Gabby: A Tribute to My Neighbor’s Dog

A few years ago, a dog across the street, often out while I was writing, became my surrogate pet. I went over and met my neighbor as a ruse to meet her. She was an old dog, she couldn’t see or hear. The man told me she didn’t know I was even there but that I could pet her. I pet her and it startled her. One day, she was no longer there and I knew why. I went over and offered my sympathies to the man. He said he sometimes still heard her in the house. I sat on my porch and wrote about Gabby, and I liked the piece, so I typed it up and gave it to the man. I never heard anything else about it. I returned to the piece later and didn’t think it held up to how it felt when I wrote it so I never did anything else with it, and I was a little embarrassed I’d given it to him.

Cut to a couple weeks ago, that house is for sale. I thought the man had moved but he’d died. I thought he’d lived alone, maybe he did, but his wife talked to me. I told her I’d visited with him, a few times, and talked to him about his dog, Gabby. She said, “Oh, are you the one that wrote him that letter? That was really nice.”

I’ve gotten a lot better over the years about floating my writing out and not worrying about what reactions it gets or if it gets a reaction or if I find out about it getting a reaction. But finding out that my tribute to Gabby at least meant enough to the man that his wife ended up knowing about it, got me to revisit this piece and now I like it again. This is what I gave the man printed out on a sheet of paper.

Gabby

A tribute to my neighbor’s dog

I became a watcher of my neighbor’s dog. I went over and introduced myself after asking my neighbor, first, if I could pet her. He said sure. “She’ll be startled, she doesn’t see or hear anymore, but she won’t mind.” Her initial lurch when I put my hand on the top of her head and then relative calm as I ran it down her back let me feel she enjoyed it, but when I returned the next day my petting her startled her again. I would always be a sudden hand on her in the familiar square of front yard she knew and trusted without use of her senses. I would always startle her.

The man was retired and this was Gabby’s hospice care. He let her out often and she must have enjoyed exploring the same patch of grass past the front steps—perhaps her dwindling senses made every visit feel different—because she would spend ten to fifteen minutes each trip rooting in the grass and under a nearby bush before returning up the porch steps to be let back in. Some days she couldn’t propel her hind end up the steps and had to wait with her front legs on the steps and her hind end in the yard for the man’s help. I wished I could be the help she needed instead of sudden hands behind her startling her and shoving her forward. I would have even simply waited with her if I could have felt, to her, like familiar company. Watching from my porch I would say, “poor girl, poor girl,” softly to myself, imagining that once she was a puppy who would have scrambled up and down steps like that in a yippy blur of fur. That she once kept vigil over her square of territory emitting barks that would sound friendly to family and friends and ferocious to strangers. And that now she gets startled by a hand sneaking onto her back.

Gabby didn’t recognize aging and think of her dwindling senses as loss or she did and possessed grace. Because I’m human or lack grace I could never help aching for her as I can’t help staring over at her empty yard and missing her.

Mom Says Goodbye to Her Most Valuable Possession

Mom always said, “Time is your most valuable possession.” We thought of this as a “Mom Quote.” Some famous philosopher probably said it first, but we still think of that as hers. Mom chose to value her last months, resigned that the progression of her illness would lead to her death, but letting the knowledge enhance the joy of living. Not easy to do, I don’t imagine, but if I’m fortunate to have that kind of time for myself I’ll now have a model for how to manage. She said goodbye to visiting Seattle in the Fall, goodbye to Florida in the Spring. Expected final visits started coming early in the summer as people visited from far away. These goodbyes were always emotional, heartbreaking even, but she also found them nourishing.

The goodbyes came more bunched as her health deteriorated. The first I recall was trips to the basement. One weekend we were talking about installing a better hand rail for those rickety steps and the next she told me she was done going into the basement. They had an old house and a purely functional basement. It contained the water heater and furnace and the washer and dryer, a work space scattered with tools. Mom only went down there to do the laundry, to do a chore. But it hit me to pass that door and hear her say she was done going down there. I read recently that when people know death is imminent they run through lasts: last time to see a sunset, last time to see the snow, last time to feel the wind. These aren’t even always last pleasures but even last chores, like doing the laundry. When I read that I immediately thought, I wish I’d known. I was so focused on Mom’s health, I thought of her as thinking, I won’t be able to go into the basement to do laundry ever again, but maybe she was thinking, I won’t go into the basement to do laundry ever again. Maybe she wasn’t regretting losing these pieces of her life but simply saying goodbye to them.

