It’s Not the Fall

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When I was nineteen I broke my left foot. A few days after I got the cast on I went out to dinner with my parents and my sister Rachel. We pulled up in front of the restaurant, where my father’s uncanny parking karma once again provided him with a parking space directly in front of our destination, no mean feat in Washington DC.

There was a small section of sidewalk in between our car and the restaurant’s outside tables, all of which were filled. I was in the front seat because of my cast, and as I turned to lever myself out of my seat, one hand on each side of the door frame, my sister shut the back door. On my fingers. Through gritted teeth I said politely, “Rachel, open the door” and she said “Why?” “My HAND is in the DOOR. Rachel, OPEN the door.”

Rachel, my mother and my father all grabbed for the door handle. The door, naturally, was locked. Rachel reached past me to tug on the lock. My father said, “It’s not closed all the way. We need to close it the rest of the way in order to unlock it.” Rachel, my mother and I all said “NO!” Both Rachel and my father were trying to pull the lock up, my father inside the car and Rachel reaching in through the open front door. As far as I could tell through the swimming pinpoints of light in my vision, they were primarily getting in each other’s way.

My mother was outside the car saying “Oh my god! Oh my god!” and I remained in the front seat, cast on the sidewalk, hand in the door, alternately saying “Rachel, open the door” and “Mother, shut UP.” The diners were clearly thinking that they had no idea that the outside tables of Chez Gaulois came with entertainment, when my father thought to press the central unlock button.

The lock popped up, Rachel opened the door, my mother stopped saying “Oh my god,” and I completed my delayed exit from the car. Rachel handed me my crutches and we filed into the restaurant and to our table. I put the fingers of my right hand into my glass of ice water. Rachel said “I kept waiting for the sexy Nissan computer voice to say “Your hand is in the door. Please remove your hand from the door,” and we all laughed.

For years my mother and I would tell this story as an archetypal event in our family: a few moments of high drama difficult to differentiate from slapstick comedy, ending quickly with no lasting bad effects for anyone. Bad things that happened just weren’t that bad, and they were usually funny, at least in retrospect.

When my mother told me she had breast cancer two days before she went into the hospital for a mastectomy, it seemed like the beginning of one of those family stories. She had known for a while but she did not want to worry me. She told me that she had not told my sister Rachel, who was living in England. She did not mention whether or not she told my oldest sister Darcy, who lived nearby.

I called Rachel and she caught the first flight home, which caused my mother to be furious at me. My family is filled with unspoken rules about who can tell what to whom. In many cases people simply forget to share information, but we all assume that there was a reason so we continue to not talk about it once we find out from some other source. I knew perfectly well that when my mother told me she had not told Rachel, that was her way of telling me not to tell her either, but I chose to ignore this.

When I arrived at the hospital after the surgery, my mother would hardly speak to me. My father was already there with Rachel. My father, worried about my mother but not wanting to admit it, put his energy into treating Rachel as if she was visiting royalty that had never been to Washington before, apparently forgetting the first eighteen years of her life. The three of us stood at the foot of my mother’s bed bickering while she rolled her eyes at us.

By the end of the week we all retreated to our corners of England, Maryland and DC with relief. My mother was in the hospital for four days. She had three subsequent chemotherapy treatments, from which she did not get sick nor did she lose her hair, and then she was fine for years. In general, it seemed to be more fodder for the Pagones family way of having a crisis.

Seven years later when I called my mother to tell her that my chimney had been struck by lightening and chunks of it had fallen through my sunroom roof, my mother told me that “the cancer is back.” I questioned her as much as I could before she made some excuse to get off the phone. She did give me permission to speak to her doctor who told me that my mother’s breast cancer had metastasized to her lymph nodes and to bone, in addition to the breast tissue itself. It began to dawn on me that this was not going to be funny even in retrospect.

