Thursday, July 12, 2018

Mel

A few days ago I said goodbye to our dear cat Mel. Mel had been sick for some time, losing weight and appetite, and our veterinarian ran blood work, tried special diets, took x-rays, and, finally, faced with a cat who was dwindling away for no obvious reason, suggested I take Mel to Cornell University, to the teaching veterinary hospital there.

Mel came to us as a young cat, selected from the local animal shelter because our cat Luna needed a companion, or at least I thought so. I'm not sure Luna agreed. We were Mel's second adoptive home, I was told. The first adoptive family had a dog who simply wouldn't accept Mel, so Mel went back to the shelter. He was an absolutely beautiful young cat, with a glowing brown and black tabby coat and green eyes. When I took him to our vet for the first time, everyone in the lobby cooed over how handsome he was.

Mel was a curious and friendly cat, and he had some distinctive habits that were endearing. All right, maybe the shredding of cardboard boxes with his teeth was not that endearing, but when I heard the sound of a box being deconstructed, I usually knew it was time to go check the cat food supply. Mel apparently believed that, if you could see the bottom of the bowl, even a little, the bowl needed more food. Also, for some reason Mel was fixated on my husband's terry cloth bathrobe. Mel would lie in my husband's arms, kneading the fabric of the robe, and sucking on it, as if he was nursing.

Mel had a favorite toy we called "Dot" - the little red dot of a laser pointer on the wall in the hallway. Mel would leap into the air, reaching astonishing height, in pursuit of Dot. He enjoyed licking plastic - plastic bags, mostly. A couple of times I had to disentangle him from a grocery bag he had managed to wrap around his neck. And, for whatever reason, if I came home from the beauty salon with hair spray on my head, he wanted to eat the hair.

Mel probably set a record for our cats in getting shut into a closet for hours at a time. Whenever I went to my closet, I had to double-check Mel's whereabouts before I shut the door. And, speaking of doors, Mel got our of the house once for a couple of days. I was frantic. A neighbor later told me she thought she had seen a raccoon up a tree in her backyard. No, that was our Mel. He came back after a couple of days and seemed glad to be home, but for ever after, he would try to slip out the front door if given the chance. Taking the garbage out required one person to take the garbage out, and one person to make sure Mel didn't make a break for it.

The morning a hose on our washing machine broke, and flooded our family room and kitchen, Mel came and fetched my husband out of bed. It was simply not acceptable to a cat to have your food bowl sitting in standing water. If not for Mel's vigilance, the damage to our home (which was substantial) might have been much worse.

Of all our cats, Mel is the one who touched the most people. One after another, visitors to our home would say they had a special bond with Mel, would look forward to seeing him, would mention him in passing. Everyone had a special bond with Mel. I think he just tended to trust the humans he encountered.

As Mel got older he began to acquire senior diseases - hyperthyroidism, chronic pancreatitis. He hated taking pills, could eat all around a pill in one of those green pill pockets, would spit out a pill after you were sure he had swallowed it, and was extraordinarily good at avoiding the whole affair, by hiding under the bed in our guest bedroom. My arms were not long enough to reach him, and a couple of times I genuinely got stuck trying to fetch him out. My husband thought this was entertaining. I blessed the day the vet prescribed an ointment formulation of his thyroid medicine. It could be rubbed in his ear, and would be absorbed through the skin.

In the last couple of months it became clear that Mel was losing weight at an accelerating rate. He was obviously a very sick cat, yet the cause eluded us. When I took Mel to Cornell, I knew we were probably going to get bad news, but I hoped Mel might have a few days or a couple of weeks left.

Two days after leaving Mel at Cornell, I drove down to talk with Mel's oncologist about a possible fine needle aspiration of his pancreas. We had been debating the risks (bleeding or triggering acute pancreatitis) vs. the value of the test results. But when I arrived, she gently told me that she knew what was going on, and I wouldn't like it. Mel had an inoperable tumor, hidden under his tongue. It was clear that the only choice for Mel was euthanasia. I consulted with my husband, and we agreed the best choice would be to euthanize Mel there, at Cornell, rather than putting him through the stress of a three-hour car ride to bring him home. The doctor had given Mel pain medication, and she said I could have as much time as I needed with him. She would have someone check on us every twenty or thirty minutes, and when I was ready she would come in and perform the procedure. I asked for grooming tools and a bowl of water. I also said that when the time came, I would like to say a prayer, if no one had any objections. No one did.

