Friday, August 29, 2014

Rest in Peace Clara

Watching the neighborhood activity in Boulder Creek California with Theo.

Years ago I sat in the veterinarian waiting room, two mewling cats—sisters Clara and Holly—anxious in cardboards carriers waiting for their annual exam when a woman entered from the parking lot with a cat swaddled in a towel. Thinking about how I’d had to catch my rambunctious ones and wrestle them into their carriers, I was momentarily amazed by how cooperative her cat was, until I saw the rest of her family, wan faced, trailing behind her.

Last night I was that woman; last night we were that family—come to ease the death of our beloved friend.

Winter was hard for Clara. In addition to her twice-daily blood pressure medication, she went on twice daily painkillers. We padded the heated floor mat under my husband’s desk, which became her bed, dressed her in a toddler sweatshirt, cut the front end low on the litter box, placed an automotive drip pad under that, left a night light on. My husband and I weren’t sure she was going to make it until the end of March for our youngest daughter Chrissy to come home during college Spring break and say goodbye to her cat.

Waking up after a nap on the hot battery backup.

Drinking from a pet fountain once she refused to drink standing water from a bowl.

But the weather grew warmer and Clara rallied. She still jumped from floor to tabletop, enticed by smells of breakfast sausage or ground beef, skidding on her furry feet. She wouldn’t use the cat door to the enclosed cat run, but slipped out the sliding door onto our rooftop deck whenever we opened the screen, and sprawled in sunspots until they disappeared behind trees. Moving to our new house in May, she lounged in the morning sun in the dining room and the adjoining deck, and slept in her heated cat bed under the bathroom sink on gloomy days and at night.

Stretching out in a sunspot

Until very recently, when I was typing on my laptop computer, she plopped down in said lap, and I rested my hands atop her, erasing much of the gibberish she typed with head or paw. Years ago, when I used a desktop computer, she claimed the narrow space between monitor and desk edge, flicking her tail in satisfaction, sending me scrambling for falling papers and reading glasses. 

In the last few years of her life she was drawn to loud noises, perhaps because she was losing her hearing, and the rumble led her to my husband and me. She rubbed her face against the table saw, stepped in front of the vacuum, insistent we said, on supervising us, meowing at closed doors when we were behind them.
Supervising the studio remodel 

But unlike our other cats, she never came when called. When she was young and coyotes roamed our neighborhood, we’d walk up and down the street calling her late on summer nights, flashlights shining down driveways and under bushes, returning home thinking the worst, only to find her happily ensconced in a pile of stuffed animals, yawning nonchalantly as we scooped her into our arms, breathing relief.

Clara was six weeks old when we got her. A clever mother brought an entire litter of kittens to a preschool dance class two weeks before Christmas. For one dollar Clara was ours, a Christmas gift to make up for the fact that our family trip to Disneyworld was cancelled when our oldest daughter, in second grade, was suffering from as yet undiagnosed back pain. Confined to couch and bed, Clara was supposed to cheer Jennifer up. She did, but within minutes it was clear that we needed one cat per child, so I called the dance teacher who gave me the number for the kitten mother, found out there were two cats left, took the whole family the next day and Jennifer picked out her own cat, “Topper,” who she renamed “Holly” and Clara became Chrissy’s.

The kittens once fit into one tiny bedroom of a Victorian dollhouse, and grew to become prolific backyard hunters, leading to rescues of moles and mice from under my children’s beds. Holly lived until she was fourteen. Clara was nineteen, the longest-lived pet we’ve ever had. And still, her long life seems too short.

Clara slept wherever she wanted.

Her slow decline over the past year became all too rapid this week. The occasional days of legs sliding out from under her, of collapsing in place became the new normal.  Puddles appeared outside the litter box—which had been replaced with a cafeteria tray—then appeared off the puppy training pads placed outside the litter box. Yesterday she couldn’t stand or walk. Yesterday she wet herself without moving. Yesterday her loud morning demand for wet cat food was less than a whisper. Yesterday she did not sleep, but stared unseeing, motionless in my lap, then Chrissy’s.

Curled up in a heated cat bed.

Our dog suffered for months, but an artificial appetite and thirst from steroids masked his dying from me, and I agonized night and day over him. My prayer has been to know the next time, when the suffering had become enough—for my pet and for me. Yesterday morning Clara refused to open her mouth for medicine wrapped in a chicken flavored pill pocket. She made it clear: no more. She began to take leave, and we began our vigil.

