Saturday, February 13, 2016

A Tuxedo for Valentine’s Day

For Father’s Day in 2011, our youngest daughter who was a student at UC Davis, and roommate with several Veterinary school students, adopted a Bengal from the campus research colony as a gift for her dad, who has been a “big cat lover” most of his life.

When I met my husband, he’d wallpapered the study of his house with lion wallpaper, and we made a special trip to pet baby lion cubs at Game Park in Bandon Oregon on our honeymoon.

My husband cuddling a baby lion on our honeymoon

Cuddling twin lion cubs on our honeymoon

“Dad, this is the closest you’re ever going to get to having a lion or tiger for a pet!” our gleeful daughter announced.

A Bengal is a cross between a striped domestic cat and an Asian wildcat. Their offspring are known by F numbers. In most states it’s illegal to own a wild-domestic cross that is an F1, 2, or 3. Our cat, a female, is an F4, meaning she is the fourth generation descendent of the cross between domestic and wild. 

Researchers at the UC Davis vet school breed and study these colonies of cats. Bengals have a tendency toward deafness, and when that occurs, those particular cats become objects of continuing observation. A healthy hearing cat, on the other hand, is adopted out from the campus, free of charge, and evidently to anyone who’ll take them.

Our female Bengal, who is a 7 pound runt (this breed is usually large 13-14 pounds and very powerful jumpers) arrived with unsuitable name of “Tigger,” which did no justice to her exotic origins or markings. We changed her name to the Persian, “Malika” meaning Princess, because she is sleek and regal. She also has all the instincts of a wild animal—to hide from anything she perceives as a predator, not just the vacuum cleaner like most cats, but humans as well.

Malika, playing in wrapping paper Christmas 2011

Malika hid under the quilt on our daughter’s empty bed her first month with us, then discovered a rip in the fabric below the box-springs and hid up inside them for another month. Since she never let us see her, I was often worried she’d somehow sneaked out of the house and had disappeared into one of many hiding places in our two acres of fenced-in yard. When we sealed the hole under the box-springs, she climbed inside the back of our couch for another month, and I could rest easy, seeing a small lump in the leather, knowing she was safe.

When she finally came out from hiding, she came straight for Theo, a rescue we’d had 7 or so years by then, a feral, who’d been much more easily tamed, since he was a domestic cat way down the gene pool. Malika shadowed Theo everywhere; she pawed on his belly and nuzzled her mouth against his fur as if she were nursing, soothing herself to sleep. Or she grabbed his head and kicked him. Whatever her action, snuggle or wrestle, he responded in kind: it was his nature to adapt.

Theo and Malika grooming each other 

When we moved to Washington and built an enclosed cat yard our first spring here and installed a cat door we thought Theo, who’d had years of experience, might teach Malika how to nudge through headfirst. Instead, he mimicked her ineffectual pawing at the flap while balancing on hind legs, an arduous process that didn’t always produce results.

Theo and Malika sharing a cat perch 

Because Theo loved us and cuddled in our laps, Malika would sometimes sit by our feet on the couch or bed, but always out of arm’s reach, and if we leaned too far forward to stroke her, she’d rocket away. It wasn’t until this January, when Theo died, that Malika, after four and half years of living with us, came voluntarily to my lap and allowed me to pet her.

Malik sitting just out of reach

Not only did she come to me for affection, she spoke to me all day long, loud, plaintive. She missed the love of her life, and I was a poor substitute. Even though I was laid up from injury and sitting much more than usual, I wasn’t what she needed. Her cries told me so.

January 2016, the first time she came to my lap voluntarily. The zebra pjs probably helped disguise me!

I thought we might try being a one cat family for a spell; it’d certainly be easier to remodel our house with one cat than with the 3 to 5 we’d had since moving to Washington (two of those are “grand-kittens” who live with us for months at a time). But Malika, rubbing against my wobbly legs, nearly tripping me while I crutched around our house, needed a cat, a young malleable cat who’d look to her, as she had to Theo for companionship.

And so I set to looking at cat rescue websites and Facebook pages. I knew the second I laid eyes on Theo’s online photo that he was meant to be our family’s cat; and was waiting for the same zinging feeling. There was a little darling named Velcro I thought was the one. My husband helped me into the car along with my crutches and we drove to a pet adoption fair to find out Velcro was promised to a couple who’d been looking for a kitten for a year.

But less than a week later, I found a rescue near Tacoma that posted this photo along with the message: “Hi, my name is Tux. I am looking for a forever home that has other kitties. I am a little shy around people, but I love other kitties. Looking for someone that will take me in as a buddy for their kitty, but won't care that I'm not very much of a people kitty.”

Tux's Facebook ad

And I knew Tux needed Malika as much as she needed him. We brought him home two weeks ago today, and call him Tuxedo because the extra vowels and syllables are easier on the tongue, and I hope on the ear, as our new feline family member learns his name.

