"There's a bit of magic in everything, and some loss to even things out." -Lou Reed

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

One Less Heartbeat: Losing Lilly

I don’t know why the thought came to me, four nights ago, the night we lost Lilly. I was getting ready for bed, hardly able to think straight, and the thought ran through my mind: There is one less heartbeat in our house tonight. I felt a pain in my own heart knowing that was true. I burst into tears, as I had so many times during that day, in public, in my car, in the ophthalmologist surgeon’s office as I went in to get my right eye checked—after having a cataract removed just the day before. I had to let Lilly go, watch her fall asleep for the last time as my husband and I held her and wept and whispered our goodbyes, then somehow get myself to the appointment. I did. I sobbed the entire drive home.

After getting home from the appointment, I sat in my car in the driveway, not wanting to enter the house where she wasn’t any longer. Lilly had become a tentative, quiet presence in our house for some years; so different from her younger days. She was a wild spitfire from the moment I brought her tiny little self home.

But almost unlike any cat I have seen with as much fire and attitude, Lilly was one of the most affectionate cats I have ever encountered. She loved to sleep curled up with Lucy--her sister from the same litter--or with me or Shea. She would head butt your hand, or burrow for a head scratch, or sweetly touch her head to your forehead to ask for love. Her motor was loud and deep, and I am so thankful that my husband managed to capture it on video so I can hear it again and again.

In 2001, on the day I set out to adopt a kitten, I planned on getting two so they would have company when I traveled for work. I had gone to a local rescue on a Saturday when they had adoptable kittens at the pet store. I found Lucy first, but none of the other kittens made a connection. The rescue employee told me there was one more from the same litter- a solid white kitten just recovering from a respiratory infection. She handed me a carrier and I looked inside, and no lie, I said, “Hello my Lilly.” I hadn’t picked out the name before, she just was my Lilly.

Lilly was hilariously naughty. She would hiss at me if I said “No” or gave her a cross word. She hid outside the litter box when Lucy was inside and waited for her to come out to pounce on her and scare her. If Lilly was scolded, she took it out on Lucy, or knocked something off a shelf, and looked at me as if she had most certainly had the last word.
I constantly had no idea what page I was on in any book I was reading, as Lilly adored bookmarks, and slipped them out from between the pages and eventually destroyed them.

The absolute best stories were always hard for people to believe until they witnessed them. A veterinarian once wanted to put her on a prescription diet—as she was having urinary tract infections and had only one working kidney. For whatever reason, Lilly did not like the food. After my first few attempts of feeding it to her, she would take one sniff and knock the bowl and the food across the kitchen floor. She didn’t eat for 4 days. I called the vet and he told me should would eat if she got hungry. Another few days went by and there was no change and he asked me to bring in Lilly, the dish, and the food. He clearly didn’t believe what I was telling him.

We went to his office, food, dish, and white feline, furry stubbornness, and I set all of it on the high counter as he came in to check her out. I put the food in the dish, she took a sniff, and smacked the dish and the food so hard that it flew off the exam table and hit the floor, food going everywhere. The vet laughed, a big, huge belly laugh, and made me set it up again for some of the vet techs to see. We all laughed, while Lilly stared at us as if she had had enough. He tried a few other foods out until one seemed to meet her standards. He reminded me to prepare myself. Lilly only had one working kidney, she would be lucky to live to be ten years old.

From the time I brought Lilly home, we moved over 10 times. Two of those moves were cross country. She was my constant companion as a single person, and comforted me over job layoffs, broken hearts, and unfortunately, a battle with depression that has been with me most of my adult life. There were few things over the years that could help me through my darkest times more than sweet Lilly’s motor running next to my heart.

She was always a challenge. I had to baby-proof my kitchen cabinets to keep her from scaling to the top cabinets, and knocking whatever dishes were in her way to the floor. She hated having her nails clipped, and somehow stole the little clippers I had for the job, over and over. Once, when I moved, I found four pairs of the clippers under the couch, deep in the back, her little stash of control.

Lilly is the only cat I have ever known who truly loved a good belly rub.

She is also the only animal I know that has wiggled her way into my mother’s heart. My mom is not an animal person, or a pet person, and is absolutely baffled how I live outnumbered by them. But my mother adored Lilly, and has called me crying several times over the last few days.

When my husband and I started dating in 2009, he was entering a relationship with three cats, one dog, and me—who needed anyone I was going to be with to love all of us. We were lucky. All the animals love Shea, and I say that once he came along, he was number one to all of them. Lilly was no different. She adored him and snuggled up whenever she got the chance. At this point, her wild days were behind her, so Shea had a hard time believing my tales of her naughty adventures.

We lost Lucy in December of 2014, and while we were devastated, we worried about Lilly so much. She had spent every day of her life with her sister and most days and nights, I would find them intertwined together, sleeping, and motors running. The first week after Lucy died, at night, Lilly would roam the halls and cry, looking for her, and Shea and I took turns sleeping in the den with her to give her one-on-one attention.