What I read makes sense even on a less significant scale. When I quit waiting tables in Seattle, I still remember nearing the end of my last shift and thinking of how that was the last time I would run food, drop checks, fill drinks, etc. Repetitive tasks I’d certainly had my fill of after seven years, but I focused on them, a form of meditation maybe. Certainly life is filled with repetitive tasks we’ll one day say goodbye to stunned at the degree of low current pleasure we received from them. When we do, we have options. We can fixate on what’s being taken away or we can reflect on the pleasure they gave us and say goodbye.

When I initially read that, I got hit with a brief but potent feeling of regret. If I’d read about that in time, I could have been more with her for those goodbyes but that feeling quickly passed because my behavior wouldn’t have changed. I was with her and she was showing me how to live, it just took this long for me to understand the lesson, which means she’s still teaching me.

The Stigma of Suicide (A Pale King Metaphor)

We have a lot of compassion for people feeling suicidal but often too little for those who have taken their own lives. With good intentions, we use phrases like “giving up” or “throwing your life away.” The goal is to remind the living that their lives have value, but the result is a pressure on those struggling to persevere as they suffer emotional turmoil. They feel guilty for not appreciating life, the way others do but really the way emotionally healthy people enjoy life, which exacerbates their anguish.

David Foster Wallace voluntarily left this world, also leaving a novel-in-progress. They found close to six-hundred pages of completed, publishable chapters and notebooks of ideas and free write chapters all bundled under the title The Pale King. I think of the passion and dedication and perseverance required to do all that work and I don’t think of someone for whom “giving up” or “throwing his life away” fit. This was someone who recognized the value of his life but was driven by inner turmoil to the escape suicide seemed to offer during a moment of crushing despair. The Pale King isn’t proof of his value but works as a metaphor. The Pale King isn’t evidence his life had value, each of our lives has that. We don’t need accomplishments—not books or children or jobs we enjoy, not even relationships with other people—to have lives we value; we just need to each find our unique way to make our mysterious presence resonate.

From what I’ve read, David Foster Wallace didn’t discuss his mental health much, publicly, but according to an interview his parents gave, after his death, he suffered from panic sweats in high school. The Pale King includes a character who agonizes over starting to sweat and how starting to think about starting to sweat will make him sweat but trying not to think about starting to sweat is too much like thinking about starting to sweat and so he starts to sweat—we’re talking visibly dripping sweating sitting in a lecture kind of sweating. Often his characters experience occasional bouts of mental anguish, which doesn’t make those characters him but it seems likely he was drawing on his own experience. In Infinite Jest there was a line that people don’t jump out of buildings to die, they jump out of buildings because the building they are in is on fire and then they die.

The existence of The Pale King, what we have, makes me think of the many times David Foster Wallace must have rescued himself from his severe anxiety and depression and from the brink of suicide rather than the final time he didn’t. We’re indoctrinated to the idea that life is a gift, which translates to an obligation when our troubles feel insurmountable and unending. Life isn’t a gift or an obligation. Life is an opportunity for discovering our reason for choosing to be here. This is the beauty of a human life, is that we know we’ll die but we don’t let that marginalize our time here. We celebrate it. This is easier for some than others. The message to those feeling despair and tempted by suicide shouldn’t be “Don’t do it,” the message should be “Delay. Seek help.” This is why suicide guards on bridges are proven effective because delaying suicide increases the likelihood that the person will seek help. (That bridges often don’t have them despite how cheap they are to install reflects the stigma of suicide. The Golden Gate Bridge, a suicide destination for some twenty people annually, still doesn’t have one.–See link below for an older blog about The Bridge, if interested–People don’t understand the point of them because they can’t believe someone wouldn’t simply find another way, but suicide is an impulsive act. Even when suicide follows a period of despair, within that period suicide was resisted, delayed, and then committed impulsively. Sometimes a delay of twenty minutes can result in a change of perspective that might prevent suicide.)

I understand the temptation of the flip side. He was in the middle of a great book. How could he not finish it? Even on the selfish level of me wanting to read it, I can feel angry. On the less selfish level of America needing his voice now more than ever, I can feel angry. I can imagine his friends and family, who loved him, experiencing grief and think, Why? But I just don’t go there. Not because I think having empathy for him is the right response, this isn’t the equivalent of “being politically correct,” but because I do have empathy for him. I’ve glimpsed what maybe he was feeling because his immense talent as a writer showed me characters experiencing anguish utterly unknown to me as an emotionally healthy person. So anger just isn’t my response. It would be wasted anger, anyway, except worse than wasted because it would feel directed to people living who are experiencing those levels of anguish and would be internalized as a threat: Don’t do it because we’ll think less of you afterwards, which would add to their struggle.

