Adventures in Breathing

Ringtails

A month ago today, I returned home from a two week vacation on the island nation of Madagascar (off the southeast coast of Africa), an amazingly beautiful yet harsh land. I promise more on the actual trip in future blog posts. Do you love lemurs as much as I do? (I got pictures to share!)

Tonight, as I sit here near the end of my “self-imposed exile” from the office, I want to write about breathing. Any asthmatics out there? Raise your hands! Try not to wheeze or cough — you might make your co-workers think you’ve brought some horrific disease from overseas to infect them all. Got your rescue inhaler handy at all times? Good.

I’ve been pretty fortunate when it comes to my asthma. I’ve never suffered an acute attack (like you see in movies) and I’ve never landed myself in the hospital because of it. But in the last 15 or so years, I’ve experienced about a half dozen asthma “events” (as my doctor calls them) where, for a number of days, my asthma is not under control. The typical remedy has been a round of prednisone. (Only once before have I needed a second round.) Aside from needing to attend doctors’ appointments, I’ve never before missed work because of it.

Now, in the past four weeks, I’ve used a little more than 100 hours of my sick leave (yep – you read that number right – fortunately I’ve not been sick much these last few years and was able to accumulate a decent balance to draw from). I’ll see the final total when I get back to work on Monday. Browsing the internet, I saw a statistic that said asthma is the fourth leading cause of absenteeism from work for adults. Wow. I have now joined those ranks. Never thought I would. But it’s quite difficult to work when one can’t breathe, isn’t it?

You’re probably asking what this has to do with Madagascar. Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. It was one of the harder trips I’ve taken and I was sick in the middle of the trip although that had more to do with sun, alcohol, and stupidity (more on that next time). Maybe that day’s illness set up my immune system for the later failure. Maybe my subsequent drop in appetite for the rest of the trip had an effect on me.

But there I was, four weeks ago, dropping onto my sofa exhausted and jet-lagged after 36 hours of travel (Antananarivo to Johannesburg to New York to Oakland). I’d spent the majority of the day sitting in La Guardia Airport waiting for my delayed flight west…sneezing and coughing. (Thanks to whichever fellow traveler gave me their cold!) It didn’t seem like such a bad cold at first, but then I was pretty much half-conscious throughout the following day. So much so that when one of my cats accidentally punctured my finger with a claw, I did not wash it. (Here’s a tip: even if you’re half-dead and barely mobile, if you get a cat scratch, WASH THE WOUND.)

You can guess where this is headed. That was late Tuesday/early Wednesday. By Friday, my finger was infected and the seemingly mild cold had morphed into a racking chest cough (the kind that hurts, making you cringe). Oh, and yes, I did attempt to go to work – I managed to get through a couple half days – then went to the doctor. She loaded me up with prednisone, some nice cough syrup, and antibiotics for the finger (tests showed it was just a common form of streptococcus something or other that my cat had gifted me with).

While the finger healed and the worst of the cough eased over the next week, my asthma symptoms did not. Back to the doctors the next Friday. More prednisone, change in asthma medications. And, yes, I did try to go to work. But I have to confess my memory is a little fuzzy. I can’t remember if I made it 4 days the first week and only 1 day the next (or if that was reversed). Hmm. I also discovered that some of my co-workers were very unhappy and complaining to my supervisor. (Somebody is apparently convinced I brought the plague back from Madagascar and was spreading it around the office with my hacking & coughing.) People don’t seem to listen when you say “it’s just asthma.”

So when I ended up back at the doctor’s during the third week, I mentioned those concerns. My doctor had already checked with an infectious disease specialist in the event that I’d picked up “an uncommon bug” – they said there was nothing to worry about. By that time I was on my third antibiotic, so not only was it pointless to test me for anything, I had long ago ceased being potentially contagious. (Fourth antibiotic if you count the anti-malaria medication I was on during the trip.) My lung x-rays were clear and all the blood tests (checking things like my thyroid, kidneys, heart, etc.) all came up average. Nothing that explained the extreme fatigue I still felt and the continued stubbornness of my asthma refusing to be reined in. So…more prednisone and a home nebulizer.

When I floated the idea of another week off work (a whole week of nothing – not even trying to do a half day or anything – just resting and recuperating)…yeah…you guessed it. My supervisor and co-workers were more than enthusiastic. Maybe I should say they were very supportive. (Either they really want me to get better or they are truly tired of listening to me cough.)

