Introductions

Orange Cat

Orange Cat (Photo credit: DannonL)

Saffron let out a plaintiff meow after I parked the car, so I poked a finger through the carrier door to give him a little scratch.

“It’s OK, baby,” I crooned in my best cat mommy voice.

Little did he realize that he was about to meet Odie, a supercharged orange tabby a fraction of his age. I just hoped I could somehow finesse this introduction.

I lifted the carrier from the passenger seat, and was again shocked by how little my old cat weighed. Saffie was so skinny that I could have lifted the carrier with two fingers. I carried him upstairs in the carrier to my apartment with ease.

I unlocked the front door. The moment I set the carrier on my living room carpet, Odie came bounding over. I gingerly opened the door to the cat carrier. Saffron did not move. He sat and surveyed his new surroundings, content to stay in the safety of the carrier.

“It’s OK Saffie,” I crooned.

Odie sniffed the sides of the carrier. At the scent of a new cat, he immediately began to growl.

“Hey,” I said, “Saffie’s a friend. Cut that out!”

Odie sat down and flattened his ears, growling loudly. I patted Saffron’s head and tried to explain that Odie was a kitten and not wise in the ways of the feline world. Saffron turned to look at Odie but appeared unconcerned. Nonetheless, he would not budge from the carrier.

After several minutes of this standoff, I shut the carrier door and took Saffron into my office and closed the door behind us. I set down the carrier and opened the door. There he sat like a Sphinx, regal and unmoving.

“It’s OK,” I said. “This is your home now.”

He blinked and stayed put.

I went in search of a temporary litter box, and settled on the plastic tub I used for mopping the kitchen floor. I filled it with several inches of litter. Then I opened a new can of food and scooped some onto a plate. I filled a stainless steel bowl with water. When I carried these things back to the office, Saffron had left the safety of the carrier and was exploring his surroundings.

Progress! Odie, however, was pacing outside the office door, watching intently each time I went in or came out. Getting these two used to each other was going to be a challenge. I set the food down on the floor and Saffron began to gobble it up, a purr raging deep in his belly. I stroked his head.

Then I immediately went and washed my hands in scalding water. I feared fleas if not feline leukemia. I planned to get the first vet appointment I could.

Odie and I cuddled on the living room couch while I tried to explain the situation to him, babbling on about Oliver and Saffron, and how they had been such great friends back in the day. Odie blinked his yellow eyes at me and rolled over for a belly scratch. I figured he’d be fine as long as he got his fair share of love and food, but I somehow had to stop him from growling at or fighting with Saffron.

Later that afternoon, I downloaded tips for introducing a new cat into the household from the Humane Society website. The website recommended keeping the two pets apart at first, so my instinct to separate them had been right on. Preventing overt hostility or an outright attack was essential. One of the pointers recommended feeding the two animals on either side of a closed door. That way, they would associate the scent of the strange cat with the pleasure of eating their food. Genius!

I immediately placed Saffie’s food bowel on sheet of newspaper just inside the office, and put Odie’s dish right outside the closed door. Odie is a fool for Greenies, so I sprinkled the crunchy little fish-shaped treats around liberally.

For the next several hours I divided my time between the two cats. At one of my visits with Saffron, I combed his fur and immediately spied the telltale black bodies of live fleas on the comb.

“Icckkkk,” I said, heading for the closet where I kept flea medication. I gave him another helping of food, and as he purred and ate, proceeded to douse the back of his neck with a tube of Advantage.

Saffron’s transition back to house cat status had begun. Now, if I could just keep up the shuttle diplomacy until Odie and Saffie learned to tolerate each other!

That night, I fell into bed still amazed that Saffron was back. As a peace offering, I let Odie sleep with me, a rare treat. As we settled in, he cuddled under my arm.

Good boy,” I said. “I know it’s a shock for you, but now you have a brother!”

They did look enough alike to be related, but clearly the age difference made that impossible.

