Total Hip Replacement 3: Preparing for Surgery

I’m scared of this surgery.  I’ve never had surgery before, I’ve never even been in the hospital.  So it feels like a big deal.  And they’re not just removing a little something, they’re chopping off a hefty chunk of bone and replacing it with artificial pieces.  Makes me a little queasy thinking about it.

I’m mostly scared for two reasons.  First, I had a co-worker many years ago, fit and in her early 40s, who went in for a routine knee surgery to fix her ACL.  Two days later, a blood clot went to her heart and she died almost instantly.  So that freaks me out.  Second, I’m very sensitive to drugs in general and hardly ever take anything.  NyQuil once made me hallucinate.  So I’m scared of the effects of the onslaught of anesthesia, pain killers, antibiotics, blood thinners and whatever else I’m going to get.  I’m afraid I’ll be sick or unhinged for some time after.

And then there’s the joint replacement itself.  Will it take?  Will it work?  How will my body integrate it?  Will everything work right afterwards?  Will I be one of those few whose legs are noticeably different lengths?  At a dinner party, a nurse kindly informed me that sometimes the sciatic nerve gets damaged and you can never flex your foot again.  These things are not pleasant, but my functioning is impaired enough now that ending up slightly wonky doesn’t actually worry me too much.

So I’ve been preparing.  I figure the stronger and healthier I am before this trauma, the better.  So I’m exercising more (luckily I can ride a bike without much pain).  I’m faithfully doing the strengthening and releasing exercises my physical therapist has recommended for all the outraged muscles around both hips.  I’m doing gentle and therapeutic yoga to make sure I don’t freeze up, even though my range of motion is limited now and will be worse for a while.  I’m eating healthy and drinking lots of nourishing and anti-inflammatory teas and things.  Turmeric root and ginger root, for example.  Maybe I can even lose a few pounds.

I’m worried about my horses.  For the first week after surgery, my husband is taking off work and will be around to help me and do horse chores.  After that, it gets sketchier, and I have to do what I hate the most: ask friends and neighbors for help.  I don’t know how long before I should be walking around the muddy paddock carrying feed buckets and climbing through fences, but somehow I think it will take more than a week to get there.

I wish I knew better what to expect in that first week or two.  They tell you generally that you have to walk a lot right away, do your PT exercises, ice your leg.  There will be some pain and swelling.  You’ll have drugs to choose from.  You may need a raised toilet seat, maybe a shower chair.  But what will it actually be like for me and for how long?  I live in the mountains and I don’t know that the walker they recommend will go over bumpy dirt roads, so will I be confined to walking around the house for a while?  All I can do is pile up books to read, collect the equipment they recommend, and stack my Netflix watch list.  And wait to find out.

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Total Hip Replacement 2: Diagnosis

I had an MRI on my left hip at the suggestion of my physical therapist.  I also made an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon specializing in hips.

I got a written report from the MRI people.  Here’s what it said:

  • joint effusion with synovitis
  • degenerative osteoarthritis
  • joint space narrowing and chondromalacia
  • subchondral cystic change
  • exuberant osteophytosis

OK, then.  I spent a lot of time with the online dictionary and learned that my joint was inflamed, there were cysts forming in the fluid parts of the joint, I had bone spurs forming, and greatly reduced space in the joint.  All of it was “moderately severe.”  At least my bone spurs were feeling exuberant.

My tendons were all intact, so the pain I’d been having was not an injury there, but some part of the arthritis complex.

I pretty much freaked out.  I was hoping for a nice little tear to the labrum fluid sac that could be fixed with a micro-surgery.  Or maybe just some inflammation that would respond to more PT and dietary changes.  This sounded much worse.

After fretting over the list of ugly words, I finally got in to see the orthopedist.  Of course I’d been on Google, so I had a list of treatment possibilities to ask him about.  PRP injections, where my own plasma would be concentrated and injected into the joint.  Arthroscopic surgery to do tiny touch-ups.  A thing called a partial hip replacement, that simply put a smooth metal helmet over the femur.

I’m sure doctors love patients who have been on Google.  I know I love it when my legal clients come in knowing all about the law applicable to their case.  Luckily, he was very patient, and luckily he showed me the X-rays first.

I don’t spend a lot of time looking at X-rays, but my left hip looked awful.  There was no visible space between the femoral head and the hip socket.  Everything looked jagged and chaotic.  He showed me another angle, where a bone spur the size of my fingertip was sticking out.  My questions about non-invasive measures dried up in my mouth as the doctor said there was nothing to do but replace the whole thing.  I believed him.

I asked him why this was happening.  I’m young for this.  I have not been an intense athlete.  I am a medium-sized person of healthy weight.  He showed me around the X-rays a little more, pointing out that my hip sockets are too shallow, and more vertical than they should be.  Hip dysplasia.  It was inevitable, he said.  It may have come a little faster because you’re an active person and have fallen from rollerblades and snowboards and horses.  But it was unpreventable.

