Wednesday, January 5, 2011


We spent some time this past December in Wisconsin, visiting my husband’s family. His sister Claire and her husband Mario (and their two-year-old, Nina) live on and work an organic farm, Clario Farms, in Kewaunee County. We always love staying there. They sell their vegetables and berries at the farmer’s market in Sturgeon Bay, but they couldn’t get by without the money they make from selling eggs from their beautiful heritage-breed chickens, and meat from their livestock. (And their full-time jobs.) The cows and lambs have names and are loved, but they are always destined for market. When the hens are old and tired, they become supper. Birth and death, roses (or tomatoes) and garbage (or compost, or food for the chickens) are part of the cycle here.

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I wouldn’t say that Claire and Mario have become hardened in the face of so much end-of-life, but they do accept it as part of the life they have chosen. Yet both Claire and Mario, and even Nina, were deeply affected when, over the past year, so many of their pets, or near-pets, died.

Mr. Toes, an old cat from their city days, and Izzie, a barn kitten they had semi-tamed, both fell victim to the county road in front of their house. DeeDeetz, another barn kitten, simply disappeared. Bold and friendly where her brother Smokey was shy, DeeDeetz had a habit of climbing into visitors’ laps and cars. Perhaps she inadvertently drove off with the UPS guy, though numerous phone calls to UPS and to subsequent stops on the route turned up no DeeDeetz. Perhaps she was carried off by a coyote. All they know is that she is gone without a trace.

Most wrenching has been the loss of Pogo, their black standard poodle. Pogo was part of their family for twelve years. He was a Pogohandsome and intelligent dog. And very affectionate. He was a little jealous when Nina was born, but soon enough he became a protective big brother to her. He tolerated all kinds of abuse from her little hands and fingers. When we were up on the farm last summer, his coat was frosted with gray, and he seemed to be slowing down. Claire and Mario knew that they were moving toward the end of their time with him.

But when the end came, it was awful. One evening Pogo was stricken with an attack of twisted stomach, or bloat. (The technical term is Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus.) The condition is excruciatingly painful for the dog and extremely distressing for his keepers to witness. An attack is life-threatening and often fatal. Claire and Mario had been on the lookout for bloat from the beginning, as broad-chested dogs such as standard poodles are prone to it. They had always taken every preventive step. Yet age makes the condition more likely. When the crisis was clear, they loaded Pogo and toddler Nina into the car and began a desperate, hours-long journey from one vet center to another. They ended up in an animal emergency care center in Green Bay. There, they were advised that euthanasia was the most humane choice. So they said their goodbyes and let Pogo go.

They cried for days, and still find themselves in tears to think about it.

After several weeks, hoping to rise out of her funk, Claire decided to adopt another dog from a nearby shelter. Her name was Scarlett. She was a sweet, puppyish poodle mix who enjoyed the farm. But within a month or so, it was clear that Scarlett needed a different home. She had a tendency to attack smaller creatures, including their remaining house cat, Wilma. She wasn’t adjusting to sharing Claire and Mario with others, namely Nina. They made the painful decision to rehome Scarlett to a family where she could be an only child. With the help of the county shelter program, they were able to do that.

Come December, Claire and Mario were shaken by the many losses they had experienced, though the year had brought its share of bounty as well.

Here in Brooklyn, we also mourned these losses. In particular, we felt the pain of Pogo’s final ordeal. He had been a member of our extended family. And our son, Owen, had enjoyed romping with him around the property, especially in summers when his cousin Anna would be visiting the farm as well. The death of the kitten Izzie was hard on Owen and Anna, too. They had fallen in love with her two summers before. And Owen particularly relished her company over Christmas two years ago, when Nina was a boring newborn.

Amidst so much loss, it was especially moving this Christmas trip to watch as hearts opened toward the remaining barn kitten, Smokey.

SmokeySmokey had always been skittish, avoiding interactions with people. But when DeeDeetz disappeared, Smokey seemed to feel lonely. Perhaps he was also cold, sleeping on his own now in one of the sheds. Mario said that he’d seen Smokey checking him out. (Claire wasn’t surprised; she says that Mario has a way with animals, especially cats.) If Mario sat very still and spoke very quietly, Smokey would sometimes approach and rub against Mario’s boots, or even jump up next to him. Sometimes he allowed himself to be petted. But with any sudden noises or moves, Smokey would scramble away. And Claire and Nina still couldn’t get near him.

Claire and Mario felt skittish themselves about taming another barn kitten. They were hesitant about getting too attached, so soon. Yet they had managed to bring home a big bag of kitten kibble and a new litter box. Just in case.

