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Monthly Archives: October 2016

Hershey is Gone

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Hershey, the last feral cat at my building, has died. I wanted to believe that I was overreacting to her symptoms, especially when I saw her meandering around the property for a couple of weeks after she’d first seemed sick, but I was right to be worried. I started to count days, since the weekend, that I had not seen her around, hoping that I just wasn’t looking closely enough. But then I saw her outdoor house, a box covered in a blue tarp, removed from the alcove next to my neighbor’s apartment, and wrapped up to be taken away.

I asked the maintenance man, sitting on the steps at the last building, if he knew why Hershey’s house was wrapped up, and he said that Hershey had died, and my neighbor had asked him to pack up the cat house because she wouldn’t need it anymore, and maybe because she didn’t want the reminder.

I started sobbing as soon as I got into my apartment. But I was also very, very angry, at my neighbor for not seeking medical help for Hershey when her symptoms began, and at myself, for not confronting her or trying to trap Hershey myself to get her to the doctor.

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I’ve been told that there used to be fifteen feral cats on the property, and the lawns were dotted with dead mice (and these are the same people who are worried about my dogs peeing on the grass?). One of my neighbors was proactive about trapping the cats, to get them spayed and neutered, and intervening with new litters as soon as possible to get the kittens adopted out if at all possible. He supports a group called Alley Cat Allies based in Washington, DC that advocates for trapping and neutering programs, and helps fund one nearby. He also personally rescued cats that could not survive the feral life, and sought medical care for them whenever possible. Maybe it was all of his work, or just a change in the neighborhood, but by the time Mom and I had moved in, there were only two or three feral cats left. It was hard to tell, actually, because a bunch of my neighbors had indoor/outdoor cats as well, and left front doors or window open for the cats to go wandering on their own schedules, but eventually there were just two, Gimpy and Hershey.

And now there are none.

I’m supposed to be grateful that Hershey lived as long as she did, and as well as she did, as a feral cat. I’m supposed to be philosophical about her death. “That’s nature,” the maintenance man told me, with a shrug. “She wouldn’t have been able to tolerate a visit to the vet, or the medical care required,” another said.

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I worry that Hershey caught whatever illness killed Gimpy (the second to last feral cat, who died a month ago, at age thirteen), or that, even worse, someone put out poison that killed both cats, and my dogs might be vulnerable as well.

Before the blue tarp-wrapped cat house was removed from the lawn behind the building, the girls had a chance to sniff their goodbyes to Hershey. They took a long time, checking each crevice, seeming to recognize her smell, and her story, in each corner.

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“Hershey has to be here somewhere.”

There are still squirrels, and raccoons, and birds and, of course the dogs, around the place. But there is no more Hershey. I’d gotten used to having her around, and spying her through the greenery of the retaining wall. I’m not used to her being gone. I keep looking for her, everywhere.

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The Purpose of the Sukkah

 

I don’t have a Sukkah at my apartment building; not only because the co-op board would frown on it, but because I really don’t want to. I have a lot of grumpy “I refuse” moments when it comes to religious practices. I don’t want to bow or bend during services. I don’t want to kiss the Torah scroll when it is carried past me at synagogue. I don’t want to wear a Tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, even though many liberal Jewish women now wear them, and there are beautiful ones to choose from. And I don’t want to build a Sukkah and eat and pray in it for seven or eight days.

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This is a drawing of a Sukkah that I found on google images.

I didn’t roll my eyes or make snotty comments in the Sukkah at my synagogue during services for the first day of Sukkot. I sat amidst the greenery and decorations and prayed with everyone else. But I refused to borrow the Rabbis Lulav and Etrog (palm frond and other species, plus a large citron) to say the prayer and shake the Palm frond in every direction, like the Jewish version of a rain dance. I didn’t have a good intellectually-driven reason for skipping the ritual. My internal monologue sounded something like, “I don’t wanna! You can’t make me!” One woman suggested that I didn’t want to do it because it was a man’s ritual. (There’s something to be said for that, but not in the way she thought. The lulav has a phallic quality to it, especially with the Etrog – only one bulbous shape rather than two, but still – right next to it.) Someone else said that maybe I didn’t like the magical thinking of it (eh, I tend to be a fan of magical thinking).

