Good Times, Reconstruction, Moving On—Nestle’s Story Part IV.
One of the first small acts I did for myself that first evening, was to lean against the bathroom sink, and with hand tremors and blurred vision, I plucked my eye brows.
I could see that half my face sagged on the right side. I felt the numb tingles and strange awarenesses of each tooth itching in its socket. The roof of my mouth shifted like tectonic plates.
I tried to take a shower but the nerves in my skin “told” me that the warm water was hot dry air full of needles. I could not tolerate it. I smoothed lotion on after, only to erupt in “burning” all over, a few minutes later. Back to the shower to wash it off, wash it off. The lotion went down the drain, but not the bizarre neural activity.
My heart was skipping and going through as many as 32 episodes a day of paroxysmal atrial tachycardia. Each time it could not slow on its own. I had to lie down, chug water to counter-stimulate the nerve supply to both stomach and heart and diaphragm—vagus nerve, in other words. There was also a complicated breathing exercise that I used to trigger the shut-off of the wild beat. And last resort, but most dangerous, I’d have to massage the carotid bodies in my neck. This causes fainting.
In between, I learned what the combination of being able to feel every single heart beat all day, all night, at rest, during activity, and insomnia does to a person’s mind. I understood Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” in a way I had not when I read it as a child. Wished I did not.
Eventually, I decided to see a cardiologist who explained to me that those drugs had damaged both the nodes in the heart. The nodes are the hub of electrical activity in the heart muscle itself. One node regulates how fast the heart is beating. The other gives us feedback on awareness of the beat. In a normal person the constant beating is not felt because the node and brain work together to over-ride that awareness. Just as the brain and eyes work to censor out our knowledge of the nose visually sticking out between our eyes or else we’d be so distracted looking at our nose, we’d constantly crash into things..
I was unable to sleep. The barrages of drugs had left my brain surging and wildly trying to balance its own chemicals in an erratic chaos. A normal shift such as that in a monthly menstrual cycle or a daily cycle of waking to sleep-- those kinds of internal chemical changes—all were totally disrupted. I suppose it was meltonin surges at night that would trigger the heart arrhythmias. Snapping me to wakefulness.
In the first months, my skin did not sweat nor did my eyes make tears well. My genital area was dry. I was unable to regulate temperature or to perceive it accurately. One winter blizzard, I insisted on walking along the canal during a white-out. I was wearing Birkenstock sandals,
a light weight summer vest over a tee-shirt no gloves no hat. My husband brought me back to the car because my skin everywhere became blue. I did not feel it.
My bladder and bowel control was confused. I never felt any need to go. I ended up sitting on the toilet every few hours and waiting to hear the sound of urine. In that way only did I know I had gone. My stomach often simply vomited back something I had just swallowed. Without nausea, a simple reflex.
My diaphragm and lungs and vocal chords also all motivated by neural function were very weak. I could no longer talk on the telephone. I could not raise my voice enough to be heard. Nor could I follow a conversation. My mind would struggle and drift away in buzzing silence as I watched others around me speak.
The outlook was bleak. My psychiatrist began researching every resource he had available to see what was wrong and if this was, in fact, drug damage how long before I felt normal again. One of the lowest moments was the telephone call where he told me the longest case history he found was a man who had this withdrawal disorder lasting one and a half years.
In one of the deepest depressions and hopelessnesses I have ever experienced I finally asked my internist for something for sleeping. Psychiatrist would not give it. Two years I lived with only an hour or so sleep a week. The insomnia was torture. The rest was bad
Enough, but not to be able to get away from my discomfort and my mind at night doubled it. I wanted to die. For six months after I had filled the prescription for sleep medication, I refused to take any. I tried Melatonin, Valerian, chamomile tea, exercise, hot baths..most all had a paradoxical effect of stimulating me rather than calming. Many nights I sat in the dark on the toilet lid holding the bottle of sleep pills in my hand. Finally setting them back with the thought, “as awful as this is tonight I can make it. I won’t end my life tonight.”
It was not love for my husband that underlined this decision for I was having a lot of difficulty processing his not having called an ambulance. It was Nestle. She rode in my shirts more often than before. She came every night . She washed me every night . She purred , dug her claws in my chest. She positioned herself over the flailing heart. She pressed on it. This was the only time it slowed.
She and I were two voyagers alone in a black sea of despair and endless night. I would’ve given up a hundred times over if that little cat had not pricked and licked and shoved me into this life. I talked to her. I made a deal with her. I promised her I would not die. I would not leave her as long as she did not leave me. I understood how fragile the basket was where I laid my life down. She held me tight. This the only basket I had left.