I left in a bit of a daze.  I had still been hoping for some minor procedure.  I made an appointment for a second opinion.  Doctor two said the same things and reached the same conclusion.  I had few options but the total hip replacement.

The modern technology on this is called the anterior approach.  The incision is made in the front of your hip and your muscles are just pushed aside, rather than being cut.  This makes healing much faster and less painful.  He showed me the prosthesis — a very neat contraption with a titanium stem that gets inserted into the center of the femur and a ceramic ball on top that sits into a nice smooth cup made of plastic and metal.  They are expected to last upwards of 30 years, although there are some failures sooner than that.  If I’m lucky I’ll get into my 80s doing OK and then deal with what comes next in a new era of medical technology.

I didn’t wait very long before scheduling the surgery.  I couldn’t accept the grave limitations on my life.  And if I did it before the end of the year, it would cost me very little as I’d met my deductible and almost my out-of-pocket maximum.  Once I had absorbed the reality on those X-rays, why wait?

 

Total Hip Replacement 1: Symptoms

About two months ago, I learned that I need a total replacement of my left hip joint.  About one month ago, I scheduled the surgery.  In about one more month, it will happen.

I want to blog about it because I was totally confounded by my symptoms for a very long time and could not find any helpful information.  I also found very little specific information on what to expect with the surgery and the rehabilitation.  If these posts can help anyone else going through this procedure, I’ll be happy.

So how did I know my joint was failing?  I didn’t.  For a few years (a bunch of years if you go back to the very first unidentified twinges), I’ve had mysterious, shifting pain in both my legs and hips.  First on the right, then the left, then both sides, then the left again.  At first it was just now and then, until it slowly (over three years or so) became almost constant.  Sometimes my IT band was cramping, then it was my hip flexor, then an adductor, then the glutes.  I mostly noticed it on occasion when walking and, slowly, it got to be reliable on any walk over 30 minutes or so.

At the same time all this was going on, I noticed strange things happening with my left leg.  I did yoga regularly, and all of a sudden, I couldn’t do certain poses on the left side.  Anything that brought my left knee toward my chest or armpit, or anything that twisted my left knee toward my right hip or shoulder, was suddenly impossible.  And it hurt.  Instead of the expected muscles hurting — those on the outside of my left leg and hip that were being stretched — it was my left adductor on the inner thigh and groin that cried out when I tried to twist in its direction.  The adductor is supposed to relax when the leg moves toward the midline, but mine was screaming.

I also felt awkward and clumsy.  My left leg felt strangely weak and unreliable.  Sometimes it would suddenly give and shoot me a twinge of pain.  Standing up and making my way through a crowded restaurant or down the row in a theater was an ordeal — I didn’t trust myself not to fall into people.

This was all very strange.  I never felt anything resembling a swollen or stiff joint, only very angry, sharply complaining muscles.  So I got massage and acupuncture.  I had private yoga lessons.  I saw a Rolfer and checked with my chiropractor.  No one could explain my bizarre symptoms or why stretching and massaging weren’t helping.

It got bad.  I could no longer walk more than 20 minutes without a lot of pain.  I had pain after yoga class, pain after sweeping the floor.  I still thought I had strangely tight muscles for some unknown reason, but it was impairing my life too much.  And besides, I was healthy and in my early 50s, how could it be anything else?  Finally, a physical therapist I’d consulted said it reminded her of a labrum tear.  The labrum is the fluid cushion in the hip joint, like the meniscus in the knee and the bursa in the shoulder.  She suggested an MRI.

I’ll get into the details in another post, but suffice it to say by the time I had the MRI and took it to an orthopedist, he said I did have a labrum tear but that was the least of my problems.  Many of those confusing symptoms were part of the quickening failure of my joint.

I Googled my symptoms several times and never got anywhere.  If you know to look up hip arthritis you might find something, but if you have no idea what’s going on with you and you just put in hip flexor pain, you’ll get a mess back.  So here is my personal, unscientific list of symptoms that I think signaled the demise of my hip, in the hopes someone could find them and be helped.

  • loss of range of motion — your knee will not fold upward or cross-wise like it used to
  • instability — you feel wobbly standing on one leg or taking a step on one leg after first standing up
  • weakness — one leg is a lot weaker than the other; very obvious when climbing stairs
  • pain — unexplained pain and throbbing in any of the muscle areas surrounding the hip joint, like the hip flexors, glutes, piriformis, IT band and quads
  • groin pain — sharp or throbbing pain in the inner thigh or adductor muscle, especially up near the groin

Now that I know what’s going on inside, a lot of this makes sense, but it has been both confusing and discouraging for a very long time.

 

 

Things that will happen

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You are starting out.  Maybe you are an infant, starting out a lifetime.  Maybe you are starting on a new hobby or large project or a marriage.  You might have chosen to start, or maybe you had no choice.

