Tuesday, April 18, 2017

For the love of Nacho

Just around the time I was starting to wonder if Nacho really loves me -- or if he really just uses me for food -- I read this article that confirms what I'd hoped: He really likes hanging out with me. Maybe he even loves me, and I know now I love him.

Nacho is a big fat jerkface of an orange tabby cat, with a big fat gentle heart. He often can't get out of his own way, but that makes him a good snuggle on a cold winter evening, and you know we have plenty of those around here. He may drive you nuts by sleeping on your feet so you can't roll over or move to get out of bed in the morning...but he will certainly keep you warm.

He's a Nacho, Nacho Cat.
He doesn't meow or cry much. He squeaks, somewhat timidly and ridiculously for such a large cat. I only heard him truly meow for the first time this weekend when he felt pain. Nacho speaks more with his purr; his constant rhythmic rattle is what I'm missing most right now in this quiet, sleep-filled house. He has a different purr for every message: a feed-me purr, a pet-me purr, a hey-kid-back-off purr. This cat is not patient for food, but he's never mean -- just persistent, sometimes (especially on a lazy Saturday morning) over-assertive, but he won't try to hurt you. Even when he's pressing his full weight on your chest and you're having trouble breathing, the sight of that bubble-gum nose will dissipate your annoyance. Mostly.

Nacho loves to stretch out and show off his macho bod, all 16 pounds of cat flesh. He's the only cat I've known who relished belly rubs. He'll flop down next to you, turn on his side and purr loudly until you sink your hand into that thick, soft belly fur. Then he'll close his eyes and roll his head back and relax every muscle, purring and sighing, and I swear it, smiling. Pet him anywhere and he'll melt a little. Except on his flank -- that will get you a warning nip or swat.

Nacho is extremely patient with kids -- I can't count how many times Zippy has picked him up about the middle and hauled him around the house like a giant floppy toy -- but he's not terribly playful. Every now and then he'll tear through the house chasing his stuffed starfish or a rattle mouse or a ball, but if we initiate play he watches us with condescending eyes. Silly hoomans. He loves sitting on the windowsill, his ample belly and hind leg spilling over the side. Oh, and the basement is his favorite place to explore! So many nooks and crannies to sniff out, but also a wonderful street-level window by the steps to gaze through -- kitty TV. He caught two bats inside the house the first summer we lived here, and he chases bugs here and there, but mostly Nacho wants to chillax. He has fit perfectly with our mellow family vibe.

For three years this big fat jerkface orange cat has hung around by my side. He's been between my feet when I'm walking or cooking or cleaning, he's been sitting next to me on the couch when I'm reading or writing or just watching television, he's been nosing into the bathroom while I did bathroom business. His purr has filled my ears, providing comfort when I'm sick, reminding me of his hungry belly when I'm not paying attention to him, warming me when I'm lounging. He filled the hole in my heart that opened when Pitino died (oh, sweet Pitino, my first true love, who walked and cuddled me through 18 years of my life), and Nacho swiftly created a new space for himself -- a giant 16-pound big-eared orange space -- in my heart and our family. We love him. I love him. And that's why I had to give him up yesterday. I couldn't provide the medical care he needs now nor throughout his life, and I couldn't bear to see him suffer. I thought I could cuddle him while he died, but it was too hard to bear his pain.

Always by my side, the purr-o-matic.
It happened quickly. He seemed lethargic, wasn't eating, hid under the bed, peed all over himself...these are all major bad signs. I took him to the emergency vet and soon had a diagnosis and a gut-wrenching decision to make. I brought him home. Over 24 hours, our family wrestled with so many feelings, worries, doubts. And we knew the window for decision was small, and closing quickly. I prayed for peace and clarity while I laid with Nacho on the bathroom floor, feeling his steady purr growing quieter, his eye wide and scared.

Yesterday morning, when I knew for sure he wouldn't get better on his own, I picked up the phone to call our vet. I would ask if they would euthanize Nacho for us, to stop his pain and ours. Before I got the words out, though, the woman on the phone said, "Is this about Nacho? We were just talking about him! I think we have an idea."

She offered a solution: They would perform the surgery he needed, at no charge, but I would have to surrender Nacho to their permanent care. In other words, they'd save his life, but Nacho would not live with us anymore. He'd be their office cat, or one of their staff would eventually take him home. Either way, she promised, he'd be doted on and loved and cared for for the remainder of his life. His medical care would be provided, pro bono. He would live.