Was it all bad? No, it wasn’t. At heart, I am hopelessly pragmatic. I took my life into my own hands on a daily basis. Whether this involved staggering weakly behind a huge vacuum cleaner for the first time again in 10 years, cleaning my own of house of the
horrible mess that resulted from hired help and sickness, feebly shoving the mop around, or flailing a long, razor-sharp chef’s knife like a character in a scene from a bad sword-apprentice movie to cut vegetables for recipes, I tried. I was more comfortable in motion, so move I did. Walking, biking, swimming, cross country skiing, moving moving moving. I hoped to wear myself out, and regain strength, to retrain the pathways between nerve, brain, and body parts into healing. It was an act I could do, as opposed to passive sit-and-wait-and-hope.
The area of my brain and body that connected on emotions was out of wack as well. I felt few emotions except anger, grief, or despair..I wondered where had the happy peaceful satisfied joyful group of emotions gone?
I was unable to write poetry. I could not feel the place it came from inside myself. I stood grief stricken before a four -drawer file cabinet of all the poetry I’d written since I was 14 years old. Thinking “it is the past now. That part of me has died.”
I began a program-- I loosely call it that, where I put myself through the motions of any activity that I could remember had given pleasure. My reasoning was this. Go through the motions maybe eventually the emotions would come back.
My brain seemed to assign itself tasks as well. For instance how things fit together fascinated me. I became interested in cooking in a way I had never tried before. Especially Asian cuisines that included many ingredients chopped finely and added at certain intervals. I could not read a book for pleasure, my eyes would not track—however it was possible in glimpses and starts to read a recipe. I developed a fine-tuning for the ways flavors combined. I grew herbs. Experimented with seasonings . Journeyed the
world of international cooking. Devised comparative experiments such as “the meat pastry as it appears in various different cultures.” Nestle was my traveling companion. She sat either next to the butcher block on a stool watching, or in my shirt ..She sampled many a strange concoction.
I was ravenous, for good nutrition, not junk. At this time I consumed the most enormous salads with every vegetable possible cut into them every day. I ate a lot of fruit. I craved dairy. Meat. Fish. Through the endless sleepless nights, my body purged itself. Often I had to get up to urinate every ten minutes for 6 hours. I would then appear visibly less “swollen” by daylight. I tried my best to listen to this body over the hectic noise of its irritated brain and nerve cells. I tried to support it in the ways it asked for. I trusted if I did so, healing was occurring. I trusted that some day, who knew when, I would feel “normal” again.
I began to rearrange furniture in rooms. I repaired many broken items thrown carelessly into the store room. I laboriously dragged box after box up into daylight and tried to reconstruct the woman I had been. Tried to remember. I’d show Nestle a treasure from the past. She often came and climbed into empty boxes and played “pounce” while I searched. She often rode on my shoulder, peering down into something along with me.
I painted the walls in all the rooms. Replaced such things as curtains that I could. I was not able to use power tools nor to drive as I did not trust my reflexes yet. I assembled my
life by hand with hand tools, one day at a time. I began to understand how more things went together. How a composition was made into a whole. I constructed a coffee table terrarium. Filled it with small lizards and toads. Nestle and some of the other cats would line up like people in a movie theater and watch the lives enacted inside its safe glass walls.
I freed my canaries into the two solar rooms. They nested among plants hanging there and raised young. Sometimes I took photos though the camera was heavy to me now and I often forgot how to work it. Nestle rode on my back into the canary room . She “ack-acked” lovingly at them “Here! come into my mouth, birdie, birdie”
I ripped bushels of weeds out of my front garden. I unearthed the remnants of what had once been beautiful. I stood in my frigid garden pond sucked on by leeches—a thing that actually made my legs feel better temporarily-- and cut out masses of roots to reveal one water lily still surviving. I planted bulbs and seeds. Pruned and dug and composted.
On sunny still afternoons, against all good judgement, I carried Nestle outside with me. She sat in the sun on the walk. Never strayed far. I never left her alone. It meant the
world to have her with me. I can still see her sitting on the flag-stone path, as she gazed up at a Queen Anne’s lace flower, to study the bees and ants crawling there. “Ack-ack” she murmured. “here, my little twist’ems.”