These are some things that will happen.

  • Phase One: At first you will not be afraid because you don’t understand the risks.  You have not seen anything go wrong, you have not experienced it.  Your body and your spirit are unblemished, at least as far as this thing you start on.  You have youth, either literally or figuratively, and so you naturally feel invulnerable.
  • Phase Two: After some time, it could be a very long time, things go wrong.  For you or for the person next to you.  You will see or experience pain or dismay or shame.  There may be wreckage.  This phase may be repeated.
  • Phase Three: After enough harsh dosing (the exposure required to move you to this next stage depends on an alchemy of your nature, your age and the damage done to you by experience), you will begin to be afraid or discouraged or both.
    • This is the critical juncture.  Will you carry on?
    • This is where many people abandon their projects or their hobbies or their passions or their lives.
    • This is why healthy, strong, middle-aged people grow timid and become spectators and accept a growing impotence.
  • Phase Four: If you carry on, there will ensue an awkward period.  It may be quite long or it may be short, depending on your determination to get away from the discomfort, your acumen and the kind of magic that attends you.  Something has driven you to persist and you may not know what.  You may feel you will only ever be awkward and afraid and vulnerable to damage but also unable to stop moving and you may think you are cursed or insane.  You may be.  Day will follow day and there will be bleakness.  You will cycle back again and again to the decision point and have almost infinite chances to give up.  Mostly, you won’t.
  • Phase Five: If you still carry on, something will change.  You might gain some skill.  Maybe you will become inured to the risks by sheer exposure.  Maybe you begin to understand that existence is a risk — of pain, of damage, of destruction — and those risks in your particular project are only incremental additions to the risks of breathing.  Having come this far, age may help you by passing you over the frightened precipice of middle age into the zone where death could come any time anyway and you may as well die trying.
    • Note: if you have decided not to carry on but are still breathing, this may become the zone of increasing frailty instead.  You will move to a one-story house, away from ice and snow, and be suspicious of strangers and expect dinner at the same time every night and watch only remakes.
  • Phase Six: I can’t tell you what happens next because I have only peeked through the curtain.  I believe you will settle into honing your skill or enjoying your journey or sitting in companionable silence.  Even if no less awkward and inept, you will be less plagued by fear and anxiety.  There will still be setbacks and confusion and failures, you may even slip back a stage or two, but having passed through once, you are likely to carry on.
  • Miscellaneous: Passage from phase to phase will not be linear or predictable.  Inside any given phase, you will not be able to see to an earlier or a later one.  You will have only faith and whatever it is that drives you.  A journey through on one project will help you get through on new and different ones.

The thing that is not fear but somewhat like it begins to go

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Here are a few things I’ve learned about fear.*

  • In a two year period: I sat with my father while he prepared to die and at the very moment that he did; I slipped over the brink of menopause; I lost my job and got no calls; I fell off my colt and broke my arm; and I tore myself from my beloved home.  From this recipe, or one like it, in mysterious proportion, fear may be conceived.
  • Fear sneaks in and sets up in your spare room.  You can hint that it’s not welcome, you can put away the breakfast things just as it appears of a morning, you can yell and threaten and throw its things outside, but it doesn’t care.
  • It smells like metal.
  • It makes you clumsy, it saps your competence.  With fear there, you are forgetful, stupid.
  • Fear whispers incessantly about the past and the future, especially the future.
  • It weighs you down and also prevents your feet from planting on the earth.
  • It ruins everything.
  • Fear comes close to winning by sheer, tedious ubiquity.
  • But if you try very hard, and you put on clean clothes, and you keep going outside, and you are civil to fear, and you don’t listen to it much, one day it forgets to wake up before you.  You find you are outside and getting on your horse before fear gets out of bed.  You think first of what might be done instead of what could happen.  You start to remember about joy, you are interested.  Fear looks shrunken, a little grey.  You tell it to go to its room and it does.  This is very good.

*I have no right to say any of this.  I live in a first world setting, lounging in the top 10% of income earners, in robust good health.  I don’t know what it means to live in threat.  Maybe I need a new word here, for the existential, self-regarding kind of overwhelming timidity I’ve been host to.  I don’t know what that word would be, my creativity fails me.  Please imagine I came up with a word other than fear and used it here, so that those who truly know fear can keep that word and be the ones who know what it is, while I admit that I don’t.

Heading beyond good and bad

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I was thinking about horses today, which I guess goes without saying.  Yesterday my young horse Bridger was a turd during our ride and today he was charming.  That’s what I said to a friend, only it’s not true.  On both days he was himself, doing what he needed to do.  The rest is on me.

