24 January 2015

How Wally Came to Live with us

Photo by John Rogers
Several of my acquaintances are fans of my ginger cat, Wally. So I thought I would leave the morose blog entries behind for a change and tell you about how Wally came to adopt us.
It was the spring of 2012. We were still living in the 14 x 20 cabin we'd had trailered onto the place in August 2011 after the house burned down. The new house was not yet under construction and with all our accoutrement for daily living, a minimum amount of clothing for both teaching and farm work, and all the paperwork that resulted from insurance claims, mortgage pay outs, and ideas for the new house (plus an elderly dog), we were pretty tightly packed in.
Population explosion
Every spring we have a cat population explosion on the farm. I also suspect that there are signs erected in various parts of the county that read, "Free Food at the Joneses," written in a language only felines understand. Our "farm cats" are feral, and we don't have the time, skill, or finances to catch them all and have them neutered. So every spring, tiny kittens of all shapes, colors, and temperaments show up around the out buildings. Nature abhors imbalance, however, so predation, illness, and bad genes often solve the cat population explosion problem by the following spring. Cat numbers fluctuate – we've had as many as 30, which we feed twice a day to try to save the birds and small critters that would be their prey if they were hungrier – but usually, the problem is under some semblance of control.
We interfere from time to time if a kitten (or kittens) seems to be suffering or abandoned. We don't want a lot of cats on the place, but we can't bear to let them wither under our gaze. So we adopt a cat or two almost every spring. Until recently, we saw our duty to be to rescue the kitten, if possible, raise it to adulthood, meanwhile introducing it to the great outdoors where we would rather it live. However, once used to the plentiful food supply, comfortable environment, and opposable thumbs in the house, most rescued kittens become indoor/outdoor cats. It is this status that also means that we lose a lot of cats we have raised from tiny fur balls. It can be emotionally disturbing. Rhino, Bart, the Rodentia Brothers, Barney, Bailey, and others have become cherished companions, only to not return one day from an outside excursion.
This persistent loss of a fur buddy, coupled with the cramped quarters of the cabin, caused us, in the Spring of 2012 to decide we would rescue no kittens that spring. There was no place for a litter box in the cabin, no room for cat beds or cat toys, and no time for two-hour bottle feedings and kitten taming. Both of us agreed.
Then one evening, the Food Guy was teaching a night class. This meant that the responsibility for feeding horses, donkeys, outside cats, chickens, and the dog, was all mine. I completed my chores in a familiar pattern: Feed the dog and the cats; yell at the dog for eating cat food; feed and water the horses and donkeys; return to see if the cats needed any more food; check on the chickens; make sure cats and chickens had enough water. Once that was accomplished, I could return to the cabin with the dog, fix my supper, and settle in for the evening, doing any school work that needed doing or just vegging in front of the tube. However, in the course of my chores, I noted that I hadn't seen Bailey for a couple of days. She had a litter of kittens in the barn, and they were all as cute as baby animals always are. There were a couple of calicoes, like their mother, a couple of tabbies, because we always get those, and one ginger cat. I checked on them, and they were all complaining about empty stomachs and being afraid. It was clear that Bailey had met with some misfortune. After the wave of sadness passed, I realized that these kittens five or six kittens needed rescuing. And regardless of any agreement the Food Guy and I had made, there was no way we could raise that many kittens. However, another queen – Socks – had just had a litter of kittens, too, just a week or so after Bailey gave birth. Socks is a good mother – she has huge litters (especially for such a little cat), and they almost always all live to weaning age. She'd even adopted some kittens from another abandoned little the year before. I didn't know how many kittens of her own she had because she was sequestered under a storage building we call "the Guest Quarters."
I decided I could take Bailey's whole litter and leave them just inside the one-time chicken wire barrier under the Guest Quarters. She would hear their cries and come to get them to add them to her own brood. As I deposited the bundles of mewing fur, my stomach growled to remind me I hadn't had my supper yet. So I resolved to have something to eat and check on the kittens after that.
About 30-40 minutes later, I walked out to the Guest Quarters to find that two of the kittens had disappeared. So it appeared that my plan was working. It was still daylight, so not predators were likely to have carried them off. I returned to the cabin to watch a favorite television program, resolving to check on the kittens later.
Wally - about three weeks old
Sure enough, at about the second commercial break, another kitten had disappeared. About three remained, and they were howling their heads off by this time, having gradually edged their way farther under the Guest Quarters. During my next check, it was dark, and I had to bring a flashlight. The only one left was the little ginger kitten, and he was complaining loud and long about his fate. I decided to give Socks a bit more time to rescue him and left him screaming. However, upon my return, he was still screaming, still un-rescued, and now far under the Guest Quarters, so I couldn't reach him. Now I was worried about some raccoon or possum or tom cat killing him. It would be my fault, because I took him from his hidey-hole in the barn and moved him to the cold, bare dirt under the Guest Quarters. I laid down the flashlight so it illuminated most of the area I was concentrating on and I tried calling him gently. "Here kitty, kitty, kitty!" I called soothingly and softly. I patted the ground. He'd take a few steps and then freeze with fear. I don't know how long it took, but eventually I grabbed him, spitting and squalling as if I were trying to kill him.
I clutched his little furry body to my chest and spoke soothingly, returning once again to the cabin. "The Good Guy is gonna kill me," I thought. He was far too young to know how to lap water or milk and certainly wasn't weaned. But all the kitten bottles and nipples had burned up in the fire. I didn't even have an eye dropper. I found a rag and tried dripping kitten formula replacement (I know of a recipe that's posted on the Internet) into his mouth. He wailed.
The Food Guy came home and saw me with the ball of orange fur napping in my lap. He's such a softie, though, there were no recriminations. He even assisted in the Wally raising. However, no matter how much food, affection, or comfort we offered, the little orange ball of fur insisted on screaming his fool head off. So he became "Wally" – short for "caterwauler."
Rhino finds a use for Wally
In a week or so, we noticed that Socks was being reduced to skin and bones. Nursing both her little and her little adoptees was taking a heavy toll. There wasn't much I could do for her. She insisted on keeping most of them under the Guest Quarters, so we couldn't help feed them. And we couldn't adopt them all. But I thought, a sibling might keep Wally from screaming all the time, and at least that would be one less for Socks to nourish. So I patiently waited until one of her extended brood would wobble out from under the Guest Quarters, and I nabbed her. She was a grey, marbled bit of fluff that wasn't any happier about my catching her than Wally had been. I carried her to the cabin and placed her in the cardboard box where Wally spent his time when we wasn't being fed, cuddled, or otherwise cared for. (Do you know you have to make a kitten poop? Yeah, they don't tell you that.) The two of them hit it off immediately. She was not one of his actual litter mates, but they were within a week's age of one another, and they slept as a multicolor ball and played together and grew up together. We had recently seen the animated movie, Wall-E, and the robot's "love" in the movie was another robot named EVE, which Wall-E pronounced more like "Eve-a." So the grey tabby kitten became Eva.
They got along as if they'd been litter mates, and Rhino didn't mind them being around too much, especially if he could use them as pillows. After all, he'd finally been granted permission to sleep on the bed, so life was good. Wally and Eva grew, got fat, got in trouble, and ingratiated themselves with "Uncle Rhino." They got fleas, so we put flea collars on them; however, Wally – delicate flower that he is – developed a rash, so the flea collar had to come off, replaced with near-daily flea-hunts with a flea comb and a pair of tweezers. (The Food Guy is really good at this.)
Wally and his Thunder Shirt
Time finally came to visit the vet for the dreaded "snip" and their final shots. I dropped them off before I went to work and received the call about mid-morning that Eva had had an allergic reaction to the anesthesia and died. But I had to get ready for a class, so I couldn't spend too much time mourning. I picked up Wally that afternoon and took him home. He wandered all over the cabin, looking for Eva, back to his caterwauling. Rhino was no comfort. And his butt hurt.
Frances and Wally
He continued to pine for his little buddy Eva, and while he grew and had good times, he also seemed to be developing some bad habits. It probably didn't help that Rhino, too, disappeared. Wally started pulling his hair out (in between screaming fits), so I bought a Thunder Shirt, hoping it would calm him. It did, but you can't leave a cat alone with one on because they can't jump. The first few times I put it on Wally, he just fell over. So it was a temporary fix. We've tried changing his litter, changing his food, brushing him (which he loves), and he enjoys napping on the Food Guy's lap in the evening. He spends a little time outdoors, but had a bad scare once and now never strays far from the back door.

