Pets

Death of a Pajarito and Other News

As so often is the case, there is good news and bad news. Well, sort of bad news, I guess, but maybe it is actually good news. My mother, who has hovered in an undoubted twilight zone for the past year, since my father had the audacity to pass away rather suddenly and leave her behind in this vale of tears, seems to be more responsive than she’s been in a while. But she is also simultaneously starting to be much less interested in food and drink, which may be a signal that she’s fixin’ to die. Death has been on my mind the last couple of days, because yesterday I found a little bird struggling in the fountain, gasping for breath, with what looked like broken neck and a broken wing and it was clearly probably not going to make it. But I got it out of the water and set it down in a sheltered place where at least Reina wouldn’t get it, and thought maybe there would be a miracle, maybe it would recover; maybe it was just in shock, maybe it wasn’t that badly injured.  I couldn’t tell how it got into the water but it was cold and rainy and I know birds can’t survive long once they have gotten that waterlogged . And I was right, the poor little pajarito soon died. It just was one more sad thing upon sad thing that I’ve been dealing with lately.

The other day, I went over to the pretty little house we have rented for my mom and her caregivers, and for the first time in many visits, she was actually awake and seemed to recognize that I was there. She is in bed night and day; they turn her every so often to prevent bedsores, and change her diapers, keep her warm, give her oxygen, adjust her nebulizer, cool her off, whatever she needs; she has the world’s most attentive care from Jose and Sandra. She can’t really talk any more but I made a joke about getting her up and dressed because there was a sale on at Saks Fifth Avenue and there was just the tiniest, tiniest hint of a smile. That’s more than I’d gotten out of her in months. But the horrible thing about it was that it also was proof positive that – as we all say – she’s still “in there” – and what must this ongoing saga be like for her? She is asked repeatedly by the nice young doctor who stops by every few days to check on her, whether she’s in pain, and she nods her head to say she is not. I ask her if she wants anything or needs anything and she nods no. Or barely whispers no. But she – who was one of the most visual people I can remember – admired for her beautifully decorated homes and her personal style, is now completely blind, bedridden, incontinent, and her health has been failing, leading to this final landing place, for decades.  Now, she can’t carry on a conversation any more, and she is ever so slowly fading away, but she is still, for some unfathomable reason, with us, in spite of the ravages of diabetes, COPD/Emphysema, and just plain old age and frailty.

As I’ve noted on these pages before, I’ve been waging a pitched battle to lose the 70 lbs I managed to put on god knows how over the years.  It got more serious for me as I watched my mother disintegrate and I’ve read more and learned that in fact, based on my own history and blood test scores, it’s pretty reasonable to assume that the tendency to obesity, strokes, diabetes, heart stuff, is also genetically encoded in me as well as the various relatives who have died from all this stuff over the past few decades. I’ve read every book I can find about all this and they all sort of drum “diet and exercise” into your head to the point where I finally just surrendered to the obvious, cut all the carbs and sugar out of my diet and started to make excruciatingly slow, halting progress on the journey back down to a normal weight.  From the point where I began, it felt like being at the base of an enormous mountain I was going to have to climb, some monstrous, fog-shrouded Alp or something. I had no idea whether I would succeed. But, with all my “numbers” now in normal ranges, I guess I can say I have won at least the major skirmishes of the battle since nothing else horrible seems to be going wrong with me just yet.

It has been hard, but in a way it hasn’t, when I consider what I’m trying so hard to avoid – the pleasures of having to replace my entire wardrobe with new, NOT-plus-size stuff notwithstanding. Watching so many people around me age, especially my mother, I realized that thanks to the “miracles” of modern medicine, the chances are pretty good that lots of us baby boomers are indeed going to live to a ripe old age, whether we are actually fit to keep living or not. Everyone who knew my dad would have agreed he was one of the most brilliant people they’d ever met – with a Ph.D. from USC in musicology and an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Oberlin. He was brilliantly funny, loved by his colleagues, and successful enough to have kept us all in reasonable Southern California style when I was a kid, complete with red Jaguar and Encino swimming pool. He spoke four languages – five, if you count Italian, required by his musicology degree and love of music; even through the ravages of Alzheimer’s or whatever dementia or depression finally got the best of him. Though he died quickly and with great dignity, his departure was preceded by decades of slow, inexorable mental decline and withdrawal from the world which was a torment for him and an even greater torment for the rest of our family. Then there’s my mother, who absolutely refused to do the exercises prescribed by a parade of physical therapists and doctors throughout her life, as though somehow, as the Queen of the San Fernando Valley or whatever she thought she was, she was going to be exempt from the ravages of mostly preventable illness and old age.