One of the biggest memories I regained was of my desire to have a baby. It was, at this time, too late since my husband had undergone radiation therapy for the prostate cancer. So we looked online for a sperm bank and began months of charting my cycle and having sperm shipped. I was 46. This resulted in one pregnancy of very short duration.
Next, we searched out an in vitro specialist and made an appointment. I discussed the drug years in complete frankness with him. I wondered if he had any experience with other women like myself. He had not but he did feel that my use of my own eggs was no longer safe. So we enlisted the help of a donor of eggs. And one for sperm. I tolerated the month long program of injections and pills reasonably well in my post-drugged state. I was full of hope and faith, that after so much loss and pain, this one act would be blessed and work out well. I had four healthy embryos, They put back two at a time. My test was positive. I carried healthy twins and much excitement. A week later out on a canal walk, cramps came and then bright red blood and it was over. Just like that.
I was 47 years old.
The strange neural activity or brain chemical imbalance continued with no end in sight. We tried reflexology. I found quite randomly that when my husband rubbed the arch of my left foot, it had a dramatic effect of moderating my heart beat. He’d rub my foot every night when we were ready for bed. In the worst of the insomnia, the only time I slept was during the actual rubbing.
The following summer my younger nephew was born on my birthday. We journeyed to the hospital after a bike ride to see him. I held his tightly swaddled little body in my arms against my chest. When he began to whimper, almost without thinking about it, I rubbed his left foot. Like me, he calmed down. My studies for my degree in child development and infancy kicked in in my memory. I had often thought or said aloud that some of the places my body seemed to be, were not unlike the developmental phases a child goes through.
Several doctors and a chiropractor I consulted agreed that most likely the drugs had changed the chemical composition of the fluid surrounding the myelin sheaths of my nerve cells. In essence, it was polluted and could not properly conduct electrical impulses. As my psychiatrist summed it up “Your nerve cells were marinating in chemicals.” My chiropracter put it this way. “They treated your brain like a car. They went under the hood and tinkered with every little thing. You can’t tinker with an organ comprised of over a billion cells. They used you like a guinea pig.”
In addition, the fatty sheath of myelin itself was polluted. In many ways some of my symptoms and behavior presented like autism or multiple sclerosis. So my constant
peeing and swelling then unswelling made some sense. My body was dumping the chemicals and reconstruction went on. Though I’d had the breast reduction surgery in 95, my breasts now 6 years later swelled to their original size again.
All this time I was unable to wear shoes. I have no idea why but if there was a shoe between my foot and the ground I became totally disoriented and dizzy. The only foot gear tolerable was the faithful Birkenstock. I keep that pair, carefully wrapped, I walked out of Hell on them with Nestle in my tee-shirt. The bottoms are worn
I couldn’t wear hats or my glasses or brush my hair for all caused headaches and weird head sensations. I bought a bag of Atomic Fireball candies to suck on while bike riding and was shocked one day to find a large oozing blister inside my cheek. My mouth was so numb I’d never felt the burning. My brother still tells of the dinner when I liberally sprinkled crushed red pepper on my pizza and did not feel it.
I could not wear jewelry or long sleeves. I could barely stand clothes at all. That first horrible winter passed with me sleeping in only a loose undershirt with an old ratty comforter for warmth. Legs stuck almost totally out. Feet off the bed. I often ended up on the floor or a futon because something about the hardness took away many strange feelings of motion.
I could not look at the television, and using the computer to type a short email made my heart rate zoom up to 140 bpm and stay there for hours. I learned to cover my eyes and to listen to TV. To this day certain narrators’ voices make me relax..I felt like a child with a bed time story..
I kept the house lights dim as I could not tolerate too much light. I studied circadian rhythms and how to regulate the body’s internal clock. I read up on making a bedroom sleep-friendly. What colors and textures and sounds to use. I bought one of those Nature Sound machines to listen to the “ocean waves” track. I also tried a massage mat that had electric vibration. A few times I fell asleep lulled by its motion, with Nestle tucked against my hip. Massage therapy, acupuncture.
I began to use a sheet made out of jersey material wrapped tightly around my body when in bed. Something about the constant pressure of it across my forearms and calves relieved a lot of my sense of disorientation. I used a weighted bag of beans over my eyes. There are approximately 40 trigger points in the eye socket area. If I shifted the bag carefully, I could also calm many sensations in that way.
I found even more memorable former activities to try. Canoeing, kayaking. Hiking. Ballet exercise. Weights. I stimulated as many old motor-nerve pathway memories as I knew how. I prayed so doing would bring back the sensories as well.
