Friday, July 8, 2011


Sister William Jane, my second grade teacher, informed our class one day that under no circumstances would our pets ever enter the Pearly Gates.

"Animals have no souls," she looked sharply at us above her dark rimmed glasses. "Only human beings have souls and are permitted to spend eternity in Heaven."

My best friend Marla Marrone suddenly made a gasping little sound and slid low behind Murray McCarty to weep softly. Filled with rage, I glared at Sister William Jane with all my might. She took absolutely no notice of my indignation, however, and continued her ponderous sermonizing. I was seven-years-old and a trusting, obedient child. But I knew she was wrong.

No soul? My dog Duchess, a tolerant little dachshund who burrowed under my covers every night to curl up in the crook of my knee, had more soul than Sister William Jane would have in ten life times. I was never so certain of any thing in my life. And nearly 50 years later, I’m still certain of it.

Willy, my mangy little companion of a cat, began to have troubles this last week. After three days of witnessing him coughing up bile and secreting himself away in the privacy of my closet, I took him to the vet.

"I’ll keep him here for the afternoon to run some tests," Dr. Hughes said.

I tried not to worry. Willy had scared me before, but he always survived. And he’d been up to trouble in his regular fashion. Just a few days ago, he’d been stalking a family of rabbits in the backyard, and I was horrified to see him carting off yet another dead bunny in his jaws.

"You’re a serial killer!" I thrust a finger in his face after he’d successfully decapitated the bunny. "Why do you DO these things?"

He gazed calmly at me with those eyes that can almost speak and licked bunny remains off his whiskers.

I hate it that Willy preys on small animals when he has an overflowing bowl of cat food in the kitchen just steps away. In fact, there’s not much about Willy to like at all. He’s filthy and smelly and moody. He allows himself to be stroked but never hugged. Sometimes, if you walk too closely by him, he hisses for no apparent reason. And he deposits his dirty coon cat hair on the furniture, the carpet, and even in the vents.

But Willy is devoted to me. I don’t know how I passed his litmus test. John feeds him and cleans his litter box. Willy, however, loyally follows me every where - even to the bathroom. And at night, he curls up next to my head as I sleep, leaving in his wake a ball of Willy hair.

But I find it comforting, somehow, to sleep between the reassuring bulk of my husband on one side and the warm little weight of Willy on the other. John snores and Willy wiffles - both in a rhythmic duet. I feel safe and loved. And a little anxious in the morning that I might smell like cat.

In 11 years, I never needed Willy’s constant companionship as much as I have this last year. Recovering from two surgeries and months of muscle expansion in my chest, I prowled the house during the lonely pre-dawn hours when it seemed everyone else in the whole world slumbered. But Willy always kept me company. His reassuring little presence was constantly nearby.

"Willy?" I’d whisper in the darkness. And he unfailingly answered with the little chirrup that always sounded exactly like a raccoon.

So I tried not to worry that Dr. Hughes was keeping him for tests. Willy would surely always be there. But last evening when the phone finally rang, Dr. Hughes didn’t have good news.

"Willy’s kidneys are in bad shape," he said. According to the blood tests, two thirds of my cat’s kidneys had shut down. The very best scenario, Dr. Hughes explained, was that Willy was afflicted with a kidney infection. He could possibly rally, but then he would require treatment twice a week at the vet’s office to flush out the toxins from his damaged kidneys. It might offer him a little more time. But that was the unlikely scenario. In all probability, Willy was headed for a slow, painful death.

"Can I call you right back, Dr. Hughes?" I was reeling with the abrupt news. "I need to talk to my husband and my son."

We were all of like mind. Willy suffered great distress visiting the vet just for his rabies shot. How could I force my ailing cat to endure trauma with a twice a week visit to the vet? Hardly able to speak, I called Dr. Hughes back. "I think we’ve decided to let Willy go," I choked.

John was still at work, but my sweet boy Tommy accompanied me to the vet’s. Dr. Hughes brought Willy to us in a little sitting room away from the office and allowed us time to say our goodbyes. I stroked his thick grey stripes and looked into his frightened eyes.

"I love you, Willy," I sobbed, as he hid his head in my arm, fearful of his strange surroundings. "You’ve been the best little cat."