I called my trainer Kathleen to complain about his fractious behavior yesterday.  As always, she was consistent in using words like “lost” and “troubled,” while I was thinking “shit head” and “obnoxious.”  This, even though I love my horse to distraction and always fall into sentiment where he’s concerned.  Even still, Kathleen has to remind me over and over and over again to look at the world through his eyes instead of rushing to label him.  I know how to do this; I believe this is the right thing to do; I enjoy doing this; but I always forget to do it when things get tough.  I keep defaulting to blaming my horse.

Yesterday I took Bridger on what was supposed to be a short, easy, mindless ride on the road past our house.  It was late afternoon at the end of a long and tiring work week and I thought this little outing would be just the thing.  Instead, Bridger was tossing his head and surging forward, threatening to bolt out from under me.  When I picked up a rein to ask him to turn his head, he grabbed the bit with his mouth and pulled the other way.   At one point, he thought he might rear up on me, which he hasn’t tried for almost a year.  His body thrummed with energy.  We were on the edge of a blowup most of the time.  Using everything Kathleen taught me over the years, I kept a lid on things.  Instead of heading down the road, we spent 45 minutes circling and slaloming and backing and retracing our steps over 30 yards of road and shoulder.  When I finally got him to cooperate with me a bit, I jumped off and called it a frustrating day.

I managed to make the worst of it, as I often do.  Why was he such an ass?  I asked myself.  I’m really screwing this horse up, I told myself.  I’m allowing him to be a spoiled jerk, I complained, and we are both going to hell in a hand basket.  I called Kathleen.  Did I do the wrong things with him?  Should I have done this instead of that?  Maybe, she replied, but most importantly, she spoke for Bridger.

What I saw as an easy little outing was actually one of the tougher things I could have asked of him.  I took him away from his friends to ride alone, which is always challenging for an inexperienced horse.  But I didn’t take him far — he could hear and smell and see his buddies the whole time.  I set up a situation in which he was sure to be both worried about being alone and highly motivated to get back to the friends who were so tantalizingly near.  We reminisced that when we took Bridger away from home with no other horse in sight he usually did just fine.  He’s not awfully worried about simply being away from his friends, but I put him in a double bind and then expected him to focus and relax.  And let’s not forget that I was probably tired and strung out, which did nothing to ease his concerns.

Instead of seeing what he was going through, I called him a shit head.  Thank goodness I’m well-trained enough that I didn’t punish him or yell at him, but I labelled him bad and savaged myself for making him bad.

Isn’t this what we do?  You’d be amazed how many horses are stupid shit heads every day, running or bucking or otherwise trying to save themselves from things we don’t take the time to understand.  Things we create for them, as often as not, and then blame them for their reactions.

Today I took Bridger to the arena along with his buddy Jack.  I let him run and buck a little first and take a couple rolls in the hot sand.  Then we did some work while Jack stood nearby.  Bridger was an excellent student today, and a wonderful guy to be around.  If I were less educated, I might congratulate myself on having a perfect horse and being an especially skilled horsewoman.  That’s a more pleasant picture than yesterday’s, but it’s no more true.

On both days, my choices and the environment created circumstances.  I came to both situations with expectations and a background emotional state.  Bridger responded to the circumstances and to me as it all seemed to him.  Today his responses fit very nicely with my plans.  Yesterday, not so much.  End of story.

 

 

The miracle in the pattern

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So, I got my lost cat Max back after almost two months on his own in the wild.  It’s the kind of happy ending you don’t want to talk much about, you just need to melt into it.  Strangers are moved by such an ending to send good wishes on social media.  It earns over 1,000 “likes” when published in the newspaper and is popular enough in print to, with facts suitably garbled, get on TV news.   And when it happens just before Christmas, and on your birthday, it’s nothing but a live-action cliche, so it’s best just to be quiet and let it speak for itself.

However, I spoke to a reporter and thoughtlessly wielded the word “miracle,” which of course became the story.  I started it, but I’m agnostic on miracles, finding the true and actual working of the natural world plenty mind-blowing without getting super-natural on it.  But “Christmas miracle” is easier and more fun than a delightful series of perfectly natural events that yielded one of many possible outcomes.  When we can’t see or understand each step in the process, we have mystery.  And when an especially dramatic or hoped-for outcome results from the mystery, we might just have a miracle.

There’s some good mystery in Max’s story.  You can start with the prosaic: where the cat was and what he was doing for seven weeks, how he got that wound on his foot and avoided frostbite on his extremities during long periods of temperatures below 10 degrees.  I ponder these questions casually now and then, but they can’t hold my attention long.  We know too much: he was somewhere between where he got lost and where he was found; he was hunkered down or he was traveling; he stepped on something or got his foot caught somewhere; he snuggled into small crevices or someone’s outbuilding and tucked his nose and toes into his fur.  It’s too easy to construct any number of unsurprising stories, so my mind wanders.