I followed as many programs on the Discovery channel and PBS as I could find on the topic of nerve damage, brain function, and research. I also looked online and discovered two seminal authors, both psychiatrists. Peter Breggin MD author of “The Prozac Backlash” and John Glenmullin MD who wrote “Your Drug May Be Your Problem:How and Why to Stop Taking Psychiatric Medication”. There were others. I was stunned. Rather than the rare event my psychiatrist was now telling me this was, “It
wasn’t supposed to happen,” rather than my now truly being “crazy” there were hundreds of online sites which validated my experience. Tons of information flying around.
This same doctor tried to support me by saying “Nobody gets from where you were to here. You did what few do.”
Today I have enduring problems doing math. Adding and subtracting in my checkbook can be a disaster. I don’t measure when I cook. That usually turns out well.
I was devastated by the death of my dream of being a mother. I sank into an even deeper depression. We did not have the money to try again.
Years had passed since my husband’s retirement. All his professional life he focused on being a great healer. I believe he was very gifted in that regard. Unfortunately part of that for him involved eschewing all things monetary as somehow tainted. It did not help that his ex-wife was totally in love with money and the status of physician’s wife.
My husband lent money to anybody who asked or simply gave it away. He accepted payment in a crate of tomatoes from someone’s garden.
As laudable as one aspect of this is, the other side of it was sort of a suicide.
He trusted his financial advisor and investment firm without question. The monthly statements came and even in my altered state I could see the size of the pie on the pie graph becoming smaller and smaller. I would ask him, heart in my mouth, were we going to lose our house? And he always reassured me that no, everything was fine.
One morning I awoke at 6 a.m. It was January 22. I got up to feed the cats. Nestle was curled against my side and pillows. I brought her dish of canned food into the bed room because she often ate in bed when it was so cold. She had so little hair. I set the dish down in front of her. She turned away and averted her eyes from mine. Instantly as well as I knew my own name, I knew she was dying. Thus began a hideous number of hours of agony—should I call the emergency veterinarian? could we afford it? Should I wait for our own veterinarian to open his office for the day? He knew her history after all. Or was there antibiotic left in the large bottle from the pharmacy up the street? I ran to find it hope high in my mind. Empty. The pharmacy was not yet open for business either. I wanted my husband to write a new prescription. I felt if we gave her the antibiotic we’d fallen back on so many times in her life, she would surely be ok.
In the end, I decided to wait for her own vet. I laid carefully back down in bed cradling her against my right arm. She would not make eye contact. I hardly dared breathe I was so scared. I was afraid to jostle her. Just the night before at bedtime she had played chase with me on the stairway. She’d beaten up my fingers. I could not imagine what was wrong. I tried to pet her . She cried out, jumped out of the bed and ran away from me. I found her in a chair with her friend Monkey. She would not look at me. I decided to respect her space and left them alone.
9 o’clock rolled around. I phoned the vet. They said to bring her right over.
As we drove up the street my little cat in her carrier with her back turned to the world, and to me, a mist was rising off the hedges. Tears filled my eyes. It was a January thaw. It seemed like a bandit that had come to steal my girl.
We arrived at the vet’s. Still she would not allow us to see anything but her back. They told me to leave her with them. He would check her out and give me a call.
I went home feeling a tiny bit better.
I had decided to paint the bedroom that week. I chose a rich cantaloupe color because Nestle loved cantaloupe so much. I worked on the walls all morning. At noon the doctor phoned. She had a slight ear infection and was a bit dehydrated. I was worrying for nothing. She’d be fine. He suggested I leave her there overnight so he could give her sub-cu fluids. I felt a weight roll off my chest. Of course she was okay! How silly of me….besides I had this long-standing deal with God that I would tolerate all the losses and bad things in the world He heaped on me…except one place was off-limits—sacred. No touch. And that was where Nestle was concerned.
I ate lunch. Took a shower. Painted some and sat down to read a Dean Koontz book. Something with “Dragon” in the title….Around 2:30 p.m. I decided to go back upstairs to paint a little more. My hand was raised above my head applying a stroke of orange paint along the moulding when the phone rang. It was 3:30. I felt like throwing up. In one second ..there was nothing left.
As an afterthought almost, I picked up the receiver and said “yes?” I heard his voice. The doctor began “Nestle was doing well. I had given her some antibiotics for the ear and had
sub-cu fluids going. She was resting comfortably and talking to me. I was examining a cat in the cage next to her when I heard a yowl. I realized it was Nestle. I yanked open her cage. Her heart had stopped. I tried everything I knew how to do to make her heart start beating again. It did not.” I stood there, amazed at those words uttered exactly as they say them on a TV show…. and simply mumbled “I’ll be right there.”