These are just my opinions and I’m not an expert. Thinking about suicide isn’t a sign of a problem. Typically people will think fleetingly about suicide, this is actually life affirming. We’re reminding ourselves we’re choosing to be here. Contemplating suicide could be a sign of a problem. Seek help, now, and acquire coping skills so that if an impulsive moment comes delaying will be easier. Avoid keeping a gun in the home. Call this number, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

I’ve touched on this subject in both my review of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace and in my review of The Bridge. I’ll link both below.

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2015/08/20/infinite-jest-brilliant-and-hilarious-tedious-and-self-indulgent-five-stars/

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2013/02/21/the-bridge-thoughts-on-suicide/

Links below from wordpress. Thank you for reading.

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A Peaceful Exit

Mom made it easy for her doctors to deliver bad health news. I was with her on one of her scan days when her doctor had to tell her the treatments for her liver cancer weren’t helping. There was such care in the look on her face she gave him to ease his burden of informing her, probably the least favorite aspect of his job but also something he does frequently. She picked him up or she was picking her husband and me up. That was St. Patrick’s Day and on the way home we stopped at Mavis Winkle for dinner and then hit Steak and Shake for Shamrock shakes. I told her despite the bad news I enjoyed celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, and she said so did she.

The doctor offered her a next medication less likely to work and more likely to include side effects. She wanted opinions from all of us but promised to made her own decision. We didn’t give them lightly, not entirely sure our mother would be capable of deciding to discontinue treatment if her children and husband wanted her to continue. We were unanimous in wanting her to take the treatment which wouldn’t be a cure but might give her two or more years more of good quality of life. She seemed to be leaning that way, too. She wasn’t lucky, but she was a little lucky in that her first treatment made her sick but they were able to treat those symptoms and take her off the drug with limited, lingering effects.

We started planning final visits. My sisters and all their kids were out the Christmas before, expecting the possibility that it would be the last opportunity for a Christmas and New Year’s Day with her. They all came again in the summer. Mom worried she’d feel sick and that her illness would pervade and lead to a somber gathering, but she felt well enough or felt well enough to seem well enough that we had a wonderful visit. This is the visit that included the Yahtzee game where Mom scored a few points shy of the max possible in a game whose magic felt symbolic of our union, as you might imagine. (Sometimes real life resembles roll-your-eyes fiction.)

Mom gave these intensely sad goodbyes to things and then let them go. Places, first: a last Seattle trip took place in the fall, a last Florida visit in the spring. (My sisters’ homes) Mom’s basement steps were absent a handrail. We looked into putting one in. Mom was still walking pretty well but was just unsteady enough that I worried about her on those steps, but she didn’t want to give up washing clothes. I asked her not to go down alone at least until we got a handrail installed. But next time I came she had passed this chore on to her husband. She said she was done going into the basement.

Another weekend I was over, she asked me to move a chair up to her bedroom. She was already limiting trips up and down the steps in the house and knew she’d soon be done going down those stairs as well and would want to receive visitors from her bedroom. She worried her husband would, understandably, put off taking the chair up feeling like the action was moving us toward where we were going anyway. I was able to isolate these tasks. I could tell myself I was just taking a chair up to a bedroom. I almost took on the persona of a hired furniture mover to accomplish this. My next time over we spent all afternoon up in that room. We discussed spirituality, we looked at old pictures. She had me read a passage from a spiritual trilogy she’d been reading. It was a fictional account of the devil describing how he/she/it talks people out of a relationship with God. Starting with using atheism as a tool and progressing up using people’s religion against them. The essential point being that a relationship with God is the ultimate goal, religion being the tool. So the devil would keep people stuck at the tool stage. This being a Catholic book, the sort of top tier religion, in this devil’s mind, was Catholicism. So the interviewer’s last question was about how the devil managed to keep even Catholics from God. So the devil, who from the dialogue one got the sense had to wipe his horny brow, answers as though these Catholics are his greatest challenge. But gives the same answer about keeping them stuck in the tool stage.

So realizing my mother is weeks from death and spiritually preparing herself for a journey she would rather delay, is afraid of but is also partly excited for, I understand she’s just shared a passage with me because it meant a lot to her and while I mostly liked it, that bit about the Catholics being “a tough nut to crack,” which the devil actually said, in this fictional account, gave me a pretty significant eye roll moment I didn’t think I could leave out of my comments about the passage Mom was waiting for. I did think about it. But I told her the full truth. I told her that I liked it and the idea reminded me of Joseph Campbell but that the part about the devil treating Catholicism as nearly an invincibility shield against temptation seemed a bit much. She grinned. “Yeah, that got a little embarrassing.” We had several nice laughs about that.