Well, guess what, troops. She wasn’t exempt, nor was my dad. So even at the risk of being a little over-obsessed with it, I decided along the way to look the snarling demon right in his glowing red eyes and take him on. Scary and hard, when all you want is a tortilla with your chile relleno but you have – over and over again – to say no, it’s got too many carbs for me. I’ll just have a salad, thanks. (Well, I’m Atkins enough to have had a steak with my salad, to be more precise).

But the rewards are there, too, now, closer to the end of the trail than the beginning of the daunting project eight or nine years ago. I’ve lost weight more slowly than any other creature on the planet, I think, with stops along the way for various family and professional crises. But I have managed to stick with it and now, getting stronger working out three times a week, it’s starting to be more fun. I told a friend the other day “it’s odd, I look in the mirror now and the reflection I see staring back at me is a NORMAL person. Not thin, not especially athletic looking or sleek or anything like that, and most assuredly an older woman, but NORMAL. For a five foot tall girl who was pushing 200 lbs, this is weird but also undeniably kind of cool. And as I think about it from this new perspective, my hope is that at least while I’m still alive – hopefully twenty or even thirty more years – I can keep my strength and my faculties and enjoy whatever time I have left.  My poor mother could have had a much better time of her late eighties than she has had, that’s for sure.  None of us knows what fate awaits us, of course, and a bus could hit me turning a corner in the village tomorrow, but barring that, it is curious to say “here I am, at sixty-five, in the best shape of my life.”  I know others have had this experience too, from my reading, and at the end of my own life, for what it might be worth, at least I can say I tried. Not that it makes any difference if the diablo with the red eyes has you in his cross-hairs. Which he well might, knowing that we live in the land of vicious armed narcos, loco drivers who drink and text, unstoppable superbugs bedding down in hospitals, and on and on.

In any event, tomorrow I go back to my workouts with my trainer to keep slogging away at this, for what it is worth. The territorial battles of the cuatro gatos continue apace and it’s just so crazy with the yowling and hissing and chasing and god knows what that we honestly wonder if we will have to find new homes for Tabitha and Luigi in spite of our best efforts at some point. We hate to admit it, but maybe this ISN’T going to work out despite our intentions. Our original two are petite, delicate little girl kitties who have ruled their roost for years. But my mother’s two are bigger and stronger, and having been strays rescued at an older age, they were both on the streets in Santa Fe long enough so that they both can be aggressive with other cats, though they never were with any humans they encountered along the way.  We try to separate the four of them and break up the hissfests before they turn violent but today for the first time I heard some screaming while I was out in the garden, dropped my pruning shears and came running in to find a few drops of blood on the staircase. But all four kitties were by then far apart calmly licking themselves. Examined each cat for damage, could find none, checked the ears, the paws. Who knows which of the four got nailed? Now, they’re all curled up asleep scattered around the house. We are trying to be patient, give it some more time. Meanwhile, we seem to have a moment’s peace.

Cuatro, Count ’em, Cuatro, Gatos

My poor mother continues her slow, inexorable decline. Thankfully, she appears not to be in pain, and her care is fantastic, so all we can do is keep her comfortable and hope that when the end does come, that she does not suffer. I figure, as the dutiful oldest daughter, that it is my job, in addition to helping to manage her care, to honor whatever promises I might have made to her along the way.

Aside from saying to friends and family that I would love to scatter her ashes at Saks Fifth Avenue (or at least a portion thereof), which is just the perfect ending for her, last year, after my father died,  in one of her more conscious moments we talked about the fate of their two beloved cats, Luigi and Tabitha. And in a moment of what was probably terminal weakness, I said quite clearly, “Don’t worry about the kitties, Mom. If anything happens to you, Arnold and I will take them and make sure they stay together with us.” It made sense then and it makes sense now, sentimentality aside, because our local shelters here are full of cats and kittens in desperate need of homes, and anyone who would be willing to adopt two older cats needs to be looking there first, I would submit.

Both my parents’ cats were adopted years ago from two different shelters in Santa Fe. To avoid territory battles, we arranged to bring them to my parents’ house at the exact same hour on the same day. I had read somewhere that doing it that way was a good idea, and at least in our case, it was. The two never fought, bonded immediately, and several years later came down to Mexico with my parents on the plane to Guadalajara when we finally pried them out of their too-big, too-unmanageable, Santa Fe house for what they thought was just the winter, but we knew it was probably for good. I wasn’t on that trip; I stayed behind to make sure their rented house here was ready for them upon their arrival.