The mystery I love is the one leading to the moment when I collected the half-dead cat in my arms.  It should not have happened.  There were infinite ways for it not to happen and, instead, this single, inexplicable thing did happen.  It’s mysterious and, because it resulted in a death-defying moment on a significant date, it could be a miracle.

You can’t see the extraordinary without knowing some of the details.  After weeks of trying to lure Max out of hiding in the vicinity of our house, I posted his story on Nextdoor.com in a last ditch effort to bring neighbors in to help me.  A couple days later, a woman on Nextdoor messaged me that her son saw a cat that looked like Max in a neighborhood called Lake of the Pines at about 6 p.m.  More than a mile and a half from our house.  We ran up there and looked around in the dark, finding nothing.  Three days later, a man on Nextdoor said he saw an orange cat in the same spot the woman had seen him, at 3:30 p.m.  He snapped cell phone pictures and they definitely looked like Max.  Back we went to search around again, with flashlights this time.  I set two live traps with tuna and two game cameras to snap photos of whatever came along.  Nothing came along in 12 hours.  But the next day, another woman posted that she saw a cat like Max a couple houses down from the first sightings, this time at noon.

I was now convinced that Max was alive and spending time in a defined area within my reach.  Even so, he was painfully distant.  Localized as the sightings may be, Lake of the Pines is a cat-hiding haven composed of large lots in a dense Ponderosa Pine forest.  It’s like a mountain campground populated here and there with large, expensive homes.  Feral cats, which Max was imitating mightily, are known to wander territories more than a mile in diameter, so he might not even be in this particular forest but could be anywhere within such a radius at any given time of day, with no guarantee of repeating visits to the same precise spot for my convenience.  By nature and for stealth, he was probably most active between midnight and dawn.  In his survivalist mindset, he was going to be highly skeptical of people, including me.  The most likely way to get at him was through lures and traps, but neighborhood dogs and raccoons were going to enjoy my bait and scare my cat away.  Besides, many cats, feral and domestic, will not come eat the tuna fish we carefully set out and will under no circumstances step into a live trap box.  I heard several stories of lost cats in feral mode appearing nightly on game cameras in their own backyards, casually bypassing every effort to catch their attention as they went about their business in tantalizing proximity.  Max had not touched anything I’d set out in 49 days.

But I had one ray of hope — Max was showing himself during the day, earlier and earlier in the afternoon, making him more accessible.  And there was one technique I had not yet tried.  The cat folks call it “simply sitting.”  The idea is to place yourself casually outdoors for long periods, as if looking for a cat were the last thing on your mind.  Without the intense and predatory energy of searching, you might seem acceptable to your cat as something non-threatening and even appealing.

It seemed my best chance was to go to Lake of the Pines and spend many hours where Max had been seen.  Strolling, sitting, talking on the phone.  Making myself apparent.  And now I could do it during the afternoon instead of on the graveyard shift.  The sightings were growing closer together and earlier in the day.  I felt some urgency to get on that wave, so I planned to take the afternoon off the day after the noon sighting.  Which happened to be my birthday.

I came very close to not going.  I had just started a new job and had almost no vacation time.  The chances of my crossing paths with him were infinitesimal, I told myself.  If I could commit to do it for days and days in a row, maybe, but just once seemed futile.  And what was I going to actually do up there for hours and hours?  If I saw him, how would that get me any closer to catching him?  I was just about talked out of it.

At the last moment, I decided to go anyway.  I recognized if I didn’t, I would always wonder what might have happened.  Knowing would be better than not knowing, even if it were an uncomfortable, disappointing afternoon.

I put on clothes I had worn before to amplify my scent. I rubbed catnip on my jeans.  I collected cat treats and kibble.  I loaded up books and a journal and water and snacks.  I did not put a cat carrier in the car, protecting myself from that one gesture of irrational hope.

I drove to Lake of the Pines.  For the sixth or seventh time, I silently thanked the helpful neighbors who not only reported Max sightings to me but gave me the code to access their tony, gated community.  I pulled in to the spot where I had parked on all my visits, planning to start by strolling up and down the road until I was tired.  I put the car in park and turned the key.  Glancing out the window, I saw Max sitting in the grass.

He was lying on his chest, feet tucked under him, in the sun.  Out in the open, wholly exposed.  In the grass not twenty feet from where I parked my car.  My mind emptied itself, leaving a single, breathless focus.

I feared he would bolt when I got out of the car, so I opened the door slowly and started talking to him.  I stood up slowly.  He stayed where he was.  I talked to him as I came slowly around the back of the car.  He stayed were he was and let out a small meow.  Cursing my disorganization, I took the risk of turning my back to open the passenger door and grab a few treats.  He stayed.  I took a few steps toward him, talking, then got on my knees.  I crept forward.  He stayed, continuing to meow at me.  I stopped five feet away and held out the treats.  Max got up and came to me, ducked his head to eat, let me pet him.  I grabbed his ruff and pulled him toward me.  He didn’t resist.  He let me put him in the car without twisting and fighting.  I collapsed into the driver’s seat, completely outside myself.

