I know I risk losing a lot of readers with a title like that, but this is really not a sad article unless you are working with current loss of your own.
I’ve been remembering my Peaches in a very strong way lately, feeling her little spirit walk across my desk and help awaken me in the morning. I had planned an article about remembrance in the aftermath of loss, but somehow it just wouldn’t come together, though I knew in the back of my mind both why I was remembering her so strongly and why I couldn’t focus on writing.
I recently lost my mother at age 85 after so many levels of illness in her life: decades of chronic conditions and surgeries, the lung cancer ten years ago that weakened and eventually put her in personal care, the beginnings of dementia two years ago, the move to skilled nursing a year ago, the weight loss and greater need for care all leading to the last few months of decline.
I would not compare the loss of my Peaches or any of my cats to the loss of my mother because the relationship is entirely different, but I can say that Peaches’ recent progress toward death and her quiet passing, and that of many before her, were what prepared me for understanding and accepting the progress of my mother’s passing, and this is the reason I write this on The Creative Cat.
I have been lucky not to have lost too many people in my adult life. My parents were older and their parents older yet, so I lost my grandparents when I was really too young to have had a relationship with or remember them. My father died 20 years ago in the same nursing home as my mother after a recurrence of cancer and the effects of Parkinson’s Disease. I have lost a few dear aunts and uncles, but I was not part of their everyday life.
When I lost my father I was barely aware of the process of death. Twenty years later I have learned so much more, all in the daily ebb and flow of life with my cats, and I was prepared, not only for my mother’s loss but for the months-long process that led to it, and I’m anticipating the aftermath.
In any living being, living is an act of will, because without it a being does not thrive and eventually dies. But death is not the lack of that will to live, rather it is part of the same will as a being accepts that this physical body can no longer sustain and the body and spirit must part, but living does not necessarily end there. I make no conjectures about what happens after the body and spirit part, but for those of us who’ve felt the touch of a loved one no longer present, however brief or peripheral, I find it hard to believe that living is only accomplished in a physical body.
Especially in age and chronic or terminal illness, the process of death is the same in any being; at some point the person or animal realizes that the body has lost its potential for renewal, for self-support and will eventually stop functioning. Referencing Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief, each individual goes through the same process though with different means and at different rates, but eventually arrives at acceptance.
Even though animals can’t speak in human words, the depth of our relationship understands communication beyond, or perhaps even before, the use of spoken language, and we perceive and understand many things sometimes without consciously realizing.
From late last summer I’ve been having an increasingly difficult time staying organized, focusing on anything for as long as I am accustomed, also feeling restless and distracted, sometimes fearful or angry, without any obvious reason for it. I may have a reputation as being a scattered and abstracted creative person, but I’m actually organized and efficient or I’d never be able to run my business and take care of my home and cats and affairs for my mother and brother, so this wandering lack of focus was not at all like me, and it was also very distressing because I really need to stay focused to support myself and make sure all is done correctly for two disabled people.
Years ago when I was walking my 25-year-old Stanley through his final months I experienced this same distracted period, these flashes of fear and helplessness that didn’t seem to originate with me, and I realized I was actually perceiving what he was feeling as he accepted his own passing in addition to my own process—and no doubt he was sharing my process. I remember looking into his big green eyes as we both understood this and felt relieved that we weren’t experiencing it alone anymore, and though the distractedness continued, I understood. I have experienced this same wandering focus, periods of fear or anger with each of my losses since—and likely before as well—but now I am prepared and understand that, when this begins, they understand they are in the final part of their process and their passing won’t be long in coming.
I knew that a part of what I was feeling this past autumn was my process with Peaches as she gracefully accepted the slow deterioration of her body’s functions through renal failure and simply age. As September passed she needed her sub-cutaneous fluids more often and supplements in addition to her food as her appetite began to wane. One Saturday in mid-October she refused food and supplements and told me she wasn’t going to eat anymore, and she was okay with that. I gave her fluids and little sips of milk and bits of supplements, but she let her body follow its will and gently went into her end stages the following Tuesday night. I sat with her all night long as she slowly faded until morning when she showed some signs of pain and I called my veterinarian (read “Knowing When, and Saying Goodbye”).
After Peaches passed, though, I still felt the pull of another loved one, the distractedness and restlessness. In November our quarterly meeting at the nursing home discussed my mother’s lack of appetite, weight loss and increasing frailty and difficulty swallowing and feeding herself, though she was not withdrawn. After a hospital stay in November we decided to implant a feeding tube in case the issue was that she just didn’t like her pureed food and thickened drinks (she really hated them) and just couldn’t nourish herself enough, hoping she’d gain weight and strength. In the same case at home, I might have tried a few force-feedings of one of my cats just in case they simply weren’t strong enough to eat and sustain themselves, hoping their appetite would take over, but stopping the feedings if it didn’t.
