Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Celebrating Sugar Plum

Happy Solstice! Normally I would be writing a post about it, but today is a very special day in my little fur-family, so I'm wholly focused on that (and eating the fudge that animal lovers Bill and Stephanie Keaton sent me).

Indulge me for a brief moment while I muse on a day long ago....

The black cat legacy began in 1989. My orange tabby, Sweetheart, died that year, and I was so grief-stricken without her, my teenaged daughter took it upon herself to comfort me by giving me a kitten—a tiny, mewling, big-eared goofy looking, fluffy, black kitten. "I picked the runt," my daughter said. "I knew that's the one you'd want." She does know me very well.

We christened her (the cat, not my daughter) Calpurnia. (That would be the Calpurnia from To Kill a Mockingbird, not Shakespeare's Calpurnia from Julius Ceasar.) She grew into a dainty little princess who slept on my bed at night. A few years later, along came the mini-panther, Boo (who has been written about extensively, both here and in a Chicken Soup for the Soul book). Suffice it to say, he was black as well.

Fast forward to 2006, the year Calpurnia died. Again I found myself grieving for the little dragon who would rule the bed at night with her teeth and claws, making sure Boo understood that his role was to guard my feet. As mean as she was to him at times, though, he missed her.

Which brings us to today's celebration.

Ten years ago (good grief, seriously? a decade?!?) I walked into the Petsmart in Upland and asked if they had "any black cats." I was directed to the tiny Plexiglas condos where the rescue group, H.O.P.E., kept kitties who were available for adoption on display. There was one black cat, a female... who looked like she'd been the runt of the litter.  She was stunted, with short little legs, and she was missing about two-thirds of her tail. (No, she wasn't born that way. Yes, there are people that cruel. Enough said on this happy post.)

At that point, the nice cat ladies at H.O.P.E. had been trying to find a home for her for a year. She and her kittens had been rescued from the street by a good Samaritan and handed over to H.O.P.E. Her two beautiful daughters had been adopted, but no one wanted the not-so-friendly mama who was still very touchous about anyone petting her near her tail.

"She'll bite you," they warned me.

"I'll take her!" I told them. "What's her name?"

"Sugar Plum," they said.

Oh good heavens. Who names a ferocious little black cat "Sugar Plum"? That's the stupidest name for a cat ever (except maybe Marshmallow for a white cat).

(My grandson, Ben, with his cat, Marshmallow... about 1998.)

I didn't say that to the nice cat ladies. I said, "Where do I sign?" and I took that little cat home.

The first night, she jumped right up on the bed, like she knew this was her place, and I sat musing about what to name her. That musing continued on for days. See, she was supposed to be "Scout." That would've been perfect, right? Following the To Kill a Mockingbird theme, she was a tough little girl. But my best buddy Doug had a cat named Scout already, and since he and I spent most of our time talking about our cats, it just would've been confusing. And so poor little Sugar Plum—now "Sug" or "Sugie" or "Black Devil Cat" (to Sgt. Thomas Tibbs)—was never renamed.

For years, she slept at the foot of the bed, and Boo slept on my chest or curled into my armpit.

And then Boo died. (Enough said and forgive me while I type really fast to get past this part.) And Sug began sleeping under the covers, curled into my side. Of course, by then we had moved to Mt. Baldy, and it was very cold at night from, say, October to, say, June. The longer we lived on the mountain, the more I realized how important it was that Sug had lived as a street thug prior to her life with me. It saved her life on at least one occasion. She faced down bears at the French doors. Chased raccoons off the back deck. And leaped high into trees when suddenly chased by the neighborhood Golden Retriever. Her favorite game when we lived there was to sneak down to the basement at night, scoop up a mouse in her jaws, carry it carefully up three flights of stairs to the loft where we slept, then let it go so she could chase it around the room. At midnight.

(Where she ended up after T.J. chased her.)

I've gotta say, I think she really missed that game when we moved back down the mountain.

Imagine: This little six-pound cat has lived somewhere on the street in Upland, in a tiny condo at Petsmart for many, many months, in a three-bedroom house in Rancho Cucamonga, in a 1600-square-foot cabin in Mt. Baldy, in another three-bedroom house in Ontario, and now here in Calimesa, where she is the smallest of my fur children and definitely the one in charge. We call her "the dowager queen," as she is aging but still has all power. In fact, on January 9 (a very special birth date in my extended family), she will be twelve years old.

Sug still plays. She loves her catnip mousies (which, to her small frame, are more like ratties). She also loves strings, ribbons, rubber bands, plastic bracelets and any paper I place on the table near her cat grass. She tells me what time to get up (4:00a.m.), what time to go to bed (8:00p.m.) and when to plug in her water fountain (every waking hour). She doesn't love her sister much (poor Purrl!) and she really hates having a dog in the house (especially after being chased and treed by T.J.), but she tolerates all this nonsense because she knows that twice a day—naptime and bedtime—I will lie down on the bed and she will assume her rightful place, purring me to sleep.

I have absolutely no doubt that when Sug decides she's had enough of this crazy world, Purrl will take over the queen's role. For now, though—and I hope for a very long time—things remain status quo. Cats are great friends. And black cats have always—always—brought me good luck in the form of love and companionship.