New to town, we don’t know the veterinary staff, but they were kind and gentle as we stood around Clara, stroking her shrunken body, sending our love in her last minutes of life and after she left us.

I woke this morning, the first in nineteen years without her, and set the kettle to boil, my heart filled with gratitude and grief, tears and relief.  The vibrant fluff ball who scampered into our family lives now only in memory.

Memories I cherish.

The day she left us.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The End of a Very Short Era

staged living room

I cleaned my house for the last time Saturday, after the stager removed the lovely chairs I never sat in, the bed I never slept in. Empty it looked more like my house—or the vision that wasn’t quite completed to finish the floors and other final work without us underfoot.

It’s been three months since I last slept in my house, and our house became our jobsite, as we finished the greenhouse and other final items. It was fitting that I cleaned the studio last: the first room we renovated to create a writer’s retreat, a vision for my new life formed in California that influenced our home buying decision in Washington. We only looked at houses with the possibility of separate space for writers and guests.

I have cleaned that studio a hundred or more times in the year I hosted guests; I’m as familiar with the caulk along the sink as I am with the intention my husband and I carried into that room as we tore it down to the studs. In that space I learned to pull wires, strip the ends, and twist them onto plugs. I measured, cut, and learned to install fat pink bats of cotton candy puffed insulation. I spent hours at IKEA and Home Depot with Kevin choosing cabinets, appliances, paneling for the walls, and cedar fencing for the ceiling that I learned to rip it down with a table saw.  

The studio, note the cedar ceiling

And when I say I learned these skills, what I mean is that my husband taught me how to do what he has loved for years: how to work with wood and wire, metal and pipe, to create something tangible. I fully entered his world, when in the past it had mainly been him who entered mine. Kevin is a patient, kind, generous teacher, and apprenticing to him (even if I was just operating the shop vac) added a welcome new dimension to our marriage.

My husband working in the studio

In that first year everything was new. The view of the Sound from our house once we limbed up the trees. The vast array of perennials, shrubs, and trees that burst into life in our yard come spring. The lay of the island, the towns stretched beyond accessible by bridge, Seattle accessible by ferry. I carried a map, ferry schedule, and camera in my purse, ready to document and locate the next surprise.

Cleaning the studio Saturday, I was aware that I’d reached the end of a very short era. Never again will Washington and the 900-mile separation from my long-time home and family in California be new to me. Never again will my husband be freed from the 25 years of corporate work in the Silicon Valley, with a year’s severance pay just as his children were launched into the world.
The studio deck

I don’t know how many times we will reinvent ourselves in the future. I only know that we have done it now—and done it successfully:

My husband is fulfilling a long-time dream of “flipping” a house (although the term is usually applied to quick minimal work for maximum profit, not to tearing down and starting over as he’s doing with our waterfront project house—which is going to be amazing).
Waterside walls going up at the project house

I have my own tools, a recent birthday gift from my husband. A sign, that I don’t need to rely on him to plan every project, line up the tools, and supervise me along the way. I can rip out carpet and tack bars by myself, spackle, paint, and prime (which I’ve been doing in our rental).
My very own tools: lightweight & easy to spot
Cleaning the studio I became nostalgic for this very short era. At the project house there are loans and timelines, heavy equipment and contractors. Gone is the luxury (and necessity) of doing it all ourselves, of spending all day every day together in a common purpose.

Hugging my husband our last moments in the house, I couldn’t help crying. “I could’ve stayed here longer,” I said. “I liked being here with you every day.” “Me too,” he answered.

As much as this house was torn up, with building supplies stacked next to the dining room table, it was a haven that welcomed and gentled us, in a geography that felt familiar (cedar instead of redwood) with the wonderful addition of water, on an island where, although we didn’t join in much, we saw much good work being done in the community.

Last night we signed the sale papers, went to dinner with our nephew—a recent college graduate who moved to Washington to become our business’s first full-time employee—came home to the house we're renting and toasted with champagne on the deck. As we sipped our bubbly the International Space Station whizzed by overhead circling the earth at almost 18,000 miles per hour.

My husband has been tracking its orbits for a year, waiting for the time when it would be visible in the Seattle region. I used to find great comfort in having a plotted predictable life, thinking I knew what was going to happen next and when. The past three years, have been my own living lab, learning to accept not knowing what the future holds—do any of us really?—and embrace the now.

And so I wipe my eyes and take a deep breath, not wanting to live in the past, even one so recently behind me. But I wonder if it’s nostalgia I feel, or if it isn’t simply gratitude, a pervasive seeping thankfulness that will wash over me as it will.

Sunrise from where we live now