So I sat in an exam room with Mel for over two and a half hours: grooming him, petting him, telling him what a great guy he was. Every so often he would take a long drink of water, then come back and rub up against the grooming brush, or rub up against my leg. Mel was alert, listening to sounds in the room around us, but not in the least anxious or afraid. I took some pictures and a video of him drinking. It was just the two of us, and I wasn't thinking about what was coming, or at least not too much. Mel hadn't been grooming himself and looked pretty ratty, but by the time I was done he looked a lot more like himself. A skinny version of himself, but still.

When I was ready, the doctor came in. I said I wanted to tell a story and say a prayer, and then she could proceed.

This is the story I told:

Several years ago, I would visit the women in the Schenectady county jail for my church. One Sunday, someone asked how I was doing, and I said I was said because one of our cats had just died. The young woman said, I hope this won't offend you, but I'd like to tell you a joke. I told her to go ahead, and this is the joke she told me: Two mice died and went to heaven. They knocked on the pearly gates, and St. Peter said, "Come on in." They went inside and looked around and one of them said, "This is great! Lots of grass, trees for shade, water in the distance, but it's so big! How are we going to get around?" St. Peter said, "No problem" and passed out four pairs of roller skates. The two mice strapped them on and headed off into heaven. Soon after, two cats died and went to heaven. They knocked on the pearly gates, and St. Peter said, "Come on in." They went inside and looked around and one of them said, "This is great! Lots of grass, trees to climb, water, and - Look! - they've even got Meals on Wheels!"

Then I said a prayer, thanking God for blessing us with Mel, acknowledging that we were returning Mel to Him, and looking forward to the time when God would, as he had promised, make all things new, and we would encounter a renewed Mel. I said Amen, and one of the veterinary students said Amen, and then the doctor took over. She was gentle, she explained every step of the procedure, and described things I might observe that could be disturbing. But there were no issues at all. Mel was calm, and the procedure went smoothly. He had a catheter in his leg, so there wasn't even a needle stick. Once he had the sedative and drifted off to sleep, his head slipped over the side of the cushion he was on. Reflexively I said, "Mel, don't fall off the bed." The doctor continued with the procedure. At a certain point, very quickly, I could feel Mel... stop. The doctor listened to his heart, and confirmed what I knew. He was gone. I stroked him a few more times, and said, "Meals on wheels, Mel. Meals on wheels." Then they gently gathered him up and took him out of the room.

My last request was for a lint roller. I was wearing black pants, and they were covered with fur.

I know that when you adopt an animal you are signing up for the grief of losing it. I knew that we wouldn't have Mel forever. Losing Mel was hard, but those last few hours with him were a gift. All that fur on my pants - that was cat language for "I love you, too." Meals on wheels, Mel. Meals on wheels.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Identity

On Saturday I attended a workshop for women writers and artists. I didn't know what to expect, so I armed myself with paper and pen (I do crosswords and sudoko in pen, too) and sat down in the first classroom, and waited. There were perhaps ten of us, with the leader, a well-known writer. I wondered if I would be out of my depth.

The theme of the session was miniatures and collections. We shared stories of collecting (or not) and of small items and how they spoke to us, and eventually the leader gave us "prompts" - three possible first lines for a poem.

I chose one and started in. The poem flowed from me. I made a few changes as I wrote, then had time to make a fair copy before we began to share our work.

Some of the participants wrote poems that would break your heart. Poems of loss and tragedy - some with happy endings, and some not so much. Others, like mine, were lighter in tone. I was absurdly pleased with my own work - not because of the poem itself but because I learned something new about myself. It made sense to me. Afterwards, a couple of people approached me to remark on word choices that they liked. It was very affirming.

The second session was held in an art museum. The theme of the session was "ekphrastic" poetry - poetry inspired by a work of art. We visited and discussed a couple of pieces of art, and had handouts with photographs of others and sample poems. The first work of art - really works of art - was a stunning collage by a Nigerian-American who produced a dense work that drew out awed comments from our class (and lots of "No, don't touch" from the museum curator). The second work of art and two of the handouts had the theme of twins. Again, I sat and began to write.

This poem also flowed, though if the first poem had flowed like water from a spring, this was more like lava - I was writing about something that had shaped my self-identity for as long as I could remember - actually, as the poem revealed, for longer than I could remember. I was writing about my identical twin, who died when we were 19 months old. I don't remember her at all, but I have memories about how her loss affected our family. I was sitting next to a friend who has a living twin. It was impossible not to write about my sister.