He grew most of his hair back when Frances came to live with us in 2013. But once she grew up, they grew apart. We rescued two more kittens in 2014 – Timmie and Tippy – and he (nor Frances) have any time for them at all. Wally has begun to boycott sleeping with the Food Guy (and me) because the kittens are on the bed at night. He won't eat treats; he'll eat only Purina Kit N Kaboodle®, although he has developed a taste for the kitten chow. I think he eats it to try to starve them. We board him if we're going to be gone for more than a couple nights because someone has to monitor the hair pulling. You can tell where he's been hanging out because there are little tufts of ginger hair scattered about. He has an almost constant rash and had become immune to steroid injections. We may have finally conquered his chronic ear infections. He's afraid of strangers and thinks the dog, Madra, is from another planet. He's no prize. But he loves me and the Food Guy – especially the Food Guy because he knows how to brush him best. Maybe we'll be able to enjoy Wally's company for a long, long time.

Supervising garden projects
All photos are by B A Saunders-Jones unless otherwise noted.

07 January 2015

Life Goes On

I still remember the day, a little more than three years ago now. We were stuck in that little cabin because the progress on building the house had hit half a dozen snags. I was just getting over the flu, and it was cold outside, so my husband was feeding the horses while I waited to start supper. My mobile phone rang, and someone from somewhere in Georgia asked for my husband. I was ugly. I hate spam phone calls and am suspicious of anyone who contacts me electronically who I don't know. But it felt – bad. Adrenaline suddenly coursed through my veins, and I felt as if I were buzzing all over -- vibrating. The caller asked when my husband would be available. I told them to call back in about 30 minutes, and they hung up. I started to pace.

