The $3,399.28 Cat

I’m home again.  Finally.  Two weeks is a long time to be away, even when I’m away somewhere that I love.

We traveled all day yesterday to get back here.  Up at 4:00 a.m., long drive down to St. Louis, long wait at the airport, long flight with two stops in Denver and Salt Lake City, then home sweet home at 8:00 at night.  I was frazzled, exhausted, and shutting down hard.  My cell phone went dead around 2:00 in the afternoon, so I didn’t pick up the two frantic voice mails left on it until after recharging around 9:30 p.m.

That was when I learned that Dane the mangy, rescue mutt, oh mighty predator of predators, attacked the neighbor’s sixteen year old cat Tinkerbell in the afternoon and mauled her pretty badly.

The first voice mail was from our daughter (voice trembling uncontrollably) telling me that the attack took place but everything seemed to be okay.  Daughter was house-, dog-, and garden-sitting for us while we were gone.  Daughter was overwhelmed by those additional duties on top of the five course load she’s carrying this semester at college and the thirty hour week she works as a waitress.  Daughter couldn’t manage Dane’s afternoon walk so she called Sweet and Helpful Neighbor Lady across the street who cheerfully offered to help.  But Daughter didn’t realize that Neighbor Lady had cats and made the mistake of taking Dane Cat-Hater over to her house off-leash.  The rest, as they say, is now history.

The second voice mail was left about four hours after the first.  It was from Neighbor Lady (voice also trembling uncontrollably) letting me know they were at the vet where they’d discovered that Tinkerbell was not okay at all.  In fact, Tinkerbell had multiple broken ribs and a punctured lung, and surgery on her was going to cost about $3,000.  She was sobbing into the voice messaging center that they couldn’t afford it and, if we didn’t pay for it, they were going to have to put her down.  I about shit.  Then I told the hubster.  He about shit, too.

Which is when I first noticed the interesting little voices piping up in my head, having a spirited referendum in there.  The first voice (naturally) was Guilt.

I told you!  I told you a thousand times.  We should have made it a rule that he’s always on leash when he’s out of the house!

The next voice was Blame.

It’s the hubster!  The hubster hates leashes!  He refuses leashes! And how in the hell could Daughter not know that Neighbor Lady didn’t have cats? We’ve been neighbors for thirteen years for godsakes!

Then Wheedle and Cheat chimed in.

Y’knooooow…mentioned Wheedle.  It must be close to an hour and a half since Neighbor Lady called.

Yeaaaaah, that’s right…seconded Cheat.  I wonder…what-oh-what could have happened since then?

Do you think they may have already put her down? continued Wheedle.  It would be so sad…

so sad…echoed Cheat.

But it wouldn’t cost us nearly as much…suggested Wheedle.

It would save us a fortune! chimed Cheat.

It would put the cat out of its suffering, too…said Wheedle.

It would be a kindness, Cheat nodded his head emphatically.

Maybe…Wheedle tilted his head to one side and gazed up at the ceiling…we should just say we didn’t get the message and call in the morning?

How compassionate! Cheat agreed.

Compassionate? said Guilt much struck.

Can we really do that? said Blame perking up.

It was only after this exchange that Tattered Shred of Decency finally spoke up.

Oh, come on you guys, her voice was gentle but firm.  Couldn’t you hear the anguish in Neighbor Lady’s voice?  Tinkerbell is like her child.  We can’t dump this off on her.

But we don’t even like cats, muttered Cheat.

Remember how Tinkerbell used to come in our backyard and shit in the pea gravel pathways? reminded Blame.

And y’knoooow…Wheedle slithered back into the conversation.  Tinkerbell is a very, very old cat…

There was a significant pause here.  It was a hurdle even for Tattered Shred but she powered up and managed to clear it.

Doesn’t matter, she finally crossed her arms over her chest.  Neighbor Lady loves her and can’t bear the thought of losing her.  Not like this.  Don’t you remember all the times Neighbor Lady helped us when we were in a tight spot?

Nobody answered.

Has she ever, ever done anything to hurt us?  Or anybody else for that matter?


And is the pain she’s in right now any fault of her own?

Four heads hung down in shame and wagged slowly back and forth.

So the hubster and I called her back.  Neighbor Lady and Neighbor Hubster were still at the vet and Tinkerbell was still alive.  Only somehow, during that hour and a half delay, the surgery’s cost had grown from $3,000 to $4,000.  And by the time I actually talked to the front desk person to give her our credit card number, the upper estimate had mysteriously mushroomed to $5,000.  I wasn’t sure what was going on but at that point I thought it wisest to let the clinic know we were capping the amount we’d pay at $4,000.  Privately, the hubster, Tattered Shred, and I remained flexible about covering more, but we didn’t want the emergency clinic thinking we were patsies.

The final amount topped out at $3399.28 and we considered ourselves lucky.  (Could that be what the clinic was trying to accomplish by raising the upper end?)

I’m not sure why it’s so much harder to be a good human being when large sums of money are involved, but it is.  Thousands of dollars just hurts.  Ow.  However, the fact that Neighbor Lady is such a genuinely good and loving person made it a whole lot easier for me to step up to the plate and do the right thing.

Is goodness contagious then?

(Shittiness certainly is.  I admit if the cat had belonged to the lady who lives behind us, the one who wanted to chop down our apple tree to keep a few apples from falling in her yard, the referendum in my head would have been longer and the outcome uncertain.)

It’s the old Golden Rule I guess.  Be unto others as you would have them be unto you.

Only you know what?  Neighbor Lady doesn’t have any strings attached where her be-unto is concerned.  She’s not kind and decent because that’s how she wants to be treated in return.  It’s just who she is.  She’s a naturally stellar human being.  Frankly, I don’t think I’ll ever be that good a person but at least her influence helped raise me a little higher this time around.  Maybe if I put a little effort into it there could be some kind of trickle down effect from all this.  Next time I’m dealing with Apple Tree Hater, maybe I’ll strive to be a little more understanding and forgiving, too.

Maybe this incident could even morph into something that winds up improving our little part of the world.  I owe it to Tinkerbell to at least try.

This morning, the hubster and I drove past a dead cat flung to the side of the road that had been hit and killed by a car.  I felt the twinge of regret I always feel with roadkill and then heard the hubster mutter, That better not be our three thousand dollar cat. We looked at each other and started laughing as we realized that for the first time, for whatever time she has left, we’re now heavily invested in the welfare of a feline.

Could it get any stranger than that?

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

Run Over By The Amish

Well, I missed my Friday deadline and may miss next Friday’s as well.   Blogging while traveling is proving far more difficult than I thought it would be.  Serious discussions about dying, assisted suicide, and the like are just going to have to wait until I have the time to treat them with the respect they deserve.

So…in the meantime.  Last night we had dinner with old friends of the hubster.  During the meal one of his friends (an avid bicyclist) told us a story of being run down by some Amish horses gone wild.  Iowa has a large population of Amish and near the communities it’s common to see their buggies tooling along on the shoulders of the highways.  The horses are used to the sounds of car traffic and have always seemed calm and well controlled whenever I’ve driven by them.