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Not my Lulav and Etrog.

I’m not an expert on the religious significance of Sukkot – the seven or eight days when Jews are supposed to eat and pray in a hut-like temporary shelter, with greenery overhead, instead of a roof, so that you can see the sky and the stars. There are various points of view to choose from. There’s the historical significance: to remember when we were nomads in the desert. There’s a social action interpretation: sit in the temporary shelter and think about what life is like for those without a secure home. There’s a self-awareness angle: to force us to think about the ways that we are too protected in our daily lives, and separated from nature and the world around us. It goes on and on. Just ask your nearest rabbi, who has to come up with new sermons about the holiday every year.

I remember putting together our Sukkah as a child, with my father and brother, and getting my fingers stuck between two of the flattened pipes that my father used as the frame for the temporary building. I remember having to carry full dishes of food, to and from the house late at night, while my father sat at the table in the Sukkah on our front lawn, like a king.

There is so much baggage left in my Judaism; personal, crummy, anecdotal baggage that I don’t want to have to relive constantly. It’s a funny mix. I love going to shul. I love singing the prayers, and being with my community, and studying. I love just looking at the Hebrew letters in my prayer book, as if they are my old friends returning to me. But then I hit these bumps, like the Sukkah, or candle lighting, or kissing the Torah, and I trip over the invisible rubble in my mind.

I’ve been told that, next year, our synagogue will be inviting animals into the Sukkah for a visiting day, as they’ve done in the past. There will be dogs, of course, but also snakes and gerbils and parrots and on and on. Maybe, when I can bring Cricket and Butterfly with me, I won’t find the Sukkah quite as intimidating. Or maybe Cricket will think the plastic fruit on the walls were put there just for her delectation, and I’ll have a whole new set of horrible memories of Sukkot to carry with me in the future.

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Cricket is ready to go!

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She’s training herself, to see how much she can fit into her mouth at one time.

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Butterfly is practicing her facial expressions, for after Cricket misbehaves in public.

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This is her “I’m the cute one” face.

Sacred Space

 

The Cantor at my synagogue has taken up a new topic to study this year: the technology of prayer. I can’t say that I understand what he means by that yet, but the first lesson was about sacred space, and how we arrange it. Butterfly is very often in sacred space, because she listens to the sounds around her and stands still and lets them encompass her. Cricket prefers hidey-holes as her sacred spaces. She feels safe and solemn in those small, enclosed spaces, and it allows her to rest and reemerge more whole.

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“You can’t see me!”

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“I hear everything, Mommy.”

But, I am not good at interior design. When I decorate, I basically put things where they’ll fit, no Feng Shui or harmony involved, so the idea of contemplating the use of space made me whimper with anticipated boredom. The cantor talked about how most sanctuaries, Jewish and Christian at least, are set up with the congregation in rows of seats, all facing one way, with the clergy up on a riser, and the congregation a step down, like an audience watching actors on a stage. Then he showed us pictures of Jewish synagogues that were set up differently, with the congregation on two opposing sides, or even three sides of the sanctuary, and the clergy in the middle. The idea being to focus attention on the community, rather than on the clergy, who are there to lead the congregation, rather than to be the show itself.

The Cantor’s class on sacred space happened the night before Slichot, which is a service that takes place a week before the Jewish New Year, late at night. It is a preview of all of the themes of the high holidays, with all of the atonement, forgiveness, and cleaning of old forgotten laundry intended for this time of year. But for this one service of the year, the clergy members placed themselves with us in the congregation, and some of the ideas from the previous night’s class must have stuck with me, because as soon as the Cantor began to sing from his seat among us, I felt the change in the shape of the space. I got it. He became one of us instead of separate, and he became a voice only, rather than a performer to be watched. It was a small group the night of Slichot (not a lot of people come out a week before the high holidays, at ten o’clock on a Saturday night, to pray), which meant that the Cantor didn’t need a microphone to be heard, so that his unamplified voice, so intertwined with our own, made him seem even more a part of us.