My six and a half foot son sat stoically beside me weeping silent tears and awkwardly patting my back with his big paw of a hand. A few minutes later, Dr. Hughes returned to administer the shot that would help Willy relax and drift off to sleep. With the old Willy spirit I craved to see, he hissed hugely and took a swipe at the vet. Then he nestled against my chest, and gradually I felt his small body relax.

"Willy, Willy, Willy," I murmured in his ear. Outside the window, clouds floated lazily by in the evening sky, and as I held him close, Willy went to sleep peacefully and forever.

The final injection stopped his heart. With one last sigh, Willy’s head fell limply into my hand. And he was gone. I kissed his warm little head. "Goodbye, Willy Boy."

A cat is a beloved pet. It is not a child or a spouse or a parent. A good friend buried her 10-day-old baby girl yesterday morning, and my beautiful dear friend, Ellen May, sang for the funeral congregation. Ellen herself lost her own baby Amanda nearly 25 years ago but bravely ministered to the devastated family whose misery she knew so well.

Over the July 4th weekend, two young brothers were killed at a nearby lake in a tragic boating accident, devastating our community.

And Phyllis Dryer, the saintly, much loved mother of 11 children, all who attended our small Catholic school, died of cancer last week.

The loss of our children and our loved ones is a loss that changes our lives forever - a loss from which sometimes we may never recover.

Willy was just a cat - a dear little cat. But he wove himself into the daily fabric of our lives. He drank out of the toilet, lounged in the sun in his favorite window sill, and wrapped his great plume of a tail around him whenever he slept.  He was there when I needed him most.

And he loved me.

In spite of all Sister William Jane’s arguments otherwise, I feel sure Heaven has room for every one of our beloved pets - the protective hound who ferociously guarded our babies, the canary who serenaded us in the mornings, the patient horse who carried us across the pasture. And a mangy little coon cat called Willy.

Goodbye, my Willy Boy.

I'll never forget you.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

July 4th

Dad was the most patriotic man alive.

When July 4th rolled around, he was purely in his element.  In our big back yard, he organized what we teasingly referred to as the "Dick Brown Olympics."  We raced, hula-hooped, tossed water balloons and furiously battled for the prize.

When our own kids were born, Dad really developed the Olympics.  Every member of the family, no matter how young or old, was required to participate in Dad's Fourth of July competition.  The little kids won a silver dollar for every event while the adults walked away with a 40 oz. bottle of beer.  Based on a carefully calculated point system, the winning family was presented with an annual trophy.  Dad made sure the name of the family was engraved on the trophy, and for a year, it proudly resided in one of our homes.

Never in ours, though.  Never the Howards'.  We never took that damn trophy home once.

It was still fun, though.  And at the end of the day, Dad always prepared a glorious barbecue for every winner and loser alike.

Dad is so intricately associated with the Fourth of July that I've dreaded the holiday ever since he died.  It's hard on all of us.  All our individual families have parted ways on the day to celebrate in our own fashion, to organize fire work stands, or attend softball tournaments. 

But I couldn't wait for the holiday to roll around this year.  My surgery would be over, Kenny and his girlfriend Katie were coming to Grand Island to see John and Tommy and me, and John's brother Cliff was even planning to visit.  They were all arriving on the Friday night before the 4th.  For a month I yearned for the weekend to arrive. 

Then last week I got sick.  Some sort of infection taking advantage of my post-op weakened immune system laid me low.  My temperature spiked, my chest muscles ached, and every thing in my stomach came up and up.  Dr. Montag put me immediately on an antibiotic, but even after the fever began to subside, I collapsed on my bed devoid of all energy, sank into a pit of depression, and wondered how I'd ever entertain the troops on the 4th.

Next door, Ann Hart had just arrived home from her own reconstructive surgery with a throbbing migraine and the news that her brother had been diagnosed with colon cancer. 

"I'm so sorry, Ann," I hugged her when I was strong enough to walk next door.

She hugged me back.  "I'm sorry you're so sick," she replied with deep feeling.  We looked at each other in mutual sympathy.  "Does it ever get better?" she sighed.

I didn't have the answer.  The operation that was supposed to solve all our problems didn't stop life's burdens from creeping in through the cracks.

Returning home, I fell onto the sofa in a feverish doze.  The afternoon was deathly hot, and the buzz of the locusts droned through my dreams.  Sweating out the fever in my sleep, I imagined some pre-life existence in Heaven where God, looking suspiciously like my big mountain of a father, interrupted play with my friends on some vividly emerald green hilltop covered with cushiony clover.