Over the next two years my mother’s symptoms continued to increase along with the frequency and strength of her chemo and radiation treatments. She developed neuropathy in both feet and legs, making it difficult for her two walk. She got a walker – a sturdy teal tripod one with white wall tires – and dubbed it The Batmobile (“because I’m an old bat”). She developed a new method of doing laundry that involved putting the dirty laundry in a bag, throwing it down each flight of stairs (three in total), following it by scooting down the steps on her rear, and then making my father carry the clean laundry back upstairs.

She wound up back in the hospital briefly after she fell and couldn’t get back up her own, and my father with his own tricky knees wasn’t all that much help. When she got home I asked if they had thought of moving somewhere with fewer steps. My mother thought for a moment and then said “Perhaps the terrorists will get us first.”

After another fall, my mother is in the hospital again, for the last time. I walk into the hospital lobby past the gift shop, remembering the first time I visited her here, before that first mastectomy, and stopped to buy her the least tacky stuffed cat I could find in the shop. It was a light grey tabby with green eyes, with a lavender ribbon sewn to its neck and tied in a bow. There are no animals without accessories sold in this hospital, but at least this one was not wearing clothes. This time I walk straight to the elevator and ride up to the fifth floor.

“What the hell?” is the first thing I say, as I see her right arm on top of the covers, not just bruised but fully black and blue from wrist to elbow.

“Oh!” my mother says, with a half-laugh. “I got up to use the pot last night,” as she gestures to the toilet chair between her bed and the wall, “and I fell.”

“Did you land on your arm? Is it broken?”

“No, but it took two nurses and a strapping young man to pull me out and get me back into the bed.”

I don’t know whether to begin by hunting down the nurses and the strapping young man and beating them with a stick or by calling all of my mother’s various doctors until someone tells me the exact scientific reason why she has bruised like that and so quickly, so I sit down in the chair at the foot of her bed and look at her.

After a moment I move to the foot of her bed, picking her feet up and placing them in my lap as I sit down. Her feet have been tingling for over a year now and I hold them in my hands, thinking of a book I read years ago in which a southern grandmother rubbed an old woman’s sore back and then rubbed her hands on the wooden bed post, saying that the wood was from nature and could absorb the pain. I look around the hospital room but everything is made of metal or plastic.

“How is the tingling?”

“The knees are bad,” my mother replies.

This is new. I slide my hands up her calves to her knees, the way I would keep my hands steadily on a horse’s leg so as not to startle it. Her skin feels dry but soft, and fragile, like moth wings. There are no muscles under this skin. The wonder isn’t that she fell, but that she got up at all.

Year of the Rat

Pig and Maya

This photo of my first dog and my now sole cat turned up in my facebook memories today. I brought the kitten home from the lab on my last day at work there nine years ago, driving away with the two lives I could save. When I first brought Pigwidgeon home, I put her in a crate in the hay stall in the barn, partly because she had been found in a hay barn and I thought it might feel familiar, and partly to buy myself a little time to break Rose into the idea that I had brought home yet another kitten. Maya disappeared that afternoon and did not come back no matter how much I called her. When I finally tracked her down, she was in the barn lying next to the kitten’s crate, claiming her new charge.

I’ve been thinking all day about animal acquisitions – the various dogs, cats, horses, and rodents that I have had over the years, and how they came into my life. My clearest memory of a pet introduction from my childhood is the rats. In 1972, the Chinese Year of the Rat, some friends of my parents came for dinner one night bearing two young rats for us to keep as pets. In my memory, the wife waited till after dinner and then pulled the rats – surprise! – out of her purse. Of course we had no cage, so that night we put them in a doll house from which they promptly escaped, but were retrieved before they went far. My oldest sister Darcy named them Cindy and Jennifer.

As Cindy and Jennifer grew up, Jennifer developed what we feared was a tumor. My mother called a friend who was a doctor (in retrospect I realize he was a PhD, not an MD, but he did work at the NIH) to ask his advice, and he suggested some brandy on a sugar cube. It didn’t do much to cure the tumor, but after Cindy gave birth to her first litter of babies it dawned on all of us that it was less tumor and more testes that Jennifer had developed. Jennifer remained Jennifer throughout her long life.