Our first night there, Mario spotted Smokey hanging around outside the kitchen door. Owen watched him through the window for a few minutes, then went out to “make friends with him.” I wasn’t surprised when Owen came back later saying that Smokey had come right up to him and let him pet him. Owen has a way with animals, especially cats.

Owen started asking that Smokey be allowed into the mudroom between the kitchen door and the kitchen proper. The space was unheated, but Owen felt it would be warmer than the barn or Smokey’s usual shed. Nina also wanted Smokey to be near, so that she could give him food and water. She wanted whatever Owen wanted. “Smokey food. Smokey come in house.”

Claire relented to the idea of Smokey trying out the mudroom. It would be a good way to see if he would use a litter box. So the kibble bag was opened, plastic bowls found, and litter poured into the tray. Claire kept saying she hadn’t prepared for this, yet she had. Then Owen and Nina wanted to make a bed for Smokey. Claire helped them tuck a worn towel into an old diaper box. Owen considered carefully before deciding where the bed should go. Nina helped place it just so.

There is one image that is fixed in my mind. Owen was holding a bowl with water, and Nina a bowl with kibble. They had opened the inner kitchen door, and were calling to Smokey through the opened outer door. Nina came up to just above Owen’s knee. Owen, a lanky young teenager just about my height now (five foot five), stepped carefully to keep his big feet clear of Nina’s little feet. “Smokey! Come here, Smokey!” they both called in soft, high voices. To see Owen’s tenderness toward Smokey and Nina reminded me again what a great kid he is, in spite of his frequent anti-tender disguises.

Smokey came in and devoured the kibble. Smokey poked his head through the inner doorway, beckoned by Owen and Mario. Smokey accepted lavish petting and cooing. (“This kitten needs love,” Owen said.) Smokey advanced through the kitchen and as far as the Christmas tree in the living room before running back to the mudroom. Smokey spent the night in the diaper box bed and used the litter box, too. It was a good night for Smokey.

The next day, though, Smokey wasn’t interested in entering the mudroom. He mostly stayed in the barn or one of the other outbuildings. Owen searched him out. Smokey didn’t want to come near the house, but when someone approached, he would find cover for just a moment, then come out for petting. In what was called the milking shed (even though the cattle on this farm aren’t milked), Smokey would jump onto a cooler, then to a bench, then to a high table in order to be most easily petted. Owen spent a lot of time out there.

The afternoon came, and it was time for us to leave. I joined Owen in the milking shed to give a “good-bye pet” to Smokey. That’s where I took this photo of Owen, nose to nose with his new friend.

Soon the car was loaded and it was time to go.

“Bye, Smokey,” I said. “See you next time we’re here.”

“If he’s not dead,” Owen said.

“Yeah,” I said quietly. “Or, moved on to a different manifestation.”

Owen ruffled through Smokey’s fur a few more times, then said, “Okay, let’s go.”

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From No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life:
The true nature of all things is not to be born, not to die, not to arrive and not to depart. My true nature is the nature of no coming and no going. When there are sufficient conditions, I manifest, and when the conditions are no longer sufficient, I hide. I do not go anywhere. Where would I go? I simply hide.
If your dear one has just died, you may have a difficult time overcoming your loss. You may be crying all the time. But look deeply. There is a divine medicine to help you overcome your pain, to see that your dear one is not born and does not die, does not come and does not go. … Our beloved is not lost. … Our beloved is manifesting in a different form. If we can understand this, then we will suffer much less. (pp. 64-65)

*   *   *

Peace is a cow chewing its cud. Three cows are a revelation.

P.S. I directed Claire and Mario to this post, and they got back to me with news about DeeDeetz:

I do have some happy yet bittersweet news, though! We found Deedeetz! Mario saw a post on Craigslist from Luxemburg, a town about 15 miles west, about a found Calico cat. He emailed the guy and it turned out to be Deedeetz! He found her in the parking lot of the Subway! She must have gotten in that UPS truck and rode quite a few stops before she disembarked. He instantly loved her and asked if he could keep her and we said yes. She always wanted to be a housecat and wanted more attention than she was getting here, and the guy has a really good home for her with other cats she loves playing with. So I'm pretty sad we didn't get her back, but for some reason it felt like the right thing to do. More than anything I'm so happy that she is alive and well and didn't suffer a terrible, violent death.
We decided to take care of any cat that shows up at our house, but to never bring a cat onto the property because death is so imminent.
So we're feeling "happy now," to quote Nina.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing this time, this place, this cast of characters. Lovely to spend some moments on the farm.


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