When I left that day, I hugged her goodbye. As I was leaving her bedroom, she said, “Greg, this was so pleasant. This is just what I imagined it would be.” I looked forward to a repeat of that long afternoon but the next time I stopped over she spent most of the time asleep. I told her goodbye and she apologized for being so tired. I told her not to worry and get her rest and I would be back the next day. That weekend my one sister was flying in. Both my sisters had flown in since the family visit over the summer and visited with Mom sick but well enough to enjoy visiting. Really she never got too sick to enjoy visiting. They wanted to be there for the end. My other sister was planning to fly in early the next week but a hospice worker told me to have her come now.

Sunday morning Mom woke up wanting hugs. I went in to greet her and I asked her if I could get her anything. She said, “A hug.” I hugged her and asked her if I could get her anything else. She said, “I still need that hug.” I hugged her again. My sister came in for hugs and then she wanted her husband. We called him up. She said after repeat rounds of hugs, “I think I’m going to die today,” with a serene singsong intonation.

I told Mom I was leaving to pick her other daughter up from the airport. I followed up to see Mom’s face light up when she saw her. She was reasonably alert and coherent through the morning but slept through the afternoon and into the evening. I told my sisters mornings were best for catching her most alert. She spoke that next morning and even ate a little. The hospice nurse told us it could be that day or the next. By midmorning she had already slipped into that twilight mode, a combination of the morphine controlling her pain and the progression of her illness. That afternoon my sisters and I were all in the room with her. We’d all already told her goodbye, thanked her for being our mom, and given her permission to leave us. She’d given little indication of consciousness for some time. We had a portable CD player by her bed with her collection of Elvis Presley hymns. I played her favorite “In the Garden.” The three of us laid our hands on Mom, and Mom’s eyebrows lifted. They lifted and fell and lifted but the impression was that they kept lifting. She lightly moaned, a sound that didn’t seem pained and might have been her trying to speak, but she was done with words and we didn’t need any words. I put the hymn on repeat. I’m sure we were all crying and telling her goodbye and that we loved her and telling her it was okay for her to go, but my main memory is of her eyebrows, that illusion of them perpetually lifting.

We all went down to the family room, all of us except her husband who rarely left her side, for a break. Final moments aren’t exceptionally important. Mom felt us all with her and whether she died one moment or the next she was leaving this world with all the love in her life, which is really how it always happens. (Really death isn’t a happening at all, that’s a limitation of language.) Although I told my sisters that would have been perfect timing, had the end of her life coincided with one of those twenty-some repeats of her favorite hymn.

I found in Mom’s journal, from when she had lung cancer way back when her grandchildren were just babies, where she wrote that she hoped she was able to die as bravely and with as much dignity as her father. I hope she didn’t feel burdened by that hope. I told her many times I didn’t want her to feel like she had to be brave for us, but I don’t know that that would have stopped her. That evening, her labored breathing ceased, the quiet waking my one sister, who called me and my other sister up. Her husband said a prayer over her and we all cried and told her we loved her in case she was still there to hear us. It was very peaceful and a lovely memory. We were so well prepared. She prepared us so well, our mother.

So, How Long?/Bitter and Sweet

I shared on facebook, the other day, a story acceptance with a print journal. I’ve never had one of my longer stories accepted by a literary journal, and I’ve been submitting for over fifteen years. I immediately thought, people who know me well or people who have lost a parent must have wondered how long after I got that acceptance it was before I thought of my mother. The answer is that it was no time at all. It was simultaneous.

I’m so used to getting those emails and opening them and finding a terse rejection that I’ve learned not to open them with any hope. So my emotions weren’t engaged. I opened it and when instead of the terse rejection I expected I found an almost-as-terse acceptance, her absence in my life immediately swept over me. I almost said, “Oh, Mom.”

(this won’t end sad, I promise.)

I should explain that my mom was very supportive of my choice to be a writer. (That makes me very lucky.) But as someone who loved someone who writes, she had much more experience with the disappointments involved than the joys. This is why writing is a lonely pursuit. Not because you’re alone while you write, because alone is the last thing you feel while you’re writing. Because the intrinsic joy you’re experiencing is difficult to share with anyone. The extrinsic disappointments, on the other hand, are difficult not to share and easily observable. There were times my mom was pretty clearly trying to move me off of writing being such a large part of my life. She never suggested I give it up but she wished I was more rounded, which might have been code for making writing a less obsessive hobby.