Over the summers, at our synagogue, we move from the formal sanctuary to the small sanctuary for Friday night services. It saves on electricity, especially for the air-conditioning of the sanctuary and the social hall, and it saves us from seeing all of the empty seats from the families who go away on vacation, or just don’t feel especially religious in the heat. But the side effect of moving to the smaller, less formal room, is that our whole tone changes. The clergy stands at our level, and not above. We sit closer together, instead of spread out across the room. We can hear each other sing, and breathe. The space itself, usually just an ordinary room, becomes sacred space because of how we live within it.

Maybe sacred space actually changes from person to person and moment to moment. A lot of the time, I think a space feels sacred because of the people who are in it with you. That’s why I wish that the dogs could join me at synagogue, especially when we are at our most informal and communal. Cricket could sit in my lap, or hide under my chair, and Butterfly could wander around the room and listen to all of the voices around her. That would be my ideal of a sacred space.

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That’s Cricket’s foot.

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Cricket in her sacred space.

 

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Butterfly’s not allowed in, but she makes do.

Hershey and Gimpy

 

We’ve had two feral cats on the property of our co-op, until recently. Gimpy, the brown and grey cat with the wounded paw, died. Gimpy was here when we first moved in, running down from the woods to get his lunch, and then running back up. His benefactor on the other side of the building put his food out under a piece of slanted glass, to protect it as much as possible from the rain, and give him a semi-private place to eat his meal in peace. In the winter, Gimpy left tracks in the snow, complicated designs that showed how extensively he explored the grounds, and how lightly his paws indented the surface. He was a very self-sufficient creature, and was able to survive a serious, bloody wound to one of his forelegs, a few years back, that left him with only three working legs and his nickname.

Gimpy was often hiding under bushes, or spying from the corner of the building. He probably had a lot of stories to tell, but he wasn’t willing to share them with me. Towards the end, though, when he was getting run down with whatever illness eventually did him in, he was more sociable He was willing to stand longer on the walkway when I came by, and even rested out in the open sometimes, where anyone could see or smell him.

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“I smell something. I definitely smell something.”

Not long before he died, my mother noticed Gimpy sitting in front of our building. He didn’t budge as she and the dogs walked within inches of him. She came to get me, but when I went outside to see him, he was able to gather enough energy to run away. But he only ran about ten feet, to the other side of our doorway, where he had to rest again. We left a message for the neighbor who had looked after him, to let him know that Gimpy seemed unwell.

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“Is he okay, Mommy?”

The news of Gimpy’s death came third hand, without any details about time, or day, or cause of death. But we had already noticed that he wasn’t around.

The other feral cat is Hershey, a white cat with brown and black markings, who was “adopted” by another neighbor who places food for Hershey right by her apartment window, in a protected alcove, shredding chicken for her by hand. Hershey likes to rest on the retaining wall, or in a flower pot in her alcove, or by the maintenance shed. Her answer to approaching dogs is to remain absolutely still, in the hopes that they won’t notice her, and it usually works.

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“What are you looking at, human?”

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“You can leave now.”

A couple of weeks ago, when I was out on a walk with the dogs, Hershey was sick right in front of us. Usually she hides her poop, but she had diarrhea out in the open, and it was a pale, greyish white. There were various older puddles nearby as well. She sat in front of the window of the neighbor who feeds her, mewing, ignoring the bowls of food and water that had been left for her on the nearby steps.

We let her benefactress know, not only what I’d seen for myself, but what I’d found when I googled Hershey’s symptoms; that mostly likely, she had liver disease. Her symptoms could have been caused by any number of things, and could even be a passing illness of no lasting consequence, but with Gimpy’s death so fresh in my mind, and Hershey looking thinner than usual, I was concerned. She’s feral in name only. She may even have other homes she visits for TLC and extra meals on a regular basis.