With one more day to go, I can say it’s been a successful respite. I’m no longer gasping for air when I climb the stairs, No more wheezing and coughing. I still sometimes run out of air when I’m talking and get a little hoarse, but it’s definitely not as pronounced. I think I’ve finally gotten enough sleep too. I know the cats have certainly enjoyed this week. They’ve spent most of it piled on top of me. (Yes, even the one who scratched me.)

So…when I return to work next Monday, if you hear me cough, “it’s just asthma, people” Sheesh. Let me breathe.

 

 

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Friendship, fear, death…and confessions

What do you say to a friend who is afraid to die? Even now, six months later, I still don’t know what to say.

VirgHer name was Virginia. She was 92. And she died this spring, a frail, withered shell of the woman she used to be. Her hearing was almost gone, and her memory was failing her. She could not walk without assistance and she had great difficulty swallowing (common in the elderly, I’m told). And even though her eyes were pale and rheumy, the fear was plain in them when she asked, “What’s going to happen to me?”

Other than some platitude about what good care the staff showed in their care of her (at her nursing home), I had nothing to offer. I don’t know the answer.

Her life was good, but not perfect. It was stereotypical in some ways in that her husband had passed away years before her, yet they had had a daughter who would continue their family line with her own son. But in other ways, Virginia took stereotypes and stomped them in the ground. Prior to World War II, she boarded a bus – alone – in her native Minnesota in order to join her older sister in California. She would live in various places, and she would serve as a Navy WAVE during the war and, later, as a Grey Lady at Letterman Hospital during the Korean War. She did not marry until the age of 31 – rare for women of her time and, not to mention, having a child at that age. Through it all, she worked at various jobs until I met her in the 1990s when we were both secretaries.

She taught me how to do cross-stitch. I took her to a Billy Joel concert for her…78th (I think) birthday. And…she entrusted me with her beloved tabby, Fluffy, when she felt she could no longer adequately care for the cat. To this day, I am undecided whether or not I betrayed that trust by lying to Virginia. For this is my confession: Fluffy died on December 17, 2004, not in December 2005. Some friends already know this and they tell me I did the right thing because, in December of 2004, Virginia was recovering from a hip replacement and subsequent pneumonia. She was in terrible shape, physically, emotionally, mentally. I could not tell her that Fluffy had cancer and was going to die soon. Fortunately, I had several pictures of the cat – so I could continue the lie – and gently worked my way up to Fluffy passing away the following December (I kept it the week before Christmas so I could keep the lie straight).

Fluffy

I took this picture of Fluffy with me to Virginia’s memorial service. I hope that Fluffy is with her now, and I hope Virginia forgives me. Most of all, I hope she is no longer afraid.

But instead of crying, I try to remember the laughter that Virginia could elicit with her sharp wit, even when it was aimed at me. She turned 80 just a few months after I turned 40. So when I called her to wish her happy birthday, I said “Hey, I’m half your age now!” Without missing a beat, she replied, “Well, thank God for that, I thought you’d never make it this far!”

 

Paco for President 2016!

Don’t like any of the other presidential candidates??  Vote for Paco!!

PacoPresident

Paco’s Platform:

Legalized “catnip” for everyone!

Mandatory nap time at work (lots and lots of nap time).

Bring back cat worship…while respecting freedom of all religions of course.

Achieve world peace by handing everyone a purring kitten [big sigh] and, well okay, if you must, a 100-mph tail wagging squirmy puppy too.

Universal vet care.

Sponsor legislation enacting hunting season for Minnesota dentists…for one certain Minnesota dentist.

Option to receive salary in form of cat litter, cat treats, cat food, or some combo thereof.

 

Giving Thanks

It’s cliche to be expressing thanks this time of year, but today – after a busy morning running around followed by a mid-afternoon nap in the big overstuffed chair – I awoke to two cats draped across my lap, purring. And I felt thankful. Thankful for small furry bodies keeping me warm on a rainy day. Thankful for their gazes which tell me that I am their whole world.

So I’d like to thank all the felines who came before who have shared their companionship and love…and their lessons about life and death…with me.

KC

To K.C., my first cat when I was a teenager. He loved to annoy my mother by sleeping on the clean linen and taught me that I would do pretty much anything to save my cat – including climbing out onto a slippery roof to retrieve him. He was the first to teach me that hearts can be broken from many miles away: he’d gone to live with my sister because I wasn’t able to keep him and passed away without me learning about it until later. (That’s my sister in the picture.)