These last years she came around, though. When I was first looking at the house I have now, she always said how she loved the front porch. “I can just imagine you sitting there writing.” Last spring, she and her husband stopped off on one of their visits up to the Cleveland Clinic at six in the morning to drop something off and she found me there.

This publication, in some ways, would mean more to her even than it does to me. Over the last several years I’ve shifted my goals more and more to the intrinsic. Last fall, I made a push to submit a lot and, in part, that was because I hoped I’d be able to share I’d received an acceptance with her before she was gone. After seventeen years to come up a month shy could feel awfully bitter but it really hasn’t. The joy in it is still right there. The feeling that I’m able to share that joy with her is still right there.

((I haven’t heard back yet regarding the issue but the surest way to get a copy of the issue that will include my story is to purchase a subscription. I understand the amount of money is substantial and I wouldn’t want anyone to overstretch to buy one, but you can feel good about supporting a literary journal. Particularly this one because they are one of the few holdouts to the current trend in the industry of collecting payment from submitters, which means they need to find funding somewhere else and selling subscriptions is the way any literary journal would most want to be funded because sales means readers. The issue alone will be cheaper. I’ll have more details when I get them.))

This is the link to subscription information for REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters:

https://regardingartsandletters.wordpress.com/subscription-information-2/

Any links below are from wordpress

Pre-Grief

Is pre-grief a thing? My sisters and I wondered this many times over the last year plus. We weren’t always sleeping well. We were stressed out; at times, unhappy. I would tell them we were pre-grieving, we were beginning the work that would lead to our acceptance of our mother’s death and her return to us in memory. Then I would realize I was guessing. Maybe the actual event of her death would bring that same acute pain of grief we remembered from our father’s death.

Probably too soon to tell but dreams are a great insight into how you’re feeling. My one sister and I both had recurring dreams of our father, corpse-like, wandering around and seeming not to know he had died. In one of mine, someone down the road was shooting off fireworks. My dad and I got into his truck to drive down to watch. I turned to him in the passenger seat and had to break it to him. “Dad, you can’t go. You’re dead.”

I wasn’t telling him, I was telling me.

I only cried once over my mom in pre-grief, after watching Inside Out, but I cried a lot after she died. I cried but I slept pretty well. I ate fine. I had my normal appetite, which I didn’t have after my dad died. Three nights in a row I’ve dreamed of my mom. She is her usual, cheerful, helpful self in my dreams. She had an opportunity my dad didn’t have to prepare to die, to prepare her loved ones for her death, and to say and hug us goodbye. She had that opportunity but she chose to use it and she gets the lion’s share of the credit (i.e., all of the credit) for any early peace we’re experiencing at her loss.

Love You Mom!

Mother died today. Or it might have been yesterday. I only don’t know because right now I’m enjoying morning coffee with her while she receives therapy from one of her Hospice nurses. I’m preparing this blog ahead of time linking some of the blog posts I’ve made over the many months since her diagnosis of terminal liver cancer. Months we’ve managed, following her lead, to make the most of. Sharing her through my writing is likely to be my path through grief.

I’ll link them short to long. If you feel like reading any, please do. I’m grateful for your thoughts, your comments, and your time.

1. Compiling A Reading List I Hope not to get to soon

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2016/01/07/compiling-a-rereading-list-i-hope-not-to-get-to-soon/

2. Awakenings

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2015/11/19/awakenings/

3. Dreaming of A Living Funeral

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2015/01/08/dreaming-of-a-living-funeral/

4. Bulk Popcorn

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2014/12/13/bulk-popcorn/

5. Hearts Connected by String

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2014/12/01/hearts-connected-by-string/

7. Integrating Sadness and Joy:

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2016/01/29/integrating-sadness-and-joy/

8. Scan Day:

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2016/02/02/scan-day/

9. Keeping An Eye on Her Grandchildren

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/keeping-an-eye-on-grandchildren/

10. This post I wrote about my father four years after he died:

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2014/10/01/four-years-today-thank-you-for-reading/

11. My Mother’s Simons:

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2016/05/06/my-mothers-simons/

12. Yahtzee:

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2016/06/04/yahtzee/

Approaching the End

One of the nurses dropped off a pamphlet describing end of life. A succinct and informative, quick read, first published in the eighties, apparently widely circulated by hospice workers. “One’s” was used repeatedly as possessive, as in “one’s body.” I told my mom who has a knack for finding errors like that and enjoys pointing them out. She always says, “I don’t mind the mistake, I mind when the mistake isn’t corrected.”

