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Good grief

The election is over - thank goodness. I really wanted to write about it this week - I started to, actually - about how we made it over the falls.

But today, I grieve.

5 days ago was the third anniversary of my dad's death. That morning, for the first time, I think I felt his presence with me in the barn. Telling me it is OK and he knows what it was like for me after he died. But I'm not sure I wasn't making it up - my dad left me with a mess to deal with. And the 3rd anniversary of my mom's death is coming up in January. I have this image of her arriving in heaven and he was waiting with flowers and kisses and they spent some time celebrating with family and friends who had already died, and then they headed off on an adventure and haven't been seen or heard from since. So maybe I just really wanted to feel my dad with me and made it up. I don't know.

This is a season of grieving, for me. I grieve the loss of my parents. I grieve the estrangement of my sisters.

This year I am grieving this ridiculous political situation, where the patriarchy is so convinced they know what is best that they will do whatever it takes to hold on to power - even if it puts the rest of us at risk. Someone described this as the world's greatest and biggest temper tantrum, and I have to agree. I am grieving the civility of a peaceful transition of power that used to be a hallmark of our democracy.

I'm grieving for all the people who have lost loved ones in this political fight - from COVID because personal freedoms trump someone else's existence (pun intended), and for those who have lost loved ones to gun violence because someone's right to bear arms is more important than someone else's right to exist or to love their children as they grow up. I grieve because we are so unwilling to look at our own racism that black and brown people can't walk on a street, or sleep in their beds, or attend birthday parties, and the very people who are supposed to protect us are a threat to them. I grieve.

But today, mostly, I grieve for Trucker.

Here is the story.

In January of 2016, Julia adopted a cat, named Hank. This was about 3 weeks before Hank suffered his first seizure. Had he not yet been adopted, or had someone else adopted him, Hank might very well have been put down. But Julia was a determined cat owner, and did what the vet recommended which included an MRI, a spinal tap, and a neurology consult. Long story short, Hank is now 5 years old and takes phenobarb to control his seizure disorder twice a day. Julia and Hank moved in with us almost a year ago while she is in seminary. He sleeps on her bed. He has a bed on her desk and curls up there when she is reading or writing papers. He loves her and she adores him. We do, too.

In July of this year a friend posted on Facebook that a kitten had showed up on her front porch. He wanted to come in the house but she already has two cats that she knew would not be welcoming. He cried all night on her porch. She was going to take him to a shelter, but people responded that he would be put down, and lots of people said, "I would take him, but..."

Now, we have fostered dogs through a rescue based in the Washington DC area. We are "foster fails," as we adopted Molly the world's best farm dog after she was in our house for about 3 minutes. I didn't even know foster fails are a thing! Jeff adopted our next foster dog - Cooper. We have actually done some fostering and gotten dogs adopted to good homes. We had never fostered a kitten.

So of course, I said, "Bring him here." The rescue agreed to help me find him a home. I took him to the vet right away, and as expected he had an upper respiratory infection and conjunctivitis in both eyes. After a few days he of antibiotics I brought him into the house, and he and Hank became fast friends. When the adoption coordinator for the rescue said she had a couple of applications, Julia acted fast and is now the proud mom of two cat sons. Hank and Monty are brothers in everything but blood. Monty is a holy terror - the house is his playground and everything, and I do mean everything, is a cat toy. He is everywhere and into everything. Right now he is curled up in my lap. He is fearless, hilarious, and very very loving. And as crazy as he makes us, we love him, too.

In September the vet tech called. She remembered that I worked with a rescue to get Monty adopted. Another kitten had been found on someone's front porch, starving and unable to walk. A lady took her in but was at her wits end because she already had 4 cats and this little

one wasn't fitting in. "Sure," I said. "She can come here." The rescue coordinator said, "Oh my goodness!" and agreed to work with me again. So a little gray striped kitten moved in under the bed in our guest room. Her pedigree, I think, is feral. She is afraid of everything, and we named her Heidi because she hides so much. But with the help of some kitty treats and Monty, she will now climb in my lap for a treat if I am on the floor. She sits in the middle of the living room floor while we watch TV. She has gained weight. She comes downstairs for breakfast and dinner, and lets me pet her. She was spayed on Tuesday. Getting her in the carrier was a challenge and we lost some ground in the trust department, but it is coming back. I'm allowed to pet her, but not hold her or pick her up. I respect that as often as I can.

Which brings us to Trucker.

