My homeless mother and her cat

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My mom said goodbye to her house today after nine years and goodbye to the Sunshine state after living here for 34.

“Nice of you to drive a homeless person and her cat to California,” she said.

I rented a car and drove to Melbourne, bleary-eyed, after a four-hour flight from Los Angeles. I showed up at her door around 8 a.m., wearing the same polyester shirt I had put on more than 24 hours ago.

Gussie remained wedged behind the couch. The movers showed up and started loading furniture and boxes. We cautioned them to move Gussie’s protective sofa last and we would stand at the doors like goalies and try to catch him if he bolted.

“I like pets,” the tattooed mover said. “I have some.”

“Yeah?”

“Yep,” he said, hoisting a box on a dolly. “I have snakes.”

“Ehhhhh….”

“Oh, they’re not venomous,” he said.

“In your house? They just slither around your house?” I asked.

“Yeah,” He took a swig of bottled water. “I have a monkey, too. His name is Gizmo.”

“Gizmo.”

I considered free-range snakes and a monkey.

“My daughter likes to draw in her room and Gizmo likes to imitate her,” he said. “He’s pretty good. She drew a sun and he drew a sun. Only when he paints, he uses his own poop. ”

He stopped loading boxes to pantomime Gizmo’s art endeavors.

Did not need that visual.

After the movers left, I stuffed a yowling Gussie into his spaniel-sized crate and lifted it into the back seat of the Volvo. Gussie had to come with us to the house closing in which my mom would hand over the keys to the new owners.

Gussie meowed a few times from his crate in the corner of Fidelity Title, but we all acted as though it was completely normal to have a cat at a house closing. Not unlike the way everybody acts as if nothing happened when somebody passes gas in the elevator.

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When it came time to leave her house for the last time, I asked my mom how it felt.

“I think we need to get these trash cans out to the curb and blow this pop stand,” she said.

 

Going to see Gussie

Tonight I catch the red-eye to Orlando, rent a car at what will be 2 a.m. Pacific Time, and drive to Melbourne where movers will be removing Gussie’s couch and all the rest of the furniture from my mom’s house.

Gussie has wedged himself between the wall and the back of the sofa. After four hours, he disgorged himself from his hiding place long enough to use the litter box, then jammed himself back behind the couch.

When the packers came to seal up boxes, Gussie didn’t just meow. He howled. And howled.

So I guess the prospect of 2,500 miles of meowing has just escalated to full on howling.

Wish us bon voyage….

 

El Gordo Gato

Gussie knows something is up and he’s not happy about it.

My mom wrestled him to the veterinarian in Florida Monday because she didn’t want to be the one to introduce Gussie to the harness.

The harness would also fit a small cocker spaniel. Or to quote the poor veterinary technician who had to stuff Gussie into the harness: “Muy gordo.”

Gussie glared at my mom from the back seat or the Volvo all the way home. Little does he know he is going to get even better acquainted with the harness and the back seat.

When he got home, he kept running in between the sofa and the wall in an attempt to work the harness off.

He has one more surprise before we get underway: the leash.

Gussie Goes West

A lot has changed since Dennis died. Among the biggest changes involves my mother and a 25 pound pissed- off cat named Gussie.

On April 4, my mom, one of my two brothers and I will drive my mom’s Volvo from Melbourne, Florida to her new home in Ventura County.  Gussie will ride in the back seat in his bed. My mom was going to fly him, but there isn’t a carrier big enough to allow him to ride in the plane’s cabin. He is bigger than your average dachshund.

Gussie has no idea he is being moved. He dislikes cars and he dislikes any changes to his routine of eating, sleeping, being brushed, sleeping and eating again. He will express himself loudly as he does during short trips to the vet.

This will be a very long trip, but it’s one that we’ve taken before. Not with one cat, but four.

In the late 1970s, the same family trio  headed in the opposite direction: from Colorado to Florida. In the car were me, my mom, and my middle brother Jim.  Also in the car was King Tut, Nefertiti, Natasha Badenov and Jean Claws Kitty.