Since that time, Lilly was glued to Shea almost 24/7. It has given me great comfort that during some of my craziest work hours and not being home as much at that time, Shea was with her constantly. We didn’t know how little time we had left. I am thankful that I left my terribly stressful job earlier this year, and was so fortunate to find one where I can work from home. I was able to be with her more, and spend time with her, and get her little heart against my heart, her motor running all the while.

I have left the most beautiful Lilly story for last.

Many times over the years, after countless hours of therapy, different medications, more medications, and just, well, life, I found myself feeling so hopeless. I have shared openly that I have contemplated and attempted suicide multiple times, and it is some kind of miracle that I am here writing these words tonight. I didn’t really get the right help and get well until I was 39, so there were many, many years of battle.
One of my lowest points was when I was living in Washington DC in 2003, and personally and professionally, everything seemed to take a dive at once. I had been at this low point so many times before, but this time felt so different. Many nights, I would sit in the floor, holding Lilly, sobbing, staring at bottles of pills, and finally calling for help. This one night, I just didn’t have it in me anymore.

This night, I wrote letters. I called the pet sitter and asked her to come the next day, giving no indication that this was different than any other business trip. I called and asked for the apartment janitor to come early and fix something the next day, but left him a note on the door in an envelope to call the police instead. I had left a notes for the pet sitter, and anyone else who might read them to please make sure my cats were taken care of. I had people in mind who I thought would take them. I worried and fretted over them the most.

I was sobbing, trying to think of a way out, trying to convince myself differently. I swallowed pills and more pills, until I lost count, but knew it was enough. I laid in the bed, sobbing, and Lilly jumped up next to me, pushing herself against me, loving me with all her might. I apologized to her and to Lucy, and in a few moments, I was out.

Although Lilly had always been a firecracker, she was scared of a few things: a loud phone ringing, my hairdryer, and anyone knocking at the door or ringing the doorbell. Any of those noises sent her flying under the bed.

But on this day, at this particular time, there were noises louder than that. Policemen were breaking down the door. It took me so long to realize and half-stumble to the door and open it. One of the policemen leaned on the door frame in relief, seeing me alive. I, still, in a daze, crawled back to bed. And there, where she had been for all those hours, that whole time, was Lilly. Hammers hitting the door, the doorbell ringing incessantly, nothing had made her move. She stayed by my side. Her motor next to my heart, doing all she could to help me. To love me. To be there for me, no matter what.

The policemen had called an ambulance, I asked one of them to please call my pet sitter, he said he would make sure Lilly and Lucy would be ok while I was gone. He did. I was checked into a hospital into ICU that day.

That whole experience has been on my mind so much.

On the morning of August 17, Shea and I were leaving the house for my cataract surgery, and I looked at Lilly in the kitchen and knew something wasn’t right. We made sure she would eat and drink water, and gave her treats, and then we left. I worried the whole time. Shea and I both were really concerned, and once we got home, we went back and forth, hoping she was perking up one moment, then realizing the next that she wasn’t. My sweet husband was up with her a great deal during the night, and I will always be so thankful to him for that.

By the next morning, we knew. Even though she had beaten the odds and lived 15 years, she was fading. I laid in front of her and looked at her, and for one second she gave me this look, just a knowing, lost look, and then she seemed to look through me. She tried to walk and wobbled. Shea and I were both crying, and bundled her up in a blanket and headed to the vet.

Once the vet came in, it didn’t take long for everyone to realize. Lilly had gone blind overnight, she was in obvious discomfort. We would not let her suffer. Shea and I waited for them to bring her to us in a special room so we could hold her as we let her go from this life.

We both whispered in her ear how much we loved her and that she was safe, and how much we would miss her. She purred, loudly, until her very last breath, which gave me comfort. In her last moments, I told her I never forgot that dark night and how she stayed by my side.

I am so thankful that in her last moments, she knew I loved her enough to be there for her, too.


Thursday, August 4, 2016

Playing Tag

For decades, I have had dreams or nightmares, most that I can’t fully remember, and I wake up terrified, sometimes gasping for air, in a full-blown panic. At times, I can remember the last moments of the dream, the crucial moment when I am about to fall off the edge of a cliff, drive off the road, or be caught by the being pursuing me, which comes in many forms.

The ones I remember the most about are definitely dreams where I am driving a car, but on something like rollercoaster rails, and I keep losing control. I have turn after turn of barely holding the car on the tracks until I finally drive over the edge and begin falling and falling. That’s when I wake up.

It’s no coincidence that the more stressed or worried I am, the more frequent the dreams are. These are all clearly stress dreams, from all the books I have read about their meanings. The worst are honestly the ones I can’t remember at all, I am in a far worse state when I wake from those.  I have seen any and all doctors and looked into holistic options, but these particular dreams aren’t thwarted by much.

I have written before about dealing with my worries or these dreams when I was very young, and lately I have been thinking so much about those nights when I was still living with my parents, probably in the third or fourth grade, and the world felt so overwhelming. I would sneak to the hall closet and grab a blanket, then I would quietly slip down the hallway to the den. I would finally reach the sliding glass door and open and close it slowly, then tiptoe across the porch, down the brick steps and into the grass. I would select a spot somewhere near the middle of our huge back yard, and spread the blanket out. I would lie down and look up, trying to slow my breathing, trying to ease my worrying mind.