Image from Wikipedia

But while they’re fearless around cars, evidently the horses are spooked by bicycles (who knew?) so when the bicycling friend and two of his buddies rode past an Amish family in their wagon one afternoon, the horses panicked.  They threw the wagon and family of four into a ditch before doubling back and stampeding down the highway headed back for the barn.  Our friend was unlucky enough to be riding dead in their path and, because of wind noise, didn’t hear them coming up on him from behind until they ran right over the top of him!  He said one second he was peddling along, minding his own business, and the next he was waking up in a hospital with a broken ankle and numerous cuts and bruises.

Imagine his surprise to find out the exact nature of his traffic accident.  Of course now that everything’s healed he clearly enjoys telling the story and who can blame him?  You have to admit it’s a good one.  How many people can claim they’ve been run over by the Amish?

In any case I guess the moral of this story is, for the safety of everyone concerned always beware when riding your bicycles around horses.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

Sky Burial

Griffon Vulture at Oakland Zoo

Photo © Ingrid Taylar

Today is the ninth anniversary of 9/11 and, judging from all the anger boiling up in the last month, it seems as a nation that we’re still pretty raw.

Forgiveness is a challenge for me.  A woman told me once that forgiveness is only granted, not chosen or earned, and I’ve thought about that one ever since.  I always thought I was a very forgiving person but really I’d just been trained to move on.  Put it behind me and not think about it anymore.  Leave the wounded parts in the past like bloody garbage, wrapped up in a cloth and stuffed in a hole.

Over the years I left a lot of wounded parts behind me.

For a variety of reasons I eventually had to go looking for them again, scattered far and wide as they were, and I managed to locate most of the pieces and collect them all in a kind of emotional basket-of-casualties that I kept next to my journal.  While it feels good to have me all back together again in one place where things start to make a lot more sense, still I’m not quite sure what to do with it now.  It’s not like these are working parts anymore.  The remains of the various traumas, big and small, are pretty mangled.

Yesterday, a friend and I went up to More’s Mountain to hike the trail up at the top, and a giant black bird with a yellow beak showed up.  It looked like a crow only three times as large and it came over the trees and flew directly at us, coming in low and circling once, studying us as we stood still, heads tilted back, watching it fly against the sky.  Then, satisfied, it flew back over the trees again and we were left a little awed, a little shaken by the contact.

I wondered if it was some species of vulture.

I went up there alone last month, with a dead crow I found in the middle of the road.  I carried it up there to give it a decent burial, to return it to mountain peak and thin air because…well, I don’t know why exactly.  Because I love crows.  Because it felt more respectful than leaving it to be squished and flattened by successive car tires.  But I think I was after something else, too.  I wanted to whisper a prayer into its wings and then maybe, just maybe, have it carry that prayer up somewhere where it might be heard.

Although it wasn’t a prayer so much as a cry for help, sent out into space, into the heavens, into the void, asking something, somewhere out there to hear and help us as we struggle with all the challenges that are coming to a head in the world right now.  Because it just seems like we need a lot of help.

But when I got up to the mountain with the crow, wrapped in cotton cloth and plastic and cradled in my backpack, I encountered a vulture instead.  It was a turkey vulture and it surprised me, flying out from behind a stone spire to my left as I stood gazing out across the valley far below.  It flew in close right in front of me, twisting its head to look at me, study me, and I realized it must have smelled the dead crow.

It was eerie, I’ve never seen a vulture that close before, and I’ve certainly never been considered quite like that.   It stirred something primal and pre-moral inside me.  I felt a kinship with the bird…and I liked the feeling.

There are still places in Tibet where they practice Sky Burial, one of the ancient, cultural burial rituals of the region.  I’ve read descriptions of the practice and it’s about as raw and graphic as it gets.  Loved ones carry the bodies of their deceased, sometimes on their backs, hundreds of miles to the sites where sky burials are still performed.  Those who perform the service receive the body and place it on great flat stones where they wait until the sun first rises in the morning, illuminating the site.  Then they butcher the body, grind the flesh and bone into paste, and signal to the waiting vultures ringing the site to come.  And they do come, by the hundreds, devouring everything before they leave again, carrying the last remains of that person’s physical life away with them into the sky.

The first time I heard of it I was both repelled and fascinated.  It sounded so strange at first, so gruesome, and yet something in my stomach relaxed at the thought.  I love my body.  I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to live in it for as long as I get to.  It’s like having the greatest horse of all time, my steed, my ally, my companion on this wild journey through the world, and when I die I want it set free again, too.  I want all the hits that it’s taken for me over the years, all the wounds it’s licked, the burdens it’s carried, the pain it’s survived wiped clean again.  Released.  Forgiven.

Not embalmed, enshrined, and buried.

Vultures aren’t afraid of dead bodies.  They don’t look at them with revulsion or disgust and I like that about them, because either do I.  Instead they accept and receive them, taking their inherent nutrients and recycling them, turning them back into something life giving, nourishing, strengthening, and sustaining.

I guess that’s what I want for all these old wounds I’m carrying around with me, these old, damaged, mangled pieces of myself that I’ve reassembled and now don’t know what to do with.

I want to somehow eat them, transform them into something that’s ultimately nourishing and strengthening.  I wonder if maybe that’s what forgiveness is supposed to be about, not some kind of lobotomized memory wipe, but a final consumption and transmutation.  I want to take these horrible old memories, the wounds and scars, and cut them apart, grind them into paste, then swallow them down into some ancient, primal place of acid and fire inside myself that can finally, finally harness what happened, release it, and make me whole and strong again.  Lend strength to my wings and help me fly back into the sky where I can soar around again through the rest of my life, loving and accepting and free.

I hope someday I’ll be granted that kind of forgiveness.  I hope someday we all will.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

The Garden Undead

Okay.  It’s Saturday morning, the hubster is gone, and I’ve got a wild hair to write a post.  (It’s either that or sit down with my book on parasites…which is fascinating, entertaining, and well written, don’t get me wrong.  I just don’t feel like reading right now.)  I know I just announced that I’m only going to post on Fridays but maybe it would be safer to say that I’ll post at least on Fridays.  That way I have some wiggle room if I feel chatty in between.

I finished canning the last of the peaches yesterday and they tasted  funky, which was to be expected seeing as how I picked them all hard and green.  The squirrels this year took off about three-quarters of the fruit before I finally went out one afternoon in a rage and stripped the tree of every last piece of anything remotely edible left on it, right down to the pea-sized, green, furry, little knots that they wouldn’t want anyway.  I didn’t care.  I wasn’t gonna leave anything for those vandalizing garden rats, just in case.  They make me so angry! It wouldn’t be so bad if they would at least eat the peaches.  But they don’t.  They take one bite then throw them on the ground and move to the next one.

Which Dane the mangy rescue mutt loves of course.  He’ll eat anything (including squirrels but even he can’t catch them!)  He just stands around there under the tree with his mouth open, hopeful.

One year I bought carpet tack strips and spent the entire day tying them on every branch of the tree.  My thinking was I’d turn it into a thorn tree of sorts…make it painful for the squirrels to run along the limbs.