Last Sunday Julia and her boyfriend, Ben, were driving home from visiting his parents near Philadelphia. By some miracle of eyesight, Julia spotted a little kitten walking along the highway, probably minutes from being flattened. Of course she stopped. One look at the kitten said that IF he had a home close by, he was not well cared for, and they brought him home. The kitten stayed at Ben's that night and on Monday Ben took him to the vet. They estimated him to be 6 weeks old, and he weighed less than a pound. Of course he had a severe upper respiratory infection, and conjunctivitis so bad that he was most probably blind in at least one eye. But we were going to fight with and for him. He came here and was isolated in the farm shop until we had heavy rains on Wednesday. The shop sometimes floods, so I brought him into the house. He got antibiotics and eye ointment twice a day.

He wouldn't eat, so when I took Heidi for her spay I asked for some Kitten Milk Replacer. He seemed to like that and licked up some food from a bowl. We gave him the KMR 3-4 times a day. I thought he would get better, but by Thursday night he just wasn't. Yesterday we took him to the emergency vet nearby. They hospitalized him, and by last night he was alert enough to take some food by syringe. We were hopeful, but this morning the vet called and said he just was not responding to treatment. He was extremely lethargic and not interested in eating.

We made the decision to put him down. Julia and I went to be with him, to give him just a little more love during his brief time on earth. Neither of us has quite finished crying.

I look at Molly and Cooper, who are aging. I look at my pigs, Acorn and Hickory, and know that when the time comes for one of them he won't be replaced and the remaining pig will grieve alone. How does one comfort a pig? Some of our alpacas are aging, too. Last year we lost a baby at 2 hours old - her brother was just born and I was afraid we might lose him too (I was just being overly cautious - he's thriving). Grief is universal - I know these animals grieve.

But you know what? I would do it again. I would take in and love every animal and person that I have had cause to love and care for, and I wonder: why do we do it? Why do we set ourselves up for this pain?

Losing parents is inevitable. But we choose to bring pets and children into our homes and hearts. We know, at least in the case of pets, that we will bury them. Why do we do it? Last night as we were waiting for news of Trucker we watched the PBS NewsHour, and there was a segment about children in Pakistan who are getting seriously ill and sometimes dying from a resurgence of common childhood diseases. They aren't getting vaccinated - sometimes due to poverty and sometimes due to mistrust of the medical establishment, taught by someone who wants to maintain control. The thought of these parents watching their children suffer and struggle and finally just not responding - how hard it must be for a poor person to make the decision to finally call a doctor. And if it is too late - my empathy was blazing and I cried and cried, for them, and for Trucker.

Every Friday night the NewsHour highlights some of the people who have died of COVID. These were vibrant people who were loved by their families and friends. They spent their time in whatever quirky way they chose, and every one of them contributed to their community. Now they are gone because some in the government have made this pandemic a political issue. There is a restaurant in my town that won't allow their employees to wear masks, even though our governor has made masks mandatory. It's a political statement that is going to kill someone. I grieved the loss of those people, and the loss of those killed by gun violence, and the loss of those killed by treatable illnesses, and the loss of those killed by police brutality, and the loss of those incarcerated for minor crimes, and the loss of those who, like my parents, just died of old age and natural causes but are gone just the same.

If grieving hurts so much, why do we love? The natural order of things says we will grieve for our parents. But why do we set ourselves up by having children and taking in pets? The children will one day leave us (I grieved when each phase of their childhoods ended, even as I celebrated their newest milestones. The worst was when we took them to college) - that is what we raise them to do, and God forbid there is an illness or accident that takes them permanently too early. Pets we expect to outlive, unless the pet is a tortoise or, I think, a parrot.

Why do we do it?

I listened to a podcast by Brene Brown. She says we need to have, "strong backs, soft fronts, and wild hearts." She wrote about this in her book, Braving The Wilderness (2017). In the book and in the podcast, Brene Brown quotes Roshi Joan Halifax, a Buddhist teacher and Zen priest. Here is the quote:

All too often our so-called strength comes from fear, not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence. If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that's flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that's soft and open . . . . How can we give and accept care with strong-back, soft-front compassion, moving past fear into a place of genuine tenderness? I believe it comes about when we can be truly transparent, seeing the world clearly - and letting the world see into us (p. 147).