Odie gave a little purr and I took that as a signal that all would be well.

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Coming Home

Orange Cat

Orange Cat (Photo credit: alana sise)

The story of how Saffron ran away is long and tragic, but here’s the short version: Once upon a time he lived in a spacious townhouse in the suburbs with a back patio, a high fence where he could sit and survey his kingdom, and a huge hill behind the townhouse which was perfect for hunting voles and mice. Then his owner (me) decided to move. She took him first to an 800-square foot apartment surrounded by an elementary school and a daycare center with noisy screaming kids. Then she bought a rundown little duplex in a hip, upcoming area of Oakland that also faced a huge, urban high school with kids dressed in hoodies who carried boom boxes and drove low riders. Some of the people in the new neighborhood were a little crazy and they had crazy cats to match. Whenever Saffron went out on the new front porch, usually only for a few minutes each morning, he was assailed by unfriendly animals and the occasional large Norway rat. He began yowling in the middle of the night and had to take tranquilizers to calm his nerves. His owner (me) wished she could take tranquilizers too, but they were habit forming so she took the occasional sleeping pill and a lot of Chinese herbs, and became a devoted practitioner of mindfulness meditation.

Then, one day, Saffron simply disappeared.

I recapped this sad tale in my mind as I drove home, Saffron peering through the metal grate of the carrier in the passenger seat beside me. When he ran away in the spring of 2006, I phoned the pet retrieval service weekly for the first month. They assured me he could not be dead because the chip had not been turned in. I assumed, or perhaps wished and then fantasized, that some nice person had taken him in and was providing a life of peace and quiet, yummy food, and large expanses of grass and trees. Truthfully, I was relieved. Sad, but relieved. Two cats, one of them a stress case, in a 600-square foot duplex was way too much – and the cats were the least of my problems. Neighboring humans were also acting out.

Oliver and I soldiered on. Eventually, I sold the little duplex and moved to a more spacious apartment in a small building in a much nicer area of Oakland. The new place had a deck with a sweeping view of the Oakland hills and provided the peace and quiet Oliver and I needed. It was to this home – which he had never seen – that I was now transporting Saffron.

As I wound through traffic, I talked to Saffie.

“Oliver’s not with us any more,” I told him. “He’s gone to Kitty Heaven.”

This was a bit saccharine, but the truth was too harsh. Oliver’s kidneys had failed a year earlier. So after 19 years of faithful companionship, I had him put down. At my request, he was cremated, and his ashes were now resting in the dirt of my vertical garden fertilizing the chard and beet greens.

Saffron’s only reply to my sad news was a testy meow.

“We’ll be home soon,” I said reassuringly, realizing he had absolutely no concept of “home.” Home for him had been a patch of dirt under a deck. Perhaps he had stayed with someone for a time – I hoped that was the case – but his immediate past was the hardscrabble existence of a feral cat. Albeit, in a much nicer neighborhood than the one we had both ditched.

As we drove, I continued to murmur little reassurances, but my mind was on my new cat, Odie. He was affectionate and utterly adorable, a roly-poly orange tabby with a white ruff and white paws, but he was feisty and playful, still a kitten really. How would these two orange guy cats get along?

I pulled into the garage and sang gaily to Saffron, “We’re home, buddy.” But my heart was divided. How on earth was I going to manage two cats?

The Look Challenge

A panoramic of a snow topped Mt Diablo as take...

A panoramic of a snow topped Mt Diablo as taken from Walnut Creek (Panoramic made from a 14 image stitch) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The premise is simple: find a passage in your manuscript or book that contains the word “look,” post it on your blog, and tag five other blogging writers to do the same. Seems to me like a great way to introduce readers to other writers, so I’m all in.”

