered too old, or too cranky, or too difficult to treat. We’ve arranged and hosted low-cost spay/neuter clinics, the first of their kind in our area.

And all because of Nikita.

Unfortunately — as we might have expected — her kittens Sage and Mircalla had congenital health problems. Sage died of lymphoma three days before her seventh birthday. Mircalla died of the same thing when she was 11. Immediately after Sage died, something happened to her mother and sister: Mircalla started going to the end of our driveway and sitting, waiting, as though she were expecting her sister to return. And both cats’ voices changed. It was very noticeable: their meows, so gruff and deep, changed octaves. The change lasted for almost a year. I have never realized that cats could mourn — their natures seem to suggest otherwise — but Nikita’s and Mircalla’s behavior after Sage’s death suggested they might.

After Mircalla died, Nikita “adopted” a foster cat we were looking after. She was a wild cat who’d been found living on the beach nearby (though she took very well to living in a house, and even taught herself to use the human toilet!). Nikita seemed to sense she needed a surrogate mommy, so even though the wild cat was full-grown, she let her curl up with her; she’d even groom her, the way a mother cat takes care of her own kitten. Eventually the wild cat decided she was secure enough that she didn’t need to depend on Nikita, though the two stayed close as long as we had her.

Nikita started to fade in mid-2011. Treatment worked for a while, but as time went on it became clear that Nikita wasn’t going to last much longer. When she began her final deterioration, it came fast. One Thursday afternoon, she collapsed while trying to use the litterbox. We kept a vigil over her as she lapsed in and out of consciousness. Just when we thought she was finally slipping away, she’d shake her head, stagger to her feet, and make her unsteady way toward the litterbox to pee. She didn’t always make it, though we did our best to help her along. But even semi-conscious, she remained conscientious, and she would not compromise her dignity by losing control of her bladder. There’s nothing particularly funny about watching someone or something you love go into a final decline — but trust vivid, unsentimental Nikita to find the closest possible thing.

She died at 8:50 on a Sunday morning in early June, 2012. We were with her. She was home, where she belonged, just over the room where her kittens were born, in almost the same spot where her daughter Sage passed away some 9 years ago. I still see her out of the corner of my eye, and I still expect to hear her foghorn meow demanding that her water bowl be refilled. Because of her, hundreds of cats that might not have lived had a chance to thrive. Because of her, thousands of unwanted kittens were never born. It’s not a bad legacy.

But 17 years are just not enough.