It doesn’t seem all that long ago although – mercifully –it’s been eons since I swabbed another human’s barf. (Dogs and cats on the other hand – yesterday or the day before. One of our seniors has a delicate stomach.)
We still celebrate our children’s birthdays, but rarely on the actual day. They usually make plans with their friends. I don’t begrudge them, after college I did the same thing – partied with my peers instead of my parents. As wonderful as my parents were, party animals they weren’t.
Celebrating on the correct day – and emphasizing the birthday person’s precise age – seems less important every year, at least to me. Besides, if we want the extended family to celebrate together – aunts, uncles and cousins – the logistics become more manageable if we select an adjacent weekend instead of a Tuesday or Wednesday night.
As challenging as this particular birthday was – and it was far from the only time the birthday child hurled over a birthday cake – my memories are warm, now that the vomit isn’t.
After our beloved Daisy (a golden retriever mix) crossed the rainbow bridge, we adopted a terrier mix from a local rescue organization. Before long we discovered Nicky’s head was full of bad wiring (as opposed to any trace of a brain). He’s pathologically devoted to me, so much so that even after two years, he’ll attack John if my husband dares to get too close to me. Then there’s his piercing, ear-shattering bark.
It was clear why Nick’s two previous owners dumped him; if I followed suit, his next owner would do the same thing. My dog was a lemon but he loved me so much! How could I save my psychotic little terrier? My novel and brilliant solution? Adopt another small dog and hope Nick follows the new dog’s example. I am nothing if not a clear thinker when it comes to adopting more pets.
Enter http://lhasahappyhomes.org and a lhasa mix named Xyla (now Zelda). Her previous owners surrendered her because she needed eye surgery, which the rescue organization provided. They were honest about her flaws (she was a chewer but that’s over now). On the plus side, she was smart – dolphin smart, as opposed to Nick, no brighter than the average mollusk.
Zelda watches television like she’s following the plot but she’s actually watching for the appearance of a dog (or cat, pig, horse – any four-legged creature). Then she goes bonkers, barking and launching herself at the TV, frantic to vanquish the intruder in our home. If Nick tries to assist, she lunges and growls at him.
Zelda’s more into food than Nick, as you might surmise from her chunky physique. If Nick doesn’t finish his food, she drags a piece of paper on top of it with her nose (she’d be unstoppable if she had opposable thumbs) and then nudges it from Nick’s side of the room to hers. She’s adept at distracting him, stealing his treats and hiding them to enjoy later – usually in the corner cushions of my sofa. I once found a square of cheese waiting there.
They were both about a year and a half old when I adopted them which makes them roughly three now. They still act like silly puppies which is fine by me; the rest of my family is less enthusiastic. Sure, pets are work but I can’t imagine a life without animals around me. Our current crop is Fitzgerald-themed – Carroway, Gatsby, Wilson (the cats) and Nick and Zelda (the dogs). I talk to them like they’re people because to me – given their wildly different personalities – they are.
I wish I’d written more about this. Easter was my Lutheran pastor father’s favorite holiday, probably because it’s symbolic of redemption and forgiveness – the most important tenets of Christianity as he practiced and preached it.
I would’ve written more if I’d known this would be his last Easter but – as ridiculous as it sounds – I never believed there’d be a “last” anything for him. Even as he edged into his eighties and eventually turned 89, a world without him was inconceivable – which meant he’d live forever.
I wasn’t alone in assigning him immortality. On one family holiday, he distributed copies of his self-published autobiography to his children and grandchildren. Driving home with Sam and Alex, I told them to treasure their copies because “he won’t always be here.”
“No!” Sam said, genuinely horrified by this possibility. I knew exactly where she came from. There could never be a “last” anything for him, we needed him too much. So how could I have guessed this was his last Easter? And if somehow, I’d known in advance – what would I do differently?
A lot of things although I know he’d absolve me. After one memorable late night dinner, when my cousin Wayne, his wife and mother were in town and we stayed up until midnight talking, the subject of death came up. As a pastor, my father saw more grieving people than most. He said it’s universal – every single person who loses someone they love has regret about things said and done or unsaid and undone. Everyone.