Tuxedo was a feral rescued at three months and fostered for another three months in a home with two cats. His foster family said he’d hide for a few days, which he did, and so Malika was shocked to find another cat in the house with her when he came out from hiding. After two days of half-hearted hissing and chasing, their friendship began, and Malika quickly became the object of Tuxedo’s affection and adoration.

Tuxedo enjoying a sunspot and computer cords

At six months, he is almost Malika’s size, and he walks alongside her, rubbing against across rooms, down hallways, as though they’re one creature. Their camaraderie and resemblance harkens to mind Dan Fogelberg and Tim Weisberg’s 1978 album Twin Sons of Different Mothers. Like those musicians, these cats belong together.

New best friends

Though feral, Tuxedo is not wild; he has all the makings of a domestic housecat, lounging in plain sight, looking at me as I call to him by name waving. He even allows me to come within a foot or two before scuttling away. If I weren’t still hobbled, he’d find me reaching under beds, sliding him into my warm lap, pressing him beyond his comfort as part of my acclimation efforts. But with my immobility comes forced restraint, and I suppose that works in Tuxedo’s favor, the relationship developing on his terms not mine.

In sight, but out of reach

In this transition, Malika has decided, to my great delight, that I still must pet her, and this is a conundrum for Tuxedo. He must be near her, even if it means standing on my legs while I’m pinned under a bed quilt, carefully keeping his body just beyond reach of my fingertips, leaping down when I squirm, his weight is too much for my sore muscles. Most often, Malika jumps down to join him, and they slink way linked like the Siamese cats in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, without the bad attitude.

Walking in step

So close, their tails are crossed

The voids in their lives have been filled by the presence of another. Love wears a Tuxedo and has come home to us.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A Benediction for the MRI Machine

Wearing a hospital gown and blue-paper shorts, I ease down slow, first onto my side, then gingerly onto my back that protests, though more quietly these days, after a month of sharp retorts in response to once innocent movements. The technician slides a bolster under my knees, and warm blanket over them (blanket warmers are the bright aspect of hospitals and surgery centers). Foam earplugs in place, an emergency call button in hand. I close my eyes, the technician tells me not to move for the next half-hour, pushes a button, and I slide like a shrink-wrapped ham into the scanner, my body positioned just so, my lumbar spine a barcode to be decoded, revealing, it’s hoped, both diagnosis and cure.

If the very recesses of one’s body are going to be laid bare, the terror and hope of what lies hidden inside muscle and sinew, tendon and bone on display, these secret mysteries should be exposed quietly, reverently, in the hush toned of candle-lit chapels and whispered prayers, not while one lies prone and motionless, eyes clenched shut against the confining space-age tube, roar of a jet turbine, and unrelenting jackhammer vibration that rattles teeth and nerves.

But noise it is, and I try to focus on my breath, in and out, but I worry that my belly is moving too much, with my belly expanding inhalations, that it will obscure the necessary view of my innards. What to try instead, perhaps an equal and opposite noise, that I could somehow incorporate into a soundtrack? If only I knew some songs in a genre that could match the machine’s violent thumping and insistence on victory, but I don’t even know the names of genres I could use: death metal?

What I know by heart are hymns, and it’s been a few years since I’ve sung them with any regularity, church hopper and frequent Sunday worker that I’ve become since relocating to Washington four years ago. If I’d remembered about the hearing-damaging noise, I would’ve prepared beforehand, would’ve pulled up a playlist on Pandora, listened in the car as my husband drove to the appointment, or flipped though the pages of my UMC hymnal earlier in the day, reminding myself of second and third verses of my favorites.

So, hymns it is. I don't sing aloud, or even hum, in case my vibrations work against the imaging. But I call up tunes and words. I start with the cheerful, “Morning Has Broken,” “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” “And They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love,” and “Blessed Assurance,” but there’s too much dissonance between the metallic pulsing and these happy hymns.

What does work, is a hymn of sorrow, one I was first introduced to on Ash Wednesday almost 30 years ago, though I confess, in my pain-body tunnel-vision these days, the liturgical calendar has not been on my mind. Unbidden the first two verses come:

O sacred head now wounded
With grief and shame way down,
Now scornfully surrounded
With thorns thine only crown,

How art thou pale with anguish,
With sore abuse and scorn.
How does that visage languish,
Which once was bright as morn.

I latch onto Jesus, those lyrics about being wounded for the remainder of the first eight minute cycle, and all of the second eight minute cycle, for who else can be present with me here? Not the technician who is only a disembodied voice speaking via microphone in the few moments the machine is silent between runs. Not my husband in the waiting room, not my wedding ring—no metal allowed—in a locker with my clothes.