The story then becomes wonderful and mundane again.  The vet visit, the recognition of and treatment for his extreme emaciation and weakness, his apparent relief and contentment to be in human hands again.  The gradual improvement.

The heart is filled by the outcome, as the mind continues to visit the central mystery of how Max and I ended up in the same spot at the same moment when there was no logical reason for it to happen.  I needed to find him to end my miserable uncertainty.  He needed to be found — at 50% of his starting weight, he was not going to make it much longer.  But, as much as we might wish otherwise, our need isn’t an explanation, only a circumstance.

Human brains are hard-wired to make patterns and meaning.  And, thereby, miracles.  Not only is Jesus’ face appearing on a piece of toast something our brain does to us automatically, it fills us with a much-needed sense of awe and purpose.  A day with Jesus on your toast is a much better day than one starting with random patterns of darker and lighter cooked bread.  My brain can’t turn away from finding Max on a day I almost didn’t show up, in a place he should never have been, on my birthday, just in time for Christmas, not long before he was going to die, because it’s uber-satisfying.

A miracle isn’t required to explain that Max and I found each other.  It happened in the confines of the natural world, so it was natural.  He was increasingly showing himself in daylight because he was starving and knew he needed help.  He had seen me park my car in that spot repeatedly, or smelled me there, so was attracted to the spot.  If I had chosen not to go that day, he might have waited for me on another.  Or a neighbor may have found him and he may have been ready to go to that person.  My outreach efforts would have connected that person to me. The date of my birthday and proximity to Christmas are abstractions that don’t matter.  I know these things.

But I can choose to enjoy the otherworldly face on this piece of toast.  Before we found Max, there were many times we wondered if we should give up trying.  Persistence with success is heroic, while persistence without success is insane.  And a knife’s edge of luck between.  I brought Max home, so all that went before and all that happened at the crucial moment is imbued with glory.  It could just as easily have been otherwise.  But glory and miracle don’t come along all that often, so I’ll take it.  As if watching Max slowly gain weight and appreciate his warm safety isn’t satisfying enough, I’ll borrow more by admiring the pattern of events, turning them this way and that to see all the possibilities.  And setting them out for others to do the same.

Solstice Wishes

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The Winter Solstice feels more like the true turning of the year than December 31 ever did.  With the longest night, the year dies, folding in on itself in cold quiet.  Along with frogs and bears and maple trees, time slows and chills to a virtual stop.  The next day, the long, deliberate expansion back to light and activity begins.

All that and it’s my birthday, marking the literal end of another year of my existence and the start of a new one.

So it’s natural to light candles in the dark and listen to haunting, sacred chants designed for echoing stone cathedrals.  And to ponder years past and the year to come.

And to look at Rob Breszny’s Free Will Astrology horoscopes (the best around, check out freewillastrology.com).  As a solstice baby, I am on the cusp of two very different astrological signs, explaining much of my diffuse personality.  So I look at arty, fiery Sagittarius and steady, earthy Capricorn.  Here’s what Rob says for me, in highlights from the two signs combined:

This is great because 2016 pretty much sucked all the way around.  I got laid off.  We faced financial stresses.  My horse started flipping me off.  David Bowie died, and Alan Rickman and Morley Safer and Florence Henderson and John Glenn.  We left our hearts’ home.  I lost my beloved cat.  And, for god’s sake, the presidential election.
So this new year has to be better.  Starting into 54 has to be better than reaching 53 has been.  Not only because we need some uplift, but because sense must be wrested from confusion.  The balance must be righted.  Max may yet come back to us.  The corner Bridger and I have turned can lead us down broad avenues.  I will apparently cultivate professional and social connections that will serve my ambitions — which are to go back to the woods and ply my talents, whatever they may be.  I don’t know what to say about national politics, I choose not to think about that right now.
Not on this solstice night.  The candlelight presses back the darkness as it has for centuries upon centuries.  The white lights on the tree defy any tendency of the dark to become oppressive.  Like countless pre-industrial, pre-enlightenment people before us, we find ways to make light in the long night.  And wreath it around with music.  And find it beautiful.

 

For Max, wherever you are

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I lost my cat.  They tell you not to let your cat out of the house when you move for at least two weeks because, as territorial creatures adverse to change, a cat will not understand that the new place is his home and will become hopelessly lost.  They also tell you that surrounding him with items from home at the new house will ease the transition.

I brought items from home.  I slept with extra t-shirts and towels for several days so they would be infused with my smell and I lined the cat carriers with them.  I bought new toys two weeks ahead of time so they would become familiar and I scattered them around the new house.  I got Xanax from the vet because our last move with the cats didn’t go that well.  Like they tell you, I kept the cats only in the new bedroom at first, allowing them to slowly acclimate to a limited territory.  I plugged in a very expensive diffuser of cat-friendly hormones as I tossed around the new toys.  I stayed with the cats, sitting in the bedroom with them for 20 hours to help ease their anxiety.