And as a further note here, I have to mention how proud I am of my grandchildren, two of which have recently adopted cats—black, of course. That's the way we roll in this family.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Walking toward the light

As I write this, I am sipping caramel hot cocoa (Swiss Miss--you can shake some sea salt on the top to make salted caramel and oh my Buddha, is it decadent). Sugar Plum, The Dowager Queen (as we refer to her here in the castle) is curled on her own office chair beside me--on her own soft pillow, as all queens should be accommodated. Purrl is... I don't know, but my bet would be that I'll find her wherever I find Sgt. Thomas Tibbs. Tommy is curled in a ball somewhere, sleeping, as he is worn out after our hike. Let me begin again....

A week ago, Thomas had to be seen by a vet because of an ear infection. At the old house, I would simply call my Home Vet, Dr. David Lebovic, and he would stop by in the afternoon, administering shots or whatever we needed. Now that we're out here, it's time Thom got past his terror of all things new and actually visited a vet's office. He did, and he was a champ through it all. When we got home, I reached down to remove his collar and, wonder of wonder, he stretched his face up to mine and touched noses with me. This is a dog who turns his face away if I get too close. This is a dog who holds a grudge for two or three days or a week if he's been hurt or frightened. This is a dog who never learned how to give affection. But when he kissed my nose, I knew he was saying thank you. That ear must've hurt really bad. He knew we went through all that with the doc so he could feel better. Dogs... are so great....

And I've been recovering, too--from my injured foot, from John's death (see previous post), from the insanity in the world. (Well, I don't guess I'll ever recover from that until I leave this place.) Today was a fine day, though, with both of us feeling better. So we headed off to Bogart Park, a ten-minute drive away, and started down this road at about 4:15.

By 4:25, the sun's light was a glow rather than a shine, and some of our trail was in shadow already.

A few moments and a steep hill later, we turned to see this view to the south. 

The photo doesn't capture all the color, all that the eye can see--the deepening shadows in the woods contrasting with the rosy hue of the sky. And if only I could include the scent of the wild sage and aging oak duff here! We stood for a moment and listened to the woodpeckers talking companionably as they settled in for the night. Then we turned and walked back to the truck in the dying light.

All told, it was a thirty-minute interlude of exercise, fresh air, some pretty scenes and a whole lot of endorphins. Thomas and I will both sleep well tonight.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Tis the season...

I didn't write a blog post in November. In fact, I didn't write a single thing (except a one-page journal entry) for the entire month. Although I had several writing projects going, and I'd said that I was going to do NaNoWriMo, I didn't, and I pretty much abandoned everything regarding writing. Or singing. I didn't sing, either, which is pretty unusual for me.

While everyone else was weeping over or celebrating the results of the national election, I was learning that a close family friend had taken his own life. So yeah, as time periods go, November really blew. In most years, November is a good month for me (despite the dreaded time change and the ever-expanding darkness). Our family celebrates a big Thanksgiving at my brother's house, and I see people I don't see the rest of the year. But this year my brother had the stomach flu... and certain family members were unhappy with other family members.... You know, typical family stuff (though in other years, we've been great at setting all that aside).

So Thanksgiving was canceled, essentially. And John opted out of a life that was fraught with pain and loneliness. And my son, who had originally planned to stay a week with me, ended up staying for two. When I returned from driving him to San Diego where he will hop a flight back to Ohio, I told myself this: "You may now return to living inside your head."

Because that's what it takes for me to produce anything on the page. I have to ponder, contemplate, muse and reflect. I have to be still in the silence and listen to what my heart is singing about. Whatever the song turns out to be is what I am feeling. All that is left, then, is to determine why I am feeling what I am feeling.

My son has been gone nearly twenty-four hours and mostly what I have heard is silence. I did not hear the owl calling last night nor did I hear the coyotes howling. The churning of the washer and the hum of the refrigerator are all that are breaking through.

I don't know what to think or feel or say about John's death. Of all my friends who struggle with the darkness, he was the least likely on my list to finally say, "I'm done." I'm trying not to feel guilty. (If I'd called more often... made more of an effort to go see him....) Intellectually, that's wasted energy; it wasn't my fault, was not my decision, and it certainly won't change things for John. I think I'm also trying not to feel relieved or at least admit to those feelings. John was a big, hard man and he lived a big, hard life (to riff off of Eddie Vedder's song). Once his body began to break down from all its years of hard living, his pain was monumental. And he wanted to be loved. He desperately wanted to find exquisite, transcendental, romantic love (as we all do, really, if the truth were told), but that had proven to be an elusive dream... and he was nearing seventy. I'm sure he felt his time had come and gone, and there was little left to live for. The last several times we'd talked or spent time together, he'd cried. He wanted to go off-roading in his 4x4 truck and take long motorcycle rides on his Harley, and he wanted to do all that without feeling stiff and tired and achy the next day. And he wanted to fall head over heels in love. In short, he wanted to be young again. I wish on all that is sacred to me I could have helped him do that. But I couldn't.

I guess I'm glad Thanksgiving was canceled. It would not have been the same without John's booming laughter (followed by his horrendous chronic smoker's cough) at the table. It's almost like the Universe felt my pain and said, "You know what, let's just skip this one. Next year will be better."

Next year will. Time will give me opportunity to muse and reflect. And hey, back there a couple of paragraphs ago, I think I started to hear a song.