Then he said – very clearly – “When I’m gone, don’t feel guilty about anything you could’ve said or done. It’s all right, exactly as it should be.”
So why do I feel guilty anyway? Not only about him – about my mother, who followed him less than a year later, and Yolanda, who left us a few months ago. I owed all of them more than I gave. I didn’t see the “last time” coming even when it stared me in the face. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I told myself I had plenty of time – I could say “I love you” or do that favor “later”. When it was more convenient.
But time ran out. It’s too late to write down what we talked about on my father’s last Easter. It’s easy to say, “No regrets.” It’s hard to let go of them when I miss him so much. What I wouldn’t give for one more chance to talk to him.
Anne Kurrasch was one of four female law students living in Law House when I moved in and met John. After he casually mentioned he thought Anne was attractive – he and Anne went out drinking and dancing as “friends” before he met me – I realized it behooved me to befriend her. I didn’t expect we’d become friends for life.
Prior to law school, Anne majored in economics at Stanford (nobody else I knew even got into Stanford). When I met Anne, her goal after graduation from law school was to work in a bank. I like to think I influenced her career change to entertainment law.
Like every other job in the entertainment industry, it took a while for Anne to break in – during which she spent most weeknights sleeping on our couch – but Anne doesn’t give up easily. Today she’s an attorney for Showtime.
She influenced me too as confirmed in this diary entry – “influenced by her preference for single stones”. Anne knew everything about the world – perhaps it was an elective at Stanford. Things like the right watch (Omega), the right dressy evening bag (Judith Leiber) and the right car (Jaguar). While I did not acquire these things (aside from a Leiber evening bag), it was all brand new information to someone who grew up shopping sales racks. I didn’t know shoes and bags made a statement about who I was – at least they did in the late seventies and eighties.
As much as she knew about classy accessories, she was only human and, as such, suffered occasional fashion catastrophes as illustrated by the photo below. (I more or less lived there.)
Yolanda moved in with us in 1984. She loved Chris, Sam and Alex with everything she had – especially Sam, although she never admitted favoritism. The tip-off? She always referred to Sam as “the princess.” Alex was Ahni and Chris was Goose because that’s how the princess pronounced their names. Yolanda balked at calling us John and Kathleen; we were forever Mr. John and Mrs. Kathleen.
She confided her cancer to the princess, who stepped up. She drove Yolanda to all of her doctor’s appointments, sat by Yolanda through every chemo, visited every day when Yolanda was hospitalized. The rest of us pitched in but the princess earned Yolanda’s second nickname for her – my angel.
On Friday February 10, Yolanda’s doctor estimated she’d live thirty days. She had thirty hours. When she drew her last breath at 1:30 AM, we all understood it was for the best. Her pain was excruciating, cancer terminal, death inevitable. No surprises. We knew where this road led.
Except we didn’t, not really. We’re in shock. All day I shushed our dogs so they wouldn’t awaken Yolanda – as if anything could. Three fat cats looked increasingly concerned – where’s our Fancy Feast? ‘Where’s the human who opens cans?
The light is on in Yolanda’s room. For a second, I think she’s there. I haven’t been in her room alone in years. Everywhere, pictures of our children – framed on her bureau, taped to the wall, stacked in photo albums. She carried their photos in her wallet. She loved it when strangers thought they were hers. Was I jealous, did I worry she’d spirit them off to El Salvador? No. If anything, it endeared her to me. If I couldn’t be there, who better than someone who loved them like they were her own?
On a sheet of paper tacked above her bed she drew a cross and scrawled, “Please god please god no cancer. Please god no cancer.” A purple spiral notebook was scribbled with recipes. She saved expired coupons for things she didn’t buy. A few of her clothes trailed price tags, waiting to be worn. Whoever clears my room when I’m dead will find comparable artifacts.
The photos we leave behind show what we did. Fragments of incomplete projects remind us of all left undone, bits and pieces of Yolanda. I should have known her better, more deeply, sooner. I don’t know her sister’s name or phone number in El Salvador and I don’t speak Spanish even if I did.