I received this invitation/challenge from my friend Madeline Sharples. Madeline’s book, Leaving the Hall Light On, is the tender and harrowing tale of her son Paul’s bipolar disorder and ultimate suicide. But more than that, it is the story of a woman’s courageous fight to not only survive but thrive after a life-shattering loss. To learn more, visit http://madeline40.blogspot.com

To meet the challenge, I randomly opened my book Swimming with Maya to page 210 and found this passage:

“Sprawling over a broad ridge, Oakmont Memorial Park has a direct view of Mt. Diablo. As I kneel above my daughter’s grave, I look at the jagged face of the mountain. It towers above the suburban valleys east of San Francisco, its saw-toothed outline a sharp, cobalt blue. Almost four thousand feet tall, and many miles around, this place was considered sacred by the native peoples who once lived at its base. I regard it with awe. To me, it is a temple of the gods, of doom, of wild horses – a mysterious place that swallowed my daughter in one sudden gulp.”

This passage leads from the narrator kneeling above her daughter’s grave at the cemetery to a fateful meeting with the man who received Maya’s donated heart, his wife, and their two children. Meeting Fernando and his family changed the course of my grief and my life. So in a way, the passage where I describe looking at Mt. Diablo leads to looking in a much larger sense. Looking at and examining the outcome of my decision to donate Maya’s organs and tissues at the moment she was declared brain dead.

I’ve written extensively about this in Swimming with Maya, and more recently in the Creative Nonfiction anthology, At the End of Life: True Stories About How We Die, edited by Lee Gutkind. Organ donation and transplantation are miraculous and complicated. Instinctively, I was using “look” in the descriptive passage as a metaphor for the meeting to come when I would look into the eyes of the man whose chest held my daughter’s beating heart.

When Fernando drew me into an embrace, with my head resting against his chest, I heard the strong whomp. whomp of Maya’s heart. I was looking for my daughter that day. And I found her, but not in a way I could touch directly. Maya’s 19-year-old heart was keeping Fernando alive but as I held him I realized in a new, deeper way that Maya herself was never coming back. It was searing, heartrending, and inspiring. I found what I was looking for but not quite.

Because we are visual beings, we are always looking. But do we really see? In what ways does looking and seeing inform your writing and your life? Post a comment and let me know.

Reunion

On Saturday morning, I drove to Mary’s house. As I wound up the hills behind the Claremont Golf Course, one amazing vista after another unspooled in my rear view mirror.  I gripped the steering wheel to calm myself, my head full of fears about what lay ahead mixed with anticipation at seeing Saffron again. Would he know me?

There’s an old saying about relatives being people who, if you suddenly show up on the doorstep, have to take you in. I was Saffron’s closest living relative. I could give him food and a place to sleep but I wouldn’t be able to exercise the “relative visiting rule” and ask him to leave after three days. I could already feel my credit card pulsing from the vet visits to come.

I pulled to the curb before a large, modern house. I rang the doorbell and waited.

“Hi, I’m Phil. You must be Eleanor,” said a pleasant looking guy with a big smile when he opened the door.

“Thanks so much for rescuing Saffron,” I said, as we shook hands.

“Glad to help,” he said.

“This is Isabella,” he added, putting his hand on his daughter’s shoulder.

I turned to the girl, whose pale face was dwarfed by her glasses.

“Hi, Isabella. How old are you?”

“I’m nine,” she said, gravely. “I think it’s really cool you are getting your cat back.”

“He’s in the laundry room,” Phil said, gesturing to the left of front door.

He led me down a corridor. Even before he opened the door, I could smell cat pee. For just an instant I wondered if I could claim there had been a dreadful mistake. Then I remembered the little purring kitten that had stolen my heart.

Phil opened the laundry room door.

A scrawny yellow cat with filthy ears and watering eyes looked up at me. Before I could reach for him, he started purring loudly.  He knew me!

I looked him over. He was slightly pigeon toed and had a crook in his mangy-looking tail. When I bent to pet him, wishing I could don a pair of hospital gloves, he immediately butted against my hand and doubled down on the purr. This was Saffron, without a doubt.