The machine amps up its third and final driving beat, cast in its role as God. I wasn’t supposed to appear before this oracle today, at least my insurance didn’t think it was medically necessary. I am here by grace, because someone who loves me said, “let me pay for this.” For this half-hour I’m blessed, cradled, in what for some is nothing more than a blaring brightly lit torture device that will deliver bad news.

I know that I will be healed, no matter what sort of treatment I will need or receive based on this MRI. I know this because people I love have suffered much worse, their lives permanently altered in the name of survival, but they are not defined by diagnosis, by disease, by disabilities. I can’t say if my doctor will see Jesus lurking between L-3 and L-4 in my lumber spine, when she reads the MRI report. But he’s there, always—love alive in me, in each of us.

Each night for the last week, once I’ve settled my aching self into bed waiting for painkillers to allow sleep, I’ve been reading Jan Richardson’s Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for theSeasons. Her blessings are gritty and real, no Pollyanna Hallmark Channel blather, they bless through suffering and loss as well as joy. The MRI thunders bringing on a headache and hot flash. And I wonder, has anyone blessed this machine, this room, the people whose bodies have slid like mine, specimens on this diagnostic tray?

And so I spend the last eight minute cycle of this cacophonic procedure blessing the people who come to this imaging center day in and day out, those simply working at their jobs, technicians, physicians, janitors. I bless those, like me, who come under extreme circumstances, a failure of the body to work as expected. I bless their friends and families, at home, in the lobby, on social media, waiting, hoping, fearing the news.

It’s a challenge to pray in this bone-rattling din, to hold still as I can and think, but I manage this:

“May this machine be used for the highest and best good by all who come in contact with it. May those entrusted to operate this equipment do so with great skill and compassion. May all who enter here be comforted.”

Waking tonight in discomfort and unable to return to sleep, Jan Richardson’s words in “Blessing the Door,” resonate with my intention in the benediction for the MRI machine:

But here
at this door of
the blessing cannot
be said without you.

So lay your palm
against the frame
that those before you

Place your feet
where others paused
in this entryway.

Say the thing that
you most need,
and the door will
open wide.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

It’s Time for Success!

For the past six weeks, my life has revolved around my living room couch. I succumbed to a terrible cold the last days of 2015, my first in over five years. I huddled under a blanket and watched DIY shows on HGTV, wrung out from worry over loved one’s health scares, Christmas travel, and a return home to a dying cat. After blogging about Theo’s life and passing, I received an email of condolence from my writing friend Laurie Skiba who posed this question:

“Each year I choose a word to guide me. Do you do this, too, or choose a particular way to frame the year ahead? In past years I've chosen trust, leap, Magnificat, fear/less, and for 2015, distill (given the need for much downsizing, still an ongoing project). In every case the word has figured significantly, and I have learned that it's a good idea to choose wisely. (The year I chose leap was pretty wild.) This year I'm choosing breakthrough so I may be in for a rough ride, but I think it's a necessary one.

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions. When my children were of school age, I always used the beginning of the academic year as a new beginning—forming the schedule and activities that would shape the life of my family and me for nine months. So when Laurie presented her question, I blew my nose and set my congested brain to thinking. If I were to choose a word to guide me for the coming year, how would I discern that word? Would I take it to prayer, meditation, or thumb through a dictionary?

Well, my process didn’t matter, because Success popped into my head almost instantly. I have to say that I was initially resistant, that I wanted a less materialistic and more spiritual word. Something like Openness or Journey, and then I realized that my husband and I have been living those words for the past four years of constant change. I hadn’t labeled our life, but I’ve been very conscious of our intention, of trusting the unknown, of risking our finances, time, energy, and spirit since moving to Puget Sound four years ago.

Framed that way, Success is the perfect word for 2016. It’s time to stop losing money (a condition we share with many entrepreneurs and small business owners in their first years of business). It’s time for my husband to succeed as a licensed general contractor, a real estate investor, and business owner. Time to work for clients rather than always on speculation that someone might buy what we build. It’s also time for his vision of hiring veterans to become a reality, allowing him to continue his excellent mentoring of his young adult employees.

It’s time for me to succeed in the new role of real estatebroker that I’ve taken on; to recoup the money I’ve spent on education, licensing, and professional memberships, to find a client who isn’t me, or our company. And, it’s time for me to succeed in making writing time a serious priority, remembering that writing poetry, essays, and short stories are also endeavors that I am passionate about and feel called to.

So on New Year’s Day I upped my zinc intake, waited for my cold to abate, and for success to arrive. Now we’re a week into February, and I've been laid up by injury, unable to participate in my usual activities, finding that Success is a slippery fish, darting in sea filled with many other species: loss, illness, even failure. I have more to say on the subject, and I will soon, but right now, I’m ready to tune into the Superbowl, where success or failure has nothing to do with my own life.