By December there was no difference in my mother, and I knew that nothing we did would change her now. My mother was accepting her end, in the same way Peaches had looked at me and let me know she wasn’t going to eat anymore, and it was what was meant to be. I have no doubt that Peaches showed me her process in preparation for what would come with my mother; I took daily care of Peaches and was intimately aware of what was happening with her, but my mother’s care was in others’ hands and it was a little more difficult to determine what was happening even through visiting.
If I was distracted and restless before, I was about as non-functional as I’ve ever been in January, sleeping odd hours, sitting and looking out the window for minutes at a time without realizing, nearly incapable of visualizing a complete design idea along with more and more odd behavior, and every time the phone would ring I jumped and grabbed it. I let this continue, knowing there wasn’t much I could do. The nursing home called early January 20 saying my mother needed to go to the hospital, and while she seemed to be stabilizing she had a crisis Monday morning and we decided on comfort measures rather than life support because she would not have survived the condition, remaining on life support indefinitely. My sister, brother, two great-granddaughters and I took turns sitting in her room for her last two days.
Even though I knew that Peaches and my other cats had gone into some painful distress in their last few hours even after gently fading, I had no means of alleviating that distress or any other pain other than calling my veterinarian for a painless euthanasia. Humans, though, have a morphine drip and any other means the hospital can provide to assure the end is as painless as possible so I wouldn’t have to fear helplessly watching a painful end with my mother.
And now after the processes of planning, meeting, greeting and thanking, I am remembering my mother, still accepting her passing as I will be for some time to come. I am grateful for the gentle guidance of the felines who’ve entered my life to teach me life lessons in addition to living their own agendas. I understood my own months of inner turmoil as normal and I was more prepared for her passing than I would have been otherwise. I won’t fuss and fret when I encounter a photo or a passing memory of my mother months from now and have a little cry, I’ll know that’s a natural part of my process of accepting her passing.
And I think little Peaches has been wandering about to comfort me in a way she could not have in life with our concern and treatment in her geriatric condition, and also to bring me quiet comfort in the way no other being could. After all, she lost her first human mom before she came to me, so she had an extra special lesson to teach me.
Here are the four of us about ten years ago, my mother, my sister, me and my brother. This photo was from my film camera, and I just couldn’t get to the box of prints to scan it again; I scanned it from a print I had made, which is rather faded, but it still gets the point across.
I hosted a poetry reading last week, just two days after my mother died. I decided to go through with it since all my immediate family could be there and it was a wonderful opportunity to share my mother with other people. I wrote a poem the night she died, and I’ve also posted that on “Today”.
I will write soon about Peaches, and many other things, now that I can focus and time is not so compressed.
This is the first in a series of articles on building your backyard wildlife habitat and includes the index to all the articles at the bottom.
At dusk a male cardinal, always the last to feed, sat on a branch in the bare lilac outside the north window, bobbing slightly in the wind, sounding his loud, hard “chip! chip!”, his color slowly fading to gray as the light faded from the day and light flurries softened the landscape. I don’t know if he’s saying “good night” or “thank you” or “can’t you turn up the heat” or if he’s not saying anything to me at all, but if I’m at my desk when dusk falls on a winter evening, the cardinal is outside, looking right at me, speaking his piece.
After dark I was in the back yard when the cloud cover parted and the moon, a little past full, shone on the light dusting of snow. The stillness of a bitter cold winter night can be unnerving, the sudden, slight rustle of dry shriveled leaves still hanging on your phlox can seem like a whispered conversation right at your elbow, and the sound of my rubber clogs crunching the snow was so loud I caught myself on tiptoe trying to minimize my disturbance to the night.
It was 11 degrees with a dusting of snow. I’ve no doubt I’ll see the thermometer drop a few more degrees before I decide I’m done for the day.
I think of the birds and bunnies and squirrels and the others who are supposed to be hibernating but I see their prints and sometimes see them, at this time of day nestled in their preferred night cover, keeping warm with a good day’s food and water in their bellies. I’ve inventoried the winter residents of my little back yard and taken care to provide winter cover and a good varied diet and water for them to drink.
I was outside gathering the plastic dishes, now full of frozen water, to be refilled and replaced outdoors in the morning. It’s part of the years-long habit of maintaining my backyard wildlife habitat.