I was fully prepared to keep the cats indoors for two weeks, although I thought it might kill me.  My cats were outdoor cats, trotting off each day after breakfast to enjoy their wild territory, trotting back in at 5 for dinner every night.  Despite the pheromones and the drugs and the smelly t-shirts and the toys and my company, my cats weren’t adjusting well.  They howled all night long.  They traded off, one getting quiet for a while just as the other picked it up.  Cat howls are impossible to ignore or to sleep through.

The next day, they were mostly relaxed and quiet and snoozed in their comfy crates.  By dark, they wound themselves up again to howl all night a second time.

I love my cats.  I am sentimental and hopeless in my love for my animals.  But I thought about killing them.  I thought about giving them away or putting them to sleep.  I thought about a lot of ugly, ugly things around 3 am that second night, ruefully grateful that I did not have a colicy infant on my hands.

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The second morning, I arose around 5, in the dark.  There was no point to the whole bed thing.  I opened the front door to put an unwanted rug out on the stoop.  My husband made an inarticulate noise behind me and my boy cat Max shot out the door.  Into the pitch dark.  As I recoiled in horror, his sister Lily launched herself at the closed screen door and popped it open, running out into the yard.  Lily took one look around and came zooming back to the door, meowing wildly to get back in.  I have not seen Max again.

Fast forward.  As I write this, it is 37 days since I lost Max.  I have learned more about lost cats than I knew was possible to learn.  There are several websites and a very friendly chat group devoted to the behavior of cats when they are lost and tips for recovering them.  It turns out most cats will not set out to make an Incredible Journey to their old home.  Rather, they will immediately find a safe place to hide in their unfamiliar territory and go into super-stealth mode.  I read and was told that most cats will hide like this for weeks before they start venturing out again to look for food.  Deep in survival mode, overcome with their instincts, they will not come when you call, they will not come to the door, they will not meow and reveal their location, and they may well ignore all the tasty food you can offer.  I read and was told stories of cats lost in circumstances like ours who were not seen for weeks and even months and then suddenly reappeared, alive, strong and self-possessed.

So I have not given up on Max, I’ve been doing what they say to do.  I bought and borrowed live traps and set them in likely locations filled with tuna.  I spoke to my new neighbors, even the ones with the shuttered windows, no mailbox and no front door.  I hung my dirty clothes around the edges of the property to give it the smell of home.  When the traps were untouched (not even a raccoon???), I gave up and set up a feeding station and purchased an infrared motion-activated game camera to watch over it.  I searched in my neighbors’ barns and sheds and in the woods in back.  I kept refreshing the dirty laundry and put out fresh tuna every night.  No one ate the food I set out (not even a raccoon???) and no one appeared on my game camera, except for my dog and one magpie.

And I cried.  I sobbed so hard I thought I might be sick.  Often.  If you have lost pets,  and if you are in the least bit sentimental about them, you know the keen, eviscerating pain of their absence.  The bowl you’re not filling at dinner time, the special spot that is not being sat in.  The particular gesture and facial expression you are not seeing.

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The loss of Max coincided with the devastating loss of my home and the two were almost more than I could bear.  Organs vital to my existence had been torn away and, maybe worst of all, it was all my fault.  I moved us from home and I failed Max.  My husband feared for my mental health.  I did, too, but I was too busy hanging up dirty laundry and crying to care very much.

After four weeks, I had seen nothing to indicate that Max was nearby.  I was running out of things to do.  Don’t give up, my chat room people said, lots of people don’t see their cats for months and then they show up.  Keep trying, they said.

Then it snowed.  Just a little dusting.  I was sitting dully with my morning tea, empty eyes fixed on the window when I thought about tracks.  Tell-tale footprints in the snow.  I’m sorry, I said to my husband, I know you want me to get past this, but I need to try one more thing.  I need to look for footprints in the snow.  He agreed with me, and in fact he joined me.  I texted my neighbors to ask for permission to look for tracks on their properties.  My sweet neighbor Margo gave permission and decided to go out and look herself.

I saw some tracks.  I saw a few tracks that looked awfully like a cat in a couple of places around the edge of the property.  Husband saw a couple promising ones, too.  And then we heard from Margo.  She texted a photo of a clear line of what could be nothing but cat tracks winding around her house and patio.  No other cat had ever appeared in all my doings during the day or to eat my tuna or get its picture taken at night–if these really were cat tracks, they must be Max’s.

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We went into action.  Margo put out dishes of tuna along the route the tracks took.  We bought another game camera and set both up along the route.  And we waited.  Nothing.