Again, we shared our work. This time I could see a look - almost of shock - on some of the women sitting opposite me. At the end of the session, the instructor pushed her way to me - practically over some other people - and urged me to have the poem published. I said I could put it on my blog, and she said that would be considered publishing it. I should submit it to a magazine or journal.

Now, for my entire working life I have thought of myself as an engineer. Yes, I wrote a Christmas pageant, and it was electronically published. That was fun, and I was very pleased to learn that a few people actually bought copies, and at least one church (other than my own) has used it. I would be willing to call myself a writer.

But now I have to begin to think of myself as a poet. I am 64 years old. What am I supposed to do with this identity? I am supposed to do poetry, I guess. And see if I recognize myself when I look in the mirror.


Sunday, June 4, 2017

For the sport of it

This is Pentecost Sunday, considered the birthday of the Church. With Easter and Christmas it is one of the "big three" Christian holidays. There's plenty to love about celebrating Pentecost (wear red! read the Gospel in a language other than English! read the Gospel in English, even!). Some churches have birthday cakes. I can remember once as a Sunday School teacher bringing a kite shaped like a dove to church, festooning it with flame-colored ribbons, and hanging it in the stairwell leading to our classroom.

And - yes -did I mention some churches have birthday cakes?

But today, I was struck by two things during the service.

First, that I was going to be sorry to see the Paschal candle leave its prime spot in the chancel after today. Pentecost is considered the last day of Easter season, and so the Paschal candle, which is lit throughout the Easter season, will go into hibernation - at least, until the next baptism. I'll miss it.

Second, of all the scripture readings we heard today, the one that reached out and grabbed me was one of my favorite psalm portions:

Psalm 104, verses 25 through 28

O LORD, how manifold are your works!*
  in wisdom you have made then all;
  the earth is full of your creatures.

Yonder is the great and wide sea
with its living things too many to number,*
  creatures both small and great.

There move the ships,
and there is that Leviathan,*
  which you have made for the sport of it.

All of them look to you*
  to give them their food in due season.

Let me summarize: God has pets! "There is that Leviathan, which you have made for the sport of it." I think of God enjoying, just reveling in, the antics of some great sea monster  (I picture it as something between a whale and a sea-serpent, perhaps throwing itself out of the water and splashing back in). This can't be very different from the way I enjoy watching a cat play, or watching birds outside at the bird feeder.

And all these creatures, Leviathan included, look to God to feed them. Anyone who ever hears one of my cats complaining when one of the food dishes is only partially full will get the image here.

How marvelous is God's creation! And how generous is God, to share with us the ability to delight in other creatures around us, just for the sport of it.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Children of God

Many years ago I was babysitting a friend's children. My friend and her family are observant Jews, and I did my best to honor their beliefs and practices. I expected that once each child had gone through their bat or bar mitzvah, and was a responsible adult under the Jewish Law, I would be comfortable respectfully answering questions about the differences between Christianity and Judaism. Until then, I tried to refer such questions to their parents. As often happens, such plans don't always work.

One of the little boys asked me if my God was the same as their God. I answered, "yes." After all, I believe that I worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But the younger brother immediately gasped "No!" He seemed shocked to identify the God of Christianity with the God of Judaism. For these children, raised in a minority faith, maintaining its boundaries, the very separateness (being set apart)  of their Jewish identity, was critical. So now the older brother politely asked me what the difference was between Christianity and Judaism. I replied diffidently that Christians believe Jesus was the Son of God.

I was then informed "All boys are sons of God - all Jewish boys, anyway." So it seemed that my statement, which I thought would be shocking to the boys, was simply considered by them to be a matter-of-fact commonplace. Of course, I didn't get into "only-begotten" and the theology of the Incarnation with these children. But I think I learned a lot more from than they did from me. (I should add that I haven't checked this statement with a Rabbi, who might be able to give me a more nuanced explanation of who is and is not considered a Child of God in Judaism. Are Jewish girls considered "daughters of God"? I don't know.) Certainly, in the Hebrew psalms, we can read of the King claiming to be God's son (see Psalm 2).

Flash forward, and there I am reading the Gospel of Luke, which traces Jesus's ancestry all the way back to "Adam, the son of God." In Acts, St. Paul, speaking to the Athenians, refers to them as "offspring of God." In the Epistles in the New Testament, I learn that baptism makes us adopted heirs, or children of God.

So, who are the children of God? I think of it this way: all human beings, descended from Adam, are created children of God - or at least created in order to be children of God. After all, we are all made in God's image, capable of reason, creativity, love. Then, there are baptized Christians, who are children of God by adoption, by the Grace of God in Jesus Christ, and not for any merit of our own. Finally, there is the only-begotten, Incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ.