But Arnold headed north and helped my sister Wendy to close up their house and bring them all down. He described to me the Peter-and-The Wolf parade through two airports and customs, with him managing the two terrified cats in their airline-approved carriers, plus all their cross border veterinary certificates for entry into Mexico (we called the documents their PussPorts). In addition dealing with my octogenarian parents in wheelchairs, (one with diabetes, incontinence, and emphysema, and the other with dementia) their caregiver also wrangled enough portable oxygen tanks for the plane ride and extra tanks, oxygen, and diabetic-friendly food for any unforeseen delays in the airport (for my mother) and their luggage. The two kitties then enjoyed six months of being with both my parents before my dad passed away, but now that my mother is past the point of being able to even pet them, the moment had come, a week ago, for me to say to José, “We’re in town for awhile, maybe this is the best time for us to bring them over to our house”. This we did, about a week ago. And, as we say in my ethnic group, oy gevalt.

Our own two cats – females who have been the queens of the roost for years – reacted as predicted to the interlopers’ arrival with regular bouts of growling, flattened ears, bared teeth, and bushed-out tails. They continue to escape with much snarling to wherever they can hide out to be out of the way of the two intruders whenever and wherever they happen to come upon them in the house. Since we brought them to our house a week ago, we have developed an elaborate system of feeding them all separately so things don’t get worse; and keeping them all straight proved complicated enough so that I began referring to them as Group 1 – our original two, Rosina and Missoni, and Group 2 – the parental cats, Luigi and Tabitha. We feed Group 1 where we always have, in the lavanderia (laundry area) along with Reina, the dog.  Group 2 gets fed upstairs in the bathroom where they also get locked up at night with their own cat box and water, so as not to invade Group 1’s nocturnal territory, namely our bed.

Someone told us that it takes ten weeks for cats to get used to each other. My recollection was that Rosie took a lot longer than that to get used to Missoni when she arrived, but the good news is that after however long it took, those two are now bosom buddies who sleep curled up together, lick each other and all that good stuff. Now their sisterhood has become a matter of Group 1 school spirit, I think. “We have to stick together, girlfriend, look at what these dreadful humans have visited upon us NOW”.

Meanwhile Luigi and Tabitha (Group 2) are having the time of their lives. I do believe cats are incredibly sensitive creatures, and they knew it when my dad died, and they sensed that my mother was gradually failing and no longer able to even interact with them. José and Sandra did their best to give them attention and affection but Wendy, Arnold and I noticed that they were spending most of their time hiding in a closet at my mother’s house as she lies sleeping more or less permanently in her rented hospital bed. Undoubtedly, both of them were suffering from major kitty depression. So getting them out of there had become a priority. Now, across town at our place, even though they have two other cats hissing at them all the time (and we keep telling them “this too shall pass”), if nothing else, it’s a little livelier for them. We are spending lots of time petting them and interacting with them and they are just loving the attention – purring, nuzzling us, wanting to sleep on our bed with us. This is not allowed yet because it would cause the Third World War but I told Wendy “the second I see all four of them on the bed together – which might be six months from now, god only knows, we can stop closing Group 2 up in the bathroom at night.” Reina is just doing the doggie equivalent of rolling her eyes and saying “good grief, more cats.” But she’s fine and Group 2, at first terrified of her, are already able to be near her without undue concern.

So the games have begun! I am sending my sister periodic status reports : “7 p.m. Report: Luigi stretched out under the table, Tabitha warily perched on one of the dining room chairs,  Missoni grooming herself on top of the bookcase but taking it all in, Rosina watching with flattened ears from a safe vantage point on top of the desk. Broke up major hissfest ten minutes ago but all calm now. Am standing here with squirt bottle at the ready but need to fix dinner & must put squirt bottle down, Pray for Peace”.  My sister is the worst of the multi-cat suckers, however. Ten years ago she agreed to foster a litter of kittens for her local shelter and when it came time to give them up for adoption she couldn’t bear to do it. So she has five huge tabby cats (I think it’s five, there were some other strays involved in her household and I sort of lost count).

Never in my life did I think I would end up with four, count ‘em, four, cats. Much as I love them. One of my friends commented that it’s verging on weird-hoarding-lady stuff to have four cats and a dog. Arnold just sighs and says, as he opens a can of cat food, “Hey, ya gotta do what ya gotta do.”

And so back to spray bottle duty.  Adelante.