So what did I know about Yolanda? She made the LA Times her own personal illustrated blog. She drew devil’s horns on basketball players she hated, basically everyone but LeBron and the Clippers. She trapped a rattler outside our door by slamming a concrete slab down on its head. (I would’ve been dead from heart attack.) She didn’t drink, smoke or party. Her modesty did not permit her to wear shorts, swimwear or sleeveless blouses – ever.
She loved our forays to Costco – “the big store” – but recently I was too busy to take her until she was too weak to go. There are so many things I meant to say – should have said – but didn’t. I hope she knew – I think she knew – how much her kindness meant, how her patience and loyalty changed our lives, how many others – my sisters, parents and friends – grew to love her like we did and always will. How much we’ll miss her smile, her red coat, her curly hair, her commentary on current events (you thought she’d stop at sports?) in the LA Times, all part and parcel of the boundless heart and infinite capacity for love we knew as Yolanda Hernandez.
We’ll meet again, Yolanda.
(I’m not trying to make a political point about immigration. However, since Yolanda was an illegal immigrant when I hired her, here are the facts. She always worked, either caring for the elderly or children. She neither asked for nor received welfare. She became a US citizen in the early 90s. For the next twenty years plus, she paid taxes like everyone else. In other words, she writes checks to our government without cashing checks from them. Our country gave her something more valuable than food stamps – a chance at a better life. The way I see it, she was lucky to get into our great nation – but not as lucky as we were to get her into our family.)
I used to have this theory that everyone has one Great Love in their lifetime. A Great Love is not necessarily who you end up with (in fact, more likely not IMHO) but it’s someone who changes you profoundly. Author Andrew Sean Greer (“The Confessions of Max Tivoli”) takes it a step further. “We are each the love of someone’s life,” he writes. I love the quote, but I question the math. What if one gorgeous man or woman is the great love of five people’s lives? Doesn’t that leave four people without an available great love?
I believe that in addition to a Great Human love, people with animals also have a Great Dog or Cat Love. Sure, I know you love all of your pets, but wasn’t one just a little more special? Didn’t one of them speak to you, make you feel like you and he/she forged an almost mystical connection?
Deeter was my Great Love in the feline world, high praise indeed as I’ve had a lot of great cats. Deeter was different, though. We could communicate. He shared my loathing of all things rodents and like the ruthless assassin he was, he racked up an impressive number of kills. His homicidal instincts were not restricted to rats. A friend of Sam’s brought a kitten into our house when she came to visit. Deeter went ballistic, stalking and terrifying the little intruder so much it chose death-defying leaps from one outside balcony to another rather than face Deeter’s wrath. Eventually, Deeter’s patience was rewarded and he trapped the little girl downstairs when no one was watching. He slashed her stomach so badly she required surgery (which I felt required to pay for. Not such a cool move, Deeter.) Don’t worry, the kitten survived and – equally important – Deeter made his point. No new cats would be moving in, not even on a temporary visa, not under his iron rule.
Deeter was a character, a personality with a strong life-force (read death force for rodents, birds and lizards.) According to my next-door neighbor – not one of Deeter’s fans for reasons which will soon become apparent – Deeter heroically held a rattlesnake at bay while my neighbor sought help.
For a merciless killing machine, Deeter had a surprisingly babyish side. He loved to toss rubber bands in the air and then pounce on them. He loved to lie beside me and knead my flesh. He loved to jam his head deep into J’s smelly tennis shoes and inhale deeply. He loved howling cat fights with our next-door neighbor’s Russian cat Micki, a psycho KBG agent (I can’t prove it, but strongly suspect.)
For weeks after Deeter died, Micki wandered by our windows like she did every day to tempt Deeter into a frenzy. Now, though, she was searching for Deeter – and she looked sad. Well, as sad as a psycho cat can look. Beneath their violent vicious hatred, I believe they were deeply in love. I guess we’ll never know.
I have another terrific tuxedo cat now – Gatsby (below). I’ll always have a tuxedo cat in my life, in memory of Deeter but there can never be another feline Great Love for me. I’ll miss Deeter till the day I die.
If you had a Great Love – Dog or Cat – please post a picture and their name. Surely I’m not the only one.