The next day, there were puddles of pink, filled with all manner of indigestible things. I think our neighbor had given her Pepto Bismal, thinking it was just light indigestion. I hoped she was right.

Hershey is not my cat. She does not come to my door to ask for food, and would not tolerate or accept my attentions. And she is still alive, weeks later, so maybe my anxiety was outsized, and she’ll be fine. Each time I see her moseying up the walkway or hiding in the flower pot, I breathe a sigh of relief. But it doesn’t last long, because I’m still afraid that she’s dying. She sat in her flower pot, unmoving, for hours the other day. I really want her to be okay, because I’ve lost enough lately, and she has squirmed her way into my heart, whether she meant to or not.

 

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Hershey, resting in her flower pot.

 

The Baby Has Left the Building

 

The next door baby has left the building, because he and his parents and all of his accoutrements needed a larger living space. I’m going to miss hearing the sound of a baby crying as I walk through the hallway. I’m going to miss seeing the stroller waiting for him in the lobby, two tiny sneakers resting in the seat. I’m going to miss running into him on his daily walk with his nanny, who cooed to him as they returned from an afternoon of reading stories at the library and visiting geese at the duck pond. Both dogs liked to sniff the wheels of the stroller when it came back from its walks, but they weren’t especially interested in the baby himself. Maybe if he had shared his snacks with them, they would have felt differently.

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“Treats?”

 

I will miss watching the way his nanny soothes him, and his Dad plays with him, and his Mom makes googly eyes at him, full of love, that make him certain that he is the most important person on the face of the earth. He’d just recently developed a sustained gaze and the habit of smiling at people who smiled at him, and I’m going to miss that too.

My niece and nephews are all past the baby stage of life, and firmly into the sarcasm years. People become secretive and duplicitous so quickly nowadays; the honest and straight forward self-expression that is babyhood is a very precious thing to have around.

Cricket was not happy when we went downstairs, without the dogs, for a goodbye party for our neighbors. She couldn’t understand why she hadn’t been invited, first of all, and she imagined all kinds of treats she was missing out on, that the baby was allowed to partake in. I’m not sure what Cricket’s vision of paradise is, exactly, but she’s convinced it’s the place we go when we leave her at home. And she’s bitter about it. Butterfly, of course, was fine.

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“How dare you go without me?”

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Butterfly was busy snoring.

We will have a new neighbor soon, and I’m sure she will be lovely (the baby’s parents were thinking of our cozy little building when they chose their successor). And maybe she’ll have a dog or cat or bird who I will inevitably fall in love with. But there won’t be a human baby, and his absence will resonate with me for quite a while.

When moving day arrived, the baby was whisked away to avoid the trauma of seeing all of his stuff being removed. But Cricket had no such luck. She could hear every horrible moment of departure, and she’s not good with change. She spent the whole day announcing the presence of the movers, as if she thought we hadn’t noticed the first few times she’d barked her head off. There was also the added difficulty that, if we tried to take the dogs out while the movers were still traipsing in and out of the building and along the walkway, Cricket would bark them to death, so we had to put off anything but the most emergent need for an excursion. Unfortunately, Cricket thinks that it’s an emergency when she smells a squirrel in the air, and she whines and cries to let us know her plight.

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“Strange people are in my building!”

Even Butterfly added a bark or two along the way, to support her sister’s protest, if nothing else.

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“I’m here for you, Cricket.”

So it was a relief when the moving men left and quiet returned to the building. Except, it was too quiet. The apartment across the hall really is empty and the baby is not coming back.

Now Cricket is resting up for the next phase of the endeavor, when the new neighbor’s moving truck arrives and disgorges a whole new set of men and furniture to bark at. Announcing the apocalypse is a tough job, but, Cricket thinks, someone has to do it.

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Resting, for now.