“Shouldn’t it be ‘ones’ for the possessive?” I said. “‘One’s body’ would never be correct.”

She has that faraway look about her, that looking past you look the pamphlet describes and tells you not to take personally when someone you love looks at you like that. She made an oh sound that didn’t seem attached to anything I was saying, but I kept going. “Hard to believe as widely as this pamphlet must get distributed that no one’s caught that mistake.”

“There,” she said.

“What?”

“There, you just said it. That’s when ‘one’s’ would have an apostrophe.”

The one’s in ‘No one’s caught that mistake,’ she meant. That’s my mom.

Between a lifetime of love and guidance from a loved one and that person’s death there is a space of time where that person seems to be slipping. That sage guide is halfway out of your life, already. This can trigger pre-grief. Mom asked why my older sister took her sandwich and ate it. There was no sandwich. We just took it as her way of telling us she wanted to eat and got her ice cream.

We can choose to look sadly at each other about losing our smart, thoughtful, insightful, wonderful, kind mother, a little, already, or we can enjoy these last moments with her still here. What is pre-grief? It’s like the pre-release of a book. It makes no sense. We’ll grieve for her after she’s gone. These slips leading up we can focus on as signs of her inevitable departure or we can cherish as a part of our experience with her.

This morning I said good morning to her.
Good morning.
Anything you need, Mom?
I need a hug.
You got it, Mom.
Anything else?
Water.
You got it, Mom.
Anything else?
I still need that hug.
You got it, Mom.
Anything else?
I could do this all day long.

Where Men Win Glory: Reviewed

So many tragic missteps led up to the completely avoidable death of this great man. Not even so much the actual fratricide because that tragedy commonly befalls soldiers in wars and I can’t begin to fathom the mixture of confusion and fear and adrenaline that must go on during a fire fight. More upsetting and easily preventable were the decisions before combat took place: splitting the group, forcing them to make a destination for no tangible reason. Then all the misinformation about what happened intentionally spread by lies of omission. This seems to be the practice of this age. They know the truth is eventually going to get out, but they withhold it and let the lies and the misinformation do the work they need done. Then by the time the true story breaks, it’s too late to have the effect they worried about it having. (Which is partly the fault of the media and, let’s face it, us, which includes me, for sure.)

Somehow one of the slights that really bugged me that didn’t get much page time was his very clearly stating his final wishes weren’t to involve a chaplain or a military service. Those were his religious beliefs and they were ignored and not just ignored but openly disparaged by that one guy, whose name I don’t recall now after finishing the book.

But what’s cool is this story, as maddening as it was to read many details, is more than anything about an inspiring person in Pat Tillman. I only knew going in that he gave up his football career to join the Army, but there were so many additional little things you discover about him reading this book that you admire and can then emulate moving forward in your own life.

The Ebullience Chronicles

*This is a ten-minute read, longer than anything I’ve ever posted. Obviously no one’s ever obligated to read anything I post but I mention the reading time up front so you know what you’re in for and can plan for when you have the time if you’re interested in reading.

She emerged last among the kittens of her litter from the kennel. When I picked her another couple there encouraged me to take a pair so she’d have a buddy. I told them I lived in a one-bedroom apartment. They said I wouldn’t forever. I wondered how they knew. I’m glad I didn’t let strangers I would never see again convince me to bring two kittens home when I intended to bring home one. It would be thirteen years before we moved into a house. She spent those years in apartments, including a studio, and most of one hiding, by her own preference, in single rooms in houses.

I took this tiny kitten in a giant cat carrier on the bus. We got off on Fifth and Pike and sat on a sidewalk downtown Seattle in the middle of an afternoon waiting for a bus to Capitol Hill. We both felt conspicuous and uncomfortable. I thought of this as a first bonding experience. A thought she likely didn’t share. She responded by arriving at her new home and crawling under the fridge. Seems like she stayed under there for days but it was probably more like most of one. Long enough to worry me, but I couldn’t move the fridge and risk hurting her. I tried everything to coax her out but I think she waited until she was damn good and ready. I admired that. She scared me again when she didn’t eat for three days. Close to taking her to the vet, I realized I’d substituted one cheap cat food for another and tried switching back. That’s what she’d been holding out for. I kind of admired that too.