Poor little peach tree.  By the time I finished it looked like a bad Halloween costume, like it was going to the party all dressed up as a wannabe black locust.  The strategy worked though.  It slowed the squirrels down even though it didn’t stop them completely…nothing short of a stake through their beady little hearts can do that.  But at least they were eating with a limp.

And then, last week a squirrel nailed me in the head with an apple as I was walking under the apple tree.   That tree is theirs!  I don’t even try to stop them with the apples, I let them have everything on it.  But I swear the brat waited until I was right underneath then dropped a big, green apple, catching me square in the middle of the head where it took a big bounce and then fell off down to the ground.  I could hear them all snickering up there, behind their nasty, little claws, but there was nothing (nothing!) I could do about it.  So I went, fuming, inside and watched the squirrel catapult video again, and that made me feel a little better.

I know, I know.  That video is mean and the squirrel might have gotten injured, but honestly?  I don’t believe it did for a second.  I don’t think you can injure those things.  I saw one fall fifty feet out of a tree in our backyard once and just stand up, brush off its pants, and light a cigarette.  Hand to God.

Stake through the heart, people.  Stake through the heart.

Having said all that though, baby squirrels are just adorable.  This spring we had one that kept coming up to the patio door to look in the house.  My desk sits right next to the door where I can look out at the garden and I was utterly spellbound, watching its little hands there pressed against the glass, its innocent face peering in.  It was tiny and sweet and fearless and curious…and then Dane saw it and blew out through the dog door on to the patio like a hundred pound, black fur explosion of sharp teeth and drool.  The squirrel was too inexperienced to understand what was going on, it didn’t know how to get away, so it panicked and just kept racing back and forth from one end of the concrete to the other.  It was only going to be a matter of seconds before Dane got it but then, suddenly, I blew out through the patio door screaming like a banshee, hands splayed, electricity firing out my fingertips and hair and, hurling myself fifteen feet straight through the air, I tackled him a scant heartbeat before he was about to snap the little guy up.  The baby recognized its window of opportunity and ran up the wisteria trunk, skittering away to safety across the top of the arbor.  Needless to say, it never returned to the patio again after that.

Y’know, I just had a thought.  Could that possibly have been the same squirrel, all grown up, that dropped the apple on my head?  How ironic would that be?

Although I have to admit if it was, I’d be kind of proud of the little scamp.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

A Parrot’s Grief

We once had two dogs.  They joined the family two years apart, lived most of their lives together frisky and inseparable, then died at the end, also two years apart.  Our big guy died first.  Swift and unexpected.  He was fine and healthy for years and years, and then one day got sick and three days later died.  Just like that.

Our second dog was lost without him.  For a month following his death she withdrew.  She’d still come to us if we called and try to look happy to see us, but as soon as her duty was done she’d slip away to the corner where they used to sleep together and lie down again, eyes open and unfocused and numb.

We were heartbroken for her and heartbroken for ourselves.  We all missed him terribly.

But time worked its magic and one day, for no particular reason, she returned.  She followed me around the house that morning, trying to flip my hand up on her head with her nose again, and my heart eased knowing she’d be okay.  We had two more wonderful years together before she, too, eventually died.

There’s a lot of controversy on whether animals experience emotions, but the suggestion that they can’t feel things like simple grief makes me angry.  I usually try to respect the beliefs of others but, because this particular belief is so often used as a justification for exploitation, neglect, or abuse, I don’t respect it.  I find it suspect.  The claim is far too riddled with conflicts of interest to take at face value.  Besides, in five decades of living, every interaction I’ve personally had with animals and birds, (and reptile, fish, and even a few insects believe it or not) has confirmed that these other strange and wonderful companions I share my world with feel a great deal, even if most of the time I don’t understand what exactly that is.

A case in point:

One of my first hospice patients had a parrot she said she’d smuggled over the border from Mexico twenty years earlier.  She was a wild, untamed kind of woman and her parrot was just like her.

I don’t remember now what kind he was, but he was smallish, maybe a little bigger than Snowball the dancing cockatoo, and he spent most of his time in those final days perched on the valance above the window next to her bed.  I was a little nervous at first because family members warned me that sometimes he flew down on people, swooping at them again and again, testing to see if they would duck and run.  He was a fierce little thing, tolerating only a handful of people and attacking the rest, but he clearly loved and needed that woman lying on the bed and was made achingly vulnerable by her approaching loss.

He never flew down on me.  I used to speak to him gently when I was on that side of the bed, changing her sheets or dressing or incontinence pad, and he’d closely monitor everything I did, anxious and curious, sometimes fluffing up into a ball of down and shaking his head rapidly, raising his wings for a moment like he just couldn’t stand the uncertainty anymore, then settling back down to watch and wait again anyway.  He’d sidle back and forth along the length of the valance, first to the left, then to the right, over and over again like a loved one pacing the corridors of a hospital.  He knew something was wrong and it seemed to fill him with unease.

Once I saw him fly down to the bed while I was in and out of the room, doing laundry.  She was asleep and he seemed to want to just be next to her, to touch her.  He awkwardly waddled up next to her head, curling into the warmth still emanating from her.  He bent his head over next to her mouth as though checking for breath and just stayed there for a long time, frozen, his feathers brushing her lips.  My heart broke for him and I wanted to pick him up, cradle and croon to him, but I knew he’d bite me if I so much as extended my hand.

First her sister told me and then her daughter.  How he wept on her body when she died.  He flew down from the valance to her chest and started nuzzling and nipping at her, trying to make her respond.  Stroke him.  Yell at him.  Anything.  But when she didn’t move he went still and stunned, and it was then that he started making the strange, small noises, noises unlike anything they’d ever heard him make before, like sobs.  His head bobbed slowly up and down to the rhythm of the sounds, and her family just stood there around the bed, surprised and stricken by his grief.

Later, when the men from the funeral home came to remove her body from the room he attacked them.  Viciously.  Angry and hysterical, he dive bombed at their heads repeatedly until one of the men ran  in the bathroom to hide.  The family finally captured him and put him in his cage while they took her body away.

I’ve often thought about him over the years and hoped that he eventually found someone else he could trust, someone he’d allow to love him, to bring him back in healing and wholeness.

Like just about every other person I’ve ever known, the deep emotional bonds I’ve shared with animals over the years have provided me with a well of strength, beauty, unconditional love, and hope.  My ties to these companions have helped shape me, often healed me, and even saved me, more times than I can count.  I really, really hope that some day soon we’ll grow past the economic and scientific need we have to deny the depth of their vulnerability to us, and instead forge a higher, kinder relationship based on mutual respect.  They’ve already given us all so much.  They deserve something far better than what they’ve gotten in return.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

Alf and the Fly Part I

Once upon a time there was a man named Alf who was dying.  Again.  He was dying before, a few times…at least that’s what the doctors said.  But it turned out they were mistaken and he wasn’t dying at all.  He was just living faintly from time to time.

Alf had lived with a diagnosis of congestive heart failure for twelve, long years and, somewhere in the middle of all that illness and decline, his heart got bored and figured out it could trick people into thinking he was dying.  His heart enjoyed tricking people.  It was like a coyote it was so tricky.  It liked to make the doctors think This is it! so they would then tell everyone else, including Alf, the news.  And that was when it would surprise them all by coming back strong and not dying after all.  It made his heart look like a hero.