I hung up the phone, turned to my husband and said calmly “Nestle died.”
Then the pain hit. I did not know how my body could contain such an explosion of pain. We got into the car, sped to the animal hospital. I stumbled into the waiting area. Nobody was there except the receptionist. She got up and brought Nestle’s body to me.
“It is a cold day for burying” was all I said.
On the street I opened the carrier and felt her warm body. I pulled her out and cried, touching my tears to her still face. I painted my own tears on her eyelids praying, begging God that this would wake her up. I opened my shirt and put her little body in next to my skin, my breasts, my heart. I prayed to God, please God, if there is a God, please to let my heart beat for us both. God and Nestle’s heart were silent.
I knew this day was the last day I would ever have Nestle to ride with me in my clothing…The agony of that awareness was almost more than I could bear.
How did the day and night pass...like a nightmare..I had cramps in my arm muscles I held her so tightly. I remember sitting at the dinner table. I don’t know that I ate. There was a candle.
I clung to her. I pretended it was a normal night. I tried to be insane and believe it. I was wearing old bib overalls and a tee shirt and a fleece jacket.
Later, I carried her upstairs and laid her out on the bed alone. Gently, I stroked her suede skin. I carefully clipped a tiny bit of hair from her tufted ears and her smokey tail. I put it in a tiny ornate box. I clipped her toenails. I washed her where the marks from the fluids stained her fur. I spoke words to her. A long while later, I understood I could no longer keep her body by me. One of the most unbearable things I had to do was carry her to the spare bedroom. I tucked her into a soft cat bed-bag I had given her on her last birthday. I lit the lamp and laid her there for the night with the door closed. I went to bed without her for the first night in 9 years. I was lost. I was crazy. I no longer cared.
Of course, I did not sleep. Of course, I lost my voice from crying and pain. Now finally I was truly crazy.
In the wee hours of morning I decided to call a local animal crematorium. There as absolutely no way I could put her in the cold ground. I made an appointment that morning and we drive over. Nestle rode inside my shirt that last car trip. I sat in the reception area and spoke to the kind woman who took down all the pertinent information. Tears poured down my face without stopping. At the last, I opened my jacket and removed her body. This woman did not even blink. I passed her over as if I were passing the most precious life I had. Indeed so I was.
And then there was nothing left to do except leave. The ashes were to be ready the end of the next day. She promised me Nestle would go alone. That the ashes I retrieved would be just hers.
How did my life go on after this ultimate betrayal by God?
Well, I walked miles and miles. I could not stay in the house. I sat in the cat room of the local SPCA and offered my lap and soft hands to cats who had lost their human families. Cats as bereft as I. I donated cat food.
I befriended a few cat rescue people. I searched for her. I looked in the eyes of stuffed cats in toy stores and real cats in pet shops and shelters. I looked for her everywhere. I searched for her on the internet with my email address that is/was her name and birth date. I hoped somehow there truly would be some magical portal as I sat before the glowing screen in the deep night, a portal by which she could reach me….I bought a simple silver band, had it engraved with her name and birth date and have never taken it off my finger. I went to a local tattoo artist with photographs of Nestle. The artist applied ink to my shoulder and my breast bone from photos of Nestle in those very spots. Tears rolled slwoly over my cheekbones. The pain was appropriate. She is safe against my heart now.
At some point during this time, I adopted several homeless stray cats. I felt urged, compelled. I kept moving. I felt as if she were telling me “I want you to take your grief and use it. Give shelter to those who have none. Share your space. Don’t just sit there.”
I created a sacred space on a shelf where her ashes sat in my bedroom. I lit a candle for her every night and every day. I collected all the photographs of her I could find, desperate for the day when I knew I would find the very last shot. I collected her toys and blankets and anything else that she had loved in one space. I tried to make a place of power that there too, might be a way she could re-connect with me.
I stood in Walmart chekcout one day filled with the enormous sadness over her loss that had become as frequent a companion as she herself had been. I was praying I suppose you could say in my head...for her to know me still. I reached my hands deep into the pockets of my shorts to still their shaking. Touched a crumpled paper in one. Pulled it out and unrolled it. Lo and behold, it was an old photo of her beloved face. Steadily her eyes gazed at me from the picture. I felt instantly better. I changed my plan and walked back to the photo developing department to use the Kodak picture maker to copy and enlarge this wonderful find. This is the portrait I still keep today.