For some of her kitten months, I kept her carrier by the bed and had to put her in some nights to get some sleep. I was more glad than she was when I stopped. She had a pillow toy she would battle and then carry around in her jaws with a lion’s pride. She would gallop through the apartment and always end up crashing through the blinds of the front room. I called this “thinking she was in the jungle,” a phrase I borrowed from my dad, but she wasn’t a particularly rambunctious kitten. She lay curled up asleep on my lap while I wrote the first draft of Flowers on Concrete, back when I wrote in the evenings and at my computer.

When we moved to a new place a couple of friends laughed when I told her we were almost there as soon as we left in the U-haul to cross town. But what you say to a cat doesn’t matter, it’s the feeling intoned that they hear. The second apartment was bigger and maybe feeling guilty about not taking her with a sibling I tried to adopt a friend’s kitten. I left the kitten in a carrier for a while and Ebullience sniffed around, but the kitten wanted to play when it came out. I found Ebullience hiding from her in the closet. We had a bad experience with a new kitten wreaking havoc on an older cat growing up, so I gave the kitten back. Nobody puts Ebullience in the closet.

Actually, just about anything would put Ebullience in a closet or in a cupboard or under a blanket. An unfamiliar sound might send her scurrying to a cupboard where she would frantically paw the door open a crack and squeeze in to hide. I would walk into a room and hear a muffled meow from under covers strewn on the floor. I wonder if she worried I’d step on her and was intentionally alerting me to her presence. I would tell her she didn’t have to worry about me ever hurting her and pet her through the blanket.

At the second apartment we had an outdoor porch on an upper floor. She roamed while I sat out there reading or writing. We gave it up to nesting pigeons the summer before I left Seattle. I made an appointment with a vet to get her something to keep her calm for the long drive across the country, but she handled the car ride there so well I canceled. She rode for three days in her cat carrier on the passenger seat of my Cavalier. My dad made a trip out to drive back with me with a load of my stuff in his truck. We smuggled Ebullience into a hotel that didn’t allow pets. I thought she might feel safer staying in the carrier, but my dad convinced me to let her out. She burrowed under the tight motel sheets of my bed and spent the entire night next to me not moving.

I kept her in a room at my dad’s where he and his wife shared four cats. She never mingled with them but occasionally snuck out of the room and hid under a chair watching the other cats intently. They mostly ignored her, but when one looked over, Ebullience would hiss. They went back to ignoring her and she went back to intently watching them. First night in my studio apartment I spent violently ill and called my poor mother when I should have called 911 and then left the phone off the hook. She fortunately found the place and took me to the hospital where I had emergency surgery. Ebullience spent that same night hiding in a cupboard thinking, I don’t like it here. It’s new and scary. Not giving me a thought in the world. But, hey, that’s a cat limitation not a personality one. I forgave her.

She did the smartest thing I’ve ever seen a cat do while we lived there. I worked 4 AM shifts. Waking up was brutal. Actually I never mind waking up in the middle of the night; I mind waking up and having to stay up. So I developed the habit of setting my alarm on days off and then snoozing endlessly. One morning she must have wanted something. Probably food, though I’d like to think my attention. She kept meowing as I repeatedly woke up to my alarm clock on my bedside table and tapped the snooze button and returned to sleep. Her gaze followed my hand and I’m convinced she connected my touching the alarm clock with what she didn’t want, i.e. me returning to sleep, because after a few repeats of this, she put her paw on the clock and pushed it off the table onto the floor. She wasn’t batting at it. She intentionally slid it onto the floor because she decided it wasn’t helping her cause. I thought like that hunter in the original Jurassic Park movie about the velociraptor, Clever girl.

We stayed in a second room at my mom’s for a few months while I waited for my house sale to come through. My mom and her husband had no pets at that time, so they were excited to adopt one temporarily, but Ebullience rarely left the room while I was gone at work. She waited up there for me to get home. A night shortly before I got my house, she camped out on a chair in their living room. I called her to follow me up to bed. She looked up, like ‘I’m good down here.’ I scooped her up and carried her to the bedroom. So it wasn’t just her.