That’s how I first met Alf.  His heart was at it again and, in spite of all the times it had tricked them in the past, everyone was certain this time was different.  So, as often happens when someone’s illness is declared terminal, hospice was called into the case.

I came into their lives as a home health aide and I spent hours and hours every week helping Alf and his wife, Mrs. Alf, with things like, oh…showers and transfers and household chores.  There was always cooking and cleaning and errands to do.  Help with personal hygiene and bathroom support.  I was the supply inventory-er and medication monitor as well as a critical all-around liaison with the rest of the hospice team and a jack of all trades for sure and certain.  In fact, so indispensable was I that they paid me an extortionate wage well down into the single digits, a sum that made me the envy of nobody in particular and the wonder of all those who knew how much I’d paid for my college education.

But I digress.

I worked with Alf for close to two years before everyone finally wised up and realized he wasn’t dying this time either.  But what a two-years it was!  We had a ball, Alf and I, and he taught me lots of wonderful things.  For instance, being a great one with his hands, we spent many happy hours together building bird houses which is when he taught me how to use a table saw.

Now if you’ve never seen a wobbling, wheelchair bound, mule-stubborn, ninety-three year old man who can barely pull himself upright to begin with, lean unsteadily on his elbows while using his bare hands to guide a tiny piece of wood past a twelve inch diameter, hot steel, spitting saw blade, then you just haven’t lived my friend.  Everything always turned out okay (miracle!) but each time afterwards I had visions of flying fingers and blood splatter dancing in my head.


We also had a grand adventure at the local, home improvement warehouse where Alf wanted to race an electric shopping cart up and down the aisles at top speed.  He never got full control of the thing but he wasn’t a man to let a detail like that stop him–at least not as long as the other customers were willing to keep diving out of the way and store employees hadn’t figured out yet who was running into the shelves.  No sirree Bob.  Alf was beyond such mundane considerations.  Alf was magnificent.  Dirty looks and mumbled expletives weren’t nearly enough to dampen his wild elation at finally getting behind the wheel of something with a motor again.

All in all we had a great run.

But eventually, everyone figured out he wasn’t dying this time either and the gig was up.  He was discharged from hospice   and without the benefit of a daily schedule to throw us together, he and I slowly drifted apart.  I heard bits and pieces over the next couple of years about how he declined to the point where they finally had to put him in a nursing home, about how he just lay there curled up and incapacitated, unable to feed or dress or toilet himself anymore.  I couldn’t help but wonder why his heart wouldn’t just buck up and surrender like the rest of his body.  I shook my head at its foolishness.  Sometimes, being trickier than tricky can really work against you.

But the day finally came when Alf turned the tables on his heart.  He died peacefully in his sleep while it was off dozing, slipping out before it had a chance to wake up fully and figure out what was going on. His family was bewildered at first by the strange turn of events and understandably wary, which could be why they decided to have an open casket at the service

Just in case.

Alf’s was my first ever viewing.  I walked up to the front of the funeral parlor to look at him as soon as I arrived and, between you and me, I was feeling guilty as all hell because I hadn’t been to visit him in so long.  But the minute I saw him lying there in his Sunday suit, looking trim and dapper as ever, I felt better.  He was okay now, finally free of his tricky heart, and in the end that’s all that really mattered.

I leaned over the side of the casket to whisper an apology in his ear while at the same time laying my hand every-so-gently on his chest, but then nearly jerked it off again upon discovering he was ice cold and hard as a freaking rock.  The sensation startled me.  It felt like a frozen rack of ribs slipped into a coat and tie.  It took me a minute to get my head wrapped around the practical details of what’s required to keep a dead body looking fresh and presentable, and then promptly forgot all about it as I returned to bidding him a fond farewell, the best of luck, and a heartfelt wish for grace and fun on his journey to wherever he was headed next.

Thanks for everything, AlfReally.  It was an honor.

I made my way to a seat in the back row, took my place between our hospice’s Social Worker and Nurse, folded my hands primly in my lap, and settled in to try and behave myself during the service.

And that was when the Fly showed up.

Once again, this post has gotten a little too long (windbag?) and I’m gonna have to finish up next week.  Stay tuned.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

Alf and the Fly, Part II

When we left Alf last week he was lying in state at the front of the room while the rest of us sat politely listening to the pastor (who clearly never met his subject) reiterate the sterilized summary of his life as laid out in the obituary.  I was doing my level best to stay awake and fend off the head-bob when the Fly first started buzzing around me.

This was just one of a number of remarkable photographs published in The Daily Mail. It was taken by physiotherapist Miroslaw Swietek at around 3am in the forest next to his home.

I was surprised.  For one thing, it was hard to believe that something as wildish and chaotic as Musca domestica could survive in a place like that.  The room felt as sterile and life-sucking as the sermon currently bouncing off its stark, white walls.   Call me wrong but I’d have bet good money that anything smaller than, say, a finch or a bat would have died and dropped to the floor the instant it hit the atmosphere.  Equally amazing was the fact that the Fly (fat, hairy, and droning) had to negotiate five doors and a security force of germ-phobic staff to penetrate that far in.  Truly, this was one determined fly.

However, my wonder was soon replaced by consternation.  The Fly, after buzzing in circles above my head a few times, commenced a series of land-and-crawl maneuvers targeting places like the top of my head and the side of my face.  At first I just brushed it away while still maintaining my focus on the pastor, but after the third or fourth time The Fly finally had my undivided attention.  I studied the situation.  When I glanced at our Social Worker and Nurse on either side of me it was plain they were outside the fly zone.  Neither displayed the harassed look I was rapidly adopting.  And when I looked around at everyone else in the immediate vicinity I realized they weren’t being bothered either.

Naturally, this annoyed me.   So the next couple of times I swatted the creature towards the Nurse, to see if it would switch victims and crawl on her instead.  But it didn’t.  It not only came right back at me each time, it seemed to redouble its efforts.  That was when it struck me that, for some odd reason, the Fly seemed intent on making my life, and my life alone, miserable.

It got worse.  After a few swipes the thing started dodging my hand, feinting to one side in the air before diving back in to skip across my forehead, my cheek, my nose.  Or, if I swung after it had already landed and was doing the Tinkerbell dance across the back of my neck, it would leap into the air just long enough for me to slap myself before gracefully alighting again in a swift succession of tiny steps.

The Fly was really starting to get to me.

Yet it wasn’t until it began lifting my collar to crawl under my shirt and down my back that I truly began to panic.  What the hell was this thing?  It was like no other bug I’d encountered, intelligent, crafty, and motivated.  Like something out of a Jeff Goldblum movie.   I was right on the verge of making a full-blown scene, shrieking and jumping to my feet, writhing madly while trying to slap my back and tear off my shirt, when something stopped me.  I had the strangest thought.