So we said goodbye to Nacho yesterday, quickly before we could rethink or he could get sicker, and this morning his purr rattles on for someone else. Our hearts are broken, but we'll heal, and the best news is so will he. Through all of this, I'm most struck by the incredible grace and love shown by people who hardly know us. I mean, sure, they care for cats and likely did this for Nacho more than for his humans (and they, like you, may be secretly judging us for our decision). But I'll continue to view this as grace, as an unexpected, undeserved kindness.

We will mourn our family's loss of our favorite big fat jerkface cat -- we will miss his purr and his pink nose and his fluffy belly -- but we will smile to know that he lives with caring, big-hearted people. Happy asked last night if Nacho will remember us. I don't know the answer. I don't know much about cat consciousness or memory, but I hope Nacho will know that we love him, the way I know he has loved us.



Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Look up

I walk a lot. Walking is one of the pieces of my Portland lifestyle that I value most, in fact: countless trails, parks, paths, and sidewalks that not only get me where I need to be, but also show me woods and sea and proud old homes and all sorts of loveliness. (I also walk past a lot of not-so-lovely in this town each day, but we'll save that for another post.) Sometimes when I walk through a quiet neighborhood, like the one over here along Clifton Street in Back Cove, I feel envious of single-family homes and yards and kid-friends playing together in the driveway. Other times in these same neighborhoods, I feel grateful for the ample parking and snow removal of our rental home, as well as for landscapers who cut the grass and landlords who come to fix the kitchen lights or replace the dryer when it punks out. When I walk through Evergreen Cemetery, often I feel contemplative, peaceful; its consecrated ground and hundreds of years of history soothes me. Other times I feel sad and anxious about the fragility of our lives.

It's all about perspective, right?

These tracks around town are all familiar routes to me now. My feet know where to go, and I can look around, take in every sight and sound. This morning, for example, my feet navigated up over the curb while I turned by body to locate the robins singing to one another from trees on opposite sides of the street. I took a photo of the sun rising over the low-tide mud-flat of the cove -- a snowy egret has come home for spring, by the way! -- without stumbling or slipping in the soft gravel of the trail. And my feet know where the crags in the bricks are on the sidewalk along Elm Street so I can huff and puff my way up that huge hill without tripping while I fiddle with my podcast playlist. I notice most of the things around me, good, bad, and ugly, while I'm walking because my feet know the way. There are few surprises, the paths are generally flat and even, it's routine.

Hiking is different, though, even on a trail I've hiked before. I'm super-cautious with every step. I watch the trail, I watch my feet, I watch Zippy skip-hopping in front of me and try to anticipate his (sometimes erratic) decisions. I analyze each segment of trail like a robot: "Slick looking mud to the right; step left. Watch out for that root; step up, over, down. Bend your knees more, your ankles are stiffening up. Zippy, stay to the right up there! Branch -- duck! That rock looks more stable, yes, good. Oh, more mud..." Seriously. This is what's happening in my head on a trail. (I've gone hiking to clear my mind, of course. Oh, the irony.)

Sunday afternoon we found a nearby "easy" trail to hike, to celebrate the re-emergence of spring. (It was 55 degrees and sunny and I swear every resident of Portland was outside in shorts and t-shirts singing happy songs in their hearts.) This trail, however, still hadn't seen the sun. Ninety percent of it was covered in slush and ice, the rest was thick black mud. We picked our way along -- Happy and his friend way up front, Honey and Zippy in the middle, slowpoke ol' Mom bringing up the rear -- and as much as I wanted to relax into the warm woodsy air, my mind went into robo-mommy mode (see above) and I started to feel frustrated with my family for zooming off so far ahead of me. Irrational. Anxious. Covered in mud. This is not the hike I'd craved!

Right in the midst of my pity party, my foot slipped off a root and into about 4 inches of squelching, stinky mud. It oozed over the toe of my boot, slurped at my heel. I had to stop completely to pull my foot out. That's when I looked up.

My family was so far ahead of me that I couldn't hear them anymore. I was standing alone in a copse of trees, pine mixed in with skinny birch and poplar, amidst a chorus of songbirds singing their sweet, feathery hearts out. They called back and forth to one another over the sound of a trickling brook of snow-melt. Sunlight streamed between the treetops, and everything looked like I was seeing it through a soft focus filter; the scene looked like Thomas Kinkade had painted it and sounded like the background soundtrack of my meditation app. Peaceful. Calm. Still covered in mud.

I almost missed this. The path was uncertain and full of obstacles, so I'd been walking with my head down. Yet the forest was screaming, look up, you silly girl! Look around! Pay attention to this beautiful moment, even though you're stuck in mud! No...especially because you're stuck in mud.

I guess it's more natural to look up when your feet know the route by memory. But it's so much more necessary to look up, isn't it, when the path is unknown and covered in ice and mud?

Just look up.