I went to a pet store and purchased a copy of Cat Fancy magazine. I sat at the computer and googled all the Devon rex breeders, I could find. Broadcasting my pain, knowing they would understand. Walt and Carol received a note from me. They were no longer able to raise cats due to their own health issues.
One day I happened upon this site. Sandfield cattery. I clicked on the photo album. Scores of gorgeous winged faces looked back at me impossibly huge eyes and beautiful bodies. Tears laked my face. I whispered..”here..might be a soul..who would know my Nestle…”
I had no intention of “replacing her”. I simply had to have tasks to get up for every day or I would’ve gone insane with grief.
I struck up an email correspondence with the breeder at Sandfield. Shared my story. Months later she mentioned that she was expecting a litter to be born on Aril 16. Nestle had been born on April 14. This seemed not accidental.
Sandy told me all the kittens were spoken for and her waiting list was long. I was still eager to see the photographs of the parents and the new babies.
And so ..and so……impulsively I sent Sandy a deposit on one little female seal-point in April.
And found myself on the highway to the airport another July right before my birthday.
Katie came into my life. She was irresistible . At this very moment as I type this story she sits on my shoulders preening.
I understood the risks of adopting a new cat similar in looks to one lost. Katie and I had a lot of tense moments because in spite of my best intentions I grew angry with her for not being Nestle. She demanded to be loved for herself, on her own terms. I wanted comfort. What a pair we were.
Months passed. We grew to know one another. I worked on my issues. I grieved for Nestle. One early morning before I left the bed, I looked up at the ceiling and cried out from my heart “Please, Nestle give me one small sign…so that I know you are still aware of me…so lost here without you..” and then I got out of bed and wandered in to breakfast.
Everyday for breakfast I ate a banana. When Nestle had been alive she was the only cat I have ever known who would run into the kitchen to hop up and beg for her piece of banana. She would eat it every day. The vet and I often laughed over this peculiar habit. He did not know of any other cats who ate them either.
This morning I was sipping my coffee and had just set my uneaten banana half down on the plate, when in ran Katie. Up she hopped like one possessed onto the butcher block. Leaned down and as fast as she could, bit a chunk of banana, swallowed it while glaring
at me, then jumped off and ran away. I was instantly covered in a film of sweat. Nestle had heard me. She had answered. I was stunned.
Katie has never since, and she is now 6 years old eaten a banana nor showed any interest in the fruit at all.
More months passed and my worst fear, that we would lose our house came true. Between mismanagement and apathy my husband’s pension was gone. We could not stay. I was devastated. I could not imagine leaving the house I’d been married in, had known Nestle in, had buried others in its garden…
We were being mercilessly hounded by creditors. In a fever we tried to show the house and pretend it was a choice to move. We looked at other houses. I swore not to give up any animal who had joined its life to mine. No matter how poor we were, I would provide for them. It was the moral thing to do. It was an anchor for me as well.
We looked at many nice places and some hideous. We tried to make offers on several but things always fell through.
One long Sunday in April, we were driven by our realtor out to a tiny hamlet of which I had never heard. Erieville. We passed a few farms and entered the woods. Pulled into a driveway in a clearing of a small house with so much trash in the yard from the previous owner, I told my husband I refuse to get out of the car.
While the realtor was opening the lock-box, I opened the car door for air. Peace flowed in. It washed over me. In sort of a trance I got out. The trees murmured. Birds sang. The silence was astonishing.
We went into the house’s tiny kitchen. A candle burned over the stove. I knew I was home. Several months and many mishaps later found us one summer night at 11:30 with a cat rescue friend who had volunteered both her crates and her van to move the animals. She waited impatiently at the curbside, as I ran into my old house one last time. I raced up the stairs where Nestle and I had played pounce to grab, her shelf, the one with her ashes and photos and keepsakes. I ran back and climbed into the van. I told my friend I could not sleep in the new space without this.
So we moved to Jones Rd.
All this time I was still plagued by post-drug symptoms, insomnia, pain, pounding heart beat….I was still after 6 years unable to write poetry. I felt half dead between the loss of my old life, loss of Nestle and loss of poetry inside me. I was numb. Disconnected.
Fall. Winter. Seasons. Rhythms. I walked in the field every chance I could, even in snow up to my thighs. The cycle of nature soothed my many-times broken heart.