And enjoying the experience of a cold winter night is as much a pleasure as a warm summer morning as I share the awareness of life in this little piece of wilderness, here in Backyard Wildlife Habitat No. 35393.
This topic has so much information that I’ve decided to break this into a series of articles. This is the introduction, and I’ll also be covering:
- how I established my yard as a habitat using my diagrams and plant lists as examples
- how to find information on native species in your area
- converting more of your lawn to vegetation
- moving toward non-chemical methods of yard maintenance
- feeding this, that and the other
- identifying birds in your area
- insect-eating residents: bats, spiders, toads, garter snakes and birds
If, like me, you keep a garden of flowers or vegetables or both, you’re probably already planning out your garden for 2010. And if you feed birds summer or winter and have an awareness of other flora and fauna in your yard and area, you might want to work a plan for a backyard wildlife habitat into this year’s garden, or you might find that you’ve already got the important parts and you want to enhance or start expanding it.
Just What Is a Backyard Wildlife Habitat?
It’s not turning your yard into a weed patch, as I’ve heard some people worry. It’s simply providing for the needs of your native species of flora and fauna so that they can thrive and reproduce.
Basically, if you have a bird feeder and bird bath, you or your neighbors have a few mature trees of various species and some dense twiggy shrubs or evergreens and flowering plants in your yard, you are providing for the needs of many species.
And not just for birds and mammals. You are also providing opportunities for growth and reproduction for plants and trees by allowing them to grow in an appropriate habitat, and, since they are pretty much stuck in one spot and depend on insects, birds and animals to reproduce and spread their seeds, you’re providing that as well by attracting the birds.
Insects use plants for food, nesting and reproduction, and birds and other species such as bats eat insects. It all works together.
You can build on this basis and provide specific native plants that flower in various seasons, not just summer, you can feed all year, provide nesting boxes, leave the plants in your garden through the winter, and so on, each action providing more and more for your native species.
The concept is really not any more complicated than that. I had mine registered through the National Wildlife Federation in 2003 after I had spent a few years doing an inventory of all that was here and adding and arranging things until I felt it was ready.
Today I see information on these habitats in garden centers and birding stores and organizations, at the zoo and through local environmental organizations. I’m glad to see it’s so readily available and easy to understand, and especially that many schools are using backyard wildlife habitats as learning tools.
You can go as far as you want with it, and if you stay with bird feeders and bird baths and the right kind of shrubs and native plants to provide cover, nesting sites and nesting materials, you are providing a great service to your local area in helping to preserve your native species.
Nature finds a balance that allows all species within a given area to thrive. That area can be your back yard, or it can be an entire geographic region in which the plants and animals that depend on each other for their basic needs all tend to live together in balanced numbers.
For instance, American Goldfinches depend on milkweed, thistle and other plants with energy-rich seeds and downy fluff in flowers or seed parts for nesting material and food to the extent that they don’t nest until midsummer when these flowers are finished blooming and going to seed. They use the down to line their nests, and their young are fledging and they are about to migrate when the rich seeds are mature, and they feast on the seeds, leaving on their migration when the local seed heads are just about spent. Birds migrate by day length, not food supply, so unless there is a shortage in seeds it just works out that it’s time to go at about the time the thistle are finished.
I have managed my yard organically since I moved here 19 years ago. I have my share of insect pests but they never get out of control, and I think it’s because the resident birds take care of them. I may see a cluster of aphids on the top of a broccoli plant in the morning, by evening they are gone. When the blue jays find a tomato hornworm, they drop everything and have a Hornworm Festival, tossing it from one to another all day. I feel bad for the poor thing, but I’d feel worse if it laid its eggs and infested my precious tomatoes!
Stay tuned for the next installment. Until then, get those garden books out and picture your yard in summer!
About the art and photos used in these articles and on this blog
All the images used in this blog are mine, many from my own backyard. For years I’ve been documenting the flora and fauna here in photography and art, just for my own purposes. All of the images are also available as prints and notecards, some of which I have printed and sell regularly, but I can custom print any image on my site. If you see something you’d like, check my Marketplace blog to see if it’s a recent offering, the Marketplace on my website, which outlines everything I sell as merchandise, or e-mail me if you don’t find it in either place. Please also respect that these images and this information are copyrighted to me and may not be used without my consent, but please ask if you are interested in using something and feel free to link to my articles.
Also read the next articles in this series:
Also read about my art, photography, poetry and prose inspired by my backyard wildlife habitat:
“Let me help you wash the dishes.”
No, that’s not what he has in mind.