"Come over, Kids," he rounded us up and gathered us at his feet. 

"It's time," he said when we had settled, "for all of you to take a journey.  How would you like to visit a place together called Earth," he paused, gazing far away, "to learn more than you ever could in this perfect existence.  A place," he smiled, " to experience both exquisite pain and happiness, to love until your heart bursts, and to abandon yourself to the wildest ride you'll ever take in eternity?"

His loving eyes dropped to me, gently awaiting my response. 

I looked around at all my playmates who meant every thing to me, then turned back to the Lord.

"No thanks, God," I shrugged.  "I'm good here, really."

I believe he almost would have let me stay, too.  But it was the rest of them - those playmates who would one day be my parents, my siblings, my friends, my husband, my children - who wouldn't let me off and who dragged my reluctant and ill-tempered self all the way to Earth.

I'm onto something here.  The Pope would surely acknowledge my vision of PreHeaven with the "Good Catholic Seal of Approval."

But where did it all get me?  A week of feeling like day-old jello.

On Friday, however, Peg Ley, my high school typing teacher and dear friend, accompanied me to Omaha so that I wouldn't fall asleep at the wheel, and at last, my drainage tubes were removed.  I sighed in relief when Betsy, the P.A., yanked those tubes out of my side.

"Free at last," I groaned.

Every day has been a little better.  My husband, the best husband in the world in case I've failed to mention it in the last five minutes, prepared all the holiday weekend meals for our company and pushed me off to bed.  But when I was rested, I reveled in the company of my brother-in-law Cliff, who is as kind as the day is long, and thoroughly enjoyed the sounds and laughter of young people in the house.  Kenny and Tommy, the big oafs, teased Katie unmercifully.  But she knows how to handle the likes of them.  She might be only half their size, but the girl's got pluck.

Today, the three of them sped off to Omaha to visit the Henry Doorly Zoo, Cliff returned to Colorado, and John and I lunched with Pat and Julie Kayl and our former principal and his wife, Hugh and Fran Brandon. With our dearest friends in the world, we relaxed around our favorite table at Applebees, and in that seamlessly easy fashion reserved for old, old friends, caught up with each other's news and covered every thing from grandchildren to Social Security to heart health.

I couldn't help but think how 30 years ago, we were absorbed in child care, kindergarten registration and wedding showers.  And I thought how lucky I was to have spent the weekend with family and friends like them and Peg Ley and my brother-in-law Cliff - all those shadowy playmates who sprawled around me on a hill top in PreHeaven.

Tomorrow, John will grill brats, and Kenny and Katie and Tommy will search the city for firework entertainment.  July 4th.  The celebration of our country's glorious liberation.

My sisters and I will be celebrating our own liberation.  It's been a long year, but it's almost over.  Last July, Terri was diagnosed with breast cancer.  This July, we will have completed our four double mastectomies and reconstruction.  And life should be marvelous.  But a week of fighting back from an infection has tempered my euphoria.

Prophylactic surgery is hard, and I'm not sure I'd ever again opt for reconstruction after the last difficult six months.  The cost has been dear, and it hasn't made my life perfect.  But the double mastectomy, which I'd undergo again in a heartbeat, has given me the precious gift of time.

"More time to worry!" my smart aleck husband loves to tease me.

He's right.  The eternal struggle with my worrisome nature afflicts me again and again.  I'll worry until I die.  My heart will break for the losses of family and friends, I'll never have enough money to pay the August air condition bill, and surely I'll miss a very anticipated family gathering or two because of the stinking stomach flu.  Because that's life.

But maybe I'll take a far away trip with my much loved husband, feel my heart swell with pride over the achievements of my sweet sons, and perhaps even sprawl on some emerald green, clover covered hill with my laughing grandchildren.  Because that's life, too.

Then I will thank God with all my being that he didn't listen to my selfish whims in PreHeaven.  It turns out that in spite of all the heartbreak and loss and struggles and challenges, or maybe even because of them, it's been a great ride - the wildest ride of all.

So tomorrow I'll celebrate my liberation with a bratwurst.  I will laugh with my kids, hug my husband, cuddle the cats and swing on the porch.  And I will be forever grateful to those determined playmates who dragged me kicking and screaming to Earth to become the precious people I love most in the world. 

But right now, no matter what anybody says, I'm taking a nap. 

Happy 4th.