I can remember that feeling, looking up, the cool air, and the most beautiful splatter of bright stars against the black sky. I would just look up and lie there, sometimes feeling tears hot on my cheeks. I think that lying there, I was hoping the universe would shift, or the world would tilt, or something would happen to make things better. That somehow, after my midnight stargazing, all the things I felt responsible for (my parent’s fractured marriage, my father’s adultery and alcoholism) would be resolved and our family could be happy.

If only it were that easy.

A few months ago, I was having another bad patch of these dreams, and woke up crying and sobbing several nights. On one of those nights, as quietly as possible, I got out of the bed I share with my husband and two large dogs, and tiptoed to the den, finding my pace quickening as I got near the back door. As soon as I got the latch free, I bolted out on to our deck. I surprised myself by literally running into the railing, the top plank almost hitting my chest as I caught myself with my hands. I was out of breath, crying, and completely confused by this desire to run, to get outside, as if that solved anything. To be clear, I have a husband I love, a house full of rescue animals that are my babies, and finally, a job that I love that doesn’t involve working with horrible bosses. I don’t want to run away from these things, or leave my life. It’s just this desire to run when I wake up from these dreams, or when stress overwhelms me.

I have tried to figure out why me running down the street in the middle of the night feels like a solution for anything. 

Once in college, when I was first really battling deep depression, I had a horrible nightmare and just felt so overcome, that I grabbed my keys and shot out the door, at probably 2:00am. In just my slight little nightgown, I got in my car, rolled down the windows and started driving. I needed the air, I needed distance between me and (what I thought was) failure at the time. It was as if I was trying to go somewhere, leave all my emotional baggage, and return home, renewed. Instead, on this one night, red and blue lights flashed behind me.

After uttering more than a few four letter words, I glanced in my rear view mirror and saw, not only the approaching officer, but myself. Hair wild from the wind, yesterday’s mascara running down my cheeks, and IN MY NIGHTGOWN. Oh, and barefoot.

The officer approached and shined his very bright flashlight in my car. I had already been crying, and this really had pushed the sobbing to a new level. He told me I was driving a little erratically, and asked for my license and registration. Of course, I couldn’t find my registration, but I gave him my driver’s license, and he walked away.

I sat there sobbing, feeling like this was just a confirmation of all the things I believed about myself, and all the words thrown at me from my father that would not leave my mind.

He finally came back and kind of squatted next to me. He gave me back my license and asked, “What’s going on?”

I am sure it was quite the display as I tried to gasp for air and find my words, and mostly came out with, "I am just so overwhelmed. My parents are so disappointed in me, I can’t do anything right. I can’t make things better. Life is just so painful.”

I remember this part vividly, he stood up and said, with a lot of weight in his voice, “Yes, yes it is.”

He spoke to me a little about the fact that I wasn’t alone in feeling this way, and college was hard, and some other nice things. He said he had a daughter my age, and he would be worried if she went out driving as I was. He asked me to promise not to do this again, added on a few warnings about the dangers of the world, and then told me he was going to follow me home to make sure I got there safe. But before that, he wrote a name on a piece of note paper, telling me it was the name of a therapist he knew and recommended. He handed it to me and assured me he was in the phone book, and I could find his number.

He followed me home, and waved from his car and told me to be safe, as I turned the key in the lock.

I was mortified, touched, and glad I was living alone at the time. Most of my friends knew I struggled with depression, and I felt like it would be one more story to add to all of my others.

Once again, last night, I woke up, panicked, gulping for air and trying to hold tears back, and that same feeling hit me—run. Or get in the car—go. I shut my eyes and held my head in frustration, wanting this feeling to leave me. 

Then, for some reason, I remembered running at recess in the park at our elementary school. I remembered tag and “home base”, the place of safety—usually a tree. I thought of fun with friends, being out of breath as we all huffed and puffed our way back to the classroom when it was time to return. 

Later, I remembered truly scary moments with my father when I felt the need to get out of my house for my own safety, to really run, or get to my car, and sometimes couldn’t. Those were the worst times. Feeling trapped and scared.

Somehow, I like to think that all this got twisted together.

I know it’s easy to say that the urge to run means I just want to run away from my problems. I am sure that’s part of it. But somewhere in my mind, I am running fast, ahead of whatever or whomever is chasing me, ahead of my worries, my hair behind me in the wind.

I am looking for home base, wherever that is, so I can race up, grab on, and say “Safe”. No… I’ll yell it, scream it, feel it deep in my bones. 

Then I'll relax, the dreams will subside, and I will let go of all the worries, all the things I feel chasing me, and all the things I want to leave behind. 

Until then, some nights will still find me running, even if it is only in my mind. Hopefully the universe can shift and light the pathway for me to home base. 

So for now universe, Tag, You’re It.



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