The Fly stopped in its tracks.  It stayed still for a moment, huddled there under the fabric between my shoulder blades, then turned around and crawled back up out of my shirt, lifted into the air, and began to fly around in front of my face in a figure eight pattern.  I couldn’t believe it.  My mind was spinning.  Just how is that kind of thing supposed to work?  My imagination took off and I wondered wildly whether Alf had temporarily turned into the Fly itself, or if he had just rigged a tiny, leather bridle and bit and was now sitting astride its back, grinning and waving at me with a cowboy hat.

It was at that point that the Alf Cloud descended.  I felt it wrap around me like something warm and soft, and then an image of him…smiling, standing with nary a wheelchair, walker, or cane in sight…exploded in my mind.  It felt like he was right there in the room.  I could almost smell the clean soap coming off him, feel something warm like body heat.  He was chuckling and I almost laughed out loud, too, but then remembered where I was.

It was odd and wonderful and such a relief.  He still felt exactly like Alf only without any of the weakness and strain.  No frustration, irritation, or pain.  He felt strong and easy and laughing, not at me but with me, like he knew that I of all people would appreciate this new-found freedom he’d found.  And I did.  I really did.  The last tattered remnants of sadness and guilt washed away and there was nothing left inside but happiness for him.

I grinned.  You rascal. And as soon as I said it, the Alf Cloud was gone.  The Fly stopped its circling and meandered away, bumping into people and chair backs and walls as it went.

I told our Social Worker about the experience on the way home and we shook our heads, wondered what it all meant, then chatted for a while about what we thought might happen when we died ourselves.  I told him I was hoping for a lot of love.  He said he’d be happy if he could still experience anything that felt like sex.

The next day when I arrived at the office our Social Worker had already been there for some time and was sitting at his desk when I walked in, studying a small fly crawling around near his coffee mug.  He glanced up at me and smiled.

I was just wondering, he said, then looked back down at the fly.


copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

…Do As The Mainers Do.

In our last episode I’d just witnessed the dying throes of a lobster being boiled alive for dinner.  My appetite had taken a big hit and I was now facing the prospect of having to sit down and dine.  I was in trouble.

Well, I’d just learned I knew nothing about how to cook a lobster.  It was now time to discover that I knew even less about eating one.  For any other novices out there, a quick word of warning:  This is not…I repeat not…a task for the squeamish. One must butcher the carcass oneself, right there on the plate.

Fortunately, I had experienced mentors by my side, guiding me throughout the meal.  The coaching was excellent and I was rarely at a loss, no matter which part of lobster anatomy confronted me.  So did I eventually overcome my queasiness and enjoy the meal?

Regrettably, not really.

Some parts of the experience are a little blurry for me now but I remember enough.  Like the sensation of ripping off the legs, one by one, and sucking all the meat I could out of the delicate, shell tubing.  I can still hear the cracking sound as I tore the tail off the carcass and carefully, per instruction, pushed the pink flesh out of the big end of that larger shell tube with my finger.  I vividly remember the spoonful or so of some soft, green, texturally questionable substance which our hostess encouraged me to eat as a particular delicacy.  She called it tomalley and assured me that it was a favorite of hers, so I gave it a try.  It was sweet in an overly ripe, already partially digested kind of way and secretly I wondered if she was fucking with me.  Frankly, it looked like lobster pre-poop, the kind of stuff that collects in the lower intestine just before it’s expelled, but I was just being paranoid.  I looked it up later online and discovered it consists of the liver and pancreas.  Throughout the meal I had a bowl of melted butter available in which to dip the meat, but my stomach took exception to the addition of a slimy, oil coating on foreign matter it was already struggling to keep down.  Butter was out.

And oh yeah.  I think, in my determination to not waste any of it, I may have eaten some cartilage.  This was towards the end of the meal when my conscientious consumption sparked concern.  I remember chewing on something stringy and tough until our hostess leaned over, eyebrows raised, and murmured y’know, most people don’t eat that part.

No.  I can’t say I enjoyed it.  In fact, not only was that the last  lobster I ate, it was the last seafood of any kind.  Which, believe me, is no small feat for a tourist traveling along the Maine coast in October.  Seafood is a big part of what people come for and it figures large in most menus.  Fortunately, during the next leg of our trip up in the staggering beauty of Acadia National Park, we found an outrageously tasty, local place called Chow Maine where we ate for five days in a row until it was time to finally fly home.

Looking back now I have regrets.  I’m sorry I let my queasiness get the better of me and wield the influence it did over the the trip.  I wish I’d gotten over it so I could have eaten more of the fabulous seafood cuisine that Maine has to offer.  It’s hard to understand how my reaction to a single incident could last that long but I’m not sure how one is supposed to overcome that level of digestive revolt.  Nausea is not a sensation that lends itself to compromise.

But in spite of the fact that it affected my appetite the way it did still, I’m glad and grateful for my experience with the lobster.  I’m satisfied that I seized the opportunity to finally participate in the killing/butchering part of the food cycle.

Over the years I’ve eaten my fair share of poultry, fish, and beef.  I’ve willingly participated in the death of all the fellow creatures that a meat diet requires, but always and only as an end consumer.  I’ve been happy there was someone else to handle the gut wrenching violence required to turn a living, feeling, innocent, helpless animal into something dead and edible, because that division of labor makes it easier to maintain the illusion that my hands are still clean.

But still, there are costs growing in the system that gnaw at me.  I can’t help but wonder if it might not be better to participate in the whole process a little more, mainly for the sake of the animals out there that are not only dying, but also increasingly being forced to live under some horrifying and inhumane conditions.

Just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about lobsters here.  Lobsters live (admittedly shortened) natural lobster lives in their natural lobster world before they’re finally caught and cooked.  They spend their lives aggressively eating whatever species of neighbor they can, occasionally each other, and I suspect they’d eat me, too, if I ever fell off a boat and sunk to the bottom.  More power to ’em.  I don’t want to be a hypocrite.  I’m willing to participate in the system if that ever falls to my lot.  I don’t object to the food chain itself.

The part of the food system that I’m referring to is industrial agriculture  (dubbed factory farming.)  Because in that system, the lives the animals are forced to live are an unmitigated nightmare.  Here’s just one example of an egg farm in California but there are countless others, all equally difficult to watch.  I can’t help but feel that my own unwillingness to take responsibility is part of the problem.  As long as I can have nameless, faceless people out there, killing nameless, faceless animals in some other galaxy far, far away, then I can continue to pretend like our meat really comes neatly packaged, skinned and weighed from grocery stores.  Styrofoam trays are the wombs from which pork chops and ground beef emerge.  Chicken breasts and steaks grow on trees, and you can tell if they’re not ripe yet because they’re still frozen in the middle.

No.  There’s something inherently dishonest…cowardly…about hiding behind a shopping cart and a checkbook like that, something disrespectful to the creatures and lives that are being sacrificed for my nourishment and sustenance.  They’re dying for godsakes.  The least I can do is try and ensure that they live a good life beforehand and die a humane death when the time comes.  I can stand witness to their suffering, care about it, say I’m sorry, and give sincere thanks before I bite a big chunk out of them.

I know if I was being eaten, I’d vastly prefer it was by someone who appreciated the costs on my side.

That’s what I tried to do in Maine.  For the lobsters.  It was harder than I thought it would be, a lot harder, but I think, with time and experience, it would get easier.  (Although even after research, I’m still not sure how I would kill the next one.  There’s a lot of controversy about which method is most humane.)