Lovely

To Lovely, who wasn’t even my cat. She wandered into the basement one day while I was doing laundry. Emaciated and weak, she cried for attention. Sucker that I am, I took her to the vet and found that she had cancer. I’d never seen her in the neighborhood before so I can only assume that her owners, discovering her illness, had tossed her out like garbage. So I felt it my duty to give her peace with caring human hands holding her as she passed. It was the wonderful staff at Broadway Pet Hospital who dubbed her Lovely. They didn’t want her to die unnamed or unloved. Only in my life for a few days, I believe it was her task to teach me about death firsthand, preparing me for the time three years later that I would have to let go of Indy, who I had raised from kittenhood.

Indy1To Indy, my first cat as an adult. I found him at a pet store marked down multiple times from $9.99 to $3.99. He was the smartest cat I’ve had, able to open drawers and cupboards, digging out toys that I had hidden away. At night, he lay on my right side. I would drape my arm across his body and he would wrap his tail around my arm. He taught me the true, and sometimes expensive, responsibilities of cat ownership.

marian1To Marian, who taught me that I had enough love for more than one pet at a time. She would sit in my lap while I was on the computer and rub her slobbery face all over my hands while I typed. (Yes, cats can slobber.) And she taught me guilt. The day before she unexpectedly died from a blood clot, I’d been very busy and kept pushing her away, unable to give her the attention she craved. There was no time to apologize to her, only to tell the vet to end her suffering as quickly as possible. I’m sorry Marian.

FluffyTo Fluffy, who I took in as an elderly feline on behalf of an elderly friend who could no longer care for her. She turned out to be sick, so our time together was short, but it was long enough for many laughs, like the times – completely oblivious that there was already a cat sitting on my lap – would climb right on top of that cat (usually Annie).

 

AnnieTo Annie, who taught me that it’s the cats who are in charge. She would sit on the floor halfway in between the couch and the computer desk…and wait. When she felt that I had spent a sufficient amount of time at the computer, she issued her demands: a series of sharp “MOWS” (not meows, mows) until I obeyed her and sat on the couch, so she could sit on my lap. She had deep maternal instincts, helping to raise Turtle and Bender. She was the only cat who missed those who had passed before her, looking for them in their usual hidey spots.

And, of course, to Turtle, who I’ve written of many times before. She taught me that your soul mate is not always the same species as you.

And to Ariel, who I lost last month. She taught me that a single act of kindness can change your entire world.

You can see photos of Turtle and Ariel in earlier blogs.

BoysTo Bender and Paco, thank you for being with me today. What would I do without your head butts and forehead licks, Bender? And your nose rubs, Paco? I hope that I can do whatever is needed to make your lives better. We will always have love in this house.

And lest I forget the people:

Thank you friends and family. Thank you to the childhood friends who found me on Facebook (yeah, Facebook can be a huge sucking waste of time, but I’ve reconnected with many people important to my past. It’s also giving me a chance to learn about my nieces and nephews who grew up halfway across the country and a way to get to know my two sisters-in-law.)

Thanks to the friends who found themselves terrific spouses who I’m lucky to also count as my friends.

Thanks to the friends I’ve made in my world travel with Lindblad Expeditions. I look forward to traveling with you again.

Thanks to all of those friends and relatives who have raised intelligent, outspoken, independent, and interesting children. It gives me hope for the future.

Thanks to those of you who have bought my e-books. I hope that I’ve entertained you.

And many thanks to the ancient Mesopotamians for inventing beer.

Dancing in Antarctica (Part II)

Two years ago this week I was in Antarctica, the place of my dreams, stark and cold as it was.  This past week, I’ve watched my trip DVD a couple of times and been wanting to go back. It is a place which possesses a mystical lure that can’t be explained or understood…unless you feel it too.

This week I also took a chance and submitted a name proposal to the United States Geological Survey (specifically, the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names). Yes – you can propose names for geological features (glaciers, bays, inlets, coves, etc.) in Antarctica which do not already have one. But there are rules. And they’re very strict. I knew that when I submitted my proposal. I knew it would be rejected for violating their rules, but I did it anyway. One never knows for sure what the answer is until they ask the question.

So I proposed naming the glacier at Brown Bluff (our last stop on the frozen continent) Turtle Glacier in honor of my beloved cat.  As you can guess though, pet names are one of the big no-no’s on their rule list. But like I said, I tried it anyway. For Turtle.

It took them two days to reject it. So be it. At least I tried.

As I once saw on the internet somewhere: “cats operate on the principle that it never hurts to ask.”  So…kisses to you Turtle. I miss you.