Darcy carefully chronicled the Ratti family generations in her perfect script in the back of a book called The Five Little Peppers, much the way I gather some families keep their own lineage in the family bible. According to The Five Little Peppers, Cindy’s formal name was Sindin. The first litter included Brown Sugar and Milky Way Bar. As time went on and rats added up, we had Lemonsadio, and Stale Bread Pudding, and Demitri Capeltiodis. There were rats named Linda and Richard Richard, so named for some married neighbors because when Linda got exasperated with Richard (which was often), she would say “Richard, Richard.”

The Five Little Peppers does not contain the detailed begats, though I’m sure Darcy would have remembered exactly which rat was the mother of which others (the fathers were a less certain thing). Darcy remembered the order and names of the 13 children in our mother’s mother’s family. She could identify who was who in every photo in every photo album, and what relation they were to us. She could recite family stories from our great-grandparents’ generation as if she had been there. She remembered every birthday.

Eight years ago my aunt and my father died within two weeks of each other, seven years after my mother’s death and nearly thirty years after my uncle’s death. I had a conversation with one of my cousins then about how odd it was to suddenly be the oldest generation in our family. At the time it did not occur to me that we would do anything but keep growing older as the older generation. But then last year, Darcy died.

I still have The Five Little Peppers, and when I think about the the Ratti names, I think about Darcy’s particular brand of creativity. She was the inventor of many of our childhood games. There was a game called Ghosties that my cousins and I can’t remember except that it involved being outside in the evening in our pajamas, and something to do with the streetlamp in front of our house. There was a game I remember nothing at all about but it was called Fall in the Toilet Orphanage and possibly that’s all I need to know. There was a game called Grand Championship that must have taken all day. First, the three of us sisters gathered all of our dolls and stuffed animals at the top of the stairs. Then, one by one, we slid them down the banister to the first floor. Anyone who fell off part way down had to come back up until they could make it all the way down on the banister. Since not all the dolls and animals were a convenient size or shape for banister-sliding, this part alone took quite a while. Once all the dolls and animals were gathered in three piles in the living room, two sisters would take one doll or animal each, stand at opposite ends of the living room, and simultaneously toss the dolls or animals to the opposite sister. They would do this back and forth until one of the dolls or animals fell, and that doll or animal would be out of the game. The third sister would come in with a doll or animal and play against the doll or animal who won the previous round. This would go on until there was only one doll or animal who had not been dropped, and that would be the Grand Champion. Not the sister, mind you, but the doll or animal.

When I think about Darcy I will always think about ballet. She was a dancer from at least the time I was born. I don’t even know how old she was when she started putting on annual performances of The Nutcracker in our basement – certainly no older than 11 or 12. Darcy choreographed, directed, cast, made costumes and sets for, and of course starred in, these productions. She was Dr. Drosselmeyer, the Nutcracker, and the Mouse King, which created interesting staging for the big sword fight when only one of them could be on stage at a time, but she made it work. She was always in one or more of the dances in the second act. There was one boy in the neighborhood who she was able to persuade to participate for a couple of years, and he played Fritz in the first act. There were always two Claras – Clara in the first act, and Clara in the second act. I still think of them as two distinct characters. Clara in the first act had a dancing role, and got to wear the pink party dress. This role rotated between my sister Rachel and her friends. In the early ballets I got stuck with Clara in the second act, in which I had to wear a nightgown and sit in a chair and watch the other dancers. Later I got to be a Candy Cane, which is still my favorite music and dance in every version of the ballet I have seen, but I never was Clara in the first act. Somewhere, however, there is a photo of me taken from behind, as I looked into a mirror to adjust my extremely home made aluminum foil crown. I am roughly 4 in this photo. You can see my face in the mirror and the look of delight on my face (I’m a princess! I’m wearing a beautiful crown!) tells all you need to know about the magic Darcy managed to create.

Some days I want to think about the complexities of relationships and families and memories, but today I just want a little magic.