Wow. I want to have a soft front - always. I want to be open and honest, giving and accepting care. And isn't grief the time when we are moving past our fear - the thing we fear has happened. How can we be anything but transparent - grief guts us and there is no pretending. So, for a little while at least, we are soft fronted. A strong back means that we can't be pushed around. We can bend and flex, but we know where we are planted and will defend that. A soft front means that we love. I love my family, my dog, my cats, my alpacas and pigs and chickens. Brene Brown describes a wild heart, "The mark of a wild heart is living out the paradox of love in our lives. It's the ability to be tough and tender, excited and scared, brave and afraid - all in the same moment. It's showing up in our vulnerability and our courage, being both fierce and kind." (p. 155). A wild heart means that we know it is going to hurt when we lose them, but love them anyway. I try to take the joy they offer as often as they offer it. As someone who struggles with depression that isn't always easy, but I try. Soft front: I love. Strong back: I adjust as I need to - perhaps by accepting the inevitable. Wild heart: I accept the risk.

Molly was so glad to see us when we came back from the vet this morning. Her tail wagged and she all but howled a greeting. Hank and Monty have been comforting Julia by letting her give them hugs and climbing in her lap. Our alpaca babies, CeCe (5 weeks old) and Bo (1 week old) were snuggled up together in the pasture - that kind of cuteness can only bring joy. We had to give monthly shots to our 2 llamas - there is something so affirming about a llama allowing us to care for him, and leaning on my shoulder while Jay clips his toenails. That is why we do it - because we get so much love back, and a wild heart's capacity to love is infinite.

Maybe grief is good. It is a profound sadness that tells us that the beloved is gone, and was and is deeply loved, even if it was "only" a little lost, sick kitten. I comfort myself with the fact that in his last week Trucker was safe, warm, dry, and loved. And in his death he reminds me to appreciate Molly's greeting and companionship, the sensitivity of cats, the warm breath of a llama in my ear. I gave the pigs an extra scratch this morning.

And grief also moves us to act. If you are moved by Trucker's story and would like to donate to PetConnect Rescue you can do so at Heidi should be listed there shortly, and there are plenty of other cats and dogs to adopt. Please - if you are looking for a new pet, adopt. The thought that Molly, Cooper and Hank were all likely to be euthanized in the shelters they were in is just heartbreaking because they bring SO MUCH LOVE to our homes. Had Monty gone to the shelter he might have been put down as well.

And one more thing - if you are a pet owner, be responsible!! The world doesn't need any more kittens or puppies, so get your pets spayed or neutered. Don't abandon them and assume someone else will take them in. I've taken in 3 cats in the last 5 months and my heart is broken. Spooky was another kitten we took in many years ago. Someone dumped his mother and him in a vacant lot across the street from us. The kids on our street argued over "whose" cat she was and no one knew there was a kitten until she brought him to our front door. Another neighbor took the mom, but I felt like she had chosen us to keep Spooky. He died 3 years ago at the age of 20. A story with a happy ending that could have been so tragic. Like Trucker.

After my dad died I made a donation to the Wall of Honor at the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum. My dad was always an airplane enthusiast and worked as an engineer for various airlines. After he retired he was a docent at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on the mall in Washington DC, and then at Udvar- Hazy. His name is William C. Keil if you want to look him up.

My mom was the first parish nurse at their church in Springfield, VA (Messiah UMC). The Mary B. Keil Scholarship program now exists for nurses who wish take the parish nurse program. I used my grief for something good.

My grief over the political situation has led me to write to my Republican senator. I told him that this situation is an outrage. As a conservative I always thought Republicans believed in and supported the Constitution. Not now - and I asked that he step up and condemn the behavior of President Trump, Senator McConnell and other Republicans. So few have spoken out against President Trump refusing to step down, though no one can identify the rampant voter fraud he claims happened. Mr. Biden won the election, and these Republicans seem more interested in their own power and prestige than in what is good for us and for the United States. Senator Toomey will send me a form letter toeing the party line, but at least I told him what I think.

I wear my mask, and I implore you too, as well. And wear it right - it must cover your nose and mouth.

Today I am grieving. It won't stop me from taking in another lost and frightened kitten. It won't stop me from loving my family to the best of my ability. It won't stop me from appreciating my friends - whether they know it or not. It will encourage me to care when and how I can. That might look different for each of us (except mask wearing - no excuses!), but it is so, so necessary.

A good grief is one that reminds us of love shared, and moves us to act. And God promises that we will all be gathered into heaven, to live with the Lord forever. I believe that when I get to heaven, I'll be reunited with my parents, my grandparents, and my aunts and uncles. I also expect to play again with Amelia, Spooky, Chester, Brownie, Rocket, Birdy, Bobo, Minnie Pearl and Trucker. I miss them all. I still love them all. And they live on in my memories and in my heart forever.

Brown, Brene. Braving the Wilderness. New York: Random House. 2017.

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