My dad was in Saudi Arabia working for Bechtel. My youngest brother, Bret, was in college in Colorado. Jim was going to the University of Central Florida in Orlando and I was headed to the University of South Florida in Tampa. My mom was going to law school in Gainesville at the University of Florida.

My four cats climbed over us, under the gas pedal, on top of people’s heads.

Meow, meow, meow, meow, meow…until they lost their voices. We smuggled them into hotel rooms every night in noisy, twitching suitcases because nobody allowed cats in hotels back then. We fed them dry cat food in glass ashtrays and plastic ice buckets.

Now, 40 years later, the three of us are driving in the opposite direction. Once again, with the familiar serenade:

Meow. Meow. Meow. Meow.

Stay tuned for the first on-the-road installment of Gussie Goes West in about three weeks. I think Dennis is glad to be missing this one…

Gussie

The saddle

The last time I rode my bicycle was July 20, 2011.

Since then, the tires had gone flat, the saddle was thick with dust and spiderwebs clung to the wheel spokes. It leaned on a wall in the shadows of the garage for almost two and a half years.

About a month ago, I took it to a bike shop and asked them to please get it ready to ride again.

Today, I decided it’s time. Time to get back in the saddle.

I put on my bike shorts, filled a bottle with water and tucked my hair under a helmet.

The bike helmet strap was hanging almost to my collarbone. When had it gotten so loose?

I took off the white helmet to try to tighten the strap and realized I had  put on Dennis’ helmet. The helmet he was wearing when he died.

The straps were still caked with salt from his sweat. From when he was blood and bone and flesh and here.

I couldn’t wear his helmet. I ran my finger along the strap and something in me started to hurt.  I put it back in the closet and pulled out my own helmet.

I rolled my bicycle out of the garage and climbed into the saddle. I stood on a pedal and pushed off. My muscles responded, remembered, and I pedaled, down the hill where we always rode together, down to the bike path where we spent so many Saturday afternoons trying to figure whether to ride to the left, and see the ocean, or to the right, toward Ojai. I headed to the right.

I pedaled and pedaled, my heart pounded and the tears pooling in my eyes were cold in the gathering evening. One tear, then another, slipped down my cheek.

“Dennis, please show me some sign. Anything. I’ll recognize it,” I said under my breath. “Be with me today.”

As I rode, I listened to the same song on my iPhone, Viva la Vida, by Coldplay. I have not been able to figure out how to get my iPhone to shuffle songs.

I know I was going to feel stupid, but I made a mental note to ask somebody how to make my iPhone shuffle songs as the Coldplay lyrics played over and over and over:

I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own

The sun was slipping behind the hills and the bike path was in chilly shadows. Time to turn around and go home. I took a drink of water and turned the bicycle around toward home.

Then, the song on my iPhone suddenly changed. It was a new song, finally. A song with a melody that rolled and turned like light bouncing off snow. I listened to the lyrics.

“Darling, don’t be afraid I have loved you
For a thousand years
I’ll love you for a thousand more…”

I did not know that song.  I would look it up later and learn the song was by Christina Perri and in the movie “Twilight.” I have not yet seen the movie “Twilight” and if I have heard that song before, I don’t remember it.

One thing I did know. I never loaded that song in my iPhone.

It played only once, then went back to Viva la Vida.

One thing will not change as I ride on alone, Dennis. I will love you too, for a thousand years.

July 20, 2013

Today was hard. The week was hard. I knew the second anniversary of losing my Dennis was coming, but I couldn’t prepare, I couldn’t buffer the pain.

I just walked through the day. I didn’t know what else to do. I cried, but not a lot. I think I didn’t trust myself to cry because I was afraid it would hurt so much, my heart would stop.

I asked Dennis all day for a sign that he was somewhere, but there was nothing.

I had nightmares all week. I had trouble concentrating at work. The nightmares were about animals I couldn’t save. I woke up every night, upset and scared, until I finally took Ambien to get a full night’s sleep.