“The perfect place to hide. No one would notice one small black cat in this sink full of pots and pans.”
Not quite, but getting closer.
“I want something and I’ll just sit here and be cute until you figure it out.”
I have an idea.
“Come on, Mom, the answer is right in front of you.”
He wants a drink of water from the faucet before I wash the dishes. Loud purr from Jelly Bean. He’s the Lead Faucet Drinker of the household and will show up any time one is turned on. If he’s so inclined, the Bean will just hop in the sink and wait until I figure it out.
“But one of these days, I’ll figure out how to turn it on. Maybe if I whisper sweet things to it, the faucet will come on all by itself.”
Unlike some other cats who tend to stretch and go limp the deeper they fall into sleep, Kelly curls tighter and tighter, finishing with turning her head and wrapping her paws around whatever she can.
With a tortoiseshell’s coat markings all speckled and mixed up as they are you can’t always tell what’s going on when you look at her, but she’s pretty much got her hind legs under her head and her tail wrapped around under her back, sleeping on my lap.
Since everyone knows what a solid Steelers fan I am (noted with sarcasm), you may be surprised that I’m recruiting not only for a friend’s certain tortoiseshell kitty named Steeler to get the most votes on a website, but also to have torties recognized as Steelers fans for both their black and gold fur AND their DEE-fense-ive purrsonalities.
A friend of mine posted her tortie cat named Steeler on the WTAE website for the Steelers-Ravens game predicting ravens falling all over Heinz Field, and since then Steeler’s been viewed 7,302 times already! Let’s make her a star! And Steeler has also made Steelers fans out of a few otherwise non-committal humans.
And anyone who’s familiar with the distinct personality of any tri-colored cat will know that they come with a warning about methods of handling—our lovely girls (and the very occasional guy) can be very unpredictable with a no-holds-barred approach at defense (though they may not be the best team players).
The very best user-submitted photos and videos from the u local community. Scroll down to “best of u photos” to see Steeler’s image, or visit her photo page directly. (You can also find Steeler here, but this page only has 263 votes—let’s keep racking them up on the big one!)
And while you’re at it, visit another friend’s photo, Stirfry. By Stirfry’s expression you’ll see the clearest defensive tactic known to torties.
And you can also visit “Tortie Cats Anonymous” on The Conscious Cat, a community of people owned by tortoiseshell cats who correspond in comments on a blog post.
Fans of other teams may keep their allegiances, but recognize that the tortie black and gold and attitude are beyond your control!
This morning was not so bright, but yesterday’s sun inspired a lot of feline bliss. Here, Giuseppe pauses in his breakdancing to warm his belly in the sun.
I love how most black cats’ fur takes on a variety of mahogany tones in pure sunlight. Among these five, each has a different shade of mahogany, and it even varies across their body. Giuseppe is the cooler brown, like his mom.
What happens when the winter sun shines in the back door in early morning for the second day in a row? Everybody takes advantage of it.
It’s been a while since we’ve had a lasting sunny morning, some bright ones with cold haze, mostly cloudy or overcast covers it before an hour has passed. Yesterday and today were bright blue and sunny; yesterday everyone in the household (including me) stepped into this strange, unfamiliar substance, warm sunlight in the house. Today, all the cats had it down right away and after a brief romp around the house and a sip from the bathroom faucet, all of them came back to the kitchen, collecting in the warmth by the door.
From the front is Mr. Sunshine, crouching, and Giuseppe, sitting up; these two have a way of looking slightly guilty no matter the situation. Then Mewsette is cleaning her foot and Jelly Bean is purringly balled up next to the door. In the far distance, Mimi is on the left, swinging around for a lick on the hip, and Cookie is longingly gazing out into the yard; she and I had been out earlier, but she can never get enough of her outdoors, except when I haven’t managed to make it warm for her. Only Kelly isn’t in this photo; she’s a little intimidated by the Big Four and while she was mingling a bit she left for her other sunny windowsill.
Mr. Sunshine will try every charming approach to get what he wants, and right now he wants a drink of water from the bathroom faucet. Who could resist? He has the most classically beautiful face of all four of his siblings, the nice wedge shape from his chin to his ears, exotic slanted yellow eyes and long, long straight whiskers and he’s the most curvy, and he knows if he catches me just right I’ll have a hard time turning away.
Jelly Bean is in the background, taking a break from his charming routine while Mr. Sunshine works. After all, you can’t go wrong if you just sit in the sink and keep your nose right under the faucet.
I do turn the faucet on for them every day, though I make sure they also drink from the water bowls around the house. Still, a stainless fountain may be in their future.