I moved into my house with just her, her cat carrier, a sleeping bag, and a TV and DVD-player. I set us up in a small room so she didn’t feel overwhelmed and opened up the cat carrier. I fell asleep with her still inside but woke up in the middle of the night and she was gone. I got out of my sleeping bag and shined a flashlight down the stairs. Her eyes glowed back at me. She was up roaming the empty rooms. Skirting the dog/cat dichotomy, which is unnecessary polarization—a human tendency the internet has allowed to flourish to a harmful degree—cats get unfairly characterized as selfish. Ebullience was more apt to sit in my lap in the winter than the summer for the obvious reason that she enjoyed the warmth. Cats have a set of comfy spots and seem to tour them. Her favorite was the couch cushion next to where I worked. Sometimes I considered that spot being next to me a coincidence, in her mind. But when a year ago I moved my work area to the kitchen table, her favorite comfy spot became the chair I sat in to work. I had to set up two chairs at the table. She got one, I got the other. When I got up, I would come back to find she’d taken mine. This happened often enough that I kept my laptop evenly between them so I could just angle it toward whichever chair she left for me.

Ebullience was an “older lady” as a pet-loving friend put it. Her frailty was something I could feel when I held her. She still got that “in the jungle” feeling but learned not to act on it. She took a wild leap down the last five steps of the stairs and planted with feline agility but looked straight up at me, like ‘holy hell, I’m never doing that again.’ And she never did. I let her on my front porch and she would stalk the perimeter meowing. Every time a car went by she would start for the door back in or look up at me. I would hold her and say, “What if I left you out here to fend for yourself?” Then pet her and she would purr. Again, it’s not what you say to a cat, it’s the feeling intoned in the words that they hear.

A bag of treats was free with the purchase of two bags of cat food. I thought it would be fun to greet her home with a few of the treats. I would give her a few before I left for the day, too. Then I realized she wasn’t eating her regular food. With her history of finicky eating, I thought I’d wait her out. Humans don’t often win battles of wills with cats. I was soon mixing in treats with her food, which she would pick out and eat. She wasn’t eating enough, but still thinking a hunger strike was underway I held off on a vet visit because I didn’t want her to endure the trauma. I tried tuna and a variety of canned soft foods. Her favorite seemed to be chicken and tuna in gravy. I threw out what she didn’t eat and spooned out fresh helpings from the opened tins I kept bagged in my fridge. She meowed for fresh food every morning and whenever I got home. She was barely eating, just licking the gravy.

I don’t need anyone to tell me I didn’t wait too long to take her in, because I know I did wait too long to take her in. One of the responsibilities of taking a pet into your home is to offer good care. Good care includes recognizing what they can’t tell you, which is when they’re too ill to go on, and in that regard, I failed her a little, at the end. My list of information for the vet describing her dietary and behavioral changes over the last month ended with my telling the vet I was ready to say goodbye, if that was her recommendation after an exam. Ebullience spent her last night asleep beside me. I awakened sporadically, through the night, and pet her. In the morning, she was more perky than usual. She wanted me to wake up and go downstairs. I got ahead of her and carried her down and opened a fresh can of tuna. She ate better than she had in days and drank from her water dish.

This gave me a glimmer of hope when I took her in, but her abdomen was filled with liquid, that explained her not eating. The treats were an unfortunate coincidence, unfortunate because I would have taken her in sooner and spared her some suffering. A few problems could have been causing the fluid buildup but none were treatable. The vet said if I thought she felt well enough I could have her for the weekend and bring her back, but her look seemed to be adding, “but I wouldn’t.”

As the vet described how we would proceed in a few moments, Ebullience struggled in my arms. I told the vet she wanted to hide under the covers so I let her back in her kennel, only to gently pull her out again when the vet returned with her assistant. This strikes me as a poignant absurdity: this desire to give my pet two minutes of comfort escaped from the attention of strangers under her blanket before bringing her back out to be euthanized. I was present for a cat euthanasia before and know they are peaceful procedures performed with care by animal-loving vets, but being present for this one was tough. Ebullience was with me since she was a kitten, for sixteen years, but for me, it felt important to make her surroundings in her final moments a little more familiar, important for her to hear my voice and feel my fingers rubbing behind her ears as the circle of her eternity of existence closed.

Grief travels with a demented companion named guilt. Whereas grief is a painful process designed to return joy to shared memories of an eternal quality with passed loved ones, guilt is a miserable loop gumming up the works. For days, all I could think of was Ebullience scrambling around hungry but with no appetite. It took all rational thought for me to recall that I made understandable guesses with the information available to me; I just turned out to be wrong. I delayed taking her in because I didn’t want to make a finicky hunger strike worse with a traumatic car ride and vet visit. She couldn’t have known what peace it would bring me to have her wake up that final morning a tick more perky and feeling well enough to eat a little. It’s made saying goodbye a little easier and missing her a tad more bearable. She was a good cat, I used to tell her. The best cat ever. She knew just what I meant.