“Saffie,” I said, “You came back!”

I scratched his ears and his purr deepened into a low rumble. The tiny room reeked of cat waste and Phil was clearly eager to get this over with. Without ceremony, I loaded my runaway cat into the carrier Mary had given me.

I was shocked by how skinny Saffron was. I could feel the bones of his spine through his coat. The cat was no dummy. He knew that in order to survive he had to come inside. When Mary gave him the chance, he took it.

“We’re happy you got him back,” Phil said as he ushered me out the front door, finality and relief apparent in his hearty goodbye. The door clicked shut.

 It was a brilliant, sunny fall day. I breathed in the crisp air and took the Prodigal Son to the car. After six long years apart, our reunion had begun. Saffron had really come home!

A Miracle

I could not believe my ears. “Your cat Saffron has been found,” the recorded voice from the pet retrieval service said.

Saffron had vanished six years ago. Luckily, I had had him chipped by my vet, a way of ensuring a lost pet will be returned. During the spring of 2006, I called the chip people every week but no orange tabbies had been reported found. Sorrowfully, I gave up and presumed he was dead. His sudden resurrection blew my mind.

The Good Samaritan who found him, a woman named Mary, took him to her vet who scanned for the chip and then contacted the pet retrieval service who called me.

Saffron would be 18 now, an old man in cat years. I had recently gotten a new cat, a young frisky orange tabby named Odie. Would they get along?

I carefully tapped Mary’s number on my cell phone keypad. After several rings, she picked up.

“Hi,” I said. “I think you have my cat.”

“Oh yes,” she said, “I’m glad you called,” her voice full of relief.

Mary explained that Saffron had been living under a deck behind a nearby house. Neighbors left out food but he would not come to anyone until she and her family moved to the neighborhood. For whatever reason, Saffron attached himself to Mary and one day when she put down a cat carrier, he waltzed right in. She was keeping him in her laundry room.

“My vet says he’s in amazing condition considering what he’s been through,” Mary assured me. It was the “what he’s been through” part that worried me.

We agreed I would come the following morning to pick him up. Mary lived in Upper Rockridge, an expensive Oakland hills neighborhood with sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay. At least the cat had good taste! Our old house had been in the flatlands of Oakland, a less desirable zip code, even for felines.

“Saffie has been found,” I texted my daughter Meghan.

“No way!” she replied.

Meghan, then 14, had brought home a little orange fluff ball and begged to be able to keep him. We already had a 3-year-old cat, Oliver, but once I laid eyes on the kitten I had to say yes. Meghan chose the name Saffron because she was a Donovan fan and loved the song “I’m Just Mad About Saffron.” This was during her thrift-store, nose-piercing, acoustic-music phase.

For a little kitten, Saffie, had a big purr and an equally big heart. When he wasn’t chasing his tail or leaping for toys, he’d curl into the crook of my arm and purr loudly or butt his head against my arm to keep the love coming. But that was the old Saffron. What would he be like now that he was a road-hardened warrior?

Can Cancer be Funny?

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Hell, yes! Tig Notaro, interviewed today by Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air” proves you can laugh and cry instantaneously. In a now famous stand-up routine she delivered at an LA theater Largo, in early August just days after her breast cancer diagnosis, Notaro broke her cancer news in the opening lines of her monologue.

“Hi, welcome. Hello. I’ve got cancer. How’re you doing? I’ve got cancer.”

Audible gasps, uncomfortable titters, and downright belly laughs filled the room.  One woman broke into tears and Tig, not missing a beat, just kept saying. “It will be OK. You’ll be OK.”

It’s hard to explain why this is side splitting. You really have to listen to it. Its not so much what she says, but how she says it. Without a trace of complaint or self-pity. Notaro just puts it out there with vulnerability laced with irony in a way that makes you laugh and cry almost in the same moment.