Dance when you can, and always ask questions…even when you know the answer is no.

And now…to a replay of “Dancing in Antarctica – Part II”  I hope you enjoy.

Our first landfall on the Antarctic Peninsula was later the same morning as my first time on the ship’s treadmill.  As I walked back to my cabin, exhilarated for the first time in days, I didn’t think I could feel more light-hearted than I had a few minutes earlier. But when the door closed behind me, my iPod – which I had switched to shuffle mode – began to play “Hey, Hey, Hey” by Michael Franti & Spearhead.

I stopped to listen as the song reached its chorus: “Hey, hey, hey, no matter how life is today, there’s just one thing that I got to say, I won’t let another moment slip away.”

I began to dance. Not a metaphoric dance like on the treadmill. A real dance. I kicked off my running shoes and danced all alone there in the privacy of my cabin. Head bopping, feet tapping, arms waving, fingers snapping, hips swaying.  When the song stopped, segueing into some other tune I don’t remember – I hit reverse and danced some more.

Dancing 1 I think it was the chorus, not just the beat, that struck a chord in me.  Even as I refused to give in to the hope that my beloved pet was still alive and waiting for me, I knew there was nothing I could do. I simply had to have faith, and allow myself to do just what the song said: “not let another moment slip away.” I’d come all this distance, spent all this money. I needed to savor every minute, every second. To that end, I made another decision.

So, after breakfast, when I dressed in my fleece and parka and big ole’ waterproof boots, I put another piece of equipment in my pocket: the iPod. Following a short zodiac ride to shore there at Neko Harbour, I pulled out my iPod, put in my earbuds, and hit “play” to again hear Franti’s “Hey, Hey, Hey.”  And I danced. Yes, right there, in front of the other tourists, the ship’s crew, and…the penguins. With one colony of gentoos on my left, and another up the hill, and who knows how many penguins waddling and tobogganing past me, I danced. I didn’t care if I looked like a complete and utter fool, or if my dancing wasn’t graceful. Hey – it’s not easy dancing in knee-high insulated boots. I certainly got a lot of attention. People took pictures of me; the National Geographic videographer shot some footage. (Yes, I ended up on the final cut of the video provided to the guests – to their amusement or maybe their annoyance – who knows which).

Dancing 2 I didn’t care about any of that. My feet were on Antarctica – the mainland (peninsula), not just on one of the islands which, depending on ice conditions, is as close as some tourists get. I had made it, made my dream come true. I was happy, finally happy.

By the way, no, I’ve never seen the movie “Happy Feet.”

So I kept dancing, for a little while longer, the honking of the gentoos punctuating the musical notes, before I put away the iPod and took out my camera. There were penguins to photograph…even if they weren’t dancing.

Running on Empty

imageGoing home with the empty cat carrier. How many of us have been through that gut-wrenching experience? My first time was ten years ago with Marian, who woke me up in the middle of the night by jumping onto me in bed, screaming. Not meowing, not howling. Screaming. She promptly lost bladder control, tumbled off the bed, and began dragging herself toward the closet to hide. Her back legs would no longer work. I rushed her to the emergency veterinary clinic and was given a grim, devastating prognosis: saddle thrombosis (i.e., a blood clot in the abdominal aorta). It was, as the vet explained, one of the most excruciatingly painful ways for a quadruped to die. My decision was a no-brainer. She’d been too good of a companion for me to let her suffer. The vet ended it quickly, although not before Marian bit me in the face. That was my fault. I was trying to comfort her and just as the vet was saying “be careful, an animal in that much pain will bite” (literally – the words were just out of her mouth), Marian turned around and went ‘chomp’ – my nose was swollen for three days.

When Turtle died last year at home I took her to the vet in an Amazon.com box. It was an undignified method of transport, but I just couldn’t bear the thought of taking home an empty carrier. (Sorry, Turtle.) But yesterday, I braved that emotion once again when I took in Ariel for what I knew would be her final trip. She had stopped eating, was very confused, could barely walk, and had even peed in her bedding and then laid down where she had just peed. There was no dignity left for her, no peace, only pain and suffering. But I knew the staff at Broadway Pet Hospital would give her that dignified, peaceful ending. That last ‘magic carpet ride’ (as the attending vet called it) bundled in a warm towel to be taken into the back for insertion of a catheter to make administration of the fatal drug easier for her.