Who would be calling him on my phone? Who would be calling from Georgia? It had to be bad news, but what kind of bad news would come from Georgia – especially a place I'd never heard of – Gainesville? His oldest daughter had recently been in Florida. There's a Gainesville there. But this woman said Georgia. I never once thought it had anything to do with my oldest son, John. Besides, he was in a suburb of Atlanta. And he was safe. You spend your whole life making sure your children are safe. You do whatever it takes to keep them safe and give them everything they need to be smart, attractive, successful, and safe. To feel loved. You set curfews and argue about curfews, you get them vaccinations, braces, eye glasses, contacts, expensive athletic shoes. You search for the best doctor. You buy them band instruments and send them on field trips. You buy them blue jeans and get them driving lessons. You stay up all night when they break curfew, and you die a little when they have to get stitches or are sick.

Besides both my sons were grown-ups now. They knew how to keep themselves safe. That didn't keep me from worrying, but I was confident in John's ability to be safe, to take precautions, and to still have a full life. He was a skydiver, for pete's sake. And I'd bought him his reserve 'chute. Besides, it was too cold to jump in December.

I worried myself nearly sick until my husband returned from his chores and I explained what was going on. He dutifully returned the call and spoke to someone on the other line for what seemed like an interminable time. Then he hung up and said, "You need to sit down." Now I could feel my heart about to explode, my whole body vibrating with fear and adrenalin. "I don't want to sit down!" I insisted. "What's going on?" This once, he wouldn't tolerate my stubborn attitude. He made me sit down. He said, "There's been an accident." He wasn't talking about his daughter now, was he? He was far too calm. And why was I sitting down?

"What do you mean, 'there's been an accident'?" I demanded.

"Well, I'm not sure," he stammered. "They may have got it wrong. But the woman was calling from Gainesville, Georgia, and I think John's been hurt in a traffic accident."

I stood up. John doesn't live in Gainesville! What was he doing in Gainesville? What's wrong with him? I fired questions at him as if it were his fault. Something was squeezing my heart and it was difficult to breathe. If felt like someone was choking me.

"It could be a mistake," he offered. "But he's hurt really badly. But it could be a mistake." I see now that he was trying not to tell me the one thing I didn't want to hear. The one thing I couldn't hear.
I was pacing now, breathing so fast but feeling as if I were suffocating. I thought I would vomit or faint; maybe it would be a blessing if I did faint. I wanted to run away but there was nowhere to go. I don't know how long this went on, with his suggesting that perhaps we should plan to drive to Georgia. There were phone calls – John's father's wife, John's boss. His company wanted to fly us to Georgia and put us up in a hotel. We needed to leave right away, but it was already dark. We were going to drive there in a week or so anyway for Christmas. Let's just go ahead and drive; we'll drive all night. I needed to call John's brother. I needed to talk to John. Where's John? What's happened to John?

And I kept thinking of my husband saying, "Maybe there's been a mistake." So there was hope. Maybe there was. Who did John know in Gainesville? Maybe it wasn't him at all. We didn't leave until the next morning, and we drove straight through. We nearly wrecked the car twice. People called to give us the name of a good attorney. People called from Australia. We got in so late – about three in the morning -- that we couldn't go anywhere. My husband said we needed to sleep. I couldn't sleep. There was this constant vise-grip on my heart, this constant feeling a nausea, wanting to faint, but wanting to stay conscious. Wanting to go find John and seeing that it was all a mistake.
There was still hope.

Then we drove to the hospital and John's father and brother went one way and we went the other – looking for answers until someone asked us if we wanted the clothes John had been wearing. I just couldn't think any more. Why wasn't John wearing his clothes? What funeral home did we want him sent to?

"Funeral home." And hope was gone.

And I'm thinking all this, three years and 22 days later, while I'm taking a pumice stone to my dry heels in the shower. And I think if I don't stop, my feet will be as torn and bruised as my heart. So I put down the pumice stone and burst into tears, the water from the shower head washing away the teardrops, but not my sobbing, which has upset the dog who has been waiting patiently for me on the other side of the bathroom door. So I turn off the water and try to stop crying while I towel off. I open the door and try to soothe the dog, who really just wants to take a nap. I think I'd better have some lunch, and the washing machine signals that it's time to put the laundry in the dryer.

So life goes on. The new house was finally built, and we moved in. We got a dog. We go to work. I do laundry and try to maintain good health and beauty practices. Like exfoliating my heels, taking showers, brushing my teeth, getting haircuts. Life goes on for everyone but John, who had his taken away by some careless woman driving a minivan, who may have been affected by prescription medication she had been taking but was no longer taking on the day she killed my son. So she gets community service and probation. She gets to see her children whenever she wants. She lives with the guilt, but she still has hope.