I don’t have to be Freud to figure out the dreams. I couldn’t save Dennis. I felt helpless in the dream. Horrified and helpless. The feelings were the same as they were that day. I was drained of energy, scared and so empty. So very sad.

I had little energy to interact on July 20, 2011. I felt like a burn victim and nobody could touch me or it would sear.

I felt that way today. Not as much, but similar. I called just a few trusted people. I cried. I admitted I still think I’ll go to the back room some day and see him sitting on that stinky couch he loved and watching “The Simpsons,” laughing and smacking his stomach.

There was no relief today, except during those brief conversations with friends, and oddly, during rehearsal this morning for “Oklahoma.”

I had energy there, and was able to forget the pain of the day for long stretches. The actress playing Gertie has an ear-splitting staccato laugh that cracks everybody up every time she trills out a giggle. The actor playing Jud Fry took 10 minutes to do his death scene, groaning, rolling, kicking, lurching. We were laughing so hard, we couldn’t get the scene going again.

Then I realized, this is my support group.

I didn’t join a group for widows or breast cancer survivors. I am a big, big believer in support groups, but for some  reason, I heal better with a group of people who are creating something.

I guess it reminds me I’m alive.

This day will pass, and come again, and again, every year, and I will use it to create something greater.

Aunt Eller

I’ve always loved the musical “Oklahoma.”

It’s the 70th anniversary of the original stage play, and it went to the screen in 1955, the year I was born.

On Aug. 16, I’ll be opening in a community production of the show. I’ll be in the chorus, and understudying the role of Aunt Eller. On Aug. 17, l’ll actually get to play Aunt Eller during the matinee show.

Aug 16 marks one year to the day from when I had a scalpel slicing into my left breast to remove a cancerous tumor. Aug 16  marks two years and three days from Dennis’ memorial. It ‘s also my friend, Colleen’s birthday.

I fell into this during a conversation with the director of the show.  We decided it would be fun if I was an embedded reporter in the production, reporting for the Star on what it takes to put on a community show from behind the scenes.

What I wasn’t prepared for was how much I love being in a show again, after more than 20 years. And how much I love this character of Aunt Eller. She is the spirit of the land, and she ain’t afeared to grab a pistol from some ol’ cowpoke’s holster and fire it into the air to get these crazy young ‘uns to stop fightin’ and jest get along.

And this line….this line I love the most. It’s right after Jud dies after Laurey and Curley’s wedding and Laurey is crying, saying she’ll never forget it:

Laurey: I don’t see why this had to happen when everything was so fine.

Aunt Eller: Now don’t let your mind run on it.

Laurey: [sobbing] I won’t ever forget, I tell ya. Never will.

Aunt Eller: That’s alright, Laurey baby. You can’t forget, just don’t try to. Oh, lots of things happen to folks. Sickness or being poor and hungry, being old and a feared to die. That’s the way it is, cradle to grave, and you can stand it. There’s just one way: you gotta be hardy. You gotta be. You can’t deserve the sweet and tender in life unless’n you’re tough.”

 

Tears can wait

I have not cried in a long time.

I think of Dennis every single day, usually every hour, and missing him is as steady a drumbeat as my heart. But I have not cried.

I think I’m afraid to feel that much right now.

I thought it was because my life is feeling steady, even happy. I’ve met a kind, intelligent and funny man who gives me plenty of room to grieve. His name is Jeff and he is a nerd like Dennis. I think they would like each other.

I enjoy my job. The career of newspaper reporter was recently ranked below janitor and longshoreman as the worst job in America in a national report. But I don’t see it.

Sure, we all drive crappy cars and bitch about our fauxsurance, but my coworkers are hilarious, articulate and creative. My job is exhausting but absorbing, and never the same.

I love my four ridiculous dogs (who want fed right now) and my one-eyed kitty, who is sitting by my arm, purring, and threatening to walk across the keyboard.

So why, when I wake in the morning, do I feel the clutch my stomach? The burning behind my eyes of aging pain?