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Some Pig

Piglet Nursing

Twelve years ago I decided it was time to go back to school and finish the college degree I had not gotten nearly twenty years before that. During my first time at college I completed three and a half years of what would have been at least a six year program due to my inability to decide on a major. I started out as an animal science major. I had always assumed I would become a vet, probably a zoo vet. I was not daunted by the courses required for pre-vet studies; I was simply distracted by the multitude of options.

By midway through my first year I had decided to switch to political science. When I signed up for classes the fall of my sophomore year, I declared myself a Russian major. This may or may not have had anything to do with the fact that a) I missed all the deadlines and had to go to in-person registration where only the dregs of classes are left, and b) the only food to eat in the house for breakfast was the remains of a pan of brownies I had made the night before. Yes, those kind of brownies.

I had a brief flirtation with environmental science. I would have switched to microbiology if the school had had such a major at the time. I eventually settled on a double major in biology and philosophy. On second thought, maybe it’s not so surprising I did not stick around to get a degree.

Fast forward eighteen years and I was back to thinking vet school was a good idea. I enrolled once again, though at a different school, as an animal science major, this time surrounded by kids who were the same age as my youngest child. My classes were a blend of animal science classes like livestock management, pre-vet classes like physiology, classes I had to take again because the science had changed in twenty years like biology 101, classes I had managed to avoid the first time like organic chemistry, and classes I had to take for distribution requirements like history. For my first three semesters I would despondently review my class choices, this time without benefit of pot brownies, wondering how when I was so sure I wanted to be back in school and studying animal science there were so many classes I had to take that I didn’t want to take.

There were several different concentrations within the animal science major, not just pre-vet, and when I looked at them more closely I realized that the more general animal management track was full of classes that actually interested me. Around the same time I heard about a coveted internship at a large animal research lab that seemed like a good way to get some experience in a field I might be able to work in after graduation. The prospect of a starter job – and starter salary – when I was in my forties and had a mortgage, kids in college, and all the other financial ballast that accumulates when you no longer have a starter life was not something I could see a way to make work financially. Lab science tends to pay better than most animal sciences, even at the lowest level. My lab science professor, who was also the veterinarian for the school’s labs, was very up front about saying that it pays more because it’s hard and no one who gets into animal science because they love animals really wants to do it. What she meant by this wouldn’t become obvious to me until later.

At the time, I got no response from the lab to my inquiries about their internship. My classmates had the same issue, and we heard rumors that they were no longer taking students from our program. My first opportunity to apply my learning hands-on was a stint at the state fair birthing center, which was run by my livestock management professor who was and is one of my favorite people. The birthing center houses cows, pigs, and chicken eggs, and over the eleven days of the fair gives fair goers an opportunity to witness the births of calves, piglets, and chicks, and also an opportunity to pat the chicks and piglets. Swine flu outbreaks at state fairs have since ruled out piglet patting, but for the two seasons I was there we spent our days taking turns narrating the births, and holding piglets and chicks for people to pat and ask questions.

I don’t think I had ever met a pig in person before the fair, and I was hooked from the first day. We had some particularly special sows that year. The state fair pigs come from 4H projects. These kids love their pigs, but they are ruthlessly practical. All of them raise their animals for meat. They cuddle them and love them and care for them, and then they send them to market. One of them kept the meat from his favorite pig every year, and sold the others. Another kept some sausage from each of her pigs, labeled with their names, so she could do a taste comparison.

I can take or leave cows, and I can mostly leave chickens, but pigs got under my skin immediately and permanently. Even when I got attacked by Pigzilla the first year – I was checking her for milk to see when she might give birth, and she woke up from her nap by leaping onto her feet and charging me with mouth open, roaring. I have zero vertical leap but I jumped the five foot fence around her pen in one bound, landing on a group of surprised onlookers. 4H sows (Pigzilla aside) are by and large sweet and used to being handled. Piglets are adorable, but they are much easier to manage – and much less likely to permanently damage your hearing – if you can hold them while they are sleeping. My fellow birthing center workers would sometimes ask me if I could lull a piglet to sleep so they could hold one that wasn’t wiggling and shrieking. They called me the pig whisperer.