Of course back here in Idaho, my learning curve won’t involve lobsters.  Maybe I’ll learn how to hunt instead.  Or maybe someday I’ll raise a cow for butchering.  But until then I think I’ll start with the chickens I intend to raise for eggs, learn how to swiftly and cleanly break their necks once they’re past their laying prime.  Stand up, be a mensch, and do the sacred deed myself, then mourn and honor my beautiful girls as they deserve to be mourned, before we gratefully feast on their final gift to our family.

I just need to make damn sure that they live really great, happy, deeply beloved lives until then.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

When in Maine…

Up until seven months ago, Maine was the last state in the union that I’d never been to.  Living a nomadic lifestyle into my forties, I’d at least stopped to get gas in each of the other forty-nine.  But Maine had eluded me.  Maine is not a just-passing-through kind of place.  If one plans to ever step foot in the state, one must intend to go there.

So finally, last October, my husband and I took a vacation and spent ten, solid days there, decisively ending my lifelong quest to bag the Big Fifty.

And I couldn’t have picked a better place to finish.  Maine is drop-dead gorgeous and the people who live there are as solid and generous as their land.  I even found myself thinking about moving there a few times during the trip which was surprising since 1) I have no desire to abandon my children and family on the other side of the continent, 2) I’ve become a high desert creature and at my age probably wouldn’t adapt well and, 3) I don’t much care for lobster.

Not that I knew this last about myself before we went.  I’ve lived landlocked and relatively poor most of my adult life so lobster as a cuisine choice was never an option.  Not so in Maine, however.  No, no, madames et monsieurs.  You see in Maine, in October, it’s lobster high season and during this time period the little bottom dwellers are readily and cheaply available to everyone, high or low.

And I was ready for it.  I was eager.  I was all about putting on a bib and whacking a little, orange carcass to pieces with a wooden mallet.  (Although it turns out that’s crab.  For lobster, one uses a nutcracker.)

We stayed with a couple of natives (Mainers in the local vernacular), foodie friends who were excited to deflower the lobster-virgin.  They decided to initiate me Maine style with whole boiled lobster to be dismembered by hand, and a hot butter dip.  We went down to the famous and fabulous Harbor Fish Market to select our critters…which is where I made my first big mistake.

While the others shopped for chowder ingredients to round out the meal I stood near the giant tank where the fresh catch is held, watching the store-guy fish lobsters out of the dark water for customers.  He held them up in the air, turned over on their backs, while their claws, legs, and little antenna waved helplessly in the air, groping for something familiar from their own ocean world.  They were bewildered, not realizing yet that their old life was gone forever.  I felt a pang of kinship.

That feeling of dislocation is familiar to me.  Back when I made my first descent into a major depressive episode, I too felt disoriented and frightened by the foreign (albeit internal) landscape I landed in.  I did a lot of waving and groping of my own back then, trying to return to the familiarity of my old life.  It took me a while to figure out that I could never go back, and even longer to realize (unlike the lobsters) that I didn’t really want to.  The Woman I Was had grown up on too many secrets.   Turns out she needed to go if I was ever to achieve a sense of wholeness.

But I digress.  Back in the fish market I shook off my brief unease and, determined to enjoy the whole experience, joined the others as they returned to the car, lobsters tucked away in a cooler, packed in ice.  By the time evening rolled around they were still very much alive and waving away at us.  Our hostess was busy in the kitchen, preparing to cook them, and I was busy up in my head, preparing mentally for the sacrifice to come.  I take dying seriously, no matter what kind of life is engaged in doing it.  I always have.  It’s not that I see anything wrong with life coming to an end.  I don’t.  To me it’s a law of nature that stands tall and respected along with the rest.  It’s something that’s happening all the time, everywhere, all around us and there’s nothing that we see, touch, eat, smell, use, value, wear, want, hold, or love that isn’t at some point, somewhere in the chain of it’s existence, touched by, involved in, or responsible for the dying of something else.  Nothing.

And that’s comforting to me.  It’s how I know that nothing’s going wrong.  Dying is supposed to happen.  That knowledge helps anchor me, whenever I come up against it myself.  I use it to brace for the maelstrom that always accompanies dying, by remembering oh yeah, it’s just time.

It was always going to be time.

That evening, in the home of our friends, it was those lobsters’ time and I didn’t have a problem with that.  But I was also responsible for it, they were being killed in my honor, and that was a big deal to me.  So in return, out of gratitude and respect, I wanted to make sure that their dying went as smoothly as possible.  It seemed like the least I could do.

Unfortunately, what I didn’t understand about the process involved in killing them was a lot.

Our hostess was tolerant, respectful, and perhaps a little amused as I knelt by the cooler and said last rites over them.  Then, after studying her method as she transferred a couple to the pot, I picked one up myself, walked over and, with one last quick prayer, pushed it headfirst into the boiling water after which I stood back to watch.

Enter:  The maelstrom.

The lobster mythology that I’d heard over the years said they die the instant they hit the water.  That’s what I figured was going to happen.  Too late I realized that, having lived most of my life among inland people who had no easy access to lobster as a recipe ingredient, the stories I’d heard about how to cook them all came from others like myself who knew nothing about it.

Turns out they don’t die instantly.  At least this one didn’t.  I stood staring in horror as his limbs and antenna continued to wave around under the surface of the boiling water for an unconscionable period of time.  It’s not that he appeared to be in acute pain.  At least not that I could tell.  He wasn’t screaming for help or trying to climb out of the pot or anything.  But he was clearly conscious and experiencing all the sensations that go along with full body immersion in boiling water and, as that realization dawned, my prayers did an abrupt reversal in tone from blessings and thanks to something more along the lines of Dear holy God, what have I done?

I couldn’t move.  I kept saying But it’s still moving…it’s still moving over and over until finally our hostess walked over and gently, compassionately put the lid back on the pot so I couldn’t see inside anymore.  It broke the spell and I fell away from the stove, badly shaken.  Needless to say my appetite was gone.  Obliterated.  It had been replaced by a low grade nausea which I did everything in my power to hide.  After all, I was the one who had asked for this and they’d knocked themselves out to give it to me.

I was now facing a dilemma.  I discovered I no longer wanted to eat a lobster.  The allure was definitely, definitely gone.  However, there was a whole potful of the little guys who had just been boiled to death for my edification and there was no way in hell I could walk away now.  I had to eat one.  In fact, I had to eat every last shred of anything conceivably edible I could rip off its little carcass, because I couldn’t let it go to waste.  Not after what I’d just seen.

Whoops…I went way too long again.  I’ll have to stop here and finish next week.  Stay tuned.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

A Tiger Penis in Spirits

Whoa.  It was so not what I expected to find in an old neighborhood, clean, really friendly (and evidently quite popular with the jazz crowd) bar on a late Saturday morning in San Francisco.  But there it was.  A pickled tiger penis.

I flew down this last weekend to visit my son and his long-time girlfriend for Mother’s Day and we wound up down in the Potrero Hill district looking for a rain jacket he’d heard about made out of Kevlar.  (What?  Bulletproof rain gear you ask?  But why?)