The pain tries to lurch me awake. I fight back.

“No. No. It’s too much. Peace. Calm. Calm. Not now.”

I can’t cry right now because I’m scared. I feel like I somehow caused myself to get cancer. I put my body through too much when I lost Dennis and it couldn’t sweep out the cancer cells that are always there in all of us. Healthy bodies do their jobs. Mine didn’t.

Next week I am going in for my first mammogram since the surgery. I am too afraid to feel anything but peace right now. I’m afraid to do anything but keep steady. I’m afraid to touch the redwood box with the red U of A cap perched on top.

I miss you Dennis. I do. I just can’t look down.

 

 

Eating an apple

I’ve been content lately. I didn’t work for it, or do anything special. It just settled over me like a blanket.

I really do love my life.

My life has plenty of work to do. There are bungee cords securing the trash can so Cleo doesn’t raid it. My Toyota has 245,000 miles on it and spends more time in the shop than it does with me. My knee hurts when I walk and will probably never be right. I check my bank account every day to see if I can afford lunch.

It’s O.K. I’m happy.

I was sitting in the front lobby at work the other day, eating an apple, watching the setting sun bathe the parking lot.

A very kind woman from the marketing department walked through the empty lobby and greeted me.

“What are you doing up here by yourself?” she asked.

“I’m eating an apple. Watching the sunset,” I said.

She smiled and we talked for a bit. I like her. When I got back from my weeks of cancer treatment, she walked over to my desk and said to me “You haven’t missed a step,” and there was something authentic in her eyes that I liked.

She couldn’t have given me a higher compliment.

I don’t want to miss a step. Not one. I don’t want to miss one crunchy bite of this life.

The apple break was between my regular shift and an overtime shift I worked  that night. I  wound up at the scene of man barricaded in his house. I ate a chicken sandwich in my car while I waited for something to happen. I raced back to the office, wrote about a peaceful resolution to the barricade (the man calmed down), then wrote about a power outage.

I came home, settled in my soft recliner, and watched the rest of “Project Runway.” On the way home, I slid open the roof on my Toyota so I could see the spray of stars and the slice of moon.

I settled into the covers that night with Jackie’s warm body in the crook of my arm and Winston in the crook of my knee. Jasmine snored at the end of the bed. Cleo and Mr. Stinkee were curled in their own beds, and I felt peace.

When I drive to work in the morning, I love the bright roll of the sea that I pass. It’s as if the waves are greeting me. I’m happy to see my friends at work, anticipating the surprise the day will bring. What I missed realizing before being widowed and having cancer is that no day is ever, ever the same. It’s a gift all of us have every single day.

I’m engaged in my life, the serious and the silly, and I love it. My friends are funny and fascinating, and they’re all over the United States. I love writing, reading, walking, thinking, and always, always, the people around me, whether I know them or not.

The joy crept in about two weeks ago. I don’t know how or why, but it did, and it has stayed.

I don’t know how long I will live. I don’t know if this cancer will come back, but I’m not afraid anymore. Losing Dennis and facing my mortality has afforded me something I’ve pursued for so long. I am living. Really living.

 

 

 

 

Guilt and honor

I feel guilty when I’m happy. I feel guilty about moving on. I think that’s why the New Year gets to me. It signals a new year, a clean slate, the possibility of happiness without Dennis.

I’m so afraid of dishonoring Dennis’ memory by being happy. I’m afraid of forgetting him, of having him disappear. Part of me began moving on within days after I lost him. Another part remains with him.

I had to keep moving, save the house, care for my animals, be with the living, and find out if I could still feel anything.

At the same time, I feel a piece of myself suspended in time, always loving him. When I look into the night sky, it feels as if I flung myself into the stars with him one night, and there I remain.

This is a messy and inexact thing. A confusing, breathless, frozen thing.

This helped.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carole-brody-fleet/resolutions-nye-new-years-2013-widows_b_2364109.html?utm_hp_ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false