Some time after my first time at the fair the research lab of the coveted internship was hiring a lab tech, and a classmate who had graduated before me and who had, unbeknownst to me, started working there, reached out to let me know. The opportunity to work with pigs (and goats and sheep) all day AND make money doing it? A no brainer for me. Turns out I should have used a brain or two to think that through a little more.

By my second day in the lab, I knew I had made a bad choice. I was in the necropsy room – basically a closet with a concrete floor with a drain in it – using a kitchen knife – and not a very sharp one, at that – to cut the hind legs off of the thirty-odd goats that had reached the end of their study that day. There are plenty of euphemisms about death in the world – pass away, cross over, euthanize, put down, just to name a few. Lab science adds a whole new level: end of study, harvest, collection. When we lab techs were talking to the scientists, we used their terms, but when we talked among ourselves we were more direct. “End of study” days we called “death days.” As we were finishing up lunch, one of us would say “Ok, time to go kill those sheep.” My third day there, I worked with a pig for the first time. About ten seconds after it was dead I was up to my elbows in its chest cavity, while one of the more experienced techs talked me through how to remove its heart and lungs by feel.

The lab had a mixed bag of studies, almost all surgical. Some were what are called “acute” procedures, meaning the animal is dead by the time the surgery is over. Some were long term, so the animals had weeks or months after their surgery before harvest day arrived. As techs, in addition to assisting with surgeries, we fed the animals and cleaned their stalls. We prepped them for surgery, we monitored them after surgery, we administered their pain meds. And then we killed them.

Monitoring any animal in post op is intense. Pigs in particular take a long time to come out of anesthesia, and sometimes we would sit with them for hours, checking their vital signs every ten minutes. Literally sit with them, in their pens, often with some portion of the pig in our laps. The first two pigs from one study I was assigned to were in so much pain following jaw surgery that they wouldn’t eat. The only thing I could tempt them with was the syrup from a case of fruit cups long past their expiration date that we found sitting on a shelf in among the gauze and bandages. After the first day they would also eat the fruit, but only if I fed it to them by hand. I was eventually able to wean them on to eating soaked feed topped with fruit cup, and then just the soaked feed. Six months later they had grown from roughly 75 pounds at the time of surgery to 300 pounds. We were in surgery with another pig from the same study when the scientist stopped by to talk to the surgeon about how best to see what they needed to see at end of study. They had done earlier CT scans to look at the results of the surgery in the pigs’ jaws but by now the pigs were too big to fit in the scanner. I forget if it was the surgeon or the scientist who came up with the solution to cut the pigs’ heads off and just take the heads for scanning.

The most surprising part of this story is that I stayed there for a year. It took me that long to realize that I had gotten so far away from who I am that I was about to lose myself entirely. I was so focused on trying to do it well, on what I could learn, on the possible opportunities it could lead to. I was buried under the weight of my own expectations about what it meant to change careers, fear of explaining to anyone else why I spent all this time and money going back to school only to not be able to hack it in my new field, and a lifelong belief that I needed to just suck it up and tough it out, whatever the obstacle. I’d like to be able to sum up the whole experience with a tidy life lesson, but life lessons for me are rarely tidy. Sometimes I have to make massive mistakes, mistakes so big they can be seen from space, for me to get a message that I need to get. Maybe the fact that the pigs are on my mind today means there’s another message I need. Or maybe it just means I’ve finally forgiven myself enough to write about it.

Heart Piglets

Ashes

Rays of Cody

I picked up Cody’s ashes from the vet’s office last week. They came in a carved wood box, almost a puzzle box – the bottom slides out to open it, and the top and sides are solid. I won’t tell you how long it took me to figure that out. Inside the box is a blue velvet bag, and inside that are the ashes.

We now have two of these boxes. We have five horses and six cats buried here, but when Maya, our first German Shepherd, died it was in the middle of a very cold winter and the ground was too frozen to dig a hole for her. Six years later we still haven’t buried or scattered her ashes. She’s been hanging out in the house with us, sometimes in the room with the other dogs, and currently in the sunroom near where I write and where we have a nice view of the reservoir.