Then the weather came in.  More snow and bone-chilling, unrelenting cold.  Those tracks haunted me–a solo cat searching for something in the dark.  Alone and facing devastating cold.  I turned one of the traps into a warm box by tying its door open, wrapping it in a waterproof sheet and filling it with towels and hay.  I set this along with more food and the camera near Margo’s door.  The snow came.  The cold.

Enough snow fell to discourage a small cat from walking very far.  It came with the kind of cold that must be able to take his ears or his toes.  There have been no new signs of Max for four days.

Don’t give up, the chat room people say.  Once some tiny kittens survived in a blizzard. They say a cat survived for more than a year alone in Vermont.  Cats are amazing, they say, he can survive.

I wish Max had been run over or eaten by a coyote.  Actually, I wish he was here with me right now, putting one of his arms across mine to make it hard to type, eyes mostly closed as the fire pops.  But if I knew he were dead, at least I would be able to mourn him and stop worrying and strategizing.  As it is, I cannot shake the image of him out there, stressed and cold and hungry.  Alone for the first time in his life.  I can’t stop wracking my brain for what else to do to help him survive and bring him back home.  I can’t stop abusing myself for failing to protect him and failing to rescue him.  For thinking such hateful thoughts about him hours before he disappeared.

They say I should hope, they say it will all work out.  Keep trying.  But don’t obsess, says Husband, don’t be so hard on yourself.  I listen and I try to do what they say.  Surely some day I will know where he is or I will figure out how to give up.  Some day I’ll feel at home again and Max may be with me, or not.  But that’s not today.

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Dislocation

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I am dislocated.  As from the medieval Latin, I have been moved from my proper place and position, my normal arrangement has been disturbed.  Synonymously, I have been disrupted, thrown into disarray, disorganized and confused.  These things have happened to me, my passive voice little more than flotsam on a strange sea.

We left our home.  The land we lived on for 11 years, the home we built and finished into contentment.  The place our animals have known as home for all or most of their lives.  It’s simple, really: we couldn’t find adequate jobs in the rural area we lived in, but we found good ones in the urban area we left over a decade ago.  So we did what so many do every day: we moved to find professional opportunity.

But that is the end of simplicity.  Moving is a nightmare.  Moving is stressful and exhausting and painful.  It’s certainly harder with livestock and ranch equipment as part of the mix.  So there’s that.

But this is about something else.  I knew it would be hard work to move.  I didn’t know it would pull my heart through my chest wall and leave it thrashing on the ground like a trout yanked from its stream.

I didn’t appreciate how passionately in love I am with our home.  I didn’t know the lining of my intestines would hum and surge in longing for the particular sound of the breeze in my pines.  I didn’t know my lungs would collapse every time I thought of the view out my living room window.  I didn’t realize my skin would recoil from the foreign air, the wrong wind currents, the landscape that is not mine.

Decades ago, I saw an arthouse movie about an indigenous man in an arctic setting who was captured and put in a jail cell.  It was his first sojourn in a solid structure and the first time in his long life he could not see the sky.  He immediately began to die.  I don’t remember the name of the movie or what happened to him, but I think of him.  Of what happens when you are suddenly stripped of the environment that held you.

I’ve never lived at any one address for 11 years, other than my childhood home.  I’ve never pitched my back and my heart into a place like we did in building our homestead.  I’ve never designed a house and then seen it emerge raw and ready for tending like a greasy newborn.  I’ve never spent my hours and days in the company of the same trees, a revolving but familiar cast of wild animals, and a reliable splash of brilliant stars for 11 years straight.  I didn’t realize what had happened.

I am of that place and that place is of me.  I wrote an essay not long ago, called In the Company of Trees, in which I mused on the reasons for the strange but tangible affinity I felt for my immediate natural environment.  I wrote that my body and the trees around me contain the same top five elements, giving us a kinship not apparent on the surface.  I wrote about my shedding a skin cell, which disintegrated and gave up its prime elements to the tree’s roots, while I breathed in its pollen and oxygen and particles of bark.  Over time, our bodies leaned toward each other.

Torn away, I am bereft.  Sick and empty in the middle.  I don’t think I’ll die of it, but I can see how it’s possible.  I can now understand the desperation of people pushed or ripped from their ancestral homes.  The anguish of thousands of refugees who are so much more dislocated than I, in such dire circumstances.  The land we love is another organ, the loss of which can lead to internal hemorrhage.

Over time, the pain will subside.  The connection will grow distant.  I will mingle my atoms with other places.  That fact in itself makes my chest clench.  Something that can be gotten over diminishes in importance.  I don’t want to get over it.

I will not change the name of my blog because in every important sense, I am still on Elk Meadow Road.  Husband and I will institute a new Thanksgiving-time toast: next year on Elk Meadow Road!  In the meantime, I keep Elk Meadow Road just as I cradle my liver.  I will slowly shed the atoms I picked up from my trees, scattering them in this new environment, but I vow to keep what I became there.