Well, I still don’t know, but it was sure fun poking around in a boutique that carries that kind of stuff.  It was part high quality, outdoor expedition style clothing and equipment, and part museum (classic knives, steampunk sculpture, and other assorted oddities.)  We were there for a good hour until my bladder made a bathroom search imperative.  There was actually a restroom there in the shop but, in spite of my son’s nearly $300 purchase of gear, the guy who worked there denied me access to it.  Evidently, everything else in the place was available for customer perusal but not, definitely not, the toilet.  God no.  They wanted our money, not our pee.

So we made a beeline up the street to the Dogpatch Saloon, which was such a cool place that I instantly didn’t mind being turned out by their highbrow neighbor anymore.  My son and his sweetheart sat and ordered a drink while I used the (blessedly clean and sunny) bathroom and then joined them at the bar.  That was when I noticed the gallon-sized, glass bottle filled with brownish fluid and something dark and bulky on the bottom, sitting over in a shadowy corner.

Now, my son loves stuff like Kevlar because he’s got the heart of a warrior.  I, on the other hand, love stuff that looks like it came from a nineteenth century, London, back street apothecary because…well…that just does it for me.

Anyway, I asked the bartender about it and she smiled, went and got the jar, and set it on the bar in front of us.  I liked her.  She was an older woman who looked straight out of the neighborhood gang our family used to camp with down in Ensenada back in the sixties–good-natured, weathered, raspy voice, and feeling just fine.  I flashed back to sandy sleeping bags, bonfires on the beach, and those worms we occasionally glimpsed floating around at the bottom of our parents’ tequila bottles.

(The older kids whispered that our fathers actually ate the things after dark, which grossed us out, but we were always asleep by then so we never knew if it was true or not.  We tended to think not.)

She opened the jar and initially tried to fish out the object on the bottom with a utensil but, after two unsuccessful attempts, gave up in cheerful disgust and stuck her whole arm in.  I watched, spellbound, as she grabbed whatever the thing was and pulled it up through the fluid and out the top.  It uncoiled.  It was black.  Tiny pieces sloughed off and were left behind, floating in the disturbed liquid.  Two pendulous sacks dangled off of it, about halfway down.  The tip had barbs.  I think it was about a foot long but it could have been longer.

It’s a pickled tiger penis she said and grinned.  It’s supposed to increase male virility. The owner used to dare people to drink it but now he sells it for ten bucks a shot. Evidently, it had been marinating for a long time.  Years.  I wondered if it originally came from China Town.  The fluid was a random mix of different kinds of alcohol and looked repulsive with all the flecks drifting around in it.  It was hard for me to believe that anyone would drink the crap.  But then I didn’t believe they’d eat the worms either.

All three of us stared at it, dangling there from her hand.  It was disturbing and kind of mythical.  Initially, I had the righteous thought, well, thank God we have Viagra now.  But then I remembered the treatment received by animals in pharmaceutical labs and realized things actually haven’t changed that much.  The burden may have shifted species here in the modern west but our four-footed brethren are still bearing the brunt of it all.  It was a depressing thought.

I looked back at the tiger penis and found myself hoping that at least it worked.  That there had been a night when some aging man struggling with erectile dysfunction left his loving but unsatisfied wife at home yet again and, wandering off aimlessly through the streets, stumbled upon this bar.  Maybe it was on a night that he’d reached his wits end, that he was considering leaving her or worse.  But then he saw the half hidden jar in a back corner, decided what the hell, and tossed back a quick shot after which the lightning finally (finally!) rose inside him again.  He bolted home as fast as his suddenly strong and pumping legs would carry him and leaped back into her bed.  And there, with wild tiger breath hot and tingling on the back of both their bare asses, he gave her the most unforgettable, adoring, jungle ride of both their lives.

It helps me deal with my sadness about the tiger, dreaming that maybe some healing can rise from the ashes like that.

An interesting side note: While I didn’t drink a shot of the stuff myself (…hell no…) I still had a dream that night of a tiger pacing around at the foot of my hotel bed.  There was no lightning but I did wake up in the morning feeling wildish and energetic and really pretty great.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

Predators, Bagels, and Rodents, Oh My!

My wife-in-law, who co-writes non-fiction books on subjects like happiness and love, once observed that writing about a topic for any length of time usually translates into having to live it, too.  She first mentioned this to me while working on her book about love, when issues surrounding both love (wonderful! fantastic! fabulous!) and not-so-love (bummer…sadness…lowly low) had ballooned in her life, forcing her to grapple with the subject matter in a way that an intellectual treatise alone didn’t require.

I’ve noticed a similar dynamic while working on a book about dying I started after nearly six years with a local hospice.  Only instead of the love/not-so-love polarity mentioned above, I’ve been wrestling with a fear-of-dying (worrying…fretting…clinging) versus a really-truly-living (grateful! wonder! wowie kazowie!) one.  I’m trying to figure out just how exactly this whole thing is supposed to look.  How does one live a no holds barred, balls to the wall, drink it all in and keep on dancing kind of life in the inevitable face of dying?

And am I?

Yesterday afternoon I took our hundred pound, five-year old, rescue mutt up in the hills for our daily romp.  As usual, as soon as I gave him the all clear, Dane ranged far and wide off the trail, scouting out the endless smorgasbord of mangy and malodorous things he always finds to eat up there.  (He was abandoned young and lived on the streets for a while, nearly starving to death before animal control finally caught him.  The experience left scars.  I imagine if he could write a book, it would be all about food.)

He’s an avid scavenger, which is often disgusting, but something I can live with.  The challenge is that he also has the strongest predatory instinct of any dog I’ve ever had and he’s got a knack for hunting.

The first sign we saw of this instinct was innocuous and involved a dozen onion bagels I left on the kitchen counter the week we first brought him home.  The whole incident was my bad.  First off, he’s a really big dog and kitchen counters clearly offered no meaningful deterrent.  And second, he’d surreptitiously eaten two loaves of bread (and the bags) while I was showering on previous days so I should have known better than to leave the bagels out like that.

At first I thought he’d eaten them all.  But a half hour later I noticed him trotting towards the dog door with something in his mouth and, yes, it was a bagel.  Turns out he’d only eaten six and cached the rest.  During the ensuing treasure hunt we unearthed the others under pillows, inside shoes, behind drapes, and one that he’d carefully placed inside a box which he then closed.

Did I mention he’s smart?  He’s smart.

The bagel incident was annoying but pretty cute.  The one involving the warm and flopsy, back half of a wild rabbit we confiscated a couple of months  later wasn’t.  (He caught a wild rabbit!? you exclaim.  Only half?! I reply.)  There have been a few other victims.  Mainly rodents  and an occasional bird.  The number has fallen over the years as he’s gotten older but it’s still nothing I ever get used to.

And then yesterday he caught and killed a young ground squirrel.  A baby.  It was awful.  When I first spotted it outside its hole, I hung onto his collar until we’d scared it back inside.  I thought it was safe to let him go after that but the damn thing suddenly popped back up out of the hole and skittered away across open ground.  Dane was after it in a flash.  (It kind of takes my breath away how fast he moves when hunting.)  He scooped it up, chomped it three times like it was a squeak toy, and then just dropped it and walked off.