With a precedent of one cremated dog, and with me unable to face digging a hole to bury Cody in (or more to the point, unable to face putting Cody in a hole), we had him cremated also. He is in the kitchen area, right next to where he lived the last few weeks of his life. The room we have always called the random room became both Cody’s special den and the hospice ward. He had two dog beds there, and in March we added a memory foam mattress topper to cover the rug, and a plaid quilt to cover the mattress topper. Depending on his state of health and the state of his intestines, we added a layer of waterproof pads between the quilt and the mattress topper, but when he was feeling better he tended to dig them up.

Maya was our first dog, and we had her for about two and a half years before we got Cody to keep her company. They were friends in their way, though not a way that involved snuggling or overt closeness. Cody, only a year and a half when he came to us, taught Maya to play, though she tended to do so with a look on her face that said “Is this fun? It feels like it might be fighting. How do I tell?” Her favorite game was to wait till I threw Cody’s tennis ball (his nickname back then was Fetches Twice As Fast) and then she would get into the path of the speeding cattle dog and try to clothesline him. Her second favorite was to stay out where I threw his ball and grab it first, and then destroy it.

Now that Cody and Maya are together again, we will probably bury their ashes together, most likely alongside a tree or two we will plant in the dog yard. It wouldn’t hurt the younger three dogs to keep absorbing lessons from the original duo.

In contrast to the carved boxes that the dog ashes came back in, my parents’ ashes came in brown plastic boxes. There was probably an upgrade available for human ashes that I don’t remember. My father made that choice for my mother. My oldest sister and I made the choice for my father, but all I remember after viewing his body in the funeral home is fighting off giggles as we listened to the funeral director solemnly tell us that after the cremation “your loved one will be returned,” which seemed like a feat beyond what I would expect of a crematorium.

When my father gave me my mother’s ashes, he had augmented her brown plastic box with a blue and white checked Bath & Body Works bag. When I first brought her ashes home, the bag and box sat in the garage for several weeks until Rose said she couldn’t stand to see my mother’s ashes sitting out there like trash. I moved them to a bag I gave my mother that she never got to use – a black cotton backpack embroidered with brightly colored elephants – and placed it next to my desk for several months.

I was uneasy with my mother’s ashes in the house, and when we eventually scattered them in several different places I was squeamish when handling them, though I am not by nature a squeamish person. I don’t feel the same about Cody’s ashes. I sometimes want to run my hands through them, or smell them. I kissed his forehead good night almost every night for fourteen years and I miss him in a very tactile way.

When my grandmother died, she was cremated and we buried her ashes – presumably in an urn, though I don’t think I saw it – alongside her husband in a cemetery. It all happened at what I consider normal funeral speed. She died, and within a few days we all flew into town, had a graveside service, and a burial. “Normal” is the term I use for “rules everyone except my family seems to know,” though over the years I have realized that anyone who thinks they know the rules has what Anne Lamott calls tiny control issues.

For my parents we tried to guess what they would have liked, which is partly how my mother’s ashes wound up in so many places: under a tree we planted for her at our house in Maryland, in the ocean at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, in her sister’s garden in Virginia, and in Squam Lake, in New Hampshire. Eventually my father remembered that she had once said she’d like her ashes to go in Rock Creek Park, but by then they were all in other places she had loved, so in the end it was my father’s ashes that went into Rock Creek.

My aunt is the only person I knew who gave explicit directions about what to do with her ashes. She also gave explicit directions about what music to play at her memorial service, how to disperse her belongings, and was generally the only person I know who completely acknowledged and talked about the fact that she was dying.

Cody gave me no instructions. In life, he believed that as long as there were treats, the thing mattered, and if there no treats, it did not. When I think about scattering or burying his ashes, I can get caught up in human details – the proper ceremony, the meaningful music, the perfect words, the right tree to plant. Maybe a better way is the dog way. If Cody were here, and found something interesting on the ground, I know what he would do. If you see me out in the dog yard, scattering ashes and rolling around in them, you’ll know why. And of course, I’ll make sure there will be treats.

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