One day, while running the dogs in my enormous rubber boots, halfway down the field to the pond I felt a tickle inside me. A familiar sensation. My head began to…. make words. I stopped walking. It was a…POEM. I shouted! Jumped in the air. I felt so good not to be NUMB! Tripped on the boots in my hurry to reach the house and find a notebook and a pen, any paper at all to write on. So, I wrote “Winter Chorus”.
Late November a stray cat straggled up our driveway. Though Katie now had my full love and attention, I had never stopped looking for Nestle. This cat was thin. She left bloody stools and vomit on the stoop. I was afraid. But I could not just leave her to die. I did not know if she was a she or he and was not able to touch or even get a good look at the cat. Every time I came close, it ran. Yet the spirit of Nestle burned bright within me and so after watching this cat struggle in indecision one frigid winter day from my kitchen window, I left a can of cat food under my car. Thus I met her, face to face, at last. “Girlie.” Sometime around Christmas I wrote a poem about her. I entitled it simply “Girlie.”
In January , I happened to glimpse a snippet of newspaper announcing a big
local poetry and art contest as I spread newspapers by the back door to use as an instant door mat. I leaned down and read more carefully. There was a blizzard outside that day.
I ripped the clipping out and went to the dining room table where my computer sat. I printed” Winter Chorus” and “Girlie”.
I thought “what the hell..nothing to lose”
I hiked to the mailbox in those same rubber boots snow pouring in over their tops. I was sure postal delivery would not happen this day. But I put the red flag up anyhow. And she did deliver. My poems were entered. I forgot about it. More poetry came into my head and heart in dribs and trickles. I was so careful to breathe softly on this new ember as it warmed to life. I had missed this for so long.
One day my husband hollered to me from where I worked outdoors that there was a phone-call. He explained to me when I came inside that a woman who was part of the National League of American Penwomen had received my entry but that I had not
included the entry fee. They were wondering if I could send a check so that my entries would be open for consideration. Of course, I could!
A month later, early, early spring found me schlumping my way to the mailbox in those rubber boots. I was not thinking of anything in particular. Smelling the scents of spring listened to the bird song. Reveling in the absence of harsh sounds of city life. I pulled the mail from the tube. Riffled through. There was an envelope addressed to me from NLAPW. My heart sank. I thought “Oh gee, what have I done wrong now?” I opened it none-the-less. Inside was an announcement. It said :
we are pleased to announce that your poem “Winter Chorus” has won first prize and that your other poem” Girlie” has won an HM. Congratulations!”
I couldn’t figure out what HM stood for. I actually looked behind myself to see who this letter was truly for. Then it hit me. I jumped inside the boots. I screamed. I whooped and ran. I slammed through the door calling to my husband. He was washing dishes at the kitchen sink. I shook the letter at him. I blurted out “I won, I won!!!!!!!!!!!!!”. We stood in the dusk light with our arms around each other, tears pouring down both our faces.
Among the people I shared this amazing news with was my friend and Katie’s breeder, Sandy. Her daughter wrote poetry too. We corresponded daily. Among the many topics we conversed about was the history of Nestle and of Sandy’s original cat, Angel. One day she sent the pedigree for Katie. There, seven spaces down on both her father’s side and her mother’s was the name of Nestle’s father. Higgins. Incredibly, in my deep dark grief all those years ago with all the cats in the world to choose from, I had found Nestle’s “grand-daughter”. I laughed. I cried. I hugged Katie. Angel and Nestle were half sisters born a week apart in 1993.
Winston Churchill was famous for many things among them his dark depressions and love of animals. Imagine, for a moment, in the context of my medical tragedy, how the course of history might’ve been altered, had Sir Winston been put on Prozac. It is a scary thought. Anyway he said that one of the endearing things about humans is our capacity to
love animals..living beings which we can be assured most of the time will die before us and leave us bereft. And yet we continue to give our hearts to them unabashedly. When Nestle died, many pop culture sayings came across my desk. One of which is “it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” I certainly did not think so then. I wondered as well, what was the worth of having been so blessed and lucky, only for the blessing to pass on out of my reach.
Today, I have no doubt that the angel God assigned to watch over this one human life-- a poet’s life in the woods, will keep me company all my days on earth. Why was she sent? I don’t know. I only know to be grateful beyond words.
In the last few years, I have won a total of 8 prizes in achievement in the field of poetry writing. I found a writers group in Canastota Public Library and attended my first gathering of peer poets and writers since I was an 8th grader. I reconnected with my 8th grade English teacher. She was present, looking pretty much the same as ever at 72, red pen poised, to watch me receive my first prize.
I have published my first chapbook, other poems, and founded an open mic night for poets and other writers in nearby Hamilton. I fellowshipped into two writers conferences. I write every day. I rediscovered and breathed back to life a childrens’ novel begun in those dark years when Nestle was young and I was sick.
My husband and I separated a few years ago. The sum toll and total of negative experiences we shared far out-weighed the small positives we began with as a couple.
A neighbor’s daughter “outed” me and broke my heart, one more time. I accepted my lesbianism at age 52.
I did apply to grad school. It was past deadline and I did not get in, but I did this act for its own sake because action is good, and paralysis frightening.
I could not reconstruct that woman who was lost to the drugs and therapy. None of us can go back. Instead, I invented a new one and grow into her skin every day.
Nestle’s traveling companion Monkey died this year at age 15 of kidney failure. We took him to the veterinarian for the final shot to help him pass. As I held him for one last hug, I realized “Oh! he is going to see Nestle in a minute. Tell her….” So much to tell. I had faith he would.
That evening was beautiful spring in Central New York. I chose a flowerbed near my rhubarb plant for his grave. We dug a huge hole. Somewhere during the dig, I understood that I finally wanted to lay Nestle’s ashes, too, to rest with her friend. And Annie-cat’s bones which I had dug up from my old garden back when I knew I had to leave my house, and my little dogs’, Pooh and Phyllisie.
This was a radical notion to me, that after carrying those ashes of my beloved cat, I was going to let the earth hold her at last, in its warm, brown, hands. I stood forlornly
Alone next to my side of the bed with photos and keepsakes and the small box of ash that still, in its way, felt like the weight of that dear body all jumbled in my arms.
Finally the hole was deep enough. Carefully, I put Nestle and the others inside the cloth cat-bag present for her birthday long ago, with Monkey’s body. I rolled the metal wire bag top tightly shut. Nestle was inside the bag, inside a tiny metal tin which was inside an oak urn box. In the back of my mind some part of me thought “Well, if I have to, I can come get her.”
But this act of releasing her to the earth, as scary as that was, after the responsibility of carrying her for six years through three moves, symbolized for me my own roots-- of place, of my relationship with Erin—for better or worse… Jones Rd. is “forever” , the place we each take our stand as individuals adn as a couple.
I’d gone on Match.com awhile ago at the urging of a writers’ group friend to look for the woman of my dreams. In Erin, I’ve found her.
I decorated the top of the grave with interestingly self-sculpted driftwood. Mulch from the free mulch pile at our landfill. Several rocks from the property. We weeded thoroughly.
The next morning I dug up two sucker lilac bushes that grew at woods’ edge and transplanted them as sentinels, one on either side of the grave. I hung two sets of wind-chimes in the small poplar there and a sun/moon birdhouse. “Ack ack”the wind chime
whispers “ack ack, my girl”…Last of all I stood a decorative ornamental iron rod from which hangs a blue-green ball in the ground. The ball would glow in the dark, I was told, after a day in sunlight.
Erin and I fall asleep each night under the watchful eyes of Nestle’s portrait on the wall over our bed. Katie’s ears silhouette the darkness as she sits on my chest, digs her claws in a tiny bit, washes my face and purrs...her un-tender ministrations continue to help with the enduring pain and strange neural and brain messages, as the broken systems still try to heal, to try to find their way, their own long road home after all these years. Little by little, I have come to accept the awful fact of consequences to actions: that those chemicals changed my body permanently and that I must live around pain and go on..because it is the only life I will be allowed. Not to do so would be the ultimate disrespect for the gift of an angel that God sent me so many years ago to ensure that I would, in fact, live.
Last night I awoke and came downstairs near 3 a.m. as I most often do since the drug crash. I happened to look out the north window of our bedroom as I stepped over a sleeping dog. I love to look out there in the night. Without city, light, noise or people, I hope to see wild animals right below..or who knows what? Mystery, magic…This warm night, the first of July, as I watched, fireflies flickered and spun all over the the lawn, the trees, the fields. As if the texture of darkness were alive with glitter!. And then my eyes drifted sleepily over to Nestle’s resting place. There, over that sweet small body the glow of the ghostly blue-green ball shone at me like the Mother moon itself. A deep sigh climbed the ladder of my ribs and drifted from my lips. She is everywhere.
racahel z ikins 7/08