Thursday, April 29, 2010

How Could I forget...

  A.T.     Officially 'After-Thought,' later Appalachian Trail...

After my sister's terminal diagnosis, she adopted our mother's theory on 'no more cats' -  what if something happens to me, who will care for the cat as I have?

During countless trips back and forth the 90 miles to her chemo and radiation treatments her husband would stop to rest at a midway point, which happened to be an animal shelter in the center of a village.   They would visit with the rescues, the remainder of the ride home spent remembering stories of the cats (and two dogs) that had not only touched their lives, but changed them for the better.  

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the dogs.  Buster was my brother-in-law's childhood dog. Any space my brother-in-law occupied was always adorned with his one favorite photo of Buster in his old age.  A black lab sitting on a cement sidewalk (remember those?!), staring dutifully at the camera.   A few cats, and many years later when they moved to the mountains, Spot became a much loved member of their family. 

Spot had been my brother-in-law's mother's dog.  When Iris's elderly siblings began taking advantage of her worsening dementia (which included two sisters 'borrowing' her car to go on a spending spree with checks stolen from her purse, yeah, old Thelma and Louise...), it became clear she would need to go to The Home.    Naturally, greedy humans crawled out of the woodwork to latch on to Iris's many valuable collectibles (shades of Christmas Future). My brother-in-law drove two states across to survey what was left.   What he found was teeny scraps of paper littering empty rooms, and Spot.  

Spot was the strangest mongrel any of us had ever seen, and the sweetest dog I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.  He was like a barrel on legs, really long, tall legs.  He had a large round chest, that tapered to a thin set of hips, sitting on top of the four spindly legs, ending with huge paws.  His face was long and thin, and he was covered with short, wiry, curly hair, with the exception of his paws, which had long, silky smooth hair sticking out from between his long, delicate toes.  He was totally white, with a large, round, brown spot on his right side.

So thorough had the morally bankrupt been, all my brother-in-law had to do was pound the For Sale sign into the front lawn beyond the picket fence, load Spot into his truck, and head for home.

No one was ever quite sure exactly how old Spot was, nor where or when Iris had acquired him, but on his first trip to the vet after becoming part of my sister's family (which at the time was a lone Maine Coon), the vet said, "Well, at least he has a good place to live out his last years, he may live two or three more."    Eleven years later I was assigned to babysit Spot & A.T. while my sister and her husband vacationed in Scotland for two weeks, a gift to them from my parents.  The coon had passed away, a victim of old age, several years after A.T. arrived.

Back to A.T.    My sister and her husband had each developed a silent affection for a particular short haired tiger in the shelter. Neither would admit it, but  every time they would arrive at their resting point, they would automatically drift towards  the middle-aged tiger's cage, for weeks at a time. During a particularly easy time with chemo, the evening came, after leaving the animal shelter for the remainder of the trip home, my sister said to her husband, "What if I don't die?"

That was all it took. My brother-in-law immediately headed for the shoulder of the road, pulled a UE, and they raced back to the shelter.   Hence his name. After-Thought.  Upon arriving home that night, they introduced Spot to his new brother. Spot could not be contained.  He needed to show his new brother the layout of the house.  The next day the, now five, members of the household would take A.T. out to the yard to show him the cornfield my sister was so carefully cultivating with Silver Queen.  Spot found a shed moose antler, growled, chewed on it, and taught A.T. that moose did not belong in Mom's garden.    Years later during my babysitting stint, I would watch A.T. chase thousand pound moose out of his Mom's garden.  The Maine Coon was more than a bit aloof, which was why Spot loved A.T. so.  From the day he arrived home, Spot and A.T. slept together on Spot's extra large, LL Bean dog bed.

Spot passed away a week after my sister. He hadn't been ill, was still the same bizarre, healthy, old dog with the biggest heart in the world.  He laid in the front yard for a week waiting for my sister to come home where she belonged.  And at the end of that week he went to sleep waiting by the door and left us. 

We figured my sister gave him a week to get over it and when she figured out he couldn't, she came and got him.  Because that was just how she was.

But there was still A.T. and my brother-in-law left behind.  My brother-in-law could not continue to merely survive without my sister, and his plan was to hike the A.T. (a dream they had both shared), not only in her honor, but to raise awareness for breast cancer, and in his selfless way, try to save others from his own, now vacant, fate.

Back in his truck he climbed with A.T.   My daughter was living with me at the time, it was my night off from work, and she approached with that "Please don't kill me, I can explain," look and stance.  "What?" I asked.    She launched into the explanation of how her uncle had called and was on his way down with A.T.  He had been desperate.  My sister's two best  friends had refused, it was too much, they were still not over her and could not handle being reminded she was gone with such a powerful, physical reminder. 

I still am not sure exactly when my daughter made this arrangement, because not an hour had passed while I was trying to figure out how to introduce Roman to another adult cat and beg him to pul-leeese try to get along, the phone rang.   It was my brother-in-law.   He had driven from his home three states away, from the woods, and was calling from a pay phone in the middle of the city in which I lived.  Directly in front of a convenience store known for its drug-dealing clientele and shoot-outs at the OK Corral.

 "Get in your truck, roll up the windows, lock the doors, do not speak to anyone, I will be right there."    Luckily he was still safe when I arrived to have him follow me home, though what I saw upon arriving in the parking lot where his truck sat was more than a bit surprising.   I recognized the truck but... piled in the back on the six foot pick-up bed was what appeared to be left over from the set of Sanford and Son.  

My daughter was waiting on the lawn when we drove in. Me and the Beverly Hillbillies.  My brother-in-law got out of the truck, and after hugs and kisses he explained that the tangle of stuff roped onto his truck was everything from his house no one else had wanted, and he simply could not throw away my sisters chair...

After introducing A.T. to Roman who glared at us as only someone who has been betrayed can glare, we unloaded the truck and fed both visitors.  My brother-in-law went to bed in my daughters spare bedroom and slept with A.T. for the last time.

A few months later when he was on his way south to Springer Mountain Ga. to begin his hike, my brother-in-law asked my daughter and I to meet him halfway north of us to say good-bye.  He took us out to eat at an old fashioned diner just off the highway, and got to meet his new nephew as an added bonus.  We talked, laughed and cried telling stories of my sister to my daughter, and he ordered Shepards Pie, his favorite, for dinner.   It was the last time we would ever see him face to face.

A.T. Passed away in August of 2003.  When I called my sister's best friend to tell her, there was a long pause on the other end of the line.  When she finally spoke she said it all.   "You know, when that song "Angel" came out and we all thought of them, I still could not feel as though it were over.  Now I feel it. A.T. was the last of them, and now hes gone.  Now I feel like its finally over."

I was forced to think about grief. How it operates so differently, yet is equally devastating, in all of us.   For my sister's friend it was over, for me there would be one more before it was finally over.