And not just the fact that she has cancer – in both breasts. But that in the last four months she got a hideous bacterial disease, C Dif, that ravaged her intestines, then a week after she got out of the hospital her mother died. Completely unexpectedly and tragically. Then her girlfriend broke up with her. And three months later – boom – she has cancer.

She riffs on how God never gives us more than we can handle, one of the funniest parts of the bit, musing, “Really? God is insane.”

Louis CK, a friend and supporter of Tig’s, put the monologue on his website and you can do download it for $5. Best five dollars I ever spent.

Happily, Tig told Terry Gross that she only has a seven percent chance of a recurrence following her double mastectomy at Sloan Kettering hospital. She’s moving on with her life and her career, now more famous than ever because she took a huge risk and broke her cancer news onstage in real time to a group of (mostly) strangers.

I love so many things about this: humor in the face of death, resilience, trusting the creative process, being vulnerable and in the moment with a roomful of people you don’t know. Mostly I just love the way Tig talked straight to me on the download, just the way she talked straight to the people at Largo that night. And I love Louis CK for making this monologue available on his site and promoting his friend’s work.

Maybe our culture is really maturing in its attitudes about death. You think? When we can laugh about cancer, I say that’s progress. Swimming with Maya has little snippets of humor woven in, but it’s not what you’d call a funny book. Next time out, I’d like to to make readers laugh and wince at the same time.

Kudos to Tig Notaro. Long may she wave!

Maya’s 40th Birthday

Maya had a vibrant smile, a ready laugh, and spark of mischief in her deep brown eyes. She challenged life as well as loved it – and she was the same with me, racing from hugs to arguments. If she had lived, today would have been her 40th birthday. She lived life fast and fully. Maya left this world six months shy of turning 20 years old, still a teenager, always and forever a daredevil.

Life accretes slowly, wearing away our rough edges year by year. I’ll never know what kinds of life lessons might have changed Maya, yet I believe nothing fate threw at her could have eradicated her vivacious humor or penchant for risk – only death accomplished that.

This birthday brings up the “what ifs” in torrents. Who would Maya be now?

When I turned 40, I had an unruly teenager about to turn 16 and a more placid and easygoing 8-year-old.  Two daughters anchored my life, but I’ve remained husbandless for the last two decades. Would Maya have a family? Would she be happily married? An actress, as she (and I) had planned? Or, would she have derailed along the way?

Maya was focused and ambitious, but with a self-destructive streak. She was kind and generous but could also be selfish and cutting, her razor sharp wit used as a weapon to demolish her opponent. Fiercely loved by her family and friends, she had been abandoned by her biological father following our divorce, a loss she never got over. Always popular and the life of the party, she constantly sought to prove that she was worthy of the attention she won with her beauty and her brains.

It was this need to prove herself – to test every limit and take every dare –that led to the accident that took her life. She rode a horse bareback with no proper equipment and was unlucky enough to be thrown and land directly on her head in a field in the foothills of Mt. Diablo, so far from help that a fatal coma resulted.

But what if she had landed on her rump or shoulder, and gotten up and walked away that April afternoon? Would the close call have tempered her daredevil ways?

As her mother, I live with the echoes of these unanswered questions.

Of course, I want to believe that at 40 she’d be a happy, productive woman, living the life she dreamed was possible, using her prodigious artistic and intellectual gifts. But I’m not sure her life journey would have been smooth, given her character. What I do know, is that her sister Meghan and I would have stood with her, and that our extended network of kin would have been a bulwark in the tough times. Maya was resilient, but she turned the old saying on its head: What could have made her stronger killed her instead.

Every year on October 4, I celebrate my amazing daughter. Today, I’ll go to the cemetery, place new flowers, and polish her headstone as usual. I’ll wish her a special Happy 40th Birthday and wonder extra hard what it would be like if she was here to drink a toast to her brief, wondrous life.