Now it’s not that I would have let him eat it had he tried, but he didn’t, and that kind of horrified me and ticked me off both.  I mean, what did he even kill it for if he didn’t want to eat it?  It’s so hard sometimes, trying not to put all my moral judgments onto a dog.  I realize it’s not that complicated for him.  Hey…it runs, I chase it lady. But I still struggle.

Then I realized the little ground squirrel wasn’t dead yet and I crouched down next to it uneasily while it twitched and spasmed there on the ground.  My father’s voice in my head told me I should put it out of its misery but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.  I just couldn’t.  I once drowned a litter of mice and (even though it’s probably not true) swore afterwards I’d never do anything like that again. Killing is a tough job, and it doesn’t get any easier just because it’s the compassionate thing to do.

Then I noticed the ground squirrel was heading into shock.  It’s eyes glazed over and the spasms slowed, so instead of having to search for a rock with which to crush it I thankfully knelt down in the dirt and started to sing.  Soft.  Crooning.  I told it sorry and thank you.  That it was beautiful to me and the hard part would soon be over.  I murmured words of encouragement, strength, and caring, and as its little body relaxed and grew more peaceful, I relaxed and grew more peaceful, too.  And it ended like that, a minute later.  The sunshine was warm and the breeze lifted fine dust all around us, gently.  Dane was snuffling around in the sagebrush a little ways off and everything felt quiet.  So very, very quiet.

It was a good ending.  Peaceful.  Sad.  Bittersweet.  Loving and tender and still.   It was a useless death but then, really, most of dying is.  I’m not sure, in the grand scheme, there’s anything wrong with that.  What was most important to me was that the baby didn’t suffer long and it didn’t die abandoned and alone.  (Of course again, in the grand scheme, I’m not sure any of us ever dies abandoned and alone but still, I think it makes a big difference, us being there for one another.)

So back to my original question, when it comes to life, am I or am I not balls to the wall, drinking-it-in-and-still-dancing?  Well, yesterday it wasn’t exactly dancing but it sure felt balls to the wall.  It’s never been that hard for me to live with gusto when the living is good.  I’ve always felt like the true testing comes when life turns to the darker side like it did yesterday.  And when it suddenly mushroomed up bloody and appalling I didn’t run, I didn’t rationalize, and I didn’t beat my dog.  I just gathered up a broken, little body and did my level best to keep on loving through the whole mess.  And for those few moments it felt like I’d unclenched my fists, dropped my arms, and let the whole twisted, shining shebang wash in and fill me.

No holds barred.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

More Role Models and Superheroes

Cerebral Palsy Man was not the only role model that helped me see how happiness can prevail in spite of having every reason in the world not to.  There were two others who illustrated the mechanics of this for me–Maggie Full of Grace and David the Scaredy Cat.

Maggie, a victim of one of the final polio epidemics to sweep across the U.S., lived out the following fifty some-odd years from a wheelchair as a near quadriplegic.  Shortly before she died, she shared one of her keys to maintaining freedom in a low-functioning body with me, which I’ll cover in a following post.   But for now I’d like to talk about David.

David was a cat, literally, and an important part of the apartment package I agreed to house-sit for, one summer during college.  I’m not generally a  cat person–god help me I’ve tried but I just don’t understand a creature that blows hot and cold like that.  However, David was one of those strange cats that behave a lot like a dog and was therefore, to me, one of the more engaging members of the species.  He was both affectionate and hugely fat and loved nothing better than curling up in a nice, warm lap to sleep, thereby numbing the attached legs into a kind of appendage coma.

He was also agoraphobic.   I never heard the details of how or when it all began, but evidently once David developed a terror of leaving the apartment he never did so again except for a yearly trip to the vet during which he was heavily sedated.  Years had passed since he’d experienced the outdoors in a conscious state.

I had no problem with this.  David was content to live inside and seemed no worse the wear for his annual drug-induced stupor, so far be it from me to pressure him to change.  But as the summer progressed he and I developed a little game around his condition.  He would accompany me to the door whenever I left to go anywhere.  I would then open the door, pause for a moment and invite him to step outside with me.  He would then carefully consider the invitation, stick his nose over the threshold and take a few sniffs.  But then he’d always pull his head in, step back, and look up at me as if to say, Y’know?  Thanks awfully, but I think I’m gonna pass today.  You go ahead.  Knock your socks off.  Have a great time out there.

We did this every day, every time I left, for two months.  It became our little joke.  He never intended to go and I never expected him to, but we’d pretend like it was a possibility anyway because we both got such a kick out of it.  But then one day, out of the blue, David changed his mind and with no warning at all, stepped through the door and down onto the sidewalk.

I was floored and just stood there staring at him, slack jawed and goggling.  I had no idea what was going on and wasn’t at all sure how to proceed.  But he looked so confident there at my feet, jaunty and gazing around him, surveying his new domain,  that I quelled the scream of excitement rising inside me and tried to assume an equally casual attitude.  I walked forward slowly, testing him, and he kept pace with me step for step, calm and curious.  There wasn’t a trace of fear in him so eventually we strolled off down the street together, nonchalant, as though we did this all the time.  As though we were heading to the club for martinis, arm in arm, top hats tilted at rakish angles.

Eventually, David grew so bold that he even stepped off the street to explore some of the low brush growing alongside.  The road bordered a large pond full of cattails and nesting, red-winged blackbirds who instantly and strenuously objected to his presence.  He ignored their dive bombing (you vulgar birds…we do not notice you) and proceeded to thread his way through the vegetation like a pro.  He looked like such a cat all of a sudden.  Stealthy and smooth, feline and graceful, all signs of the fat and dumpy slug he was at home gone.  I was proud of him.  Happy for him.  Intoxicated with his success.

And then came the wild cat.

It showed up out of nowhere.  No.  Out of  nightmare.  It was tiny in size but mighty in ferocity and it hurtled straight at David, spitting and hissing like some writhing, poisonous, pit creature.  It scared the living shit out of both of us and David immediately panicked, bolting for a telephone pole sticking up out of the brush about fifteen feet away.  The other cat took off after him and  I started chasing them both, waving my arms (threateningly I thought) in the air over my head and shrieking unintelligibly.

There was a brief moment, as David scaled twenty feet of pole in an adrenaline fueled blaze of lightning speed, that the wild cat and I both paused in surprise and grudging respect.  But then he scooched over and hung himself by the armpits from a crossbar, dangling there like some weirdly displaced flour sack, and chaos erupted again.   The wild cat pursued him about halfway up the pole then stopped, clinging and spitting curses there like the demon spawn of hell it was, threatening him with god-only-knows-what kind of cat horrors while sticking all its fur straight out as if it was being electrocuted.  I, in the meantime, was on the ground spitting curses of my own and clumsily throwing rocks, broken glass, and any other debris I could pry out of the dirt at the impossibly small target hanging off the side of the pole.

And here I apologize but I’m going to have to leave you hanging for a while longer with David.  This post has totally gotten away from me and I’ll have to finish it next week.  Stay tuned.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn