Saturday, December 27, 2014

How To Say Goodbye - With Cats

My best friend is dying. We met in 1989, and became daily companions. But after 8 years I had moved away, and we had seen each other sporadically thereafter.  Now that the cancer is taking its toll, of course, I wish I had put more energy into calling her.  Whenever I did call, she would fire questions at me.  How did my gallery show go?  What is happening with the baby horse?  How is the writing coming? 
I am learning the sad fact that the current trend is to resent this type of inquisition.  It's been labeled, "Interviewing." This stems from the habit of questioning for information to use as an arsenal.
But we were never like that.  The quick exchange of information is a treasured thing.  My friend Rita is an excellent listener, with a razor-sharp mind and ravenous curiosity.  She is a great lover of animals, especially cats.  She had established a cat rescue in Ann Arbor, called Mosaic Feline Refuge, which she kept open for 22 years.  They finally closed this spring.  They couldn't keep up the time, energy, and the vast expense of caring for and surgically altering and then homing hoards of roaming house cats and kittens.  "I just felt like I never did enough," she told me.
"That's because you see the bigger picture," I said.  "But what are the numbers?  I mean, how many cats did you save?"
"I don't know.  I'm sure they're logged somewhere."  She sighed, a futile huff acknowledging the vastness of an unending problem.  I thought the numbers might make her feel better.  After all, one saved cat can prevent literally thousands of unwanted kittens.  And Rita had saved, certainly, thousands of cats.
I had called her a week before Christmas, because I needed a name for my own rescued kitty.  Rita was the first one that came to mind.  She is endlessly creative and names all her cats and dogs after food.  Over the years she's had some real classics -- Toast and Trifle, Lamb Chop and Wafer.  But her husband returned the call and told my voicemail that she was in hospice and hopefully coming home in a few days.  He didn't know if she would want company.
I called back, thinking I would be able to maintain composure, and then left a sobbing mess of a message on his answering machine.  I didn't know what to say.  I stammered that I wanted a name for my kitty.  "He likes his belly rubbed!"  I wailed.
I was able to finally talk to Rita yesterday.  She was home.  "Chuckles," she said immediately.  "You know, those candies that come in all the colors?  They stick -- and your guy has stuck."
The moment she said it, I knew, of course, that this was indeed his name.  I had found this silly ornament on Christmas Eve, a tiny handmade kitty that looked like my kitty, but it was wearing a clown hat.  I brought it home and put it on the window sill next to the wooden chicken.  Rita, with her uncanny insight, had called out the name "Chuckles", and that ornament says it.  Chuckles.  Chuckie.  Chuck Chuck.  A final gift from someone who has already given so much.
When she answered the phone, she sounded down, but the more we talked, the more she seemed like her old self.  We laughed and talked about cats and dogs, and Clifford and Trudy, and their new little brother.  She asked if I was riding him yet.  "No!" I said.  "I don't bounce like I used to!"
"I understand that," she said.
She asked about my new book, THE NORTH SIDE OF DOWN.  "Any way you can send it to me?"
She is a voracious reader.  She has devoured everything I've ever written.  She said, "Everyone's been sending me books!  You wouldn't believe the stacks of them around here.  I've been telling people it's the only thing I can still do."
I was so anxious for her to read this, because she knows Amanda, and she has her own history with family dysfunction.  Her opinion is so important.  I'm working on getting a copy to her ASAP.  I know at this time in life, every day is precious.  While we talked, I kept wondering if this would be our last conversation.
I wish she wasn't going.  But at least, this time, I had a chance to tell her she was dear to me; she was like a sister.  No, better than a sister.  She just laughed and said, "Yeah, you're family."
Through the whole conversation I worried that she might be getting tired.  But she rattled on and on, laughing and chatting.  I was driving to a friend's house and when I finally reached my destination and regrettably had to hang up, we both said, "Bye!" quickly, just like always.
There comes a point when there is nothing more to say, and yet so many things to say.  If I could have a friend like this for the rest of my life, we would never run out of things to talk about, or run out of questions.  I hope I can help her though whatever remains of her lifetime.  But the irony is, in reality, she is helping me.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Interview, The Thugs and The North Side of Down

Creativity seems to attract bullies.  Like many other movie buffs, I have watched with interest as Seth Rogan's new film, "The Interview" was yanked from its schedule, caving to apparent non-specific threats from an angry Korean bunch.  One could only feel the pride of patriotism when Sony was verbally spanked for this decision by everyone who mattered, including the likes of George Clooney and President Obama.

In what amounts to either the biggest international scandal ever caused by a film, or the smartest publicity stunt ever concocted, "The Interview" is due to release right on schedule.  But the message is clear:  We don't negotiate with terrorists.

While this scenario was unfolding, a similar situation (on a much smaller scale) was happening in my own life.  However, "The Interview" is a work of fiction.  Our story is all true.  On Thursday, December 18 at 9:14 pm, I received a barrage of text messages from a family member.  "I strongly recommend that you remove, 'The North Side of Down' from public review.... Others will strike back."

They went on to say that Amanda would lose her guardian, and I would lose all assets including any horses, dogs and vehicle, and face potential jail time. 

Amanda and I had anticipated a reaction like this.  After all, our story unfolds within a volatile, belligerent family.  But we had decided that our message was too important to ignore: That people with disabilities need to have a voice.  That it is important for people to get their affairs in order, to make their wishes known in a legal, undisputable way.  That just because someone is a blood relative, they don't need to be in your life.  That no one has the right to take your happiness.  That real love can withstand anything.

She knows I have a lawyer standing by, and that our manuscript was scrutinized with a fine-toothed comb before release.  As my attorney said, "The truth will set you free."

I waited through most of the texts, which went on and on.  Then I replied with, "You had better treat Amanda with nothing but kindness and respect from now on", and, "Please stop contacting me."

After the texts stop coming in, I looked around at my four dogs, sprawled around the room and panting happily, and wondered how in the heck they qualify as "assets."  Have I missed something?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Because Mean People Suck


I have a sweet friend who is slipping away.  Even though I haven't seen her in a year's time, I can feel her spirit leaving.  It might be because my consciousness knows she is going, and I am becoming resigned to the idea. 

I met her in 1989.  She is a great lover of animals and a champion of homeless cats, especially.  She is a tremendous patron of the arts.

But she is fragile.  The abuse she was witness to has hit her hard.  She was bombarded with dysfunction in her family and, probably because of her involvement in rescue, she had a high number of encounters with jerks.  Her sadness pervaded and there was always an air of desperation about her; an energy of forced attempt at happiness.

She wanted to die for a long time, but she was resigned to living.  Finally, cancer is having its way with her.  And this is our loss.  The world is losing a tremendous benefactor, a vessel of generosity.

Yesterday I had an unpleasant encounter with an unhappy person who oozes hatred, who puts her energy into twisting words and facts in order to trick people and fool people and cause dissension.  I am faced with the age-old question:  Why are the creeps allowed to stick around, while this beautiful, educated, kind hearted friend's life is cut short when she is barely 60 years old?

Because mean people suck!  They suck the living life blood right out of you.  They suck your energy.  They suck away your happiness and your positive thoughts.  They spread misery because it is all they know.

This is why the kind-hearted often succumb to disease, while the evil people forge onward.

Evil people will kill you.

I learned a valuable lesson from my sister Amanda, who has Down's syndrome, and recently went through a horrific time following the death of our Dad.  In the midst of bad behavior among her relatives, she stayed focused on what was important to her:  Love.  She was somehow able to shed all the abuse and hysteria that was heaped upon her, and concentrate on the thing that mattered most:  Her love for her family.

Now with my friend's demise, I am reminded again how important it is to turn away from the negativity dished out by those who thrive on it.  Concentrate on people who make you laugh, who love you, who are grateful for the time here.  Life is a brief and precious gift.  No matter who someone is, be they blood relative; be it a sibling or a spouse or a parent; no one has the right to steal your life away.  Get rid of the jerks; move on; stay focused on those who are kind, who have empathy, and who know how to love.  It's never too late to learn to truly live.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

My Sister, the Author

Our book is published today. THE NORTH SIDE OF DOWN joins the select few books actually written by an author (or co-author) with Down's syndrome.

Amanda has long been a writer at heart.  When she was a baby, she used to climb the stairs and sit with me in my bedroom while I wrote page after page on spiral-bound note paper.  I wrote and illustrated hundreds of pages of horse stories while my patient companion was content to just sit cross-legged on the bed near my desk, watching me or quietly coloring or just waiting.

At that time, I didn't realize the impact this was having.  Amanda was just a baby then. I graduated, moved away to Alaska and then the western states.  In the meantime, Amanda grew up illiterate.  Finally, when she was around 20 years old, I had moved back to Michigan and was spending lots of time with her.  I sat with her in the big gold chair in the living room looking at the back of an Eddie Rabbitt album.  She was a huge country music fan.  I was reading the words to, "I Love a Rainy Night."

She was attentive as always, and I began pointing out the letters and sounding them out.  When we reached the end of each line, we would sing it.

Perhaps it was the simplistic repetition of the song, but I thought she was catching on.

Later, watching a "Hooked on Phonics" infomercial, I told my then-husband, "This might work for Amanda.  They use music, see?"

He wanted no part of spending $200 on that program.  So, I saved my money and ordered one, and brought it home on my next trip North, along with a couple of Dr. Seuss children's books.  Mom and Dad wisely sent the program to Amanda's school.  It not only helped Amanda. but other kids in her special ed class learned to read, too.  When I asked Dad about her progress later, Dad said, "Yes, she is learning, but it's going to be limited."

I will never forget the first time Amanda stumbled through, "Green Eggs and Ham."  I was in tears.  She was 21 years old by then, and opening a whole new door for herself.

From that point on, the household exploded with paper and notebooks.  Amanda was filling every spiral-bound notebook in sight, practicing her writing in her shaky, angular cursive hand.  She copied pages of old paperbacks.  Eventually she began writing her own thoughts; page after page.

A writer was born.

When finally she began journaling after our Mom's death, I asked her, "How would you like to write a book with me?  We can write about our mother, and Dad, and our experiences with the family."

She loved the idea.  We pored over our story, building it one page at a time, editing and discussing and reading to each other.  We lost Mom, and we cried and wrote.  We lost Dad, and we cried and wrote some more.  Our siblings battled over Amanda's guardianship, and we wrote on in determination.  We were partners in a combined effort.  This was our project; our journey.  When I asked her if she was ready to become a published author, she said, "I cannot wait!  I. CAN. NOT. WAIT!"

So the little girl who quietly sat by has become a literary force in her own right.  Unencumbered by her disability, she forges onward.

"Limited," indeed!  ...If Dad could see her now.

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