I held her head as she passed, grateful that I could be there for her. Grateful that I was privileged enough to be her mommy the last half of her life. I told her that Turtle was waiting for her to show her the way. And so was Sammy, the cat with whom she had shared a home the first half of her life (Sammy died earlier this year). I’m grateful to have been given the opportunity to watch over her in her golden years. Admittedly, it wasn’t something I wanted to do. I already had enough cats, and – to be brutally honest – I did not like Ariel. Not only had my experience with Siamese cats been traumatic (friend Lisa had a Siamese named Chandar who hated me & stalked me whenever I visited), but Ariel was a nasty, bitchy little cat. I only took her in because I felt sorry for her previous owner who was temporarily in a housing situation which did not allow pets. Little did I know that Ariel’s bad temperament was due to three rotten molars. Teeth that had been bad for years (not just months), meaning she had been suffering horrible pain for years. After a month or so of recovery from their extraction, Ariel’s personality changed like flipping a light switch. She couldn’t get enough of expressing her gratitude by climbing into my lap and purring away. True to her somewhat solitary nature, that activity didn’t last forever, but she became the sweet cat she should always have been.

If only her previous owner (someone who I’m no longer friends with because of her oblivious nature and inability to listen to anyone – including those she claimed were her friends) had paid attention to her and given her the regular veterinary care a cat requires. But true to her nature, the ex-friend had no concept of the need for maintenance. That may not sound like an appropriate term to use for pets, but just as you need to maintain your car or any household appliances, your animals need that kind of care too. I can’t count the number of things in this woman’s house which were no longer operable because she either couldn’t take proper care of them or keep track of needed parts.  But, to her credit, when I informed the previous owner that I had “just spent $900 on what is now MY cat, thank you very much” she did not contest ownership, recognizing that the cat was better off in my care.

I’m glad that I got to show Ariel that she was loved. That humans were good. That her experiences were not representative of humans in general. I’m not just talking about the lack of proper care either. Her previous owner’s mother, with her bizarre and cruel sense of humor, would place Ariel in plastic grocery bags and then hang her from door knobs or the backs of chairs, and then either leave her there to climb out on her own or tickle her until she got irritated and jumped out. Until the day, of course, Ariel turned around and attacked her tormenter. This resulted in the mother saying, “this cat is vicious – you must declaw her immediately.” And the ex-friend obliged. While I feel there are rare justifications for declawing a cat, this is not one of them. I objected. And I told my ex-friend to tell her mother to stop torturing the cat. Her response: “I’ve asked her.” I said “It’s your house. It’s your cat. Don’t ask. TELL her.” Her response: “I can’t tell her what to do. She’s my mother.” Bullshit. No offense to my mom, if she ever did that to one of my pets (which she would never do!), I’d kick her out of my house. But this ex-friend didn’t have the guts.

Now, before you go form a lynch mob to string this cruel woman up, she passed a few years ago. Not to speak ill of the dead (well, I guess I just did, didn’t I?): good riddance, God rest your evil little soul. At least her passing saved me the awkward conversation with Ariel’s previous owner (still my friend at that time) to confess that I never liked her mother anyway. There was something wrong with that woman. And before you ask, no I did not inform her previous owner that Ariel was near death or invite her to see her one last time. She forfeited that right some time ago.

image

Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright

imageTonight, the fire in her eyes still burns brightly…but for how long? She is 19 years old, her kidney function is nearly non-existant, her desire for food is waning, and the muscles in her back legs are wasting away threatening her ability to walk and stand. Every other day she looks and acts like she’s at death’s door, and then the next day she stands up (albeit wobbly) with an eager expression of “feed me!”

All pet owners have been there…on death watch. I hate to call it that, but that’s what it is. Looking for that fine line between “life is still good” and “ready for a peaceful forever sleep.”  There comes that moment when our pets tell us it’s time for them to go, but sometimes is so hard to recognize as we wallow in our denial and impending grief.

After last Thursday, I was convinced she would be dead by Friday, or at least would not live through the weekend. But here she is today, with enough spunk to once again fool me into thinking that she swallowed that pill I just stuck down her throat.  “No, really, human, I did, can’t you see me pretending to swallow? Don’t watch while I turn my head and spit the pill out on the bathroom floor.” Crafty little skinny one, she is.

I look at her and wonder what wings dare she aspire? To fly away to heaven or stay for a few more days on this mortal earth? Would she rather be left alone to die in peace? Or would she welcome one more head rub even while she protests one more hug? I think that may be it, that moment when I pick her up and she does not protest being held, that I will know she is no longer herself.

And then we will both water heaven with our tears.