It is, of course, perfectly possible that I have this wrong. I know that some Christians do not believe that all humans are children of God. Maybe my ideas are all wrong. But it is refreshing - and challenging - to think that all human beings are, in some sense, my brothers and sisters. Relatives, friends, neighbors, strangers, and enemies - all of us were made in the image of God. This does not mean that baptism is pointless - it binds us to God in a most profound way. For me, it is the very source of my identity. But it is an identiy I claim with humility. How blessed I am to be a created, adopted, beloved, child of God.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Sheep of Thine own Fold

Yesterday, I attended a funeral. It was a celebration of the life of the Right Reverend David Standish Ball, seventh Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Albany.

The entire service - readings, music - had been selected by Bishop Ball himself, and, as the preacher told us, we needed to pay attention to the readings and even the words of the hymns. They all spoke of Bishop Ball's great faith and trust in his Lord Jesus Christ. The Gospel lesson was about Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and the homily included references to sheep, bishop's staffs resembling shepherds' staffs, and more. As I listened, I found myself looking forward to one of my favorite parts of an Episcopal funeral. I know it's strange that I have a favorite part of funerals, but here it is:

The Celebrant, facing the body, says
Into thy hands, O merciful Savior, we commend thy servant
N. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech thee, a sheep of thine
own fold, a lamb of thine own flock, a sinner of thine own
redeeming. Receive him into the arms of thy mercy, into the
blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious
company of the saints in light. Amen.

"...a sheep of thine own fold, a lamb of thine own flock, a sinner of thine own redeeming." Honestly, if I could figure out how to turn this into a t-shirt or coffee-mug slogan, I  would use it. The problem is, any change I could imagine that would make it meaningful to someone who doesn't already understand it - well, any such change would ruin the sheer poetry. But I know that I am a sheep of Jesus's fold, a lamb of His flock, and a sinner of His redeeming. I don't have to wear it on a t-shirt. It was written on my soul at my baptism. It is who I am. It was, of course, who Bishop Ball was. May his memory be a blessing, and may he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Something New about Easter

I was visiting one of my doctors, a faithful Muslim, and told him how wonderful Holy Week and Easter had been.

My doctor asked me what I learned about Easter that was "new". I was taken aback. I know the Easter stories pretty well, and it would be hard to say what is new, though each year I probably focus on something different. So I talked about the Harrowing of Hell, how Jesus "descended to the dead" during the time between his burial and resurrection. He brought Adam and Eve and Abraham and others out of Sheol so they could enter heaven. I said that I hoped that Sheol was outside of time, so that all those who die without encountering Jesus in their lifetime could be liberated. (Of course, that is not - as far as I know - part of Christian doctrine.)

What was new about Easter this year? Perhaps, in struggling to explain Easter to someone else I enriched my own faith. And perhaps I should make a point, each year, of finding the "new" in Easter.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Now We Wait

Today is Holy Saturday, a day of waiting, of holding our breath, of standing on one foot and trying to keep our balance between the tragedy of Good Friday, and the coming joy of the Easter Vigil.

I've read that the Tridium -- the days of Maundy (or Holy) Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil on Saturday evening -- are all a single liturgy, a single event, experienced in three parts. How must it have felt for Jesus's closest disciples, going through these three days without (as we do) knowing there was going to be a happy ending? There they were, in what should have been the joyful season of Passover, suffering through an agonizing loss: suffering grief, and doubtless guilt as well. Should I have died with him? Why did I deny him? Couldn't I have shouted louder at Pilate when he asked if we wanted Jesus or Bar-Abbas? and even How could I have betrayed him? 

They didn't know about Easter, yet. For them the waiting was a time to grieve, and also to try to figure out what to do next. Go home? Hide? Split up? Every step at the door was terrifying. Just speaking in a Galilean accent was incriminating. They must have been beyond hope.

But we are not. We can look forward to the amazing encounters - Jesus in a locked room, Jesus by the seashore, Jesus on the road to Emmaus. I wonder, if only, if only Judas had waited a couple of days before taking his own life, and had given himself a chance to encounter the risen Jesus, what kind of saint he might have made.

This evening we will light candles, ring bells, and sing Alleluia with a full heart. But today, during the day, we are waiting. We are spared the terror of the first disciples, but not the waiting. The time drags on, and the waiting takes as long as it takes. But we know that in the end we will be able to release our breath, stand on both feet and rejoice.

So today, let us honor the waiting. And clasp the joy, when it comes, like a long-lost friend.